Nehru Trophy Boat Race

Of the entire craft native to the Kuttanad backwaters, none is more majestic than the mighty snake boats-chundan vallam-raced each year in around a dozen different locations at the start of the Onam harvest festival.

Up to 130 rowers crew these slender, 70m long vessels, which are distinguished by their graceful cobra-shaped sterns and beautiful brass studwork.

Alappuzha really comes alive on the second Saturday of August, in the middle of the monsoon, when it serves as the venue for one of Kerala's major spectacles-the Nehru Trophy boat race. This event, first held in 1952, is based on the traditional Kerala enthusiasm for racing magnificently decorated longboats, with raised rears designed to resemble the hood of a cobra.

Each boat carries 25 singers, while between 100 and 130 oarsmen power the craft along, all rowing to the rhythmic vanchipattu ("song of the boatman"). There are a number of prize categories, including one for the women's race; sixteen boats compete for each prize in knock-out rounds.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Alappuzha is one of Kerala's most famous boat races, and thousands come to watch the race on Vembanad Lake.

Behind the stern of each snake boat, shaped like the hood of a cobra, a hundred or so rowers power their way across the waters, shouting and singing enthusiastically.

The rowers are supported by helmsmen, who do the steering and cheered by singers and spectators from their village. The crowd avidly watches a tradition that harks back to the time when the snake boat transported troops to battle.

Boat races are also a feature of the Onam celebrations elsewhere in Kerala. At Paipad near Haripad, the boat races are said to be in honour of the findings of the idol of Subhramanya at Haripad, while at Aranmula the boats carry effigies of Lord Krishna.

Similar races can be seen at Champakulam also, 16km by ferry from Alappuzha.

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