Since I’m a newbie at everything from wearing a mundu (dhothi) properly to holding the nayambu (oar), it was a pretty interesting experience at first. You have to madakikutthu the mundu (fold the mundu over so that it looks like a knee-length skirt) so that you can sit comfortably in it and after a few tries, I managed to do that. [aside: I’m pretty sure true-blood Malayalis would wince at this point. My only advice: please don’t read on]. The vallam itself is about twenty to thirty metres long and seems to weigh a ton, but it’s constructed so well that just a finger-touch can move it on the water (trust me, I tried it). When about forty people get onto it, it remains amazingly steady and sure, although the getting in (and out) is an experience that’ll rival a roller coaster.
There are planks that go cross-wise the breadth and parallel to it from the edges so that you don’t usually step into the wet bottom of the boat. You sit at the very edge locking your legs back and across and it’s probably the closest I’ve come to the water without getting wet. It was also interesting learning how to row properly. The nayambu is a thick wooden oar with a longer handle. There’s a circular piece at the top that you’re supposed to grip with one hand, the other holding the top of the flaring edge firmly. And then you row. Easier said than done of course :-). After splashing my fellow boatmates about a thousand times, I managed to get the hang of it. A chetan sitting behind me (who bore much of the brunt of my attack on water) commented on the return-trip that for a newbie I did it very well indeed [this made my day :-)].
What distinguishes the Aranmula Vallam from its variations across Kerala (and the world) is the Vallapattu (boat-song). Resonating exactly with the rhythm of the oars, it’s a beautiful counterpoint to the entire experience: if the song moves faster, you instinctively row faster, and it’s so constructed (and sung) so that there are periods of relative inactivity and bursts of speed. It’s uber-wonderful.
The most common verse is this:
Thithithara thithithey thithey theke they they tho[..]om
The ‘th’ is a sound which is not in english: a cross between the t in ‘them’ and ‘tarrif’, also notice the alliteration. The [..] stands for a longer -o-, lengthening with an increase in exuberance.
It took around forty-five minutes to travel upriver and about ten minutes less to travel down. Not exactly fast (takes about ten minutes by car). I’ll estimate the top speeds to be around 25kmph, although this was not a race. I’m pretty sure though that more than the rowing, it’s the people who stand at the very behind of the boat (at an increased height) and who steer it – esp. the person who holds the odanayambu – who holds the key to a victory in a race. The rowers pretty much row as they please and unlike canoeing, it’s a game more of enthusiasm still rather than skill. I expect someone enterprising will change this soon: just off the top of my head, introducing pacing techniques and regular practice will increase the average speed of a boat considerably. Of course, then, it’ll cease to be fun and be serious sport, which is not the idea.
Me? I had a lot of fun.