We alighted at Ernakulam railway station at the end of an overnight train journey, from where- another hour’s journey in a local train took us to our destination- Allapuzha or fondly called Alleppey. We were there to experience the festivities of ‘Vallamkali- The Olympics of Kuttanad’. It was the 2nd Friday of August 2012 – A day before the Biiigg sporting event of South India- “The Nehru trophy boat race”. This is an annual event held in the Vembanad lake- the longest lake in India spanning several districts of Kerala. The lake that’s known by different names in different parts of Kerala is refered to as the Punnamada Lake in the Kuttanad regional. It was noon by the time we checked into our hotel room. We freshened up and set out to explore the backwater villages of Alleppey.. We hired a ‘Shikhara- the boat which motored us through the narrow stretches of the canals. We cruised on the backwaters, passing through villages- where womenfolk were washing clothes, men were fishing, while few kids on some stretch were diving into the waters for a swim. We enjoyed our ride as we picked up some fresh lobsters and pomfret at the local market alongway and got them cooked in the local style at a fisherman’s house.
Further, we were oared across to the end of the canal which opened into the wide Vembanad lake where all the teams were practising and the venue was getting set for the ‘Big’ event. The energy and enthusiasm was no less than the main event itself. Though we wanted to stay there till sunset, the government deadline for cruising 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 heavenly dose of piping hot Kerala chai and palam-pori (Banana fritters). We passed across the once famous- now non-functional coir industries of Alleppey as we searched our way to the beach where we spent the remaining time until dark.
The town usually sleeps to silence after 7.00.p.m. in any part of Kerala state. But, we were there to make the most of the little time we had with us and not wanting to waste it sitting in the cosy of the hotel room. We happened to see a hoarding of a concert happening at a stadium and headed there hoping to capture some nice photos of the Theyyam show. We did enjoy theyyam.. But we were in for a surprise when we decided to stay for a little longer- we were smitten by something else.. MUSIC..!! A MIND-BLOWING show by the violin maestro- Balabaskaran and team.. We were LOST in dreamland..!!
The next morning, we had to reach the racing venue as early as 08.00.a.m. to get a seat. One by one, the snake boats 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. These boats are the world’s biggest water vessel used for sports . And soon.. The event started. Races took place in different categories with even the women rowers. All through the event, only one thing echoed in the atmosphere- Vanchipattu or the Boat song. Every single soul in the arena was singing songs of cheer.
We still had time to explore the town and so boarded a bus to Champakulam. As we passed through the waterlogged villages of Kuttand, we were reminded that the region we were passing is the ‘granary of Kerala’ or the rice bowl of Kerala and 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. This waterside church, built in 427A.D. is a testimony for time with its finely maintained beautiful mural paintings. From there, we took a boat to reach the other end of the river: the place of the oldest market known as Kalloorkkadu angadi.
If not the race, we’d have some more time to explore Karumadi Thodu and Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna temple. The former is famous for the black granite idol of lord Buddha and the latter being known for the ‘Palpayasam’ or the milk porridge offered as prasad to the diety.
We then walked to the Latin church in the town from whose terrace, the entire town of Alleppey can be viewed during visiting hours. What particularly captured our attention was the cemetery where all members of a family were buried in the same pit. Hundreds of such graves laid within the church premises.
We then left for our lodge to check out as our return train was scheduled for the night. If at all, we had half a day’s time extra- We’d definitely make it to the church located at Kokkothamangalam- one of the seven churches founded by St.Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. And we’d want to visit the Ayyappan temple, in Mukkal vattam near Muhamma that’s known for the Kalari from which Lord Ayyappa learnt his 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.
Anyway.. We had to leave the place with a heart soaked and mind filled with beautiful memories of sailing afloat on a boat in the backwaters of the beautiful country of God and hope to return soon.