Monday, September 21, 2015

Fast & The Furious In Kerala Backwaters- Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race!

When you think of Kerala, you can picturize the calm and serene backwaters with paddy fields and the tall coconut trees in the backdrop, houseboats drifting slowly in the canals and joyful boat rides across villages, watch birds fly above and stealthily dive in the water for a catch. But come August, the still backwaters turn into a battlefield of the mightiest oarsmen showcasing their muscle power and skill. The enthusiasm and energy is contagious, villagers from near and far cheer their home teams, the rhythm is set and tourists from across continents are seen flocking the canals to witness the most prestigious boat race of the year- The Nehru Trophy Boat Race.

Nehru Trophy Boat Race, the most famous "Vallam Kali" which literally means boat game, at Punnamada, Alappuzha/Alleppey, is held on the second Saturday of August every year. The Kerala Snake Boats or Chundan Vallam have been in existence for over 400 years and were used as naval vessels by Kuttanadu Kings. The boat is made of local wood "Aanjili Thadi" and their speed, maneuverability, capacity to carry over 100 warriors on board and the snake like construction made it ideal for launching an ambush. Now, the communities use these boats for racing and keep their legacy alive. These races are considered as a matter of pride and prestige. The Chundan Vallam also has the record of "the biggest water vessel used for sports purpose."

The water festival in Kuttanad is unique as no other country in the world has such festivities nor a sport with such large number of members in a team. Nehru Boat Race is one of the most prestigious events celebrated not only by Keralites but the whole country. In total, around 56 boats contest in different categories. Of which, 16 are Snake Boats, also known as the "Kings of Water," each measuring anywhere between 120-140 feet. Each boat comprises of 100 to 120 oarsmen, 4 lead from the front paddling in unison, 5 or 6 men at the back navigate the boat and a band of 10 musicians sing and play drums to keep the tempo high and going. The snake boats are ornamented with team flags and good luck charms. 

Punamada lake is electrifying, the locals gather along the entire race course to cheer and support their favorite team. It is not just snake boats/Chundan Vallam that compete but other boats as well such as Churulan Vallam/passenger boats which have circular rings at both ends, Vaipu Vallam which were used to prepare food for the warriors, one end of this boat is higher than the other and Iruttukuthy/Odi that were designed for transportation at night and were used to conduct piracy raids during wars.

The oars moving in sync to the rhythmic songs cutting through the calm waters of the race track, the sweat soaking their clothes wet, the biceps flaring with every swift move, the zeal to win, the tension evident as they near the finish line and then the ultimate sense of achievement amidst the loud cheer from the supporters, this event is definitely one of its kind. The racing is not just muscle power but also keen understanding of water currents, tides and many other minute variables. The best team wins the race and that would be a cohesive team that trusts each other. One small mistake by a member and the result could be disastrous.

To keep their adrenaline high and momentum going, every snake boat has rhythmic songs called "Vanchipattu" or the song of the boatman. This mini orchestra with traditional instruments keeps pace with the movement of the oars and lifts up the spirit of the boatmen.

For the 63rd edition, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari was the chief guest along with several other dignitaries such as Chinese Ambassador Le Yucheng. Just before the start of the Snake Boat Race, in an extravagant fashion, a chopper greets the participants by showering  rose petals on them.

Throughout the day a lot of races are conducted keeping the spectators on the edge of their seats. It is indeed awesome to see how these boats zip through the back waters at incredible speed. Participants are as young as 8 years and there is a separate category for women. All races guarantee a thrilling and nail biting finish.There are several heat rounds followed by 4 finales that decide the ultimate champion. Just nano seconds separate the first and second place. Though there are several other boat races that are conducted in Kerala, Nehru Trophy Boat Race is a matter of prestige and pride for the participants. The fervor with which the locals support their favorite teams by arriving on the day of event in large numbers and celebrating every moment is commendable. In all, it is a thrilling experience.

In the end, when the winners lift the trophy it all seems worth it. The participants put in a lot of hard work by training for months under the supervision of the senior most oarsmen with some even going to the extent of taking vow of abstinence and celibacy to prepare for this event. Equal credit goes to the villagers and community members for they are the ones who contribute money in lakhs for the race, ensure the boats are smeared with sardine oil for smooth passage through the water and take the responsibility of feeding the oarsmen during the practice sessions and foot in all the expenses.

Tickets for the boat race are easily available even on the day of the event. Tickets range from INR 100 to 2500 per person. If you are buying the tickets in Alleppey, please make sure you buy them from registered agents or government office. The locals and government authorities are super helpful. Kindly avoid touts and brokers who approach you with fancy deal on the streets. If you are booking tickets online do carry a printout of the confirmation page. This would suffice as tickets and would be checked at the respective boat jetty.

Elaborate, comfortable and covered seating arrangements are provided by the organizers. We purchased the "Tourist Silver" tickets priced at INR 1500 per person. In our opinion, this is the best seat in the house as it provides excellent views of the race track, finishing line and podium. If you reach early and grab the corner seats at the far end you could get excellent pictures too. However, the draw back is if you arrive late you might not get good view as the seats are on a first come first basis. To reach the seating arena one has to board a ferry from "Madha Jetty" (For Silver) or "Lake Palace" Jetty (For Gold.) Limited snacks and beverages are made available at the venue so it would be wise to carry a day pack with snacks and fluids of your preference.

The race day is a full day event with no options to dine there. Hence having a heavy breakfast would be a good idea. Do carry a good hat and sunglasses.

One of the most popular ideas to watch the race is believed to be from the houseboats. The package sounds really hard to resist with DJ, lunch, snacks, drinks, exclusive views, comfort - all made available at a cost ranging from INR 1500 to 2500. If it is too good to believe, it is more often not! The ultimate crux of the race that is "the view" is obstructed by several other house boats that are lined up one after the other. Houseboats provide little to no cover from the sun, imagine spending the entire day without any shade or cover. They are over crowded and there is no way one can leave halfway through the event. You can easily give the houseboat experience a miss when better views are made available for the same price.

Race Track To The Left 

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