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Snakes on the water

Snakes on the water
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First Published: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 10 17 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 10 17 PM IST
This boat looks so strange and big,” a wide-eyed British child tells his mother. They’re tourists, living in a houseboat next to the docked Muthaial Kainakari, a chundan vallam (or “snake boat”). The boat is one of the front-runners in this year’s Nehru Trophy Boat Race on Punnamada lake in Alleppey today.
In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru must have been equally amazed when he shrugged off his security cordon and the burden of protocol to jump on to one of these snake boats while travelling from Kottayam to Alappuzha. He is said to have returned to Delhi and sent back a trophy resembling a snake boat to the boatsmen. Since that year, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race has been held every year in August, and draws local and international tourists. This year, the audience count is estimated at 200,000.
The boats, which are 100-120ft long, have prows shaped like open snake jaws. But more elaborate than this visual marvel is the amount of effort each of the 16 teams puts in to prepare for the race. The strongest and best rowers from the region exercise and practise together every day for a month before the race. Their day starts at dawn with rigorous exercise. After lunch, there’s more exercise, and some rest, followed by trials on the Punnamada lake. The trials go on till the 85 oarsmen, five steering men and 10 musicians stationed on each boat are perfectly synchronized; till they are no longer tangible entities, just a blur of energy which propels the boat through the 1.2km-stretch of water.
“When the preliminary meetings are done, we normally choose around 270-300 youngsters from the area. After a rigid physical test, we bring it down to 150 for the selection trials. The best then train till the very last day,” explains Thomson Kalacherry, president of the United Boat Club, Kainakari, which owns the Muthaial Kainakari.
The races have smaller boats as well—35 this year—which compete for various prizes, including one intended for all-women teams. But the snake boats are the undisputed show stealers.
Traditionally used for battle, snake boats are constructed in keeping with a Vedic treatise which calls for them to be sculpted, polished and touched up till there isn’t a single imperfection to hamper their speed. “The time separating our team and the second best was just 9 seconds in today’s trial. The smallest fault could make all the difference,” says Amrit Prasad, a local from Alleppey who captained the snake boat Payipadd Chundan in last year’s event, when they finished second.
When the Muthaial Kainakari is dry-docked after the day’s trials, the carpenters, club owner, president of the boat club and club supporters all try to make sure every small mark on the wood is filled, sandpapered and polished. Last-minute adjustments continue late into the night.
Two days before the one-day main event, the competition is already fierce, with participants and boat owners keeping a close watch on their own time records and those of their rivals. After the trial runs, onlookers discuss the timings anxiously, and you understand why some teams invest almost Rs 60 lakh for prize money of Rs 10 lakh. It’s all about pride and honour.
And winning is all that matters.
Photographs by: Aniruddha Chowdhury
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race on Punnamada lake in Alleppey, Kerala, takes place every year on the second Saturday of August.
aniruddha@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 10 17 PM IST