Nehru Trophy: Snake boat races of Kerala

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Aranmula boat race Pic courtesy: Robert Huber http://www.indianimage.de

Between the Mahatma, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv, the Gandhi clan has nearly half the things in India named after them. Roads, institutes, stadiums, planetariums, universities, parks, wildlife sanctuaries, fashion statements, you name it and one of them would have their imprint on it. Perhaps the most fantastic of them all is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race at Alappuzha.

Legend has it that when Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kerala in 1952, 4 traditional chundan valloms (snake boats) went from Kottayam to Alappuzha to receive him. A mock snake boat race was also organized in his honor. Nehru, perhaps reminiscent of the shikaras of Dal Lake, was so fascinated that when he went back to Delhi, he sent a gleaming silver trophy for a boat race, which was duly named after him. Some say that as Nehru watched the spectacle from a raised platform on the Punnamda lake, he became so excited that he jumped right into one of those boats. Even if he hadn’t, when the first Prime Minister of your country gives you a trophy, it naturally becomes the most prestigious race. Even today, the boats race in 4 columns on the second Saturday of August in memory of the 1952 welcoming party. The Nadubhagam Chundan, which was one of the 4 boats and had won the mock race, still participates.

The chundan vallom is no ordinary boat. The magnificent specimen measures well over 100 feet and has a raised prow called Chundu that rises more than ten feet above the water. It is this similarity to the hood of a serpent that gives the chundan vallom its more popular name, snake boat. The story of its creation is perhaps equally fascinating.

There was a time when roads as we know them didn’t exist and the entire transportation system in Kerala was a network of rivers, lakes and backwater canals. Boats were the only way to get around and for kings, the only way to settle a dispute. They used boats to ferry soldiers, supplies and to fight great naval wars. About 250 years ago, the kings of Ambalapuzha and Kayamkulam were at war. The Ambalapuzha king asked an architect called Devanarayana to design a sleek boat that could carry a lot of soldiers and also fire cannons. Devanarayana did one better. He introduced a revolutionary mechanism wherein the recoil of the cannon would propel the boat forward. News of this invention spread fast and soon the Kayamkulam king demanded one as well. But the loyal architect reversed the firing mechanism in such a way that the boat would move in the opposite direction in which the shot was fired.

Over the years, the war was resolved but the chundan valloms remained. To keep up the fierce competitive spirit, they were put to race. In place of the cannon stand two people who beat the vedithatta or odithatta (fire platform) with logs to maintain the rowing rhythm. 25 singers sing the vanchipattu (Song of the Boatman), while a man nearby shouts the chant ‘arpu irroh’ to drive a hundred thodazhilkar (oarsmen) to coordinated frenzy. While the strongest oarsmen sits at the front to set the pace, the back is managed by 6 amarakara (helmsmen) who stand and help steer the boat. The person at the highest point on the boat is the chief oarsman. He controls the movement of the boat and can turn the boat around in minutes just by the twist of his hand. If any oarsman gets up and rows, the entire team stands to be disqualified. Little wonder that the snake boat race is the largest team sport in the world.

16 top teams had been practicing for weeks before D-Day. Participation was no joke. Apart from 130 oarsmen in each team who had to be fed a champions’ diet thrice a day, nearly double that number were on standby and they too, had to be fed. A 10 day practice could easily set one back by Rs.5-6 lakh. Add to it the cost of maintaining the boat and you’d realize why so few boats participate. The boats had to be oiled with a curious black mixture of fish oil, coconut shell and carbon mixed with egg shells, which kept the wood strong and the boat slippery in water. Though the Nehru Trophy Boat Race Society did give out limited grants to teams and sponsors were slowly trickling in, some of the best names were missing this year. Alleppey Boats Club, Alleppey Town Boats Club and United Boats Club, Kaineri were sitting it out for lack of patrons. Finally, it was Race Day.

I reluctantly gave up my perch at the luxurious Coir Village Lake Resort at Thrikunnapuzha. Being in a hurry, I gave up the thought of taking the aquatic highway NW3 (National Waterway 3) as a boat ride to Alappuzha would take 3-4 hours. The bus was quicker but unusually crowded and the 35km journey seemed like some divine test, till it finally disgorged me at the boat jetty. Forget boats, anything that could float was headed for Punnmada Lake, the venue. Spectators walked along the jetty and lined the 1.5-km stretch of the race. On the other side, boats were lined in an ever-changing cordon. Small country boats docked against bigger boats for support or would try to squeeze through to safety. If it got too close, they’d make Kathakali eyes, hurl abuses and hit the water with their oars as an open challenge. It was an aquatic picnic where the unruly sea of humanity bobbed on an ocean of liquor.

