- Benjamin John
Snake boat races of Kerala : Practice Sessions are more exciting than the race itself
Snake Boat races in Kerala are iconic and is one among those significant events that pull a lot of cheer & crowd. Something held in both the backwaters and the rivers, the snake boat races are something more of a tradition that many Keralites keep close to their hearts. It heats up the moment of nostalgia, something that brings memories and stories from the past. On the other hand, a beautiful concept of competition, where you have unusually sized boats where hundreds of men row to the tune and spirit with just one goal in mind; to be the first!
The Vembanad lake of Kerala is one of the largest water worlds on the planet. The lake is essentially an extension of the sea in the land which is otherwise called as the backwaters. Many prominent towns and historical villages are located on the banks of the Vembanad backwaters. One among them would be the district of Alleppey and its town center, known as the town of Alleppey; many call it the Venice of the East because of its lakes, canals, and lagoons. Some other prominent tourist destinations include Kumarakom, Muhamma, Kottayam, Ashtamudi, and Vaikom.
The first Prime Minister of independent India, Sri Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, once visited Alleppey in 1952, a motorboat from Kottayam to Alleppey was arranged for him. His visit was considered very auspicious by the local community, and an impromptu snake boat race was organized for him. The Prime Minister was excited to watch the race organized for him and jumped into the race winning boat for a joy ride. He might have been very proud to see the kind of diversity and togetherness the new India possessed. Kerala then was not yet been raised to the stature of a state, the state of Kerala was formed on the 1st of November 2018. He returned to Delhi, and on the same year, he had sent a silver trophy which had an inscription "To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin." along with his signature.
The next year onwards, it became a tradition where a snake boat race was held on the second Saturday of August every year, and it was called the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, held at the Vembanad backwaters at Alleppey. A society was formed to take up the responsibility to conduct the snake boat race every year. The race falls close to the dates of the popular harvest festival of Kerala - Onam. This year of 2018, the backwaters was hit by a traumatic flood, and hence the race has been postponed to the 10th of November 2018.
During the time of the King of Chembakassery, he sends his people in a boat to fetch an idol to be placed in the newly constructed Sreekrishna Swami Temple. It was to be picked up from a house at Kurichi. On the way back, it got dark and difficult to travel. They were also afraid of pirates. So they decided to camp at MappilasseryThomman’s house, on the banks of the Champakkulam river till day-break. The news spread. Soon a mass of people set out for Champakulam in many boats. The next day the Idol was brought to the temple accompanied by all those boats as a procession. This event is thought to be the first ever boat festival. Later it became a contest. It is regularly conducted in the ‘Midhunam’ month (Malayalam calender) on Moolam Day (Malayalam Day).
Snake boats were traditionally built as part of the Navy of the regional princely states. Since the backwater vast and is spread across many parts of the state. These boats were designed to carry around 100 men at a go, which helped to transport many soldiers at a go which was found to be a very effective way, especially during the urgencies of war. The introduction of the first snake boats was introduced during the fierce battles between the feudal kingdoms of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery during the 13th century. The purpose of this 650-year-old tradition of snake boat building turned into a form a war requirement to a form of entertainment in due course of time. Today owning a snake boat works more of a prestigious possession for many villagers and wealthy families. However, the snake boats of Aranmula (a village on the banks of the river Pamba) involves a different design a tradition. At Aranmula, these long boats are considered to be the holy vessels of Lord Krishna, who is the deity of the Parthasarathy Temple in Aranmula. The snake boats there are deemed to be a part of the ritualist traditions associated with the Parthasarathy Temple, which oarsmen (believed to be the men of Lord Krishna) is offered a vegetarian feast on banana leaves called the "Vallasadhya."
