As a little boy in Kumarakom, Ajin Abraham frequently used to paddle through canals and backwaters. For folks in the Kuttanad area, and Kumarakom is a part of it, boating was a way of life.
A decade ago, children learned to paddle boats almost as soon as they began to walk. They used little boats to go to school, to play, and went in bigger vessels with their families.
“Boating is in our blood, and boat racing is always in our hearts. I took to boat racing at 18, and that was the time the Kumarakom Town Boat Club was winning the Nehru Trophy Boat Race (in Alappuzha) regularly,” said the 29-year-old Abraham, a helmsman on the KTBC, which last won the Nehru Trophy in 2010, and a chef by profession.
Times have changed. With development and broader roads, the canals in the Kuttanad area, especially Alappuzha, have become narrower. Children are now hooked on gaming on their mobile phones, while youngsters whizz around on bikes. Still, every year, thousands throng Alappuzha’s Punnamada Lake on the second Saturday of August to watch and cheer the snake boats, known locally as chundan vallam, in the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the strong men who paddle them.
“Ten or 15 years ago, people were so hooked on boat racing that even if you had a big international football match featuring stars like (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo in Alappuzha and the Nehru Trophy Boat Race on the same day, the crowds would all be at the boat race,” says Sreenikumar, who was an oarsman in the Nehru Trophy some 30 years ago.
Began in a battle
Even now, the Nehru Trophy is so popular in the Kuttanad region that the boat clubs and the snake boats—almost all named after villages in the area—have their fan clubs in almost all the Gulf countries, with Malayalis coming down to watch and cheer their heroes.
It all began some 400 years ago with battles between kings of the erstwhile principalities, which are now part of Kerala’s Alappuzha and Kottayam districts. Battles were then fought on the backwaters of Kuttanad, and once, after a heavy defeat, the king of Chempakasseri (near Ambalapuzha in Alappuzha District) realised that the reason for his defeats was his slow boats.
He invited the best architects in the area, and one of them built a long, sleek boat that could carry around 100 warriors. That did the trick, and the Chempakasseri was victorious after that.
Over time, that evolved into boat racing, which now sends people into a frenzy every time the Nehru Trophy comes around.
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race features sleek snake boats that can carry over 100 people and are nearly 100 feet long. The fast splash of oars, the idithalam —the ‘drumming’, which sets the paddling rhythm for the oarsmen— the clang of cymbals, the boat song, and the lovely action of the helmsmen all combine to make it a mesmerizing spectacle that attracts tourists from all over the world.
Excited Nehru jumps onto a boat
Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, was so excited by a boat race in Alappuzha in 1952 that he jumped into the winning boat, Nadubhagam Chundan. Nehru then returned to Delhi and donated a silver trophy. It is unclear whether the trophy was intended for the winning boat, Nadubhagam Chundan. Now a replica of that trophy is given to the winners of the boat race every year.
In the early years, the oarsmen spent a couple of days preparing for the ‘race’. But now, most teams have a month-long camp and big budgets too. Preparations, too, have undergone a massive change. Let’s have a look at how things happen at the Pallathuruthy Boat Club, which won this year’s Nehru Trophy by a sleek margin to make it a happy four-in-a-row.
It’s 7 a.m. at Pallathuruthy, a village in Alappuzha, and a rhythmic chant of prayers at the St. Thomas Church there. This is a part of the Kuttanad region, the rice bowl of Kerala. On one side, there are lush green fields as far as the eye can see, and on the other, the backwaters are packed with many houseboats that had come home to rest for the night and lazily get ready for another day.
On a ground nearby, around 100 men are busy doing their morning drills, and a little later, they get into the boat for one of their last runs before the big race.
Pros to power the boat
Times have changed — the oarsmen and budgets too.
In earlier years, fishermen and farmers filled the boats. However, in 2012, professional kayakers, canoeists, and dragon-boat racers from various regions, including Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Delhi, were invited to participate. This led to faster races but also caused issues when a winning team in 2016 consisted of almost 40 non-local men.
“After that, the organisers brought in a rule that only 25 per cent of the oarsmen should be from outside,” said Abraham.
Pallathuruthy’s professionals this year were mostly from the BSF, but there were a few civilians from Delhi too. “But it is not an easy task to remove the local paddlers to accommodate the outsiders,” said Vinod Pavithran, the Pallathuruthy Boat Club coach and a former kayaking international.
For the professionals, it’s a nice annual trip to Kerala.
“It is a sort of two- to three-week holiday for us. But we don’t get much time to go around this beautiful place; we train for some eight hours every day,” said Abhishek, a kayaker from Bhopal’s Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre. He was part of the Kumarakom Town team.
The well-trained professionals bring power to the team and are often flown in and offered higher pay, while local paddlers receive between Rs 1000 and Rs 1500 per day.
“I think our team has the biggest budget; it will be more than Rs 1 crore. We have a 30-day camp; one day’s food expenses alone come to Rs 45,000 (for about 120 in the team), and then we have to pay Rs 10,000 daily for the accommodation, said Pallathuruthy coach Pavithran, who had competed in the 1994 and 1998 Asian Games as a kayaker.
Much of the funding comes from the ‘captain’ – this year’s champion, Pallathuruthy, had Alan and Aiden, a father-son duo, as captains—while sponsors, fans, and the locals also chip in. And there’s the Kerala government’s funding too.
What about race strategy in the event where the distance is slightly over 1000m?
“We divide the race into four parts; we go between 85 and 90 per cent in the first 250, then 85, then 85, and then 100 per cent in the final part,” said Pavithran, whose Pallathuruthy beat KTBC to lift the Nehru Trophy, which is also a qualifying event for the Champions Boat League, a 12-event competition (open only to Kerala oarsmen) that is now in its third year.
That makes the Kerala boat race season a four-month affair. Incidentally, Pallathuruthy won the Nehru Trophy on four different boats in each of the last four years, with the Veeyapuram boat tasting its maiden triumph this year.
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race Day has many smaller races and even a women’s event before the big race.
Proposal to make it an international affair
Rupinder Singh, a former junior national and varsity national cross-country champion who studied sports science at the United Kingdom’s Loughborough University, is keen to make the Alappuzha boat race go international. He has written to the Nehru Trophy Boat Race Society (NTBRS) about his plan to invite university teams from Oxford and Cambridge.
“We have sent his proposal to the boat race society’s executive committee, which is the decision-making body,” said Sooraj Shaji, the secretary of the NTBRS.
Will the boat owners and locals accept it?
Only time will tell.
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