I have heard, read and on one occasion seen bits & pieces of a boat race in Kerala. That was long time back. Last week I had an offer from three of my friends to visit Alleppey and get a first hand knowledge about the last practice session of Kuttanad Boat Club, one of the contestants of this years Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Four of us started from Kochi at 8.00 am and travelled towards Alleppey. From Alleppey we travelled towards Changanacherry and about midway we turned into a boat dock at Nedumudy to take us towards Champakulam. A boat was waiting for us there. I was told that from that point it is a 45 minutes traveled to Champakkulam by boat. The water level was very high due to the monsoon that had been active over Kerala for almost 2 months. Basically water has gone over the brim at many places, and many people on both sides of the bank had left to safer grounds. The government has opened up many shelters for such people suffering from floods. So this is not unusual for the monsoon season. The boat ride was really exciting, especially through the high water level of the Vembanad Lake. The lake side was less active than usual due to the high water level, but still there were plenty to see. There were lots of white clouds moving in the sky; typical of the month of August.
I was told that our host is Mr. Chandy MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly, Kerala) from Kuttanad. Chandy gives moral support to boat racing teams from the Kuttanad area. He hosts a big lunch called ‘Valla Sadya’ (Boat feast) every day during the practice session which could last for over 20 days. Today happens to be the last day of practice for Kuttanad Boat Club.
This is a huge event in itself. The entire team, the support staff, some neighbors, invited guests and family are present. Mr. Chandys house faces the lake. He hails from an ancient aristocratic family of Kuttanad, and his house has all the characteristics to qualify for the above. It looks like it was remodeled lately keeping the old charm intact.
Chandy was seated on the front porch. He greeted us with warmth. We started talking, and he gave us an in-depth look into the beginning and the subsequent progress of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
During the time of the King of Chembakassery, he send 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 Month) on Moolam Day (Malayalam Day)
Trial was started as practice for the final race. 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 output. These camps help sharpen each persons physical capability while also achieving technical perfection.They even use cameras to video tape each rowers performance, and view it at the end of the day to make corrections or improvements. We were really surprised to learn about such dedicated input in to 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.
Chandy remembers the good old times 35 years back, when he participated in a race. That year his team lifted the trophy.
This is the final trial day for Kuttanad boat club and is accompanied by a grand feast called VallaSadya. Food is cooked in the premises of Chandys home by experts. Rice & Beef are the main course before the feast the captain prepares the team with warm up exercises which include some jogging and detailed stretching exercises. Then the captain gave a powerful motivational speech. Now they are ready for the trial runs. Chany being the host of the training session, the team quietly went to him as a group, and received his blessing. Then they proceeded to their boat (VellamKulangara Chundan). This is a newly built boat facing its first competition. The captain explained that this being new, will be heavier than a seasoned boat. He said that he might bench 3 or 4 people in the team on the final race to balance the excess weight of the newly built boat.
This chundan has normally 87 people for rowing. 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 motor boat. 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 of the rowers miss the timing ,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 clock work. It takes absolute team work to produce the thrust it takes to push foreword the weight of the boat as well-as the weight of over 100 well built athletes.
After the trial runs they came back to Chandy’s home. The dining area is a huge hall by the side of Chandy’s home. 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 team 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 comeback to Chandy’s house 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 new, and new 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 in to 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 1000 watt bulbs against the boat. 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 now a days they use a polish called Sleek.
I like to conclude with a brief history of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. In 1952, Jwaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India visited Kerala. He travelled from Kottayam to Alleppey by boat. The Snake boats were displayed in Vembanad Lake in a row. When Nehru’s boat approached the ChundanVallams, they started racing each other out of sheer excitement. Nehru also got real excited and jumped in to the boat that won. Then he travelled in that boat for sometime.
When he returned to Delhi he sent a Silver Trophy to Kerala named ‘Prime Ministers Trophy’. The race for this trophy continued every year during the month of August year after year. After Nehru’s death the trophy was named ‘Nehru Trophy’
Author : John Mathew – Creative Director J&B Associates
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