Backwaters and boat races at Alleppey

It was the 2nd Friday of August 2012, a day before the Biiigg sporting event of South India: “The Nehru trophy boat race”. After a long haul of planning, two of my friends and I had alighted at our destination- Allapuzha, a popular little town on a tourist circuit in Kerala. Fondly known as Alleppey, we were there to experience the festivities of ‘The Olympics of Kuttanad’- Vallamkali or the boat race. The Nehru trophy boat race is an annual event held in the Vembanad lake, in the Kuttanad region of Kerala. Vembanad lake is the longest lake in India and spans across several districts of Kerala. Depending on the region, the lake is known by different names. It is called as the Punnamada Lake here in Kuttana, of which Alleppey is a part. Along with the boat race, we wanted to explore the backwaters that’s a popular haunt of the tourists in this region.

My Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bangalore to Kochi (Overnight train);
Day 1: Kochi to Alleppey (local train), Shikara ride in the Vembanad lake, Sunset at Alleppey beach.
Day 2: Nehru trophy boat race, Champakulam St. Mary Forane Church, Kalloorkkadu Angadi (local & oldest market in the region), Latin church. Return from Alleyppey to Bengaluru (Overnight Train)

Other Places of Interest:
• Karumadi Thodu- famous for the black granite idol of lord Buddha
• Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna temple- known for the ‘Palpayasam’ or the milk porridge offered as prasad to the deity.
• Kokkothamangalam church- This is one of the seven churches founded by St.Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ.
• Ayyappan temple in Mukkal vattam (near Muhamma)- known for the Kalari from which Lord Ayyappa is believed to have learnt his skills in martial arts. The hermitage where Ayyappan lived during the training period has been preserved in its original form by successive generations of the Cheerappanchira family.

The Details:

Day 1:

It was noon by the time we checked into our hotel room. We freshened up quickly and set out to explore Alleppey. We walked around a little bit and reached at a small boat jetty. We hired a ‘Shikhara’, a local motorboat to cruise around the narrow canals, passing through several fishing hamlets. While the womenfolk were washing clothes, the men were spiralling their fishing nets into the water and a few kids were diving into the waters for a refreshing swim. It was a nice experience of seeing local lifestyle of the people for whom, the backwaters are a lifeline. Along our ride, we picked up some fresh lobsters and pomfret at a local market and got them cooked in the local style at a fisherman’s house.

The Shikara cruise in the narrow canals of Alleppey
The Shikara cruise in the narrow canals of Alleppey

Further, we were oared across to the end of the canal which opened into the wide Vembanad lake where all the teams were practising for the boat race and the venue was getting set for the ‘Big’ event. The energy and enthusiasm in the atmosphere was no less than that of the main event itself. Though we wanted to stay there till sunset, the government deadline for all activities in the waters forced us to return to the jetty before 06.00.p.m.

On returning to the mainland, we meandered through the lanes of Alleppey town searching for a dose of Kerala chai and palam-pori (Banana fritters). We then decided to settle down by the beach until dark. While finding our way to the beach, we walked past the coir industries that Alleppey was once known for, and now remained shut and non-functional.

A stationed shikara enroute to the Alleppey beach
A stationed shikara enroute to the Alleppey beach

While walking back to the town area from the beach, we happened to see a hoarding of a concert happening at a nearby stadium. Post sunset on normal days, most towns in Kerala sleep to silence after 7.00.p.m. and there will be not many options to see or do after that. Since we did not want to waste the remaining evening by sitting inside our hotel room, we decided to head to the stadium to kill the rest of our evening. ‘Music never disappoints’, all the three of us had the same thought. Upon arrival at the stadium, we enjoyed the on-going performance of ‘Theyyam’, one of the colourful, traditional & spiritual dances of the state. But after some time in the audience gallery, is when we experienced a surprise on the stage. A MIND-BLOWING show by the violin maestro- Balabaskaran and team.. It was there that we were LOST in dreamland..!!

Day 2:

The next morning, we had to reach the racing venue as early as 08.00.a.m. to ensure that we had a place to sit. (Read about the madness of the event). The snake boats are the world’s biggest water vessel used for sports. One by one, they arrived for assembly. Locally called as the Chundan Vallam (Beaked boats), these 100~120 feet long wooden canoes carry 90- 110 rowers and move like snakes through the channels. And soon, the races started under different categories. Every single soul in the arena was singing songs of cheer. All through the event, only one thing echoed in the atmosphere: Vanchipattu or the Boat song. It was a once in a lifetime experience to be a part of that enthusiastic crowd.

The oarsmen '"Women"
The oarsmen ‘”Women”

Post the event, we still had time to explore the town and hence boarded a bus to Champakulam. As we passed through the waterlogged villages of Kuttanad, we were reminded that the region we were passing through was the ‘granary of Kerala’ or the rice bowl of Kerala. It is one of the few places in the world where farming is done below sea level.

Soon, we reached the St. Mary Forane Church. Since it was a Sunday, we were lucky to take part in the mass. Built in 427A.D., this riverside church is a testimony of time with its finely maintained beautiful mural paintings. From there, we took a boat to reach the other end of the river: the oldest market in the region known as Kalloorkkadu angadi.

Champakulam St. Marys church
Champakulam St. Marys church

With a local bus ride from there, back to the town, we then took a walk to the Latin church in the town. The entire town of Alleppey can be viewed from the terrace of this church (permitted only during visiting hours). What particularly caught our interest was the cemetery where all members of a family were buried in the same pit. Hundreds of such graves laid within the church premises.

The premises of the Latin Church
The premises of the Latin Church

We then checked out our lodge and headed to the railway station for our return, scheduled for the night. It was time for us to depart with a mind filled with beautiful memories of sailing afloat on a boat in the backwaters of land that is called ‘God’s own country’ and hope to return soon.

Must dos: Experience the madness of the Snake boat race
Must eat: Freshly caught and cooked seafood while on a backwater cruise tour

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