Every year after the monsoons, the rivers of Kerala would swell to float the annual pageantry of boats on water.
Uncle Joy and Aunty Kunjamma lived in Thazhathangadi , a picturesque hamlet, near Kottayam on the banks of the River Meenachil. If we were in India over Onam we would spend it with them and watch the oldest Aquasport of Kerala, the Annual Boat Race which was started in 1887.
Thazhathangadi was known for its scenic beauty, architecture and had the Hindu, Muslim and the Christian living in perfect harmony. The hamlet would wake up in the morning to the sound of the Conch shells from the Thalliyil Kotta Siva Temple, the call to worship from the 1000 year old Juma Masjid Mosque and the peal of bells from the St. Mary’s Orthodox Church. The houses were magnificent pieces of architecture, made up entirely of wood from the Teak and the Anyelli trees . My Uncle and Aunt had a beautiful wooden house overlooking the River Meenachil that showcased the Thazhathangadi Boat Race. The house had an attic which was vantage point for the Boat Race.
The festivities that accompanied the races lasted for a week, to coincide with the harvest festival Onam. Ornately decorated boats, big and small, overflowing with the first fruits of the harvest, would glide up and down the river carrying offerings to the temple. The exquisitely carved snake boats, made from logs of the anyelli tree riveted together for at least a hundred feet, proudly flaunt an arched prow that resembles the hood of a snake. At least a hundred bare-chested oarsmen in crisp white dhoties and colourful gilt edged headgear in single file and double, would flex their rippling muscles to row as a team. A visual delight, they pulled synchronously to the rhythm of the vintage folk songs that singers placed strategically in the length of the boat, meted out. The villagers would throng the riverbanks as spectators, cheering them on as the boats cut through the placid rivers and back waters to a spectacular finish. Perched up in the attic, we would cheer the boats as they raced past us, singing as they heaved together, never missing line or beat.
When the boats disappeared around the bend, we would go and play, rushing back to resume our places in the attic only when the jubilant winners returned. Coming or going we always heard the shouts and the singing before we saw the boats.