2020 Snake boat races suspended in Kerala, come alive in Perth

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Jalvolsavam (Water Festival) snake boat race perth

Hundreds of spectators on the lake front erupted with joy as the boats sliced through the waters, the oarsmen throwing their oars in unison to the fast-paced rhythm of the Keralan drums.

Kerala’s famous snake boat races?

No, Perth’s newest cultural experience.

The snake-boat (chundan) races in Kerala, a centuries-old tradition of water regatta called Vallam Kali, were suspended this year due to COVID.

However, for the first time ever in Australia, the spirit of Vallam Kali was celebrated with great fervour right here, in the scenic waters of Perth.  Champion Lakes became Vembanad Kaayal and dragon boats became our beloved chundans for a day.

Held in late September with necessary safety and hygiene precautions in place, the event was organised by the Perth United Malayalee Association Inc with Champion Lakes Boating Club.

They called it Jalvolsavam (Water Festival).

Jalvolsavam (Water Festival) snake boat race perth

READ ALSO: Kerala: Bringing God’s Own Country back

Thirteen teams competed in four qualifying races. Eight teams progressed to the semi-finals, and four fought the finals.

The boat Piara chundan of the Piara Spartans team claimed the first Jalolsavam Vallamkali Trophy. Karichal Chundans and Maylands Chundan finished second and third respectively.

“It took a lot of effort and weeks of practice to get to this stage,” a thrilled Binish Varghese, captain of Piara Spartans told Indian Link.

Anish Varughese, the team’s energetic drummer-cum-coach comes from a music background, which served him well in encouraging his team to the finish line.

Most of their team members work in emergency services like Health services and Policing, with all of them nurturing a passion for native country sports like Vadam valli  (Tug of War) and football, and that made this event even more special. 

mahabali on snake boat, perth

Participant Thomas Joseph brought special experience – having actually contested at the iconic races in Kerala.

“I was a regular oarsman of the Jawahar Thayangari chundan in the Kuttanad boat race for several years,” he told Indian Link. “Rowing this year after a gap of twenty years, in the Perth waters, was a wonderfully nostalgic experience.”

His boat this time, Karichal Chundan is in fact named in honour of a glorious black snake boat in Kerala with the same name.

Water regatta has been a part of Kerala’s cultural heritage for centuries, the unusual boats themselves a great symbol of the state. The vigour of the rowers is matched equally by the enthusiasm of the drummer-helmsmen, as well as by the cheering appreciation of the crowds. The helmsmen’s singing of the boat song (Vanchipattu) to urge on the rhythm of the rowers is just as iconic.

Its Australian avatar could well become an annual affair.

READ ALSO: Cricket for Kerala

Raveesh Karanil John, PUMA co-ordinator, observed, “We did not expect such a good turnout of teams, and such support from the public. The event which was originally scheduled for March had to be postponed owing to COVID 19 and now, organising this in September amidst the mild showers, added that monsoonic feel of an authentic Onam.”

In his inaugural speech, Paul Papalia, (WA Minister for Tourism, Racing and Gaming, Small Business, Defence Issues, Citizenship and Multicultural Interests) said, “It is wonderful to be witnessing the snake boat festival at Champion Lakes. I congratulate the participants and the organisers at PUMA.”

He was joined by dignitaries Kevin Michel (MLA Pilbara), Yaz Mubarakai (MLA Jandakot), Ruth Butterfield (Mayor Armadale) and John Bleinke (President, Champion Lakes Boating Club).

The Jalolsavam experience gave them a slice of the best of Kerala, from its food to its backwaters, right here in Perth for the first time.

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