‘ChundanVallam’ literally means beaked boats because of the way their rear portion towers to a height of 20ft. They are also known as snake boats as their front portion is long, around 83ft and 6 inches wide, tapering like a snake with a raised hood. These wooden war boats, 100 to 138ft in length, are one of Kerala’s icons that reflect the boat race in which they are used. To make it slippery and slithering against the waters, it is coated with special fish oil, eggs or coconut shell oil. Each village has a boat and it is worshiped as god and treated with respect. Only men are permitted to touch it. The race is a kind of canoe racing, using paddles and hosted just before Onam in Kerala as one of the major highlights of this festival season that is anticipated with much thrill and excitement.
Participation in the annual race requires exemplary rhythm and coordination in rowing. They are led by a commander and three oars men who control the boat movement to the rhythm of the boatman’s song. Sitting two at a row along the length, sixty-four sub oarsmen accelerate the boat momentum on water in perfect synchronization. Around twenty-five singers sing the lead song in a row at the middle between the oarsmen. In the middle of the second half of the boat is a platform for eight people representing Ashtadikpalakas (the Devas or Gods who guard the eight directions) under a colorful umbrella. The boat song, an exceptionally exclusive song that is Malayalam poetry steers the speed of the sway rhythm of the oarsmen. The whole panorama exudes a lot of talent and skill in competition. Watching this can be an exciting experience under Kerala’s green backdrop alongside its serene backwaters.