The 13th of Aug 2016 saw the backwaters of Punnamada lake in Allepey transform into a lake of thousand boats. They were heralding the event of the 64th Nehru trophy boat race that had boats from various villages in and around Allepey competing for the coveted trophy in categories like A grade, B grade boats and then the famous chundan vallam or the snake boats which are so gigantically long that they can carry about 95 oarsmen at a time. This race is held in honour of the first prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who was so excited after the race that he ignored all security measures, and jumped into the winning boat Nedubagom. After Nehru went back to Delhi he sent a trophy resembling a snake, made in silver which is the trophy that is bestowed on the winners even today.
Though I grew up in Allepey for part of my childhood, I have never really witnessed the boatrace though I have heard of it. Some things we take for granted when it is so near and seek for it when we do not have it anymore, and this was one such instance. I heard news of this boat race couple of months back in one of the whatsapp groups and immediately planned to go back to my childhood home to witness this great event. After I arrived in Allepey, my friends suggested to get to the location very early though the actual competition starts at only 2 pm as it will be difficult to find a seat. So off I went and reached the jetty at about 10 am. There were boats to ferry passengers to the pavilion and I got into one of them. The venue arrived, and it did look quite empty at the beginning but the seats were fast filling up.
The morning had trials of the A and B grade boats which are smaller boats carrying about 40 oarsmen. Some of the boats are so flat that one could rarely see the boats in the water and it feels as if the oarsmen are sitting right on the water. In between the trial runs of the competing boats, I noticed other non participating boats carrying advertisements, motor boats carrying umpires, media crew, speed boats carrying coordinators, and even a boat supplying icecream to the viewers who were so scorched under the blazing sun that they readily gave that guy good business.
The race for the smaller boats finally began and the coordinators began urging the police to chase the non participating boats off the track. In some of the races the boats were miles apart and in others they were neck to neck. There were 16 smaller boats competing and the teams mostly belonged to local clubs. There were several trophies decked on the stage but the Nehru trophy is reserved only for the big Chundam vallam or the snake boats. During the race one of the oarsmen fell overboard and began to fumble in water. It took a while for the crowd to realise that he was turning helpless and everyone started shouting. The coordinator announced the police to pull the poor guy out of water and the police arrived on a speedboat and finally managed to pull the hapless guy back to safety. The police were arranged on standby to be alert on such mishaps.
Once the heats for the smaller boats were complete, the best was reserved for the afternoon, the race amongst the Chundam Vallam or the snake boats. The Chundam Vallam belong to a locality or a village in or around Allepey. This race between the Chundam Vallams is even more fiery and more protocols are followed. Everyone waited fervently till 2pm, the commentators started singing the famous thi,thi thai thaara and the crowd began growing bersek. The great race was finally going to begin. Actor Jayaram who was the chief guest for this event glided into the pavilion waving an acknowledgement to his fans. The governor of Kerala delivered a welcome speech. All the competing boats gathered in front of the stage and did the welcome drill. After that they headed back to their starting point. 4 boats with white flags headed to the finish line to announce that the boats were ready at the starting point. 4 boats carrying green flags were sent back to the starting point to flag off the boats.
Finally 4 Chundam vallam made it to the final. Karichaal, Mahadevan, Gabriel and Nedubagom. In a very well fought race Karichaal came first with Gabriel being a close second. Nedubagom who had won the first Nehru Gandhi trophy stood third this time. It was interesting to note that many of the Karichaal were north easterners instead of Keralites. I was told that most of the oarsmen were from the army and hence those non malayalee looks. After the race the winners rushed to the stage on their boat to get a hold of their well deserved trophy.
Watching the 40 meter long boats, the rhythmic and harmonious movements of the oarsmen, the electrifying crowd is a sight worth to experience atleast once. These boat races are part of Kerala’s tradition and heritage and they occur once a year around the month of August. Once in the venue you get caught in the frenzy of an atmosphere akin to the soccer finals of the World cup and this is an experience which I will remember for years to come.