Did You Know About India’s Fervent Boat Racing Culture?

Action-packed competitions, some with traditions dating back to ancient times, India’s boat races are a treat to watch.

Published On Feb 15, 2023 | Updated On Mar 07, 2024


Indigenous sporting events have held local traditions in our country together since ancient times. From the times of noblemen’s horse and chariot races, indigenous sports in India today represent the masses and their interest in annual events that bring villagers together in spirited action. Kerala has been the flagbearer for river sports with the famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race (NTBR) taking place annually during the late monsoon months of August and September. Did you know there is a Champions’ Boat League you can follow around Kerala other than the NTBR? New destinations are also warming up to hosting large-scale boating events for netizens and tourists to enjoy. Here is a list of major boat races one can experience in India.

Note: Check official websites and communications to confirm dates for these festivals.


In a first-ever move, Uttar Pradesh Tourism organised a four-day-long hot air balloon and boat festival in Varanasi in January 2023. A league-style boat race took place for the first time on the waters of the holy river Ganga. Twelve teams of four rowers each, led by a captain, competed in the race.


To popularise and introduce new standards for racing with Varanasi’s traditional ‘Naukas’, the teams trained with experts for weeks leading up to the main event. Rigorous training and international rulebooks guided the teams and ten judges and racing coaches flew in from Kerala for the training.

With names like Navik Sena, Ghat Keepers and Gaumukh Giants, the local teams participated in consecutive races every day. The 3-kilometre stretch began from the famous Dashaswamedh Ghat and ended at Rajghat. Other boat farers on the river plying passengers daily from ghat to ghat followed the competing teams shouting slogans and cheering their favourites.


The winners were Kashi Keepers followed by Ganga Lahiri and Jal Yodhas in a nail-biting finish and claimed the titles with a difference of a few seconds.

Note: The festival was conceptualised to celebrate the prestigious title of Kashi being declared as the first global cultural capital by international grouping SCO (Shanghai Corporation Limited) which has countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Republic, China, Pakistan along with India and to mark the arrival of delegates into Varanasi for their annual coordinators meet. The event may see a return with commercial viabilities for tourists in 2024 according to officials associated with the event.


The pristine emerald backwaters of the Malabar region play host to a series of boat races where teams push forward traditional snake boats (chundan vallam) for a prestigious event called Champions Boat League (CBL), organised annually by Kerala Tourism.

Many of the district-level races have their origin in heritage and religious beliefs, hence the dates are decided every year according to the Malayali calendar, usually starting in July-August. Last year, 12 races held over a month culminated in the President’s Trophy Boat Race in November. Locations are announced along with the schedule and are usually spread across multiple rivers in Alappuzha, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Kollam districts.

Here are the main races at the annual Vallamkali with their origin stories and dates for 2023.

The yearly race is one of the oldest and most ritualistic of the races. Aranmula means ‘six bamboos’ and contains a legend of Lord Krishna arriving in the village made of a raft of six bamboos, hence the name prevailed. A grand tradition of dedicating this race to Lord Krishna of the Sree Parthasarathy temple on the banks of river Pampa, the Aranmula boat race is held with special boats called ‘Palliyodams’, which have a design, believed to have descended from the deity himself. Mostly a traditional festival and less competitive, this provides a grand opportunity to witness the glorious legends of the Malayalis.

Date: September 2, 2023

The starting race of the season as well as the oldest to be held annually, the Champakulam boat race invites massive audiences to the Alappuzha district in July. Large boats splitting the waters apart as rowers sing ancient boat songs make for an unmissable experience.

Date: July 3, 2023

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race takes place on Punnamada Lake, near Alappuzha every year. It started in 1952 as an inpromptu race to welcome Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to the Kuttanad region. A fiercely fought boat race takes place on the tranquil lakefront and is attended by an estimated two lakh people. The large chundans were so impressive that upon his return, Pt. Nehru donated a silver trophy shaped like a snake boat which is now known as the Nehru Trophy. For the villagers in Kuttanad, a victory at this race is worth celebrating for months.

Date: September 3, 2023

Not just big boats, but kayaking and canoeing have also received attention in the past few years due to the International Kayaking Competition happening on the roaring rapids at Chalipuzha and Iruvazhinji Puzha in Kozhikode. Kayaks are small single-person boats usually made of wood, fibres, carbon or rotomoulded plastic.

When a software engineer from Bengaluru and an Italian wine farmer shared their passion for kayaking and went testing the rapids in Kodancheri in Kerala, they had a vision of organising an international kayaking festival. The event, now in its ninth year, takes place amidst loud cheers from locals and tourists alike, on the pristine rapids of the two rivers.

Supported by Kerala Tourism Board, Kozhikode DTPC and the Kerala Adventure Tourism Promotion Society (KATPS) and external sponsors, the Malabar River Festival takes place every monsoon when the rapids are swell. From boatcrossers to slalom, pro-category competitions garner fanfare for kayakers coming from all over the world for the festival.

Date: To be announced; July - August

Every year, the banks of the Ganga in Rishikesh flourish with colourful kayaks brought in for the Ganga Kayak Festival. Organised by The Adventure Sports Society (TASS), an NGO dedicated to promoting adventure sports in Uttarakhand, and the state tourism department, the festival hosts competitions in different categories for men and women.

The top 32 athletes from the Sprint and Giant slalom events (combined time) will qualify for the pro’s Boater Cross. The event arena can be accessed near Phool Chatti Ashram, Golf Corse Rapid, Rishikesh.

Date: February 17 to 19, 2023

Photo: Uttar Pradesh Tourism Board