Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race

Nehru Trophy Boat race at Punnamada Lake, Alappuzha is one of the most significant and colourful boat races in Kerala. It is a world renowned event, held annually on the second Saturday of the month of August. The origin of the race goes back to 1952, when Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India visited Alleppey. He was given a roaring reception by the people of Alleppey, escorted by the huge snake-boats. Having gone through the excitement of sailing in a snake-boat, Jawaharlal Nehru donated a rolling trophy to be awarded to the winner of the race. The trophy is a replica of a snake-boat in silver, placed on wooden abacus on which the following words are inscribed - "To the winner of the boat-race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin."

The race courser having a length of about 1370 meters is divided into various tracks for the conduct of the competition. Preparations for the big event begin several weeks in advance. The snake boat is smeared with sardine oil for smooth passage through water, the best oarsmen are selected and, under the supervision of the senior most oarsmen, the practice sessions begin. Around 150 oarsmen, who would represent the village, take the vow to observe strict abstinence and celibacy till the oars to each of them.

The Chempakasserry troops suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the superior navy their rivals commanded. It soon dawned on the Chempakasserry Raja that the real defect was with his war boats, which were sluggish and cumber. He called all the boat architects in the land to his court and told them of his desire to have better, faster boats for the troops. After days of hard labor, a man who was reputed to be the best boat architect in Chempakasserry, Koduppunna Venkitanarayanan Asari, came up with a specimen which satisfied the raja's requirements. It had speed, maneuverability and capacity to carry 100 able-bodied warriors on board and its eel-like construction was most ideal for launching an ambush since it could be easily kept concealed behind the overhanging bushes on the river banks.

Various types of Boats, all home-made out of indigenous materials are used for the boat races, ranging from the magnificent Snake Boat (Chundan) nearly a hundred feet long and with 150 rowers, to the smallest one which measures 18 feet and accommodates a dozen crew. The boats are scooped out of single tree trunks, usually Kadampu and Anjili (Artocarpus Hirsuta).

A statue of Nehru marks the finishing point of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. The pavilion which hosts top dignitaries during the race, was constructed in the middle of the Punnamada Lake in 1970.

Tourists wait of the commencement of the race perched on top of houseboats. The Punnamada Lake is cleared of all water traffic before the races start and houseboats file up outside the tracks for a vantage panoramic view of the race.

A lot of skill, labour, time and money, go into the making of these boats which are objects of envy and wonder from ages past. The most popular varieties of Racing Boats are called Chundan, Churulan, Odi (Iruttukuthi) and Parunthuvalan (Veppu) and each differs from the other in the shape of the helm and prow, and capacity to accommodate the crew.

Many of the race boats belong to the joint ownership of the people of the locality. Further, even the single owner boats are often hired out by a group of people belonging to a particular locality for the purpose of participating in a boat race. Infact, they spend money in the order of lakhs of rupees for participating various boat races in a season. The money required is often raised through public contribution. In fact they consider it as a matter of pride to participate and win a boat race under the label and jercy of their locality (Kara).

The inhabitants of Kuttanadu are by occupation agriculturists. They engage themselves in the cultivation of paddy and coconut trees on reclaimed land. As country boats are sheer necessities in the life of the people of Kuttanadu it is no wonder that they found out boats as their means of enjoyments. The story of these battling boats goes back 400 years in history when the rajas of the erstwhile principalities of Chempakasseri (Ambalappuzha), Kayamkulam ,Thekkumkoor (Changanacherry) and Vadakkumkoor (Kottayam) in the old Travancore area, frequently crossed swords on the backwaters of Kuttanad.

The stern is majestically caparisoned and decorated with a flag and brass ornaments. Silken parasols are arrayed along the entire length of the boat. There will be almost 95 oarsman, 5 Amarakkar (Controllers) and 10 'Nilakkar' (persons supposed to enhance the vigour and enthusiasm of the participating oarsman).

Easy and swift maneuverability is the principal concern with the making of boats, which race over rivers and lakes. The cut water is reduced to the minimum in these Boats. Their prows and helms are raised considerably high and the streamlining is equally horizontal as well as vertical. The Chundan and Odi are such racing boats. In the construction of Boats in tended to negotiate open backwaters, care is taken to see that the cut water descends almost to the keel and top heaviness is avoided by keeping the helm and prow quite low.

Each ward in the village and at time rich individuals takes their turn in feeding the athletes on the days of the practice at mass feasts on the river banks. Even in the days of untouchables, this was a feature of the regattas with caste Hindus, Scheduled Castes, Christians and Muslims sitting in the same row for the feast symbolising the communal amity in Kuttanad.

The Umpire flags off the race.

When they are advancing through various tracks, it appears like the fast moving snakes. The oarsmen splash the oars in unison with the rhythmic chants and beats of drums. The movements of competing boats are so thrilling that the spectators get a tune with the excited mood of the surrounding uproars.

Of all the Race Boats, the most imposting picturesque and coasty is the Chundan, Snake Boat. The stern of the Snake Boat rises about 15 feet from the water level, and is embellished with exquisite ornamental designs in burnished brass and wood. The extent of elaborate and expensive ornamentation, characteristic of the local craftsman's skill, indicate the wealth and eminence of the owner of the Boat.

Long and narrow, the Snake Boats cut across the water with majesty and grace. The Race Boats, in use in Kerala, have much a common with the war canoes of the old American Indian, the Maoris of New Zealand and some of the aboriginal tribes of the Tropical countries, especially in regard to the shape and build, and the manner and contrivances of propulsion.

Best view of the races.

As the race begins, the crowd erupts into a roar. The snake boats hiss their way down the lake in a haze of spray, fighting a pitched battle in the dappled waters. "Ayyo-poyye… ayyo-poyye" – the cadence grows to a crescendo as the oars dip and flash 100 to 120 times a minute and the steersmen hurl their gigantic oars in a high arc.

Separate races are organized for women as well. Women in Alleppey are experts in navigating boats, and though their boats are slower than the boats rowed by men, they have full enthusiasm and give their best efforts in the race.

The Times of India has an innovative way of advertising keeping with the spirit of boats.

The boat race is a sport that signifies excellent team spirit, integration and amity of the people of this backwater country and is a great occasion for excitement. It vividly portrays the life of a vibrant people. In fact these water carnivals are inseparable from the life of a community, which is dependent on boats for commuting and communication in a water logged area. It stands as a symbol of communal harmony; but at the same time it is also a competition of muscle power.

A Kathakali dancer dressed as Garuda adds to the color of the festival.

The boats are also accompanied by highly rhythmic songs called Vanchipattu, which keeps up the spirit of the boatmen. These songs were so framed and sung as to keep pace with the movement of the oars and to keep alive their devotional, mythological and rustic life styles. Every snake boat has about twenty-five singers with their traditional percussion instruments.

Not everyone crosses the finishing line though.