The sun was a blazing orb and 5000 perplexed foreigners, fed on the tour operator hype of the Kerala monsoon, were emptying out entire tubes of sunscreen onto their darkening skins. Soon, men were jumping into the water, pulling each other’s lungis and going berserk at the sight of foreign skin. Coy Malayali women covered their faces with dotted handkerchiefs and choked their laughter. Meanwhile, the patrolling police boats bristled with policemen wielding sticks of a peculiar length. It was something between a lathi and the bamboo pole used by boatmen. The cops forced the boats to keep a certain distance; one errant boat and a cop would lash out at the boatman with his stick.

A boat with a banner that said ‘Umpire’ whizzed past. The crowd was getting restless and expectations ran high. Last year’s victors Vellamkulangara were in the same group as hot favourite Karichal who were 14 time champions with 2 hat-tricks to their credit. The two also had to contend with Champakulam and Cheruthana in Group A, which was soon dubbed as The Group of Death.

Gossip hung like a heavy cloak over the populace. ‘Every boatman eats half kilo meat before the race begins’. ‘You know, Arundhati Roy gave Rs.2 lakh to the Karichal team’. ‘Both are from Ayemenem no!’ (To an amazed foreigner) ‘Madam, in 1 second the boat moves 2 feet’ ‘2 FEET’? ‘Yeah, 2 feet’ (motioning with his hands). ‘Psst. Isn’t that Vijay Mallya?’ ‘He has come to check out the race so that he can sponsor it next year. You just see.’ ‘Look, it’s started’. Conversation ceased and all eyes turned to the competing boats who were inching forward in a royal procession. Then all of a sudden, the dam broke and a huge cheer went up. The races would soon begin.

Apart from the chundan valloms, other types of boats like churulan, veppu, oodi and iruttukuthi were also taking part. Once their heats were over, it was the turn of the chundans. Group A, the proverbial final, saw such stiff competition that Karichal barely made it to the winning line, putting the other three out of the race. The second in each group would contest in the Loser’s Finals but the fact that all the preparations were in vain and they’d get a shot only next year clearly showed on their downcast faces. The other category that drew a lot of public attention was the women’s race. Dressed in identical blouses, white saris and flowers in their hair, they weren’t going to set a record for the best time, but the award for the best crowd support was definitely theirs.

As the sun charted its downward plunge over the coconut trees, the last of the heats got over. The much awaited final was about to begin. Karichal, Karichal, the crowd chanted. They were almost destined to win. The oarsmen’s bare bodies glistened with the sweat of their efforts as the boat sliced through the water like a giant swordfish. The race was won, the silver trophy lifted and tears of joy mingled with the waters of the Punnamada. A record 80,000 people had witnessed the event. Nehru would have been proud. But in a way, his association too seemed destined. After all, the name Nehru itself is derived from nehar, meaning stream.

Travel Info

For houseboat trips, boat cruises and bookings at Coir Village Lake Resort, Thrikunnapuzha, contact:
Mr. TG Reghu, Secretary
Alleppey Tourist Development Corporation
Ph: 0477-2231145, 2243462
E-mail: info@atdcalleppey.com
Website: www.atdcalleppey.com

Other boat races
Vallamkali, as the boat races are called in Kerala, usually begin during the harvest festival of Onam. Champakulam Moolam Boat Race, the oldest and most popular snake boat race in Kerala, is closely connected to Ambalapuzha’s Sree Krishna Temple. The race is held at Champakulam Lake on the day of the installation of the deity at the temple. Payippad Jalotsavam (Sep 10) is a 3-day fest on the Payippad Lake, 35 km from Alappuzha, which commemorates the installation of the deity at the Subramanya Swamy Temple, Haripad. Aranmula Uthrattadi (Sep 12) is a 2-day water fiesta at Aranmula. But in terms of competition, the race to look out for is the Indira Gandhi Boat Race held in the last week of December. 16 boats battle for this coveted trophy in the Marine Drive waters of Ernakulam Lake during the Cochin Carnival.

ATDC Boat Race, Alappuzha
Rajiv Gandhi Boat Race, Pulinkunnu
Neerettupuram Boat Race
Kumarakom Boat Race
Karuvatta Boat Race
Kavanattinkara Boat Race
Kumarakom Arpookara Vanitha Jalamela
Kottayam Mahatma Boat Race, Mannar
Thazhathangadi Boat Race, Kottayam
Kottapuram Boat Race, Kodungallur
Kumaranasan Smaraka Jalotsavam, Pallana

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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2 responses »

    • hey kenney, it’s a known fact that the Nehru family has been cashing in on the Gandhi tag till date despite no blood connection:) yes, the boats receiving Nehru is history, but the story about him jumping into one of them in his excitement is perhaps legendary?

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