The lone fisherman steers his boat into the treacherous waves, a tiny spot against the crimson orb that spreads its farewell glow over Alappuzha Beach. Curiously we gather around his wispy net quivering with the fresh catch of shrimps. Then it lashes out, dispersing the crowd in a second, an unsuspecting water snake — a poignant sign. It heralds the onset of the mighty snakes, the chundan vallom, Kerala’s traditional war boats — all set to unleash their power at the 56th Nehru Trophy Boat Race, the world’s biggest snake boat regatta. The same day in Beijing, China welcomed the world to the 2008 Olympics with mind-blowing fireworks, air-lifting its sparkling performers and sportsmen high into the skies. In contrast, the carnival spirit in the oft-christened ‘Venice of the East’, Alappuzha, is merrily grounded… in water.
In anticipation of Kuttanad’s own Olympics on water, the town’s omnipresent waterways light up with scuttling boats giving joy rides to visitors, the participants come out to rehearse, the Start and Finish points are given final touches, the pavilions prepared, special gates erected, travel agents and ticket-sellers do brisk business, while the hotels and homestays spill over with guests from across the globe. First come, first served Rain-washed skies unfurl an eventful day as I tuck into my appam-stew and filter coffee at the quaint Kream Korner café on Mullackal Street. The German backpacker nibbles on a play-it-safe Toblerone, the Russian girls dive into a milk shake, the Swiss couple munches on toast and tea, but the drums on the streets are quintessentially Kerala. The countdown’s begun. Revellers come out to party in colourful processions.
Children run after floats engineered from tempo vans and rickshaws, traditional costumes are sported along with publicity visors and the temple bells compete with blaring loudspeakers as all streets lead to the water. Determined spectators head for the stands almost 5 hrs early to grab a coveted spot. Appetising wafts of biryani float up from the foodstalls as I’m transferred by boat to the VIP Pavilion, security checked and deposited next to the VVIP enclosure that will host even more important ministers and sponsors. Gulping big helpings of fresh air, I jubilantly secure an early bird front seat at the Finish Point. Without my VIP invite, my blue plastic chair would’ve set me back by INR 2,500, unless I settled for the INR 300 seats at the Rose Pavilion on the opposite bank, or braved inebriated brawn at the INR 100/ 150/ 200 enclosures bursting at the seams with thousands of ticket-less viewers.
A kaleidoscopic kick-off There are still a few hours to go but the air already crackles with anticipation. Layers of sounds and colours pound the senses: the lapping lake waters fringed by palm trees, the rhythmic beats of traditional drummers, the spirited crowds contained in tight pavilions on surrounding islands, the animated commentary, the dramatic entry of oarsmen, clad in red, paddling furiously on a practice lap, the rowdy cheerleaders’ dingy, the police boat chasing them, the leisurely houseboats looking for quiet viewing spots, the arrival of more VIPs, the fluttering flags that mark the four-lane Finish Point…. As I strain to follow the sudden burst of histrionics of the deafening Malayalam commentary, the entire crowd seems to stir from its mid-afternoon stupor.
Then they appear… in mesmerising pageantry, gracefully gliding through the water in perfect harmony, each one over 50m long, their embellished prows proudly raised like a snake’s hood, powered by the muscles of over a hundred arms paddling in harmony to the beats and rhythm of the Vanchipattu singers — Kerala’s prized treasure, the chundan vallom. Originally used for war and considered sacred like the Maori waka of New Zealand, the traditional snake boat is handcrafted from local forest wood, aanjil thadi, and streamlined to perfection by master boat-builders whose handiwork often determines split-second victories. Preparations start weeks before the event. The boats are anointed with sardine oil for a smoother ride, while 150 oarsmen are carefully selected and sworn to abstinence and celibacy by villagers who look after their meals till the day of the race.
