My craving interest to witness the continuing tradition at the Aranmula snake boat race at river Pamba was worth the visit. Along with a few of my friends, we started off from Cochin to Aranmula, a hundred and thirty kilometers south of Cochin after Alleppey in the district of Pathanamthitta, South Kerala. We reached by around 12 pm to witness the send off for a Palliodam (snake boat) waiving with good hope from the village for the procession. We had a friend participating in rowing the Edayaranmula Palliodam and were lucky enough to reach on time to see this very cherishing moment of the people of Edayaranmula, which is one of the Kara (village) taking part in the procession.
The Aranmula Jalolsavam (water festival) is not about a race, but a tradition which is still followed by the local people with great spirit. Irrespective of being men or women, everyone gathered on both the banks of the Pamba River to witness this auspicious event.
The history of “Aranmula Jallolsavam” (water festival) is very much connected with the history of the place and the Parthsarathy Temple in Aranmula, where the deity is Lord Krishna. Partha is Arjuna and Sarathy means charioteer. The Palliodams (snake boats) are symbolically Lord Krishna’s divine Vessels and the procession is held on Uthratadi which marks the birth Nakshatra (star) of Lord Krishna. There are Valla Sadhyas (a meal for the oarsmen) which are held as an offering by people for the men who row this divine vessels. This is considered to be a ritual offering and happens on most days except on the day of the procession.
The Palliodams represent each village on the bank of the River Pamba and the oarsmen are always from the respective Village. They are really long, with a very elevated decorated rear end unlike other snake boats in Kerala which you can often see for the snake boat race. Palliodams have both the ends elevated from the water level. The oars men wear only white mundu (a traditional Keralan mundu worn around the waist), a white “thorthu” as turban and no footwear, this is something which adds charm to the boat and the overall procession. There would be three decorated Umbrellas in the palliodam always rotated to the tune of the “Vanjipattu” – the folklore songs sung in the boat by men, the rhythm to which the oarsmen row with great gusto.
There are legends which say that, these palliodams in design were Navy boats of the Ambalapuzha King. In olden days the water mode of transport was faster. These long snake long boats with more than a hundred lusty men rowing were sent from the villages to protect the Ambalapuzha kingdom when it was under siege or attack. The Palliodam procession is symbol reminiscent of a glorious tradition which has been handed over from generation to generation.
It was in 1972 that this tradition became a sport, a few palliodam participated in a race and a trophy was presented to the wining team. Now it has become a water sport where whole villagers participate. Traditionally the preparation for the race takes place well in advance, to get a chance to be a rower in the palliodam of their village is an honour. The beauty of the race is team spirit exhibited by each and every palliodam participating in the event.
The race regularly happens during the most celebrated festival of Onam in Kerala. This time it was after Onam and the organizers had a man dressed like King Mahabali who stood in front of the crowd wishing Good luck to the oarsmen. With lot of stories from the locals, my interesting day at Aranmula comes to an end witnessing a great tradition carried down for many centuries.
Article and photographs by Benjamin John