Age-old competition in an ageless river

Twenty-four swimmers. Eighty-one kilometres. Twelve hours. A glimpse into the gala that was the 75th running of the longest swimming competition in the world.

Swimmers at the start of the 19km race.   -  Ashok Nath Dey

The river has seen it all. Call it the Ganga or the Bhagirathi-Hooghly or the Padma, the river, bifurcated in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, has played a significant part in the making of India and Bangladesh.

On the curvy banks of this mighty river, Murshidabad, where the British won the decisive Battle of Plassey to gain control of Bengal and later the whole of India, bears monuments that stand as proof of the colonial force’s domination of the country. It also carries the symbols of the indomitable Indians who defied English rule.

Crowds gather at Ahiron before the 5 a.m. start of the 81km competition.   -  Ashok Nath Dey

 

If the river has seen the proliferation of iconic structures emblematic of foreign rule, including the magnificent Italian-style Hazarduari Palace built for Nawab Najim Humaun Jah in the 1830s, it has also witnessed the freedom-loving attitude of Indians in the form of the tomb of the independence-minded Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and a 75-year-old long-distance annual swimming event on its own course.

Like Murshidabad, the event, covering a distance of 81km and said to be the longest swimming competition in the world, is steeped in history. According to the organisers, it was started way back in 1943 by a noted freedom fighter who belonged to the area, Sailen Adhikary, popularly known as Lala da.

“Lala da was a freedom fighter. He thought our youth needed to remain fit to fight with the Britishers and swimming was the best way to keep them fit, So, he started the swimming competition to encourage the youth of the area,” said Debendranath Das, the secretary of the Murshidabad Swimming Association.

At the time of its inception, the event, which kicked off from Sadar ghat in the town of Jangipur — Pranab Mukherjee’s constituency from 2004 to 2012, now held by his son Abhijit — was only a 74km affair. Since 1987, it’s being conducted as an 81km race, starting from the remote Ahiron and ending at Gorabazar in Berhampore city.

‘Picnic’ boats, blaring music and packed with dancing youngsters, add spice to the occasion.   -  Ashok Nath Dey

 

The annual extravaganza, which is more of a celebration than a competition for the locals across the whole stretch, is now an inherent part of Murshidabad’s identity. Irrespective of their gender, age and religion, Murshidabadis look forward to it with eager eyes and dive in with enthusiasm.

With its extraordinary fanfare and all-inclusive approach, the competition becomes a multi-day event spanning about a month. A mashal run, a blood donation camp, a big rally followed by fireworks and several rounds of felicitation functions and musical shows at four different places turn the exercise into an amazing circus.

The start of the event itself is a mesmerising experience. Following a night of music and dance at the starting point on the banks of a canal, people — young and old, men and women, boys and girls — stream in from several kilometres through a narrow dirt road and gather around the swimmers. And foreigners are accorded special attention, with a deluge of requests for selfies.

Beating the darkness at 4.30 in the morning, a motor launch ferries people across the canal and the crowd swells. Some remain stationed on the opposite bank holding small lights as proof of their presence.

The swimmers wear yellow caps with numbers on them. Their support staff and independent observers board the boats that will accompany the swimmers. A whistle blows at 5 a.m. sharp and the participants launch themselves into the water from a boat in the middle of the river amid loud cheers. As the swimmers disappear in the semi-darkness, the crowd disperses on the tapering road.

By 6 a.m., the Bhagirathi bridge in Jangipur is packed as people gather for the annual experience. When a fleet of boats, with bright tricolours fluttering on them, emerge at a sharp bend in the river, the spectators jostle for space.

Whispers become louder as youngsters look for flags identifying overseas competitors. Others recognise friends participating in the race and shout to draw their attention. The swimmers and the fleet of boats make quite a sight, while thousands cheer from the ghats on either side of the river. ‘Picnic’ boats, blaring music and packed with dancing youngsters, add spice to the occasion.

