It wasn’t just another ‘wet’ evening for us here in Bangalore, as it was also the start of our trip to witness and capture the snake boat race in Alleppey ! The origin of this race dates back to when Pandit Nehru visited the region and hopped on to one of these sleek looking boats ( chundan vallams, as they are known in local parlance ). He liked it so much as to suggest a boat race every year, much to the enthusiasm of people in nearby villages. Initially, this race was all about villages competing with each other, but over time, clubs formed and the whole gig became more and more professional; so much so that as of this year, there were quite a few people from other states ( imagine people coming all the way from North East ), rowing the boat on pay. The decision being rued by old timers of course, these out-of-place rowers look like the way to go nevertheless, given the level of competition and preparations involved, as also big money !
As of today, the boat race takes place in the 2nd week of August each year, just before Onam festivities kick off later during the month ( it’s the one and only major festival in Kerala; it’s roots being in crop harvest as well as mythology ).
Anyway, we were a motley bunch to start with; people from different walks of life tied together by their mutual love of photography and travel ! A lively and comfortable overnight journey by train took us to Kottayam; needless to say that we were treated to the green blanket that is Kerala, from the moment we opened our eyes next morning. Imagine long rows of swaying palm trees amidst huge paddy fields ( I guess ! ), interspersed by small town life; houses here still sit inside big compounds full of greenery, their roofs sloping on both sides to slide off water from so much rainfall that the region receives for a big part of the year. That smell of flora all around you; small and clean railway stations welcoming us each time that the train stopped; people looking forward to their day’s travel already; not the usual hub-bub though, but the air of casual nonchalance ! Shopkeepers opening up their shutters; few travelers sitting by and reading a newspaper even as they wait for their train to arrive; while others simply looking along even as they were waiting too. Nobody seemed to be in a rush !
The cool morning air, however, started to give way to a bit of hotness and humidity even as the train made it’s way to our destination. We arrived a bit late and were whisked away in a bus waiting to take us to our house-boat on the waters of Vembanad lake in Kumarakom. This is the point from where quite a few of these boats take off for their destination at Alleppey. An experience themselves, these house-boats boast of 1, 2, 3 ( and probably more ) bedrooms, with a seating area in front. You’re treated to quality home-like local food, and you can get more economical by choosing to avail only the day-tour ( given the fact that these boats just dock up in a village for the night, and are not allowed to roam around anyway. You can, however, opt for a small boat tour in the backwaters once you dock up and have some time before sunset. You can go a bit inside into the villages probably, and it would be leisurely off course ! ).
A sumptuous lunch behind us, we enjoyed our slow progress towards the race venue, relishing and clicking in the backwaters as best as we could. The sun was overhead; it was hot and lighting conditions were harsh. Some people got into the mood nevertheless, with a couple of beers. Our photography discussions were enough to keep us active anyway !
We could identify when we reached the venue, as human activity increased all of a sudden, and we could see the snake boats and their rowers busy with their last minute preparations. We found our parking spot with a good enough view at the start of the race, not without some anxious moments though. Once we parked, however, the stage was set in front of us and we were more than eager to enjoy our view and go clicking. People were perched up wherever they could ( on both sides of the ‘race-course’; on house-tops; and there were well-marked seating areas as well ), and every body seemed to enjoy the fervor and the frenzy around them, including us !
It’s not just one race but a series of them, with qualifiers to start with I’m sure. We were not interested in those details, however, and were happy to witness and click up. It was easy to identify the set of boats when they would come near us, going by the increase in decibel level in the crowd, as also our expansive view ( although we could not yet see the starting point ). The moment they came into our view, we could see multiple lines of boats, with rowers doing their part in unison to a beat from inside the boat itself ( people designated for such rhythmic beats would seat themselves in the middle of the boat for that purpose ). It was quite a sight to watch them row in unison, and a treat to capture the same !
Notice the woman rowers in the pic above ? Yes, there were separate races for men and women both !
The races continued for a couple of hours, and we kept ourselves busy enjoying the moment and the clicks. There were quite a few others doing the same. The sun ( and the light ) was not on our side, but we did the best that we could. The light started getting a little better towards the end though.
It was fun to be a part of the boat race that I had been dreaming to cover since a long time now, but it was not to be forever, and we bid our good-bye as soon as the races got over. We could see the winning team celebrating at a distance; dancing to their beats and enjoying their moment. We were enjoying our moment too and after some time, the venue slid off from view. The silence and calmness of the backwaters enveloped us once again as our boat rode us back to our starting point. The air was much cooler now, and the light quite better, even as we met a couple of snake boats already on their way back from the race. It was time to be lazy now as it got more cloudy and windy ! We simply laid back enjoying the silence all around us. Occasional chats and clicks were off course a part of it all, and a couple of beers popped up once again !
The boat took us back to our boarding point, and the bus took us to our abode for the night. We made camp and settled down for the night after a lot of gup-shup and as is the custom in such trips, our drinks ! A day well spent and a comfortable night to look forward to !
It was to be an early ( and rainy ) morning next day, wherein we began my paying a visit to a large and famous temple complex nearby ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ettumanoor_Mahadevar_Temple ). It’s quite a construction in itself, and an experience as well. Soak in it’s architecture and history whenever you’re nearby ! The rains only added to the charm !
Next, we headed towards the Kumarakom bird sanctuary, which was an hour’s distance by road. Well, it’s not really known to showcase a lot of birds, and we had little time on our hands. We ventured inside nevertheless, and continued with our macro work. A small butterfly park welcomed us just outside the reception area, and then there’s that one path that leads you inside amidst all the greens that seem to envelope us all. We strolled along, stopping by occasionally on spotting our tiny subjects. A guard we met told us that there are a few watchtowers towards the end from where one can spot quite a few of those birds. We never made there and had to turn back due to our time constraints. A few of us did go a little further, but no luck so far as birds were concerned ! For a good 2 hours spent there, we did have a fairly decent ‘macro’ experience.
We were back on the road again now, and after a brief stop to pack up our bags, we headed towards the Kottayam railway station for our journey back to Bangalore. Once again, lively times spent cracking jokes on each other, and playing a very interesting card game that some of us just learnt on the train ( UNO !!! ), we never realized when it was time to sleep off.
Next morning, it was the usual; we alighted at our respective stops and headed on to our respective destinations, looking forward to the grueling week ahead. The only difference being, refreshing memories and so many of these pictures above that will help us re-live our experience every time we look at them !
We promised each other to join for more oncoming trips, and we now have an active whatsapp group as well, so who knows when it might happen again !
A weekend well spent 🙂 ?