Kerala is always a treat to visit- and this time we had to visit for what is probably the most popular event there – The snake boat race. We decided to take a day more and see Alleppy while we were at it.
We drove from Thrissur on the morning of the race since it was recommended to reach early. We dropped him to the boat pick up point for the race attendees and headed back to the hotel to watch the event from the comfort of our rooms on TV!
The place is loud- the commentary like any sports event is fast paced and keeps you at the edge of your seat- if you understand the language. The best part of the event for me is actually the energetic singing in tandem with the rowing – however, that is mostly drowned out by the sounds of the crowds cheering their favourite local team and the commentary on the loudspeakers.
Either way, you can’t be unmoved by the sheer strength, skill and beauty of watching a 100 men/women rowing in unison on a narrow boat across those placid waters bordered by the boisterous crowds and the waving coconut palms – both seeming to cheer their every gasp for air.
Tips for the snake boat race attendees:
- Carry water and food. There is none at the event.
- Tickets vary from Rs. 200 – Rs. 3000. While the pricier tickets get you a better view point it doesn’t necessarily guarantee comfort unless you are booking a whole house boat which is a couple of thousands per person over the ticket price.
- The higher priced ticket options will have chairs but in the excitement of the crowds, sitting is simply a suggestion and you’ll have whole crowds up on their feet almost the whole time.
- If you think you can take the effort of standing/sitting on the ground for long, go early to the event – the finals this time started at 2:30 but Anand got there at 11 AM on the advice of the locals. There are qualifying races and those with smaller boats before the final event- those are fun to watch too and you’d be relegated to the back of the crowd if you aren’t early.
- Take someone to speak to or take along a book to read since there is a time gap between races where you will be left doing nothing unless you’re into people watching.
Meanwhile, we happened to walk around the hotel area for lunch and completely by chance had a meal at what was the best restaurant in Alleppy according to many sites. A hearty meal later uncle and aunt continued to watch the race while I chose to catch up on my sleep. After that nap, we picked up Anand. Incidentally, a jewellery store had arranged for local artists to have a performance of the Chenda Melam that is quite foot tapping and maybe some nodding along if you like strong beats.
Tip: If you want a hint of the local culture, the best time to visit Kerala is around Onam – the date of this festival varies every year since it depends on the Malayalam calendar month Chingam. It is however around Aug-Sept. Ask your local contacts for the smaller scale local boat races, the poorams (temple festivals), the puli kali (dances in tiger outfits), kottu (the traditional drum beats), Kummati Kali (dances with masks).
A couple of minutes there and we then went to the Alappuzha beach. The long flyover getting constructed right next to the beach (currently the nearest vehicle parking is just below it), seems like quite an aberration of concrete monstrosity just next to what is usually a peaceful spot for people to spend an evening. Nevertheless, there it was.
The Alappuzha beach is crowded but it’s also a long beach so if you’re not into jumping into the water alongside the huge groups you can always walk by the water watching people and kites dotting the sky in the backdrop of the gently falling shades of the evening skies.
Note: Food in Allapuzha was amongst the least expensive and most satisfying we’ve had in our south Indian trips. Try the local food and you will not be disappointed. You cannot go wrong with appam, puttu or idiyappam for breakfast.
The next morning we first dropped into a temple that we’d noticed just behind our hotel. It happened to be a several centuries old Sree Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy Temple. It has quite a dramatic legend associated with it that says a devotee who was denied the temple offerings came upon sculptors who turned into the idols of Gods that were then installed in this temple.
Its walls were covered with frescoes of different deities and heavenly figures.
The place is surrounded by structures with beautifully tiled tall roofs that make up both the temple offices and some residences.
The most unique aspect of the space I found was that this was the first time we had seen a dovecote in a Hindu temple. The only other South Indian place in recent memory that had one was the Dariya Daulat Bagh in Srirangapatna
Note: Many temples in Kerala have a dress code. The safest thing to wear would be a sari or a long skirt for women and a mundu or similar garment for men. The next best thing would be a salwar for women and long trousers for men- still not ok in some temples. Men will sometimes be required to take off their shirts before entering the temple. This one allowed us in but not very near the deity, some will not allow entrance into the temple itself if you don’t adhere to the dress code.
Alleppey is one of those places in Kerala where taking a house boat is definitely something one could try. We, however, had to reach Thrissur by the end of the day and so instead opted for a smaller boat like the Shikara in Kashmir except on the Vembanad lake. This was the same lake where the Snake boat race was held the previous day so Anand got an opportunity to give us an idea of where different arrangements had been made. This also happens to be the longest lake in India.
We spent only 2 hours on our boat but one could easily spend a day revelling in the sheer luxury of doing nothing. The backwaters of Kerala are the perfect place to be to disconnect.The eyes easily relax on seeing the placid waters, the lovely purple flowers blooming amidst the seaweeds, the cormorants easily diving into the water to catch their fishy meals, the boats in different sizes lined along the waterside and the locals going about their day.
Just by the backwaters are the Kuttanad rice fields you’d be able to see from your boat. It’s one of the very few places in the world where farming is carried out 4-10 ft below sea level. Our boatman informed us that the biggest expense is just pumping out water from the fields back into the backwaters. However, the land is otherwise very fertile and requires relatively lesser effort for cultivation. The farmers’ ability to undertake Biosaline farming in such situations has led to the area being declared a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.
Note: Costs vary for different boat sizes, the number of passengers and durations. The only way to know for sure is to ask around. We paid Rs.1000 for 4 people for a 2-hour ride because we weren’t in the mood for bargaining and signed up the first boatman who approached us.
After our ride, we drove to our next stop – Pathiramanal Island. Anything with “island” in its name can’t help but sound intriguing add to it a name that means “Sands of the night” and your interest is piqued for sure. Our earlier boatman, however, warned us we’d probably not enjoy it as much as foreigners do.
The island is known for mangroves, aquatic creatures and migratory birds. The birds are expected to be seen more often during summer or they just weren’t around because of the small but noisy tourist groups that had landed on the small island. Someone with at least a cursory knowledge of plant and bird species would definitely enjoy the island. Even to the untrained eye, there are a large variety of plants not very commonly seen elsewhere.
To someone living in the rural areas of Kerala, we would, however, find the greenery commonplace since our backyards look somewhat similar albeit with different plants! Despite being surrounded by the cool water, it is quite sultry inside the island since the thick vegetation doesn’t let much breeze in. On the flip side, it is quite a delight to step out into the spaces at the edge of the island towards the water for a welcome gust of cool air.
Note: One has to take a boat to the island that cost us Rs.500 (there are only a couple of boats around) though it was a short ride and there are no boards on standard rates. So one can only hope you’re being charged a fair price.The boatman, however, will let you stay on the island as long as you need to and you could call him once done to pick you back. We spend around 40 mins on the island just walking around.
We went over to the Marari beach next though it was mid-day and therefore not the best time. This is significantly less crowded than the Allapuzha beach and the more ideal of them to relax and enjoy the water. Anand spent 20 minutes trying to feed a crow off of his hands but the crow persevered in just waiting from afar and we had more of a journey ahead of us. We enjoyed the beach for a while longer and moved on.
Our next stop was the Periyar river. Following the map dutifully we reached an absolute dead end. The river was something one would see as one passes over the numerous bridges on the route. However, we were hoping for a space to sit by the water and enjoy its beauty. All we got was a shady deserted building and walking through the shrubs around it a peep at one edge of the river. Ah well, not all adventures are meant to be. So that was that.