Since childhood I have heard that my family has its roots on the banks of the Pampa river, close to the Sree Parthasarathy temple at Aranmula. So last week when I got this chance to attend the Aranmula boat festival, I was very much excited. To start with, I have never been to this boat festival. Secondly, the thought of being where my ancestors once lived triggered a soothing anticipation.

There were four in our team. We started from Cochin on a late afternoon. Our route was through Kottayam, and we reached the town at about 8.00 pm. About 9 km from the town is a small residential suburb called Pallom. That is where the popular Karimpinkala restaurant is located. This was our dinner stop. Karimpinkala offers a wide range of local cuisines featuring a variety of seafood like Crab, Prawns, Pompret, Kingfish, Pearl-spot as well as poultry, duck, quail, rabbit etc. They also serve the famous Toddy in earthenware, locally fermented from the coconut palm.

After dinner we proceeded to Kozhencherry. We had booked our night halt at   Mannaas Veedu about 10 km from Aranmula temple. It is a home stay that provides a perfect retreat with an attached Ayurvedic spa & clinic. It is nicely tucked into the slope of a hill-terrain, inside a privately owned estate.

It was late, so we went to sleep. We got up early, as we had a fairly busy schedule. At dawn Mr. Aji Alex the owner of Mannas Veedu took us around the property. It has a very well kept garden with a variety of flowers, medicinal plants and some very tall trees. Abundant greenery is pronounced throughout the entire area.  Before breakfast, we had scheduled meetings with a few local people who could give us input into the history of Aranmula boat festival.

Aranmula boat festival is the oldest boat fiesta in Kerala. The entire festivity revolves around the Hindu temple located at Aranmula, dedicated to Lord Krishna and Arjuna. I was surprised that this snake boat spectacle is not an actual race between boats, compared to other boat races in Kerala. It is a majestic procession of many boats that move in pairs to the rhythmic singing of the boat crew, while being cheered by an excited crowd on both sides of the river Pamba. There is an overwhelming belief among the devotees that Lord Krishna’s invisible presence permeates on each boat. Due to the presence of this divine grace, these marvelous boats are called ‘Palliyodams’ (Majestic Boats).

We spent some quality time on the banks of the river Pampa. Walking through this area, we realized something refreshing. People in Aranmula truly have a deep abiding respect for nature at large. No trees are cut. No bushes are chopped indiscriminately. I was surprised to see huge trees almost everywhere with rich undergrowth similar to a tropical rain forest. Unlike the rest of Kerala, there are no tall walls demarking boundaries. I thought that made the entire place more inviting and eco-friendly. The land is fertile, being fed by the river year around.

Having talked to some people, and getting inspired by nature for an hour we returned to Mannas for breakfast. We had a variety of fresh fruit and Palappam (laced pancakes) with delicious chicken stew.

Our next stop was Konni Elephant cage. This is a state government sponsored elephant sanctuary. Elephants end up here in different circumstances. Sometimes baby elephants get separated from the herd, and juveniles get stranded. They are brought to the sanctuary, well cared for and tamed. In the morning they are taken to the nearby river for a bath. This can be a unique once in a lifetime experience for tourists. They are allowed to join the elephant trainers for the scrubbing and cleaning of the elephants, while the elephants stay calm and still, enjoying the tender care they are receiving. We spent some time at the sanctuary. Elephant back rides are also offered here.

It was time to proceed to Aranmula. It is about 15 km. from Mannas to the Parthasarathy temple. Parking is a challenge like at all crowded places. We parked at some distance, and walked. We left our footwear in the car. The temple and the lawn surrounding is ‘No footwear’ zone. The sand, the pebbles and the pavement were radiating heat from the hot sun. I have not gone bare foot for a long time, and it was difficult in the beginning. We all got used to it after sometime.

A large wooden row boat was arranged for us, so that we could get a closer look at the snake boats and better photographs of the real action. We could see the boats approaching from a distance. As it came closer, the grace of these boats became evident. The head of the boat is embellished with a golden metal lace, shining and sparkling at some angles when it catches the sun. The flag, the long dangling flower garlands and the vibrant ornamental umbrella at the center make it a show of pageantry.

Palliyodams are Aranmula’s unique snake boats; generally called ‘Chundan Valloms’ which devotees hold in reverence, considering it as the divine vessel of the presiding deity in Sree Parthasarathy temple. These Palliyodams belong to different ‘Karas’ (villages/towns) nearby. Each boat will have 4 helmsmen, plus rowers and singers, totaling to 100 men or more. There will be a flag and 2 or 3 ornamental umbrellas.

Only men of the villages are allowed to be in the boat. Dress is white loin cloth (Mundu) and white turban. No shirt or footwear. As a tradition, it is commanded by a village elder man and under him there will be 3 main oarsmen who control the course of the boat with 12 feet long main rudder-oar (Adanayampu).

It is obvious that this is a mega festival and a colorful and exciting demonstration of dedication and devotion to the temple God. All other boat festivals in Kerala are boat races featuring competitive racing between different categories of wooden boats big and small. Traditionally people who are involved with agriculture; especially rice cultivation form the race boat teams. But here at Aranmula, the boat crew is comprised of people from diverse professions.

Aranmula snake boats are taller and more elegant looking when they are on the move.  These boats also can accommodate over 100 people in a single unit. There are about 35 boat race tournaments conducted at different places of Kerala during the months of September & October using the other types of boats specifically built for racing.

The culmination of the Aranmula boat procession to the temple is a mega vegetarian feast arranged within the temple compound. The feast works as a good- will or an offering to the temple deity by an individual or family from a particular village. It is to seek God’s grace to fulfill a wide range of personal or special needs in a family. Some of it is also an expression of gratitude, in return for favors received from God. In season many such feasts called ‘Vallasadhyas’ are conducted at different dining halls in the temple premise simultaneously. Each feast will cater to over 200 people. Participants include the oarsmen of the boat, the immediate family of the sponsor, their relatives and friends.

We joined one of the feasts. It is served on banana leaves. There are over 30 different curries served. There are traditions even when requesting a special curry. They request it in the form of a song, which they sing as a group, and then they are served.

After the feast it was time to head back to Mannas Veedu. We rested for a few minutes and Aji Alex offered to take us for a walk through the estate. We could see that the terrain offers excellent possibilities for bicycle rides. No traffic, fresh air and a pleasant atmosphere.

It was time to return to Kochi. We said goodbye to Aji, thanked him for his wonderful hospitality and we were on our way towards Kochi. We took a different direction on the way back. This is a splendid route during the day, as there are canals and green paddy fields on both sides of the road. This entire area offers excellent possibilities for photography.  We stopped at a popular restaurant called Avees for dinner, in between Changanacherry and Alleppey. They seem to be seafood specialists, but they have a wide variety of cuisines in poultry as well. All of us enjoyed the dinner and we continued our journey.

Reached Kochi by about 10.00 pm.  Even though I have been living in Kerala for a number of years, this was a special experience for me. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Kerala is fast becoming a popular destination for many. One can travel short distances, and be subjected to quite interesting and diverse experiences in Kerala within a very short period.