Uthrattathi Vallamkali - A Spectacular Event at Aranmula

Aranmula, situated on the banks of the river Pampa, is at a distance of about 128 km from the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram.The name ‘aaru mula’ means ‘six bamboos’ indicative of the very first boat made of 6 bamboo pieces used to ferry across the river. The famous temple at Aranmula is dedicated to Lord Krishna as Sree Parthasarathy, the divine charioteer of Pandava prince Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war.The origin of the temple dates back to around 1700 years and thus is of historical importance. There is a flight of 18 steps that lead to the eastern gopura or tower while 57 descending steps from the northern tower reaches the Pampa river. The temple here has fine murals from the 18th century.

The Aranmula Boat Race is the oldest river boat fiesta in Kerala, that is held during the Onam season in the months of August-September. Thousands of people gather on the banks of the river Pampa to watch the snake boat race in which the unique snake boats or ‘palliyodams’ move in pairs to the rhythm of full-throated singing of ‘vanchipattu’ and shouting watched by an excited crowd.

The palliyodams belonging to different ’karas’ or villages on the banks of the riverPampa, carry groups of helmsmen, rowers and singers. The oarsmen, dressed in white ‘mundu’ and turbans, sing in chorus traditional boat songs in praise of the Lord. That the boats are decked up with golden laces, colourful flags and ornamental umbrellas adds to the show of pageantry and festive spirit. These ‘chundanvallams’ are held in reverence by the devotees who consider the palliyodam as the divine vessel of the presiding deity at the Aranmula temple.

Manufacturing the boat involves intense labour right from location of a suitable ‘Anjili 'tree, cutting it down to size, selecting an auspicious day and time to begin work and seeing it to completion, all strictly on the lines of the ancient principles on building of wooden boats. These boats are about 100 to 138 ft in length, with the rear portion towering to a height of about 20 ft. and a long tapering front portion. When completed, it resembles a snake with its hood raised. Its hull is built of planks precisely 83 feet in length and six inches wide.

Palliyodam Regatta

The palliyodam is commanded by ‘a kaaranavar’, traditionally a village leader alongwith three main oarsmen who control the movement of the boat. Sitting two in row along the length of the boat, the oarsmen row in rhythmic harmony to the singing of the vanchipattu by the singers standing on the platform in the middle of the boat. The singers lead the songs which the oarsmen repeat in chorus while moving the oars in a circular pattern, in tune with its rhythm and beat.

The traditional Palliyodam Regatta at Aranmula is not merely a colourful and exciting boat carnival but is part of a solemn religious custom associated with the ancient Parthasarathy temple that is being followed through several centuries. This ritual has also been associated with the Onam celebrations in the state.

The Aranmula temple celebration begins with the arrival of the ‘Thiruvonathoni’or special boats from the nearby Kattoor Mahavishnu temple, carrying groceries necessary for a ‘sadya’ or sumptuous feast, as an offering to the Lord. As a mark of divinity, a lighted lamp is also carried in the boat. Following an overnight journey, the boats arrive at the Aranmula temple on Thiruvonam day. The chief representative Bhattathiri of Mangaatt Illam with his retinue accompany the boat on its journey to ranmula. The boat is said to float or sail according to the prevailing speed of the water current. The thoni is symbolic of Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu.

Amidst the music of the ‘nagaswaram’ or pipes, people from all walks of life assemble on the banks and float lighted lamps on the river to welcome the Thiruvonathoni, alongwith the fleet of palliyodams.

As it is considered that ‘Uthrattaathi’day in the month of ‘Chingom’is the anniversary of the installation of the idol consecrated in the south by the Pandavas, it is on this day that the divine snake boat regatta is held in the temple premises at Aranmula.

The Aranmula Vallamkali culminates in the ’Ashtami Rohini Vallasadya’ or the elaborate traditional banquet served to the thousands of oarsmen and other participants of the snake boat races at the Parthasarathy temple premises and in the nearby dining halls and auditoriums. This mega feast representing Kerala cuisine at its indigenous and exotic best and served on banana leaves comprises boiled rice with more than forty varieties of curries, side dishes and snacks, the highlight being the delicious pradhaman or dessert coming as the grand finale.

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