From the mid-nineteenth century, Alappuzha (or “Alleppey” as it was known in British times) served as the main port for the backwater region. Spices, coffee, tea, cashews, coir and other produce were shipped out from the inland waterways to the sea via its grid of canals and rail lines. Tourist literature loves to dub the town as “the Venice of the East”, but in truth the comparison does few favours to Venice. Apart from a handful of colonial-era warehouses and mansions, and a derelict pier jutting into the sea from a sun-blasted beach, few monuments survive, while the old canals enclose a typically ramshackle Keralan market of bazaars and noisy traffic.
That said, Alappuzha makes a congenial place to while away an evening en route to or from the backwaters. Streams of visitors do just that during the winter season, for the town has become Kerala’s pre-eminent rice boat cruising hub, with an estimated four hundred kettu vallam moored on the fringes of nearby Vembanad and Punnamada lakes. To cash in on the seasonal influx, the local tourist offices lay on excursion boats for day-trips, while in mid-December the sands lining the west end of town host a popular beach festival, during which cultural events and a procession of fifty caparisoned elephants are staged with the dilapidated British-built pier as a backdrop.
Alappuzha’s really big day, however, is the second Saturday of August, in the middle of the monsoon, when it serves as the venue for one of Kerala’s major spectacles – the Nehru Trophy snake boat race. This event, first held in 1952, is based on the traditional Keralan enthusiasm for racing magnificently decorated longboats, their raised rears designed to resemble the hood of a cobra. Each boat carries 25 singers, and 100 to 130 enthusiastic oarsmen power the craft along, all rowing to the rhythmic vanchipattu (“song of the boatman”). There are a number of prize categories, including one for the women’s race; sixteen boats compete for each prize in knockout rounds. Similar races can be seen at Aranmula and at Champakulam, 16 kilometres by ferry from Alappuzha. The ATDC office will be able to tell you the dates of these other events, which change every year.