The snake boats of Kerala

01 Jul 2015, 10:26 am

The snake boats of Kerala
The Nehru Trophy boat race, held in Kerala’s Alappuzha town, is a mix of sporting excellence and festive cheer. This year, it will take place on 8 August, Uttara Gangopadhyay reports

The manager of our hotel in Alappuzha (Aleppey of yore) urged us to leave early for the venue or we would not be able to get a good seat in the viewing gallery, he warned us. But how many local people would be interested in the race in a region where boating across the backwaters is  a way of life? Half an hour later, we were silently thanking the manager as we managed to jostle through the crowd to find our seats. Because, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, held on the second Saturday of August every year at Kerala’s Punnamada Lake, is not a sporting event any more but a carnival with the boat race as its core.

Flags, banners and buntings of every colour fluttered along the streets, informing about the sponsors of the various events or teams; hoardings of every shape informed us about ‘special rates’ for accommodation, which restaurant was offering ‘special menus’, where to go for a sip of ‘Kerala’s famous toddy’  and where we could see the ‘best’ Kathakali performances. There were a large number of foreign visitors, including media, reflecting the global popularity of the event.


Alappuzha was founded by the Diwan of the royal state of Travancore, Raja Kesavadasan, in 1762. The town on the bank of the Vembanad Lake largely consisted of a network of canals and backwaters, which earned it the accolade of ‘Venice of the East’ from Lord Curzon. Boats of various shapes and sizes were used for a number of activities, from daily transportation to warfare to sports. Theveppu or the kitchen boats would accompany the warships; the kettuvellam was used to transport cargo; the churulan was used for pleasure rides or for ferrying passengers while the magnificent chundan or snake boats were used for warfare; even the smugglers used a type of boat called iruthukutty.

It was the custom of the royal state of Travancore to honour visiting dignitaries by holding a boat race. So, in 1952, when the country’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, came to visit Kerala, a boat race was held in his honour. It is said that Pandit Nehru was so excited by the display of the grand snake boats that he jumped into the winning boat without caring for security concerns and interacted with the rowers. After he returned to Delhi, he commissioned a trophy comprising a silver replica of a snake boat mounted on a wooden abacus and sent it to the winning team, the Nedubhagam Chundan. It is this trophy that came to be known as the Nehru Trophy and the event became a regular feature. Now the trophy is kept in the office of the District Collector and the winners are given a replica.


The race is held on the Punnamada stretch of the Vembanad lake. Besides the makeshift galleries, there were boats carrying tourists and VIPs; spectators thronged the river bank from the starting to the ending points. There were a couple of richly decorated floats and boats where Kathakali performances were being held. There were several qualifying rounds for the various categories of boats. By the time the finals began, the noise that had been slowly gathering strength reached a crescendo. Actually it takes more time to describe a race than what it takes participants to finish the race.


The excitement surrounding each and every race has to be seen to be believed. The announcer tried his best to be heard above the roar of the crowd. The first few races ended in a watery blur for us as the boats appeared to skim along the water’s surface in terrific speed, the arms of the rowers moving like well-oiled pistons. At the finishing line, supporters jumped into the water to hug the members of the winning teams. Slowly, we too got into the spirit and began to wildly cheer the boats, not caring if we pronounced the names correctly. There were also separate categories for women(vanita thekkanodi).


But the star of the event was the snake boat race. The chundan boats can be over 50 meter long and accommodate over  a hundred people. The prow of the boat curves like the hood of a snake and hence the name. The oars appeared to splice the water, the rising spray almost hiding the rowers who gave the very last ounce of their strength to guide the richly decorated prow of the boat across the finishing line; each boat has its own vanchipattu, the person who helps the rowers to maintain the rhythm.


The finals over and the prizes awarded, the crowd began to disperse and we followed suit. But for the supporters of the winning boats, the celebrations had just begun. Small processions with the winning teams in the forefront began to wend their way as more people waited to fete them at home.


Fact file:

● Nearest airport is at Kochi (Cochin), 65 km away. Tiruvananthapuram international airport is about 160 km away. 

●It is advisable to book accommodation in advance during the boat race.

● Since the race is held in the monsoon period, it is better to have some rain gear. The weather at this time is usually hot and sultry.

●Beside the Nehru Trophy boat race, a few other races are also held over July-August – Champakulam Boat Race (July 1, 2015), Kumarakom Boat Race and the Payippad Boat Race (August 30, 2015), the Aranmula Boat Race (August 31, 2015).


image: Kerala Tourism

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