The 400-year-old Moolam Boat Race, which marks Kerala’s boat racing season, is reduced to a few customary rituals in 2021 owing to the Coronavirus pandemic
Drum beats (chenda melam), boat songs (vanchi pattu), and snake boat (chundan vallom) are integral to the ceremonial start of the Moolam Boat Race, the first in Kerala’s boat race season. Traditionally held on Moolam Day in the Malayalam month of Midhunam, it falls on June 24 this year. However, the pandemic has put paid to the traditional colour and festivity.
The 400-year-old event is held to acknowledge the help of a Christian family in the consecration of the Krishna idol at the Ambalappuzha temple. Every year it would begin with a water carnival, declared by the Raja of Chempakasseri. This also signals preparations for the season’s other races of which the most famous is the Nehru Boat Race (on the second Sunday of August) and the latest, IPL-styled Champions Boat League, launched three years ago.
This year, “only customary rituals associated with the Moolam Boat Race at Champakkulam will be followed due to the ongoing pandemic,” says K Naveen Babu, Tahsildar of Kuttanad.
VJ Sreekumar, koymasthani (a designation that translates to officer at the temple) and member of the Valliyamadom family, keepers of the Sree Krishna idol of the Ambalappuzha temple and one of the five officials who made the ritualistic journey today said,“This event took place in 1545 AD. Earlier it was an utsav (festival), not a boat race. It became a competition only in the last 100-odd years.”
He was accompanied by the rajah prathinidhi (representative of the royal family), Narayana Bhattathiri, two officials and the administrative officer of the Travancore Dewasom Board, along with a couple of temple staff and officials of the Government. They embarked on the boat at Karumady to reach Madathil Mahalakshmi Temple where prayers and rituals were performed before proceeding to Mappilassery Tharavadu, the family home of the Christian family that helped the Raja in the 16th Century.
They were first received at Mapilassery by a churalan vallam (small boat) with rowers singing the boat song, after which they proceeded to the Mappilasery family home. “We carried five litres of rice pudding, the famous paal payasam of Ambalappuzha temple, and prasadam for the Mappilassery family as a gesture for their hospitality,” said Sreekumar.
‘A symbol of gratitude’
Sebastian Mappilassery, 75, and one of the hosts, reaffirms that the ceremony this year will be devoid of any grandeur. “Our family members always arrive for the event and together with the temple officials we would be around 20 persons.” A simple reception will be held and the karnavar or head of the Mappilassery family will receive a tamboolam’ or betel leaves and nuts, as a symbol of gratitude.
Sebastian recalls family members travelling by boat to the temple to receive an award in the evening, “but that ended at some point.” He adds that the Moolam Boat Race (also known as the Champakkulam Boat Race) used to be the highlight and the grandest event before it was overshadowed by the Nehru Trophy Boat Race that began in 1952. “There used to be hundreds of boats on the river. The race would start from our house, because there is a bend in the river. Rajahs, governors, ministers and people from different parts of Kerala would come for the event. Today it has lost all that glory.”
In better times, a feast at Mappilassery Tharavadu, a fireworks display and the race consisting of 24 boats, of which six or more were snake boats, was held. The snake boat race begins in the afternoon, once the guests from Ambalappuzha return.
Kerala’s boat races take place in Kuttanad, the State’s rice bowl comprising the three districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta. The four major rivers of the State — Meenachil, Pamba, Achenkovil and Manimala — flow into the area renowned for its picturesque backwaters and paddy fields.
This year the group will not travel in a snake boat as it requires 100 rowers. “Everything is scaled down and we will have a simple, safe and symbolic representation of the rituals,” says Sebastian.