Kerala boat race: Prayer on their lips, power in their sinews

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 09, 2019

Race begins: Nehru Trophy was instituted in the 1950s after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the backwaters and held an impromptu race   -  COURTESY: KERALA TOURISM

Bringing home the Nehru trophy is a matter of pride and honour for the riverside communities that steer the annual snake boat race in the backwaters of Kerala

On Saturday, when 20-odd snake boats line up on the scenic backwaters of Punnamada in Alappuzha, all geared up to row fiercely through the sedate waters and win the coveted Nehru Trophy, there will be more than just passion at play. The race, locally called vallam kali and nicknamed the Water Olympics of Kerala, is a matter of pride and honour for the communities that own the boats, and each of them desperately wants the trophy to come to their kara (area by the river). “It’s a religion,” says a boat owner, describing how Malayalis settled the world over arrive to cheer and financially support their village teams.

The event this year is marked by a quiet determination to shake off memories of the devastating floods of 2018 that left the boat-owning communities spinning under huge economic losses. The stakes are higher also with the introduction of the Champions Boat League (CBL), on the lines of the popular Indian Premier League for cricket, curated by Kerala Tourism. The top nine teams at the Nehru Trophy will take part in the CBL which will also start on Saturday. The boat league offers an overall prize money of ₹5.9 crore

Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar will inaugurate this year’s race. The news has spread cheer among the spectators and boosted ticket sales; tickets are priced from ₹100 to ₹3,000. The race itself is an expensive affair. Each team spends about ₹1 crore gearing up for the event, and the preparations usually begin in June. The winning boat at the Nehru Trophy will take home ₹5 lakh.

A week before the competition, the backwaters are resonating with the war cries of the practising teams as they plough furiously through the waters, the oarsmen paddling in a synchronised rhythm.

The practice session of the season’s favourites, the Pallathuruthy Boat Club (PBC), is on in full swing. They are rowing the Nadubhagom Chundan, an award-winning snake boat, and their highly professional approach to the competition is evident. In the past, the team would comprise village folk — farmers and fishermen. They became the oarsmen, while an elder with a booming voice — the playing captain — would helm the boat standing in the centre, shouting out instructions.

Set to row: The Pallathuruthy Boat Club will row the award-winning snake boat Nadubhagom Chundan in their new green-and-black colours   -  CHITRA NARAYANAN

Much has changed in recent years. The teams are managed by professional coaches, and has members drawn from the army, navy and police. According to the rules of the race, local people should constitute 75 per cent of a team, while the rest can be sourced from elsewhere and can include professionals who bring in the cutting edge. For instance, several Manipuris with expertise in kayaking and canoeing are part of various teams this year. Each all-male team has over 100 members; a maximum of 125 oarsmen are allowed on a boat, but usually there are 100-114 on each.

The PBC team is thrilled to receive their new green-and-black outfits. After half an hour of physical exercises, the oarsmen troop into the snake boat, which has a broad middle and tapering ends. A few rituals are followed before the team paddles off. When a command is shouted, every oarsman lifts up his paddle in a symbolic salute. At the centre stand the thalakaar (musicians) and the cheerers with their instruments. The burly playing captain with the stentorian voice roars Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa (a chant for Lord Ayyappa),which is echoed by the team, and is followed by Christian and Muslim prayers — a touching reaffirmation of the secular traditions of Kerala. Finally, they set off with a piercing war cry to the accompaniment of drum-like thumping of oars and blowing of pipes. The PBC team finish the 1.2-km stretch in six minutes; but this is just the warm-up, say the onlookers. To win the race, they must clock three minutes or thereabouts, which is the record.

At Kainakary, about 20 minutes from Pallathuruthy, the United Boat Club (UBC) — another formidable team and a big crowd favourite — is also getting ready for the race. Saju Jacob Malayil, an NRI from Los Angeles, has hired the UBC team to row the Champakulam Chundan, his village team’s boat.


The structure of the snake boat race is complex. In the olden days, each kara would own a boat, and would face-off against the opposite kara — the village across the riverbank, in the race. Rivalries were understandably fierce. “It was almost like an India-Pakistan match,” chuckles Malayil.

The Nehru Trophy was instituted in the 1950s when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the backwaters and held an impromptu race. The competition has come a long way since. When the village communities fell short of local oarsmen, boat clubs ended up hiring professional rowers. The boat owners — the villagers — would hire the services of the boat clubs for a fee. The local oarsmen are paid a daily fee of ₹600 and given food and training, while members from outstation teams are also provided accommodation. Malayil, for instance, has booked a newly constructed resort for his outstation rowers.

