The sleepy town slowly opens its eyes as the fury of monsoons turns into a pleasant drizzle. The angry rivers have calmed down and the churning lake lie placid. There is a bright sparkle in those eyes that is otherwise stoic. The rhythm of a land reverberates in the steps of the townsfolk. It is that time of the year, when the heart of a land beats in perfect rhythm to the clarion call of its boatmen, “Aaarrrrpppo, Irrrro, Irrrro, Irrrro.” And for us kids, the culmination of a year long wait.
The story goes back to the wars of yore between the small water logged kingdoms of Chempakassery, Kayamkulam, Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor, parts of today’s Alappuzha and Kottayam districts. The king of Chempakassery was a worried man after continuous defeats. His war boats were too slow and ill prepared. The search for an aashaaari, ended in Koduppunna Venkitanaryanan Aashaari. The rest, as they say, is history. The aashaari crafted a long, sleek boat that could cut through water and carry more than a hundred warriors at once.
More than a hundred feet in length, they were called ‘chundan valloms’ for their pointed bows, literally translated as beaks. Wonder who thought up the term ‘snake boat’. The stern supposedly looks like the hood of a king cobra but I’ve always thought it looks like the caparisoned elephant with its glittering nettipattam. Anyway, the king of Chempakassery never had to look back again. The Bollywood-esque epilogue has a dashing young man sent as a spy by the king of Kayamkulam to learn the craft of war-boat building. Seducing the aashan’s daughter with promises of marrying her, the roguish spy learned the secret and promptly disappeared to build similar boats for his king. Alas, when it came to the proof of the pudding, his boats were no comparison to the originals. The master craftsman was a crafty one, for sure.