August 6, 2014.

A group of around 150 people have assembled in the courtyard of a two- storeyed house on the banks of a rivulet in the village of Kumarakom, in Kottayam district in Kerala. Neither the marauding rain nor the carnage it has inflicted on the paddy fields—the primary means of livelihood for the villagers along with backwater tourism—has managed to dampen their spirits. Clad in white sleeveless vest and shorts, they are members of the Kumarakom Town Boat Club (KTBC), one of the legendary clubs in Kerala’s snake boat race circuit.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race, held every year on the second Saturday of August at the Punnamada backwaters of Alappuzha district, and often fondly referred to as the Olympics of backwaters, is only three days away. Kumarakom Town Boat Club, last year’s runners-up, is competing this year in Vellamkulangara Puthen Chundan—a boat that has previously won the trophy six times wih other clubs, including the first hat-trick of the race’s history in the period 1957-1959. Often when the boats retire, their names are retained to provide continuity for the fans.

The captain is Lal Kumarakom, a stocky, 41-year-old autorickshaw driver. (There is also a non-playing team captain, usually the club’s primary financial sponsor. This year, the captain is Dr P. R. Kumar, a doctor and, in his own words, “an incurable boat race fanatic”.) Lal has been part of the club for the last 16 years and has tasted success six times, including a hat-trick. On this day, the team is gearing up for its last trial session, and Lal is delivering an impassioned pep talk.

Though most of the team have been regulars for the last few years, much of Lal’s speech is centred on driving into them the glory of the club’s great legacy and the significance of giving their heart and soul to uphold it. The members respond with exultant, almost warlike affirmations, as if they have been reminded of something that is most vital to winning the race.

Lal also mentions the financial difficulties faced by the club and its members, and fervently deplores the corporatisation of the boat race. “Vallamkali (the traditional race) is not like the IPL. It is part of our culture, our blood. But as we know, these days a lot of clubs are spending so much money, amounts that are beyond our reach. They think money will win them the cup. But we know money can never conquer the currents.” A raucous cheer follows.

Lal reminds the team of the spiritual sanctity of their endeavour, and urges them to wipe out even the slightest whiff of “off-putting thoughts”, and to “surrender to the great god’s infinite grace”. He says, “We are all sinners. But this race is what the god has given us to atone and redeem ourselves.”

The cheer becomes louder, as if hell has been averted.

Before they disperse for the final trial session, Lal asks them to treat it as a virtual final, and to clock their best timing. The village panchayat president and a couple of other eminences also address the members, but they are hardly listened to. After a traditional puja of the boat, the club members get on and slowly take it through the rivulet into the backwaters where the trials are conducted. A mechanised boat follows them, carrying more than a hundred people who have gathered to witness the session. Villagers throng the banks, cheering and goading their team, the trusted carrier of their pride.

 

***

The snake boats were birthed to fight wars between the feudal princely states of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery, on the orders of a 14th century Kerala chieftain, Devanarayana of Chembakassery. Its objective was to ensure fast transport for a large troop of soldiers. The first snake boat is reported to have been designed and constructed by Kodipunna Venkida Narayanan Assari in 1614.

The design still follows the specifications laid down in Sthapatya Veda, an ancient treatise for the construction of boats. The hull of the snake boat—made from the wood of anjili—varies in length from 95 to 140 feet, and is built of planks six inches wide and 83 feet long. Quite likely the largest sports water vessel in the world, each boat can carry around 80 to 110 rowers. The rear portion—manned by helmsmen with large oars (pangayam)—rises above the water (originally conceived with the intention of offering a clear view of the enemy) while the elongated front tapers into a shape that resembles a snake with a raised hood.

Interestingly, of the 16 snake boats that participated in this year’s race, 15 were built by members of the same family. While Narayanan Achari of Odasseri village in Edathua, Alappuzha, and his son have built six boats each for the race, his brother has one and his nephew two. 

Around 800 cubic feet of wood is required for boat. The cost of construction is estimated at around Rs. 50 lakh. The first step is the identification of the tree whose wood is deemed fit by the master builder. The tree should at least be 16 metres tall and is cut once it has been consecrated. In the malippura (the shed where the boats are constructed), a string is placed along the length of the boat, and construction goes on with the centre of this string as the focal point. Once it is taken to the water, the boat should lie ramrod straight without the slightest list.

The key elements of the construction technique are passed on ancestrally, and the builders guard its secrecy with religious intent.         

 ***

The snake boat race season starts with the Champakkulam Moolam Vallamkali in mid-July and continues for almost two months in concurrence with the harvest season. Ten major races  happen during this period, of which the Nehru Trophy is the most coveted.

