Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Aranmula Vallasadya: Snake boats, Feast and a bunch of good people

Kerala, the small penisular state in the southern part of India, got its name from the abundant cocunut trees (Kera trees). But one of the most popular things about Kerala which stays in the minds of tourists is undoubtedly the beautiful Snake Boats. In local slang it is called "Chundan vallam" or the Beaked boat. The annual Nehru trophy boat race at Alappuzha and the annual Aranmula Uthrattathi Boat race draw a lot of crowds even from the western countries. Here I try to take you through another ritual based on the Snake boats - the Valla Sadya.

My journey to Aranmula temple on the weekend just before Onam was to attend a "Vallasadya", an offering to Aranmula temple.The ritual consists of rowing the snake boat to the temple, following all the traditions. On reaching the temple a pooja ensues, followed by a good feast for which the person who is offering the Vallasadya can invite guests. Since this vallasadya was been conducted by one of my relatives, we were invited for this function.

By the time I reached the starting point of the boat christened "Laka - Idayaranmula chundan" the rowers had already embarked on the boat dressed in traditional attire.

Believe me, this thing is really huge and can accommodate around 100 people, with the protruding back portion standing as tall as 15feet.
The thin frame makes one wonder how this thing is balanced in water. A wrong move by the people standing in the middle can make this one topple easily. This boat got its name from the name of the village which owns this boat. Many of the villages near the banks of the river pampa owns there snake boats and they treat these boat with great respect and takes great care to ensure that it remains in good shape.
If any one of the villager wants to sponsor a Vallasadya, then the boat owned by his/her village will be used.

There were three sets of rowers in the boat. Those standing in the extreme back with really long oars, has got the responsibility to steer the boat. These fellows are called Adanayambu. Here the first Adanaymbu was my wife's cousin. In front of them there is a long set of rowers sitting on either side of the boats who propells or powers the boat ahead, rowing in unison. The rowers are egged on by a set of people standing the middle section who sings the traditional Vanchi pattu (Boat Song).

The leader of the rowing gang requested everyone to get ready for the start. Soon everyone was seen tightly strapping their shawls on their head.

The beautiful decorated umbrella in the middle was standing out in the greenish background.

The rope which helped the boat anchor to the shore was untied.

The boat began to slowly move backwards, the splashing of the water by the oars was made to feel like a background score of the Vanchipattu (boat song) which already had started in full swing. While starting up the boat somehow changed direction and see how the first adanayambu, tactfully uses his long oar and his strength to make it go straight.

Finally the boat steadied itself and was on its course towards the main body of Pampa. The sight of the lengthy boat with the rowers rowing in unison, the beautiful umbrella, moving steadily through the greenery was nothing short of awesome.

As the boat moved away we decided to follow its path in our vehicle by road. The boat had started off from Kozhippalam a place near Aranmula temple, in the Chengannur - Aranmula route. We travelled towards the Aranmula temple. On this route we saw the house of the official  craftsman of  the world famous Aranmula mirror. (To know more about Aranmula Mirror Click here).
Further ahead we saw the PWD rest house of Aranmula. Here there is a gallery for viewing the boat race which is held annually during the Onam festival.

We got inside, parked our vehicle near the traditionally built rest house and proceeded to the gallery from where we could get a view of the pampa river.

The view from the gallery was indeed breathtaking. The beautiful pampa river was almost full owing to the intermittent rains. Since the annual boat race was only a week away, the place was maintained well. The finishing point of the boat race is here and the VIPs and ministers will be sitting here to watch the race as well as to give away the prizes.

Towards my right is the Aranmula temple. Watch the view here

At a distance you can see some buildings on the right side. That is the Aranmula temple.
Towards my left is the direction which the boats will be coming. watch the splendid settings here.

Two boats can be seen at a distance. One of the localites informed that there are around 17 Vallasadyas today. So all the 17 Boats will pass through this point. Many of them had already passed by. Now two of them are coming down.

If two such boats can create such a visual treat then I can imagine how beautiful it would be to see more than 40 boats for the boat race during the Uthrattathy boat race. No wonder why lots of foreign tourists also flock the place to get a glimpse of the race.

The vanchipattu was audible from a long distance away and the tune is in such a way that no one can stand there without tapping there feet.

There seems to be different ways of rowing ahead. In one style they all were rowing fast moving ahead, rowing in unison.

In another style the boat was swaying like a see-saw in the direction of movement. Those sitting on the front were deliberately jumping up and down to bring the nose of the boat down so that it will start to sway and we feel as if the boat is dancing to the tune of "Vanchipattu".

Take a close look at those sitting in the front. These fellows seems to be precauriously balanced, but they are still doing all kinds of pyrotechniques and enjoying the show.

In the middle there are two sets of rowers.

But the real beauty of the boat is when it is seen in full as it crossed the full length in front of us.