As the swimmers journey through the muddy water and floating weeds of the rainy season, the race gathers interest. At the beautifully modernised Jiaganj ghat, which sees an uninterrupted flow of commercial ferries, bikes, haystacks and even cars between itself and Azimganj ghat, several thousand more brave the heat — many protected from the scorching sun by a canopy of colourful umbrellas — to catch a glimpse of the swimmers.

Apurba Saha, just 17 years old, won the race on his debut with a record time of 10 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds.   -  Ashok Nath Dey

 

The swimmers accept drinks and fruit from their boats – with the help of a long stick while backstroking as touching the boats results in a disqualification – to keep themselves energised.

There is more delight in store for the joyous crowd as the 19km race starts here, with the men donning green caps followed by the women in red caps.

The story travels at a faster pace, gathering the good wishes of scores of onlookers on the way to Gorabazar ghat. The 3km stretch up to the finish line is studded with humanity, all applauding the competitors.

That most of the 24 swimmers in the fray cross the finish line within the cut-off time limit of 12 hours and a 17-year-old, Apurba Saha, wins the race on his debut with a record time of 10 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds are fascinating facets that add excitement to the whole event, which culminates in an elaborate prize distribution ceremony.

“I trained well for the race, but never thought I would be able to set a new record. I want to cross the English Channel and compete in the 10km race in the Olympics,” says Saha, whose clubmate Sayani Das, of Hooghly’s Rishra Swimming Club, has the distinction of crossing the English Channel.

Second-placed Spaniard Jose Luis Larrosa, who has competed in long-distance swimming around the world, may not have been able to make it a hat-trick of titles, but he is delighted with his association with the race. “I like the place, like the people. They said we wanted you to be here. This is the 75th anniversary. First year, I was worried about the changing weather and water conditions. But I guess the water is worse in the north. Here it is more clean — it does not have any taste or smell,” says the 47-year-old, who remembers once bumping into a dead cow on the riverbed.

For Andreas Havass of Sweden, the small prize money is not a big issue. “It’s much like going up to Mt. Everest. For me, this is my own Mt. Everest.”

The race is like being at home, say a group of six Bangladeshi swimmers. “For us, it is the same river and the same language. It’s like competing in Bangladesh,” said Faisal Ahmed, a 19km competitor.

Second-placed Spaniard Jose Luis Larrosa (right) was unable to make it a hat trick of titles, but he is delighted with his association with the race.   -  Ashok Nath Dey

 

The iconic race has faced innumerable hurdles over the years, but it has defied them all. “We have had several interruptions due to bad weather conditions and flooding. But we have managed to keep it going. The major issue for us has been the absence of a principal sponsor. Still, we manage by raising money from our well-wishers,” said Ramanuj Mukhopadhyay, president of the Bengal Amateur Swimming Association.

“These days, the availability of boats is an issue. However, we want to request the world body (FINA) to place it in their calendar, which will raise the profile of the event and help us get a sponsor,” said Mukhopadhyay, who is also a Swimming Federation of India vice-president.

Despite the odds, the organisers shower the winners with gifts. The winner of the platinum jubilee edition got Rs. 52,000 as prize money, a gold chain worth Rs. 40,000, bell metal utensils and a suit length , among many other gifts.

“That’s our love for the swimmers. We take care of everything. It is a matter of pride for us,” says Das, noting that Doordarshan got an award at the Palermo Film Festival in Italy in 1991 for its documentary film ‘Swimmathon’ based on the event.

For a common citizen from the district, it’s a festival in which everyone wants to participate.<EP>“I grew up watching this event. Then I participated in it and won it. It’s a different feeling altogether,” says five-time winner Jagannath Saha.

Ironically, the event has not been able to promote swimming as a sporting career in the region. The lack of facilities is the biggest bane. The association is hopeful of getting some government aid to develop facilities and attract youth in short-distance swimming.

Nevertheless, the 81km ‘Swimmathon’ on the Bhagirathi river has established itself as an inseparable part of every Murshidabadi’s life. It is high time the event is projected as matter of pride to boost sport and tourism in this region of hoary history.