11 August 2013

Nehru Trophy: Kerala Snake Boat race

People travel thousands of Kms to watch the Legendary Chundan vellam - Snake Boat race in Alapuzha, so staying just 70kms away and not going there felt like a crime! Hence we decided to move our lazy selves to tick this off our list.

This year the rains have been reported to be over 60 % higher than usual norms, many rivers flooded their banks and the infamous flooding of the Cochin Airport by Periyar river happened this year too! Fortunately today rain gods have been a little merciful today, and it’s been a light drizzle instead of the usual afternoon downpour.
The origins of these boats go back to the era of raja-maharaja’s. The rajas of Changachery, Kottayam, Kottarakara were all vassals of the Travancore kings for most of the time. Yet, there was constant rivalry amongst them for gaining an upper hand over others and controlling the trade and hence the revenues of their regions. Since Kerala is enmeshed with water bodies, it was frequently patrolled by their navies and spy-network to maintain control. This led to competition amongst the chieftains or Raja's to design and own the fastest-strongest and most powerful boats helping them patrol their waters and also to win in the constant conflicts in the backwaters and seas.

Thus over time, these snake-boats were developed with specific designs to help them move fastly and swiftly in times of need. They are smeared with oil or oil skins of the animals to help reduce the friction over water. Most of the designs of these ancient boats are carried and used till date.

Back in 1952 the proud PM of the oh-so-proud-and-free India Sri Jawahar Lal Nehru visited Kerala. He was given a rousing welcome with people queing for miles to get a glimpse of him and some with even audacious ambitions of shaking hands with Panditji. He was taken on a boat ride in the calm backwaters of the Punnamada Lake in Alleppey and a procession of boats followed him. The people are said to have cheered him for a full 2 hours. He then presented a token trophy to one of the boats which had reached the shores first. Since then on the 2nd Sunday of every August, there is a fierce competition to win the prize and bring honor and acclaim to their village or club.

Since last year, a women’s race has also began to be conducted separately from men. They are clad in the typical cream-white sarees with golden or colored borders and adorned with flowers in their hair. They row with equal fierceness and competing spirit as men do.
Approaching Alapuzha:
Surprisingly the traffic wasn’t as bad it usually is on these potholed roads from Cochin to Alleppey which is a 90 min drive. As traffic was barred on the main approach road to the Starting point, we left the cab on the main road and started walking towards the main stands.
There were pandals and makeshift shades like the shamianas along the coast with some chairs in it. There were some paid stands ranging from Rs 500 – Rs 2000. Those who wish to watch the races comfortably can book those tickets on internet or from reliable sources in Alleppey.
The rest of the stands are mostly free for all and you can simply walk into these stands. We were conned by a local into buying some free passes to these stands who must have run to the closest BEVCO shop (govt liquor stores) with our money. Do NOT buy complimentary passes from anyone there.
Unlike most of the other parts of India, people are extremely courteous to visitors and look at them with some degree of curiosity. If you are a foreigner, you are sure to be ogled at all the time.
Foreigners or touristy looking people are allowed by the locals to walk to the front side of the stands to get a better view. If you are carrying an SLR, you are moses, for the crowd parts infront of you to make way and help you get a better shot!

Let the Race Begin:

There are teams from various clubs and affiliations, which only the locals are aware of. Some of the men carry soft drinks laced with the happy potion and pass it around. After some of the happy potion goes in, they start singing and chanting boisterously cheering their own teams ahead! The cheering rises and falls in rhythm with people carrying the plastic whistles and horns whenever something happens or doesn’t happen!

You better carry some drinking water and wear the right clothing as it’s not possible to get out of the pavilion once you are in and you might have to sit down on the damp floor to let people behind you get a view of the race. Policemen are deployed in all stands as some of these gatherings have got rough and violent in the past. This time there was great order in the crowd.

The Umpire boat does a survey of the waters and once done, it waves a white flag signaling the beginning of the race. All the boats then travel to the starting point one after the other amidst roaring cheers from the audience.

Some of the boats are unbelievably long: with over 100 feet and carrying 100+ men, and are said to be the longest water vessels, used for sporting purpose, in the world. In centre of the boats, you can see men with drums or long wooden poles hitting the base of the boat to create beats with rhythmic intervals. This helps the rowers to maintain their timing and sync their movements for maximum speed.

Once the race begins, these boats compete with each other and it’s quite a sight to see these men row in unison with beats and trying to outdo each other. These races amidst the picturesque setting of coconut trees and placid waters of the lake make it a terrific vista!
The races typically take about 2 hours to complete. It is quite a spectacle to watch the tight competition between the boats close to the finishing line. The audience erupts into cheers and the trumpets blow continuously till one of the boats reaches the end line.
There are series of races based on lots and at the end of the races, the winner is announced based on the timing and handed over the Great Nehru Trophy which is a rolling trophy passed on over years.  
The current winner of 2013 has been winning it for last 3 years and was quite the favorite among the locals.
Can be better:
Though the arrangements were kind of adequate. The number of people estimated to view the races is around 2-2.5 lakhs who are crowded into the stands and some are forced to sit on the damp floor (like us) and others are forced to stand Jostling into each other. It can be a problem sometimes when you are travelling with kids and women.
Since its an event of international repute, our Tourism ministry can do much more to make the experience better for the audience and also to use it to promote Tourism during this off-season !
1. Organise the stands in a better fashion.
2. Ensure proper communication about the tickets and other arrangements for the event and publicise it in India and abroad adequately.
3. Help people build some connect with the competing teams with their brief history and other details available on the internet or by distributing brochures along with the tickets.
4. For the common stands, they can charge a nominal fee and utilize the money to make the stands a little cleaner and comfortable.
5. Be a little more organized and control the chaos !