Alappuzha: Snake Boat Race – Visit-With-Family 2023

The lone fisherman steers his boat into the treacherous waves, a small smudge against the crimson orb spreading its farewell growth Alappuzha Beach. Oddly, we gather around its wispy net trembling with the fresh catch of shrimp. Then it slams out and the crowd disperses in a second, an unsuspecting water snake – a poignant sign. It heralds the beginning of the mighty snakes, the chundan vallom, the traditional war boats of Kerala – all set to unleash their power at the 56th Nehru Trophy Boat Race, the world’s largest snake boat regatta. The same day in Beijing, China welcomed the world to the 2008 Olympic Games with spirited fireworks, with the sparkling artists and sportsmen flying high in the sky. In contrast, the carnival spirit in the oft-baptized ‘Venice of the East’, Alappuzha, is gleefully grounded… in water.

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In anticipation of Kuttanad’s own Water Olympics, the city’s ubiquitous waterways light up with calyxed boats offering pleasure craft to visitors, the participants come to rehearse, the start and finish points get the final touches, the prepared pavilions, special gates , travel agents and ticket sellers do business, while the hotels and homestays overflow with guests from around the world. First come, first served Rainwater spells unravel a busy day as I chug my appam stew and filter coffee at the quaint Kream Korner cafe on Mullackal Street. The German backpacker nibbles on a play-it-safe Toblerone, the Russian girls dip into a milkshake, the Swiss couple feast on toast and tea, but the drums on the street are quintessentially Kerala. The countdown has begun. Revelers come to celebrate in colorful processions.

Children race after gliders designed with tempo vans and rickshaws, traditional costumes are worn with publicity visors and the temple bells compete with blaring loudspeakers as all the streets lead down to the water. Certain spectators head to the stands almost 5 hours early to grab a coveted seat. Tasty wafers of biryani float up from the food stalls as I am taken by boat to the VIP pavilion, security checked and laid down next to the VVIP fence that will receive more important ministers and sponsors. As I help copious amounts of fresh air, I jubilantly stand at a front seat in an early bird at the terminus. Without my VIP invite, my blue plastic chair would have set me back INR 2,500 unless I settled for the INR 300 seats at the Rose Pavilion across the bank, or brave drunken brawn at the INR 100/150/ 200 housings burst into the spotlight with thousands of cardless viewers.

A kaleidoscopic kick-off There are still a few hours to go, but the air is already crackling in advance. Layers of sounds and colors pound the senses: the lapping lake water surrounded by palm trees, the rhythmic beats of traditional drummers, the spirited bustle in tight pavilions on surrounding islands, the animated commentary, the dramatic entry of rowers, colored red, paddling furiously on a practice round, the rowdy cheerleaders’ filthy, the cop boat chasing them, the relaxed houseboats seeking quiet viewing spots, the arrival of more VIPs, the fluttering flags marking the four-lane terminus…. While I tend to follow the sudden burst of histrionics from the deafening Malayalam commentary, the whole crowd seems to be agitated with its midnight hush.

Then they appear… in mesmerizing pageantry, gliding gracefully through the water in perfect harmony, each over 50m tall, their embellished bulls proudly proud like a serpent hood, powered by the muscles of over a hundred arms paddling in unison with the beats and the 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 is often split-second determines 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 provide their meals until the day of the race.

Snake Boat Race (Photo by Manojk)
 

Following the chundans are the veppu – kitchen boats that traditionally accompanied war boats, the iruthukutty – the crafty smugglers and the iron chundan rowed by strong, beautiful women both from Kerala and abroad, resplendent in traditional white and gold sarees, which have a feminine dimension. add to this otherwise male-dominated show. As they row the 11/4-km stretch of the lake to the finish line, they line up in a spectacular formation in front of the VIP pavilion. Up close, the gilded stems on the dark ebony boats sparkle in the sunshine, sweatspread glistens on the rows of muscular chocolate-brown bodies, while each boat exudes a regal air with beautiful silk umbrellas.

The exercises begin. In a brilliantly kaleidoscopic moment, more than a thousand biceps raise their straps in unison with a flourish. Rows of red, black, yellow, orange and blue uniforms blend to create magical patterns against the gunmetal-grey lake water – the audience gasps in awe. Long salutes to various VVIPs follow, who proceed to make even longer speeches. Overloaded English translations try to keep non-locals informed, until finally the impatient public breathes a collective sigh of relief. The speeches are over. The flag has been raised. The oarsmen give a sharp salute. The race is declared open. Time… It’s been a long wait for some of us, holding on to our seats and blowing (phew!) for these final moments. Anyway, wait a minute, the first group of Chundans is apparently already on its way.

The commentator sounds like he’s about to burst a vein of excitement, the cheering crowds have left their seats, while I struggle to find my position in the track and heat list. Lijji, a petite policewoman, is my lady-in-shine armour. Saving me from the haze of unpronounceable names, she helps me customize boats, so even though the first heat ends in a watery haze, I’m part of the hysterical crowd by the time the second group of chundans close in. The starter flag rises, the rowers get into position – their paddles are balanced, the pace keepers become alert, the coxswains tense against their long oars. The flag drops and the pounding of the pace-keepers begins. Like determined centipedes in the distance, the snake boats approach. Rhythmically cutting through water, more than a hundred oars dip and flash up to 120 times a minute, the helmsmen toss their giant oars in a high arc, Lane 4 overtakes Lane 1, the pace keepers beat faster, as the boats have their way about the more in a haze of spray water, fight a battle at the finish. The cheering winners are embraced by supporters who swim into the water to greet them.

This is a precision sport, one wrong move, one missed hit can result in a powerful overthrow, as we see in the next heat. Shocked oarsmen swim back to shore, others hold on to their beloved Titanic until it is rescued by a special team. The chundan heats are followed by the smaller boat heats. The commentator urges the crowds to sing a popular ship’s song – more than one lakh voice joins an infectious rhythm, creating an atmosphere of contagious camaraderie. After the heats, we break for a spectacular cultural show with floats on boats offering a glimpse of Kerala’s rich cultural heritage and a Vanchipattu competition. The rain gods mark the finale with thunder, the dark clouds cover the starting point in a misty haze and the rain seems to run with the rowers towards the finishing point. The finals begin with the smaller boat races, as the cheer builds to a fiery frenzy.

The calm waters of the Punnamada are constantly cut in quarters as skills, stamina, teamwork and tradition are tested and pushed to the brink. The winners come out ecstatic, the losers will come back next year to fight. And now, what everyone has really been waiting for – the final of the Chundan race, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Perpetually unpredictable, the cadence grows into a roar in the most closely fought race of the day, sparks fly from the determined oars as the four teams cross the finish line, the crowd goes ballistic and the sky breaks 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 spirited friends in good spirits with drums and cheers.

This year it is the Karichal Chundan, rowed by the Kollam Jesus Club, who are preparing to lift the Nehru Trophy. The trophy itself was donated by the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. With today’s events, it is easy to see an excited Panditji dancing and scrambling for joy in the Nadubhagam Chundan having won the impromptu race held in his honour, forgetting all safety regulations. On his return to Delhi, he donated a Silver Trophy, a snake boat replica placed on a wooden abacus and signed with the inscription: “To the winners of the boat race, a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin.”

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