Take a close look at the decoration in rear end of the boat. It looks like the "Nettipattam" (Forehead arrangement) of the elephants during a temple festival.

These are gold coated decorations. Wonder how much it will cost at the current Gold Rate in India. So these Snake boats has got an appreciation value and even the cost of the wooden part could even be recovered due to the presence of that Gold.

As we kept tapping the foot in the tune of the song, the snake boats raced away

So now we had to race to the temple to see the boats being received at the temple. But before we could go a majestic guy came walking down and kids wanted to stay back. It was an elephant, not a real big one, but still a towering guy.

This fellow slowly tread down towards the river and started a session of bathing self.

The way it collects a huge quantity of water, the way it pumps it strongly to all parts of the body, how it ensures that each and every part of the body is addressed, it was fun watching it bath so upclose.

By the time it finished bathing, we tried to get it in our hands, atleast in the pic.

All this delayed our journey to the temple. By this time I could hear a deafening sound of the fire crackers and a cloud of smoke started emanating from the boat bay near the temple. We could see the boats anchoring towards the temple.

Now we had to quickly proceed to the temple. As we proceeded towards the temple we saw the biggest elephant of the Aranmula temple slowly walking through the road. His name is "Aranmula Pathasarathy".

As we approached the temple we could see that there is a huge crowd and parking the vehicle itself was tough. Parked it a distance and we walked towards the historic Aranmula Temple amidst the heavy crowd. A total of 17 Vallasadyas on that day meant that some of the feast has to be organised at halls outside the temple too. We passed one such hall called "Panchajanyam" which was filled to the brink at the entrance by the invitees of the feast trying to get in.

A little ahead we could see the Aranmula temples entrance gopuram which retains its old charm unlike many other temples whose entrance gopurams has been rebuilt only to lose its traditional charm and is a mixture of some colorful paints alone.

Inside the temple is quite big, really vast spaces and there was a pleasant smell too.

The main diety here is the "Pathasarathy" which is Lord Krishna. Krishna's brother Balarama also is being worshiped here and the interestingly the idol of Balarama is placed in a small temple whose level is below the ground level. There seems to be an interesting history behind this difference in level.

The flag pole coated with gold was really big and was standing majestically in front of the main temple.

The clouds seems to pass through the top of the flag pole. Wonder whether there is a lighting conductor too.

Went straight to the boat bay, where the reception ceremony was already over and the rowers were climbing up their steps for praying in the temple.

The oars were being carried by the rowers along with the decorated umbrellas. All these were kept as offering in the front nada, which looked quite colorful thanks to the equipment placed by all the Snake boats which came today.

After the darshan it was time for the feast. Each of the sponsors of valla sadya had arranged separate make shift stages for the conducting the feast. Those who could not get space inside conducted it outside the temple premises. The make shift halls inside the temple even looked very colorful.

Inside the Sadya (feast) was ready.

There were around 46 different dishes for this feast. Wonder whether this qualifies for some kind of record.

The feast was not only good looking but it really tasted superb. The behaviour of those who served the feast was something to be praised as they were very very cordial unlike what we see in the cities during marriages.

The rules of those deciding to offer "Valla Saya" as an offering to the temple was displayed in a board inside the temple.

(A translation for those who cannot understand Malayalam - Those wishing to offer valla sadya should contact the office fo the temple as well as the office of the village who owns the boat. Apart from the rowers of the village who owns the boat, only those invited by the sponsor can attend the feast. All remittances shall be made with the temple's office or with the boat society's office)

It was a great experience as the tradition was followed with great spirit and vigour. The innocence and the friendliness of the people was something really special. You have to experience it to believe it. I was happy to be part of it and I am really thankful my wife's cousin who invited us for this event !!!


Olive said...

As usual a very interesting story and most delightful pictures. A very enjoyable experience to read your posts, almost like being there.

Anu said...

wow!! what a fantastic post, but even more, what a wonderful experience!!! i would love to go and attend such an interesting feast, that too in such an interesting manner!

Angela Felsted said...

That boat is not just awesome. It is miraculous. The way it stayed steady. Now that is a feat of engineering.

MARIA said...

It's been years that I have been to a vallamkali though i come from the smae place. the post is beautiful and it brought back memories of running to see the vallams, on their ride across the river. We used to run when we heard the pattu stopping whatever we were doing at that time. Thanks for posting this,,,:-)

Salahu said...

Great post and pics Subodh..great job..!how many on the que during Onam holidays...!

Anonymous said...

excellent coverage on Aranmula VallaSadya

thanks for sharing

The Floating Clouds said...

Wow! This is a brilliant photo-documentation. Thanks for sharing.


Beautiful pictures and discription. I think you have missed an important feature of the valla sadya : The oarsmen will not 'ask' for any dish, they will 'sing' for it. It is the unique feature of valla sadya. Oarsmen will be singing and asking for dishes in 'Vanchi pattu' (Boat song) style.


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