When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kerala, then Travancore-Cochin, in 1952, the people of Alappuzha gave him a rousing reception. All the snake boats in Alappuzha agreed to perform a race together, and once it was over, Nehru excitedly jumped into Nadubhagam Chundan, which had won the race. Upon his return to Delhi, he sent a trophy with his signature to the people of Alappuzha.

The following lines are inscribed on the trophy, a replica of a snake boat in silver, placed on a wooden abacus: “To the winner of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin, December 1952.”

To commemorate this, an annual boat race was conducted from then on for this trophy, which was initially called the Prime Minister’s trophy but was later renamed the Nehru Trophy.

In course of time, the boat race grew into a carnival of sorts and is now in many ways the soul of Kerala’s backwater tourism. Every year, around one lakh tourists are estimated to arrive at Alappuzha during the boat race season.

In addition to snake boats, competitions are also held for veppu boats (originally conceived as the boats which carried the chefs for the soldiers in the snake boats), iruttukuthi boats (iruttukuthi translates to “piercing the darkness” and is famed as the favoured vessel of smugglers during the era of princely states), thekkanodi boats (with women at the oars), and churulan boats. There is also a segment for exhibition boats which features old boats that are not part of the competition, but which once were titans in their own right. Around 4,000 competitors take part in the races, of which about 2,400 participate in the snake boat race alone, making it one of the biggest sporting events in the world in terms of participant strength. 

Each snake boat is owned by a village, and is hired out to a boat club for the season. (The boat of one village might sometimes be hired out to a club belonging to another village even if the village has a club of its own; the decision is the prerogative of the village committee.) The rivalry between both the villages and the clubs is fierce, a modern day interpretation of sorts of the feudal rivalry that triggered the invention of snake boats six centuries ago.

The rivalry often stretches to the point of absurdity, as evidenced by the testimonies of many who have squandered a lot of money for their love of boats.

 ***

Dr P. R. Kumar, a general physician by profession and captain of Kumarakom Town Boat Club, had to sell his coconut orchard to raise money for the club this year. And he did that with absolutely no hesitation. “I can earn money any time and buy another orchard. But there is nothing that can be compared to the high of a snake boat race. I did not have to think twice about selling that piece of land.”

That love for the boat, which he so boisterously wears on his sleeve, runs through the family. His father, Thiruvatta Puthen Madhathil Kottayam Rama Moorthy, once commander of the Homeguard Platoon, was also an addict to the “inescapable beauty of the boat race”. The phrase, or variants of it, is often used by such compulsive Vallamkali addicts when they try to verbalise what they start of by describing as an “emotion that cannot be put into words”. It is an emotion that has left many bankrupt, but one which has survived time. 

On an average, around ₹25 lakh is required for a club to pull through a season. A chunk of it is contributed by the captain; the rest is made up of contributions from villagers and the amount allocated by the Nehru Trophy Boat Race Committee. There has been a recent trend of corporates and industrialists taking up clubs, or starting new ones altogether. Many old-timers are apprehensive that this will sound the death knell of the culture that defines Vallamkali.

“What will clubs owned by villagers do when individuals who have no organic relationship with Vallamkali are willing to shell out one or two crore rupees for one season?” asks Lal Kumarakom. “They are then able to entice the oarsmen of other clubs with higher wages and are also able to organise longer training sessions. One club even had their oarsmen undergo mountaineering lessons. As if for all these years, only those who climbed mountains could row a boat.”

This year, KTBC had a two-week training session. Of the 150-odd members that were part of the training camp (including about 40 reserve oarsmen), most are farmers or daily wage labourers. With the rains pouring down and their crops destroyed, most of them suffer from the burden of massive debts. (Kumarakom, which belongs to lower Kuttanad, is relatively well-placed compared to most club- or boat-owning villages of upper Kuttanad, whose oarsmen often return to relief camps after their trial sessions.)

During the snake boat race season, the oarsmen are paid ₹700 a day, along with food. What drives them is not merely a reckless game-addict’s fanaticism, but also the opportunity for temporary relief from the bitterness of day-to-day realities. “Once the season is over, we have to go back to reality. We have to find ways to repay our debts; ways to run our family,” says Anil Kalappurackal, the forward oar of KTBC for the last 16 years, who is popular in the circuit as the "Sachin Tendulkar of the boat race”.

According to Dr Kumar, the only way to save what he describes as a “dying sport” is for the state to intervene with more urgency. “For every other sport, there are state associations. The government is providing funds for their smooth running. But nothing of that sort has been done for snake boats, a sport that belongs to Kerala. The oarsmen don’t get any benefits. There should be special provisions for them, as there are in other sports, government jobs and admission to educational institutions.”

