Boat races in Kerala have become very popular in recent times. The genesis of the boat races can be traced back to the era when boats were used for war between local kings in the medieval period. In modern times, there were no wars in the backwaters of Kerala due to historical reasons, and the old war-boats of the native rulers commonly called "snake - boats" long enough to accommodate more than a hundred warriors, became unnecessary. Under the "Pax Britannica" prevailing in India for about two centuries, the backwaters of southern Kerala became peaceful, and these traditional war-boats were maintained primarily for ritual purposes like procession carrying local deities over the rivers, canals and lakes in the coastal lowlands. The snake – boats and various other types of boats, canoes and yachts, were widely used during the temple festivals in the locality. They were decorated and garlanded for the ceremonial processions. Till the mid – 20th century the famous snake-boats of Kerala, were primarily used in the worship of Gods and Goddesses.
Boat race as a competitive sport began early in the 1950s, when a boat race was organized to entertain the then Prime Minister of India, Nehru, who visited Kerala in 1952. Different villages in the land of backwaters competed in the boat race with their snake - boats and competitive fever set in. Mr. Nehru was so fascinated by the thrilling finish of the race between the faster snake boats rowed by competing village teams, that evading the security cordon he leapt into the winning snake boat. On his return to New Delhi, he sent a silver trophy shaped like snake boat, inscribed, with his words of congratulations and his signature. This became the ever-rolling trophy bearing Nehru’s name. It bears the inscription: "To the winners of the boat race, which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore – Cochin". From 1953 onwards, the Nehru Trophy Boat race is an annual feature, heralding the arrival of the weeklong Onam festival. The most famous of the boat races in Kerala takes place on the second Saturday of August, every year.
There are boat races at other places besides this one, at Punnamada Kayal, Alappuzha. The season of boat races starts with the Champakkulam Moolam Boat Race (which is the oldest boat race in Kerala), This is in connection with the Sree Krishna Temple at Ambalapuzha near Alleppey. This is followed by Nehru Trophy Race, and a few others. The Paippad Water – Sports Festival is conducted at a place 35 km away from Alappuzha, and is in connection with the festival of commemoration of the installation of the deity at the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple, Haripad.
Aranmula Boat Race is on the fifth day after Onam. It is a solemn ceremonial religious affair, rather than a competition. The temple festival is a grand one with many caparisoned elephants, decorated floats, parasols, festoons and the colorful water carnival.
Boat racing is a seasonal water sports when the lowlands of southern Kerala are filled with floodwaters brought by the rivers carrying the monsoon rainwater in June and July. By August rains stop and sun starts shining. Onam festival season would be approaching then. The canals and the lagoons in the backwaters region would be reverberating with the rhythmic chanting of "thai thai thai thom", from snake boats and other types of boats, practising and getting ready for the great event on the second Saturday of August. Oarsmen rowing the boats splash their oars in unison with the fast rhythm of the special song called 'vanchi-ppattu'. The excitement of the boat race becomes palpable with the frenzied cheering of the enthusiastic fans crowding the shoreline. People of the respective villages with boat clubs devote all their attention to preparation for the biggest water regatta in Kerala. The life of the entire village revolves around the feeding, coaching and preparations of the water – warriors. Huge amounts are spent by each village in getting its team of more than a hundred oarsmen ready for the great competition.
The Nehru Trophy boat race usually starts with a colorful pageant of floats and mass drill. The venue of the boat race comes alive with the frenzied cheering of spectators accompanied by drum – beats and horns.
First, the lesser boats compete. The giants compete last. It is a thrilling sight to see the awesome snake boats glide past sending showers of silver spray into the air. During the final, the frenzied cheering of supporters and spectators reaches the climax as the rival boats approach the finishing line. The more excited spectators jump into the lake water from tree branches on the shore to enjoy the moments of victory.