Champakulam Boat Race & its tradition

published on June 19, 2010

The boat races in the backwaters of Kerala have become a symbol of social and cultural harmony for centuries. They form an important part of the tradition of folk arts and signify the excellent team spirit, integration and amity of the people. The boat races are occasions of great excitement and a reflection of a vibrant people. They teach how to live in harmony with the nature and are held during the harvest season.

The season for boat races begins with the centuries-old Champakulam boat race on June 26. It is the most spectacular boat race in India and is being held on the course of the gracefully flowing Pamba River in Kerala on the Moolam Nakshathram in the month of Mithunam (June/July). The day is significant as the deity of Lord Krishna was installed at the famous Sree Krishnaswamy Temple at Ambalapuzha in Alleppey district on this day.

In the afternoon, boats from nearby areas assemble and glide elegantly at the starting point of the race, which is later followed by a procession of the participating teams and cultural shows. By late afternoon, boats of various categories like the Chundan (snake boat), Veppu, Iruttukuthi, Churulan and others would line up for their heats leading to the final race in each category. Large number of people of all age groups both local and visitors from far off places occupy the best possible of positions on the bank of the river to view the boat race. The snake boat race is often considered as the crucial test of stamina and the cynosure of all eyes. In the race, a boat is normally manned by four helmsmen, 25 singers and 100-125 oarsmen who row in unison to the fast rhythm of the Vanchippattu (song of the oarsmen). It is a marvelous sight as spectators gather in thousands to cheer oarsmen as they cut their way through the waters to a brilliant finish.

Many of the boat races have curious legends and myths attached to their origin. The Champakulam Boat Race also has a century-old tradition and is believed to have started in 1545 A.D. According to legends, H.H. Pooradam Thirunal Devanarayanan, the Raja of Chempakasseri, a principality of Travancore kingdom built a temple at Ambalapuzha as per the suggestions of the royal astrologers. But just before the installation of the deity, he was informed that the idol was inauspicious. Therefore, it was necessary to install a suitable idol immediately. Accordingly, the priests identified another idol of Lord Krishna, at the Karikulam temple in Kurichi, a neighboring village. This idol was believed to have been given to Arjuna by Lord Krishna himself, and hence considered sacred.

After getting the idol from the temple, the Raja’s entourage set forth for the return journey to Ambalapuzha by boat. While returning night set in, and as instructed by the Raja, they took shelter in a Christian household of Mappilassery Itty Thommen, a confidant of the Raja in the Champakulam village. He and his family received the men and the idol with honour. The following day, the Raja and his entourage turned up at the Mappilassery household, accompanied by a large crowd. Pujas were offered to the deity. Itty Thommen and his men also travelled to Ambalapuzha where the idol was consecrated and installed. On the way, the priests and the laity of the Champakulam Kalloorkadu Church, received the Raja and the idol. The Raja was pleased with the hospitality shown by his Christian subjects and declared that a great water carnival would be held annually at Champakulam to commemorate the events. Thus the Champakulam Boat Race and related functions started which are continuing till today.

In 1613 A.D. the old house where the idol was kept was demolished and a new one was built. The spot has been demarcated and used as a place of worship. In keeping with the Hindu practice, no menstruating women are allowed to enter the room. A special lamp made of rare metals known as Vazhakoombu Vilakku was gifted to the family, to be kept for burning as an eternal flame. The practice continues even today and the lamp is kept perpetually burning. Special privileges were conferred on the family and the representatives from the temple visit the house annually on Moolam day, with gifts and prasadam for the head of the family. This practice is known as the Moolakazhcha and it is believed that on Moolam Day, Lord Krishna resides at Mappilassery House and not at the Krishnaswamy Temple! The temple representatives enter the room, where the lamp is kept in a prominent place along with other the Christian icons like the cross and statues of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary. The boat race will start only after the temple representatives are offered a sumptuous feast. For almost 500 years, this tradition has continued uninterrupted and re-enacted with the same enthusiasm even today!
Other renowned boat races in Kerala are the Indira Gandhi Boat Race, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, the Aranmula Uthrittadi Vallamkali, the Payippad Jalotsavam and the Kumarakom Boat Race.

Other renowned boat races in Kerala are the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, Aranmula Uthrittadi Vallamkali, the Payippad Jalotsavam and the Rajiv Gandhi Boat Race.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race: It is the most famous of the boat races of Kerala held annually on the Punnamada Backwaters of Alappuzha district on the 2nd Saturday of August. The Nehru Trophy boat race is held to commemorate the visit of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India in 1952. This spectacular race features magnificent Chundans’. The lively and rhythmic boat songs or Vanchipattu draw the spectators to a state of frenzy.

Aranmula Uthrittadi Vallamkali (Boat Race): It is one of the most popular events in Kerala and is held annually on the Pampa River near the Sree Parthasarathy Temple at Aranmula in the Pathanamthitta dist., as a part of Onam celebrations. People come in thousands on the banks of the River Pamba to watch the Palliyodams (snake boats). The boats do not race against each other and instead row in unison to the accompaniment of songs and reach their destination together.

Payippad Jalotsavam: Payippad Jalotsavam (water festival) is held annually during August/September at Alappuzha and is one of the major boat races in Kerala. The swift “Chundanvalloms”(snake boats) are the highlights of the race.

Rajiv Gandhi Trophy Boat Race: It is held two weeks after the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is organized in memory of Rajiv Gandhi, the late Prime Minister of India at Pulinkunnu in Alleppey dist.

(The author is a freelance journalist and Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting. He can be contacted on [email protected].)

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