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Snake Boats

Snake Boats
Wonder own Waves
Snake boats are the unique symbol of Kerala, especially of the Central Kerala. In no other part of the world, you can see such a wonder. The snake boat opens a window to social and cultural life prevailed in the region till a century ago. It is also a tell-tale piece of the people’s marvellous mastery of watercraft technology during the period. The awesomely long, but slender structure is an unbelievable sight for the majority even now. These boats’ technology, which is still a mystery for the modern boat builders, is a closely guarded secret of a few families.

It is believed that the specifications were taken from the ancient text on boat building technology developed by the master carpenters of the period. The boats are about 100 to 130 feet in length – with rear portion towering a height of 20 feet and long tapering front portion. The hull is built with planks. The whole wooden structure is made with wild jack (Artocarpus hirsuta).

Majority of historians are of the view that snake boats were battle ships of the ancient rulers of the region, which is crisscrossed with rivers and surrounded by vast lakes and sea. Though they had not carried any ammunition as in the case of modern warships, they were the effective mode of transport to ferry soldiers and materials to the battlefield.

When the motorised crafts had been introduced, they became redundant. But people in the region, who had an umbilical cord relation with rivers, lakes and boats had preserved snake boats. This was done by organising rowing competition in these boats, a favourite pastime of the agrarian society during post harvest and post monsoon period and temple festivals. This was metamorphosised into today’s boat race.

Gradually, owning a snake boat had become a prestige of villages in the region. And people in the villages worshiped the snake boat like a deity of the temple in the village. It had become the duty of carpenters in the villages to carry out the maintenance of the craft periodically without fail.

The changes took place in the social structure with the people having switched over to other occupation from farming, snake boats lost the total patronage of the society. Now boat races associated with temple ritual and mega water sports carnival like Nehru Trophy Boat Race keep them afloat.

Now patrons of snake boats (organisations of die-hard boat race enthusiasts) find the upkeeping of the craft very difficult. In many cases, the prize money and other income from the boat race go to the rowers, not the owners of the boat. Trapped in cash crunch, many boat owners either dispose of the boat or indefinitely postpone the maintenance of the craft. The inordinate delay in carrying out the repair finally makes the boat unworthy for the race and finally they will become history.

But there are still certain pockets like Aranmula and Kuttanad, where the people’s passion for the boat race reaches the level of mania, the maintenance, repair and replacement of old boats take place almost systematically. While Aranmula snake boats associated with the famous Aranmula Parthaswarathy Temple are known for their beauty, in the waterlogged Kuttanad, where the boat race is held as a community sports, the boats are designed to gather momentum. So, there is a slight difference in the appearance of Aranmula and Kuttanad snake boats.

At present, there are only a few families of carpenters, which know the secrets of the technology of snake boats. The knowhow, which is not properly documented, is passed from generation to generation of these families.

The building of a snake boat is a wonder. Several carpenters work eight months to one year under the chief carpenter who is well versed in the technology to finish a snake boat. Nearly one tonne of brass and iron bolts are used to join the structure. After finishing it, on an auspicious day, it will be launched in the presence of entire people of the village. The people honour the chief priest and his team with cash and kinds for the successful completion of the project. A snake boat cost Rs 35 to 50 lakh.

The chief carpenter does not depend on modern devices at any point of time during the construction of the boat and not even carry out trials before the launch. The late Kozhimukku Narayanan Achary was a legendary snake boat builder. Many of the famous Aranmula and Kuttanad snake boats are of his creation. After his demise, his son Umamaheswaran has stepped into his father’s shoe.

Creative steps being taken by the Government to preserve and promote culture and heritage of the State and to boost tourism have lent a new life to snake boats. So snake boat, the beacon to history and culture of the region, is unlikely to sink in the high tides of incredible changes taking place in Kerala society and we can handover them to the posterity.


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