Urmila Marak Aug 07 2014

Snake boat race: Rhapsody of the oarsmen

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Come July, and the prelude to Onam festivities begin in Kerala. The coconut-fringed Pamba River and Punnamada Lake in Alleppey, also called Alappuzha, are abuzz with activities as the oarsmen get their acts together for the annual boat race that lasts through August-September till Onam. The Champakulam boat race held in July is the precursor of the lot.

Champakulam Boat Race

Champakulam Boat Race

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race held every second Saturday of August has become so popular that it attracts tourists not only from the country but also abroad. The genesis of this unique cultural legacy goes back to the time when a boat race was displayed in honour of then visiting Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. He enjoyed the race so much that on his return to Delhi, he commisioned and donated a trophy consisting of a silver replica of a snake boat.

The beautiful town of Alleppey with meandering backwaters and coconut groves presents a heterogeneous picture with banners and posters fluttering all across the roads indicating the sporting event; temporary bamboo platforms put up at strategic locations for people to watch the race; the beginning and finishing slabs fully identified; and the carnival spirit is in the air as the entire town only speaks about the participating teams and their likelihood in emerging victorious.

Women participants at the Nehru Boat Race

Women participants at the Nehru Boat Race

The exotic event is to be seen to be believed. On the day of the race (called Vallam Kali in Malayalam), the participants, both men and women dressed in their respective colourful uniforms, take their places on the chundan (snake) boats. There are the vanchipattu (oarsmen) singers, besides the participants, who help the rowers to keep up with the tempo with their songs. And as the race begins the noise gets boisterous with the sound of the musicians and the cheering crowd. The boatmen row frantically charging the mood of the spectators. The total coordination and concentration of the oarsmen is commendable.

Over 100 people can sit on the boats, which are around 50 metres long. The boats have to be shaped to such perfection that a slight sloppiness can prove to be detrimental for the race, as within a quibbling second the winners are decided.

Adding to the merriment, there are several cultural groups that put up cultural shows on boats fully decked up for the occasion. However, all eyes are fixed on the oarsmen as they furiously row their way through the meandering waters. And as the winners reach the finishing line with the crowd cheering throughout, for a first-time spectator it is indeed an experience.

Plan your trips for the boat race

  • Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alleppey on August 9.
  • Aranmula Boat Race will be held on September 10 in Aranmula, about 50 km away from Alleppey.
  • Payippad Boat Race in Payippad, which is 32 km away from Alleppey, on September 8.
  • Kumarakom Boat Race in Kumarakom, which is 32 km away from Alleppey, on September 8.

How to reach

Alleppey is located on the National Highway 47, therefore it is well-connected with
all major cities by bus. There are many state-run as well as private operators plying their buses to Alleppey, Aranmula and Payippad. Book your tickets for Alleppey, Aranmula and Payippad at www.ticketgoose.com.

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