During the training session, the focus is two-pronged: on physical fitness and on spiritual purity. The trial sessions—in themselves a spectacle and viewed by thousands on the banks—are conducted in the afternoons to simulate the actual race schedule. Swimming, various exercises for physical conditioning, and yoga are conducted in the mornings. The diet specified at the beginning of the session has to be strictly followed.

The same goes for the vow of abstinence. In case someone is affected by fever or common cold, allopathic medicines are avoided, with traditional medicines being preferred.

Smoking and consumption of alcohol are strictly prohibited. But most youngsters cannot resist the temptation of the occasional cigarette.

“What can you do about these new generation kids?” asks Lal Kumarakom with an uncomfortable smile twitching on his lips. (A term first used in reference to the Malayalam films of the latter part of the last decade, “new generation”, has now become a snide euphemism for anything that is deemed as not
conforming to the standard moral order.) The evenings after the trials are spent strategising the game plan for the actual track and analysing the strengths and weaknesses of opponents.

 ***

Of the 101-strong crew of the Vellamkulangara Puthen Chundan, 87 are oarsmen, nine are rhythm-setters, and five are helmsmen. The lead rhythm-setter is the captain, and it is in accordance with his judgment of the race situation and the corresponding rhythm he sets that the oarsmen power the boat.

It is vanchippaatu (the boat song), a genre of poetry, that is traditionally used to set the rhythm. The most noted poem in this genre is Kuchelavritham Vanchippattu, written by Ramapurathu Warrier describing the story of Krishna and Kuchela, while the most famous one is the working class romantic song that starts with Kuttanadan Punchayile...) and its popular tune (thi thithaara thi thi they, thi they thaka they they thom) that is usually associated with the rhythm of snake boats. But it went out of fashion years ago. Instead, what’s now used is religious chants like Yesuve Maathaave (Jeesus Maary) or Swamiyee Ayyappo.

Vanchippaatu is now meant only for tourism promotion and music videos. It won’t help you win the race,” says Lal Kumarakom.

The style of rowing has changed too. In days of yore, the emphasis was on maximising the number of strokes. Today, the emphasis is on minimising the number of strokes and maximising its depth. The rhythm becomes tighter after the first 400 metres. (The race track at Punnamada is 1,240 metres long.) Once the 750-metre mark is reached, the number of strokes increases from 60, with which it started, to around 75. For the final 200 metres, the number of strokes is entirely dependent on the situation.

The last trial is conducted with a lot more intensity. While the track at Punnamada for the Nehru Trophy is 1,240 metres, an almost 1,500-metre track in the Vembanad backwaters is used for practice. It is chosen to simulate the actual current texture of the race circuit to the extent possible. Those who follow the snake boat on the mechanised boat maintain the times clocked, and compare them with times clocked by the main rivals in practice.

This year, Sree Ganeshan, rowed by Freedom Boat Club, Kainakari, is considered the main rival. It is the defending champion, it beat KTBC’s Jawahar Thayangari Chundan in a tightly contested final last year; and will complete a hat-trick if it wins again. That prospect is an added source of motivation for KTBC, because it was the last to achieve a hat-trick (four titles in a row) in 2004-2007.

There is a quiet confidence that the club will win the heats and enter the final, and strategies are made mostly for beating Sree Ganeshan in the final. “The idea is to not concede an early lead. Sree Ganeshan is almost unstoppable then. But if we make sure to keep it tight till the last leg, we will come through victorious”, says Lal. His assessment is based on the traditional strength of KTBC: the ability to accelerate in the final lap.

In the heats, their main rival is Champakkulam, rowed by United Boat Club (UBC) Kainakari. Both club and boat are legendary, with Champakkulam having won the trophy eight times and the club 11 times. But both have recently been in decline. The old Champakkulam was sold to software firm UST Global, and now rests, along with a Formula 1 Virgin racing car, in a museum “displaying symbols of speed, focus and performance excellence” at the company’s futuristic campus. This year, a new boat was constructed and the Nehru Trophy will be its first race. As for UBC Kainakari, it was in 1993 that it last won the trophy, thought it is still mentioned with reverence. (The boat to win the trophy the most times is Karichal Chundan with 14 titles. However, Karichal too is now in decline, so much so that it had to be hired out to a comparatively less famous club this year.)

After the final trial, the boat is taken to a shed where it will be worked upon to provide the finishing touches. It is first heated and then polished with sand paper. The mud deposited in the fissures is sanded out and the boat checked thoroughly for cracks and leaks. For the rowers, the last two days before the race is meant to be spent in meditation and prayer, preparing for race day with unfaltering focus.

 ***

August 9, 2014.

On the morning of the race, the boat is polished with plantain leaves till it shines like a mirror. It is then tugged onto a mechanised boat and taken from Kumarakom to the race track at Punnamada.