From a travelers point of view, knowing more about these traditions and excitement about snake boats & races is about exposure to local customs and rituals. However, watching the trail runs and practice sessions of the Nehru Trophy boat race tends to be more interesting than the race itself. At Green Earth Trails we are committed to providing arrangements to experience the stories of the backwaters and these boats in the more effective way of giving you a more enriching experience. The trail runs begin a month before the actual race date. There would be vigorous training and practice sessions organized morning and evening to equip the oarsmen to achieve that silver trophy. The practice sessions start early in the morning by around 5:30, which begins with basic stretching exercises.
The trial can last for 20 days or more. Clubs with financial support conducts practice for up to 3 months. Some boat clubs now make their trials quite scientific and systematic. We were told by one of the members of the boat club association that teams are taken to a distant location for up to 90 days before the race, and strict routine practice is given. They concentrate on the mental capacity to compete and deliver their maximum physical output. These camps help sharpen each person's physical capability while also achieving technical perfection. They even use cameras to videotape each rowers performance and view it at the end of the day to make corrections or improvements. We were amazed to learn about such dedicated input into the practices. It is beginning to show in the results. The standing record for the Chundan race is 4 minutes & 37 seconds to cover a distance of 1,210 meters.
We have been to many fierce practice sessions with our guests. Lets us share the stories from one of our practice session we attended. "Chundan Vallam" - The longest of the snake boats, can accommodate 87 people oarsmen. 9 people for Thalam (Rhythm) and 5 people at the high end of the boat (Amaram). They are responsible for guiding and steering the boat in a straight path. We went behind the Chundan (VellamKulangara Chundan) during the practice, in our own motorboat. It was so thrilling to see them close. We took plenty of Photographs. A rhythmic song is sung during the race. The song helps with the timing. If anyone among the rowers misses the timing as per the rhythm, the paddles will collide, and there will be great confusion and drag causing loss of time. Apart from the snake boat (ChundanVallam) there are other smaller boats known as ChurulanVallam, IruttukutyVallam, OodiVallam, VeppuVallam & VadakanodiVallam. There are separate races for these boats as well.
The Kuttanad boat club today seems to have a good practice run. Watching them close, we could really see that this is quite demanding from each person. It takes a tremendous amount of strength, endurance and an immaculate sense of timing. No one can lag behind. All paddles should land at the same time in water like precision clockwork. It takes absolute teamwork to produce the thrust it takes to push forward the weight of the boat as-well-as the weight of over 100 well-built athletes.
After the trial runs, they came back to the home of a wealthy person who is the sponsor of the boat club. The dining area is a massive hall by the side of Chandy’s residence. Tables are set. All Kerala Sadhyas are served on green banana leaves, whether Veg or non Veg. Rice, Beef Fry, Kerala style fish curry, cabbage with shredded coconut and pickle were served. The team rested for some time after the sumptuous lunch, and then the captain gathered the group for another run, as the final preparation for the big race. We saw them close again from our boat. After the final afternoon practice, the team was gathered to come back to the sponsor's home to thank him for his hospitality and receive his final blessings and good wishes for the race. He gave a small speech and wished them success.
The trial practice is over, but for the boat’s caretakers, there is plenty of work to do. As I mentioned earlier this boat is a new one, and so the wood absorbs more water. The excess weight of the water needs to be removed. They have a rather tedious process to dry the boat. The boat is pushed into a small canal through soft round objects like the round trunk of banana plants & coconut palm leaves. This process keeps the boat from touching water, and stay dry for the next couple of days before the race. Then they light up many high watt bulbs against the ship. The heat from the bulbs evaporates most of the water content from the Chundan. In olden days they used to polish the bottom of the boat with fish oil. We were told by the captain that nowadays they use a polish called Sleek.
In total it was an exciting session exploring the technicalities and the involvement of so many people, time, effort and money in the whole process. In short, we suggest being a part of the practice session where you get to see the boats and the rowing session in very close proximity in our motorboat. Rather than witnessing the final race where you sit afar in a pavilion and watch it as a mere spectator, mostly without know about the core concepts and stories associated with the land, their boats and its people.