Following the chundans are the veppu — kitchen boats that traditionally accompanied war boats, the iruthukutty— the wily smuggling boats and the iron chundan rowed by strong, beautiful women both from Kerala and abroad, resplendent in traditional white and gold saris, adding a feminine dimension to this otherwise male-dominated show. Rowing down the 11/4-km stretch of the lake to the Finish Line, they line up in front of the VIP Pavilion in a spectacular formation. Up close, the gilded sterns on the dark ebony boats dazzle in the sunshine, beads of sweat glisten on the rows of muscular chocolate brown bodies, as every boat sports an air of regality, holding aloft gorgeous silk umbrellas.
The drills start. In a brilliant kaleidoscopic moment, more than a thousand biceps raise their oars together with a flourish. Rows of red, black, yellow, orange and blue uniforms blend to create magical patterns against the steel-grey lake waters — the audience gasps with awe. Long salutations to various VVIPs follow, who go on to make even longer speeches. Ornate English translations try to keep non-locals in the loop, till finally the impatient audience heaves a collective sigh of relief. The speeches are over. The flag has been hoisted. The oarsmen take a sharp salute. The race is declared open. About time… It has been a long wait for some of us, holding on to our seats and bladders (phew!) for these final moments. But hey, hang on a minute, the first set of chundans are apparently already on their way.
The commentator sounds like he’ll burst a vein from excitement, the cheering crowds have abandoned their seats, while I struggle trying to find my bearings in the Track and Heat List. Lijji, a petite policewoman, is my lady-in-shiningarmour. Rescuing me from the haze of unpronounceable names, she helps me match boats to tracks, so even though the first heat ends in a watery blur, I’m part of the hysterical crowd by the time the second set of chundans approach. The starter flag goes up, the rowers get into position — their paddles poised, the pace keepers get alert, the steersmen strain against their long oars. The flag falls and the thumping of the pace keepers begins. Like determined centipedes in the distance, the snake boats approach. Rhythmically cutting through water, over a hundred oars dip and flash up to 120 times a minute, the steersmen hurl their gigantic oars in a high arc, Lane 4 catches up with Lane 1, the pace keepers thump faster, as the boats hiss their way down the lake in a haze of spray, fighting a close battle to the finish. The jubilant winners are hugged by supporters who swim into the waters to greet them.
This is a precision sport, one wrong move, one missed beat can result in a mighty topple, as we witness in the next heat. Shocked oarsmen swim back to the shores, others hold on to their beloved Titanic till it is rescued by a special team. The chundan heats are followed by the heats for the smaller boats. The commentator urges the crowds to sing a popular boat song — over one lakh voices join in a catchy rhythm, creating an atmosphere of infectious camaraderie. After the heats, we break for a spectacular cultural show with floats on boats showcasing glimpses of Kerala’s rich cultural heritage and a Vanchipattu competition. The rain gods flag off the finals with thunder, the dark clouds cover the start point in a misty haze, and the rain seems to race along with the rowers towards the Finishing Point. The finals begin with the smaller boat races, as the cheering builds up to a fiery frenzy.
The peaceful waters of the Punnamada are constantly sliced into four as skills, endurance, teamwork and tradition are tested and pushed to the edge. The winners emerge ecstatic, the losers will return to fight next year. And now, what everyone’s been really waiting for — the finalé of the chundan race, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Constantly unpredictable, the cadence grows to a roar in the most closely fought race of the day, sparks fly off the determined oars as the four teams close in on the finish line, the crowds go ballistic, and the skies break open in a downpour! And the winner is… From calculated sportsmanship the atmosphere now takes on the spirit of unstoppable revelry as the winning boats are greeted by drenched mates in high spirits with drums and cheers.
This year it is the Karichal Chundan, rowed by the Kollam Jesus Club, that prepares to lift the Nehru Trophy. The trophy itself was donated by the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. Witnessing the events today, it’s easy to imagine an excited Panditji dancing with joy and clambering into the Nadubhagam Chundan that won the impromptu race held in his honour, forgetting all security arrangements. On his return to Delhi, he donated a Silver Trophy, which is a replica of a snake boat placed on a wooden abacus signed by him, bearing the inscription: “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin.”
By Lipika Sen
Lipika Sen, a writer, artist and wanderer is an India-born Kiwi.