The roads and streets of Alappuzha are filled with tourists, both domestic and international. Remixed versions of the traditional vanchippaatu are played aloud from shops on the streets. The ticket counter is overcrowded and by noon, tickets are sold out. But, as with any festival to which one needs an entry ticket, there are many who have stored enough tickets to make a reasonable profit and also to ensure that almost everyone has a ticket to the show.

Groups of young men and boys mob the streets, singing and dancing, shouting expletives to no one in particular; some of them drunk and already blacked out. The licence a traditional festival provides people, usually men and boys, for unbridled public expressions of a primal joy is on full display.

Spectators are taken in state-owned boats to their respective galleries, with more than 100 people often jumping on to a boat. There are private houseboats, one of the prime benefactors of the boat race’s tourism potential, that provide special packages to tourists.

By noon, most boats are taking their final trials before the race. They are greeted with deafening cheers from supporters and tourists who do not have to a team to support, and who are often seen wearing expressions of animated befuddlement at the spectacle. Though the race is scheduled to commence at 1.30 p.m., it is delayed by over an hour owing to a technical glitch in the starting system. (Always a bone of contention, the starting system was made electronic a couple of years ago, but it has still not satisfied anyone.) The delay proves to be a stern test for security personnel too, who even otherwise are being stretched by sections of unruly spectators.

The race is flagged off with a march past of snake boats. Repeated announcements are addressed to other boats (veppu, iruttukuthi, thekkanodi and churulan) to stay away from the tracks. Mamachan Joseph, a 70-year-old who has not missed a race for more than 40 years, considers the march past an “ugly side of the race”.

“This march past is held just to put on a show for the tourists. It smacks of an utter lack of self-respect. And if they are so intent on having a march past, why discriminate against the other boats?”

The first four snake boat heats are held after the march past. Unsurprisingly, excitement is at its crescendo for the first heats after which it slowly drops and settles into a steady rhythm before reaching another crescendo for the finals, held almost four hours after the first heats. The other competitions are held in between, with the one for thekkanodi, rowed by women, drawing the loudest cheers, and a fair share of lewd comments. Iruttukuthi, in many ways a sub-cult for boat race fanatics, also has its staunch and loyal followers.  

A large number of tourists leave after a couple of the snake boat heats, having had a taste of the spectacle and their customary photographs clicked. They have no real interest in a sporting competition they have no clue about. By the time the heats are completed, a lot more seats are available. It provides relief and breathing space for the aficionados, some of whom are glued to their radio sets. “The experience of a Vallamkali will not be complete without the radio commentary to describe the action”, says Reji Chacko, another regular.

 ***

Kumarakom Town Boat Club’s Vellamkulangara Puthen Chundan is drawn in the second heat, and from the outset it is clear that Champakkulam, rowed by UBC Kainakari, is going to put up a strong show. (Twenty-five men of the Madras Regiment Group, a regiment of the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army, led by Subedar R. K. Pillai, are part of UBC Kainakari’s team.) It gains a slender lead after the first leg, and maintains it from there. Though KTBC, renowned for its ability to accelerate in the final leg, tries its hardest, it is not good enough on the day. In the end, the race is not even close, and Champakkulam comfortably wins the heats, setting in the process an all time record timing of 4:33:18 minutes. It marks a spectacular return to glory for both the club and the boat, held in esteem but written off as spent forces before the race.

Vellamkulangara wins the losers’ final. Incidentally, both the boats were crafted by the same builder.

The final is held in the evening’s dying minutes, bathed in twilight. True to expectations, the tightest race is between Sree Ganeshan, the defending champion rowed by Freedom Boat Club, Kainakari, and Champakkulam, which gains an early lead that it steadily maintains till the halfway mark. But after that Sree Ganeshan, one of the shortest snake boats in the race, makes rapid strides and recovers the lead. For the last 100 metres the lead is as good as imperceptible, but this, as old-timers would vouch later, must have been written in the stars. By the narrowest of margins, Champakkulam spoils Sree Ganeshan’s hat-trick bid.

He might have to be content with the trophy for the loser’s final, but Lal Kumarakom is not bitter.

“I feel happy for UBC Kainakari. Any boat race lover would be happy because they are true legends. And I am happy I did not lose to big-money clubs but to one that, like my club, survives on its legacy. After all, it is not to mountaineers that I lost,” he chuckles.

The loss also means he has to come back for another stab at a slice of glory. He wanted to retire this year with a victory, but now that it has been foiled, he and the men he leads want to put retirement plans on hold. And he also knows that before he can dream of lifting the cup again, he has to navigate a long 10-month season of reality, the challenges of which are more confounding than the backwaters.