Champakulam is a nine-time winner of the Nehru Trophy and the UBC has steered most of those wins. “We have an unassailable partnership,” he says.

All rise: When the helmsman shouts a command, every oarsman lifts up his paddle in a symbolic salute   -  COURTESY: KERALA TOURISM

Last year, the floods washed away the villagers’ earnings and they struggled to raise money for the competition. At the low-key edition, Champakulam had finished a dismal fourth. This year, they reached out to Malayil and requested his support. The senior executive with UST Global, a California-based digital transformation company founded by a Keralite, applied for three months’ leave and rushed to sponsor and support Champakulam. He has taken care of the funding for this year’s competition, while his company chipped in with sponsorship, as have a few local businessmen. Taking part in a race involves considerable investment, but Malayil says to own a winning team is on his wish list and that he is not looking for financial returns.

Malayil is now meticulously going about the task. Fans of the team, which he calls the orange army, are inundating it with good luck messages on social media. Malayil has managed to persuade Vackachayan Theverkad, a veteran of the sport, to come onboard as the playing captain. Theverkad, who has been with the UBC since 1989 and was part of a hat-trick winning team, was all set to call it a day when Malayil convinced him to be at the centre of action one more time.

To the untrained listener, the chants of the oarsmen may appear as just noise. But Malayil says it is much more. “There is a secret code in the rhythmic beats and songs,” he points out. Hidden in the beats, he says, are instructions to the oarsmen. The first 500m of the race demands a certain speed, and after that the wind conditions dictate the nature of paddling. Over the last month, Malayil, who is the non-playing captain of his team, has been busy with team selection. He, along with the two coaches he has hired, is discussing the best rowing position for each player. Team selection, he says, hinges on physical fitness, shoulder strength, paddling technique and stamina. While 85 people paddle, five helmsmen steer the boat.

It’s Malayil’s dream to present the Nehru Trophy to his 86-year-old mother, Teresa Amma. Whether that will come true will be known by the end of the day.


The making of a snake boat

If the skills of the oarsmen are crucial to winning the snake boat race, so is the boat. Making a snake boat is a dying art with just a handful of carpenters skilled at it.

Skill set: Soman aashari and family are among the few skilled carpenters adept at making snake boats   -  CHITRA NARAYANAN


In Anari Puttanchundan, a small village about 40 minutes from Alappuzha town, Soman aashari (carpenter) and his family of eight are hard at work. They are reconstructing an old snake boat under a tarpaulin shed. It takes them about eight months to make a new boat. The construction, though, is not guided by measurements. Instead, all the calculations are done in their heads using old local metrics. The drawings, if any, are made on sand. Only after the entire boat is built is it lowered into the water.

How do they know the boat will sail well? Every single snake boat made by the family has floated well, says Soman. Small problems pertaining to balance can be rectified, he adds. “We go by our instinct,” points out P Sreekumar, president of the snake boat owners’ association. Making a snake boat is an elaborate ritual, he says. The leader of the community who commissions a new boat and the chief carpenters travel to hilly regions such as Pala or Munnar in search of Aanjili (wild jack) wood. Sreekumar points out that veteran carpenters such as Soman and his elder brother Uma Maheshwaran would take a quiet look at the trees and choose the one they wanted. A puja is performed around the tree before it is cut and transported to Alappuzha, where the construction begins. Snake boats are built only with hand tools and are typically about 120ft long.

Soman and his brother’s family are probably the only flourishing snake boat carpenters in the region. “There is another family besides ours,” says Soman. Most of the snake boats sailing on the backwaters are made by the family of the legendary Narayanan aashari (Soman and Uma Maheshwaran’s father).

Owning a snake boat is an expensive affair. A boat, points out Sreekumar, can cost anything from ₹75 lakh to ₹1 crore. Its annual maintenance easily runs into ₹8-10 lakh. Once the racing season is over, the snake boat is parked on a platform on land — being in water for too long can damage it. The life of a boat is around 10 years, and most owners lovingly tend to it like a baby. Rarely does a new boat win the race. The exception, says Malayil, was when Champakulam won the race in 2014 with a brand new boat.

[Editor’s note: The Nehru Trophy race has been postponed following the deteriorating weather conditions in Kerala. This decision was announced after the article went to print.]

Published on August 09, 2019

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