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Paddle power: Alleppey’s Snake Boat race

If the world is a book and if one who does not travel reads just a page; then India is a significant chapter of this book & the traveller in me has read a good few number of its pages.

My journey through this book has been on for a long time, yet the pace at which India has revealed herself has left me asking for more. One of her recent revelations is about an Indian Carnival on Water – the Snake Boat Race of Alleppey.

Having read about the speed breakers and the snake boats, it was no surprise my heart sprang in joy when we reached Punnamada Lake in Alleppey. And the 58th Snake Boat Race coincided with the 63rd Independent India celebrations, amplifying the jubilation at the backwaters.

Kerala backwatersAlleppey, a.k.a. Alappuzha, has always been in the limelight for its famous boat races, house boats, coir products, fishes and lakes. It still remains as magnetic with its backwater boat trips, even as I learnt that life here revolves around the waters. So much so, that children learn to swim before they walk, learn to row boats before they bicycle and learn their first lessons from the school of the fishes.

No surprise then that Alleppey is referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’. Traders of those days from across the seven seas came here seeking souvenirs and black gold. Not only are its backwaters alluring, but also its man-made islands that can be spotted amidst the waters, with paddy fields at a distance.

The Curtain Raiser

The anxiety was building up and our boat soon neared a series of boats lined up beside each other. I had by now seen two transformations enroute: one, a sea of tranquil to a sea of humanity and two, the silence changing into chaotic madness. People were totally energized to cheer their teams, not to forget the roles played by the toddy and arrack, that some had consumed. Jumping over & walking through few boats, finally took me to the boat that our group had rented.

Speaking to a few people on the boat revealed the fact that this speedy race happens on the second Saturday of every August, independent of anything (anything literally!).

Hundreds of boats line up beside each other on the backwaters, where people gather to witness the race. People hang on somehow to these boats to get their feet on these boats – to get a mere spot to sit, a meagre corner to stand, a rope to hang onto perhaps? Luckily I found myself and my camera, a spot, a corner and a rope!

Biggest Snake Boat Race

There seemed to be a story behind this annual event and the name of this carnival… In 1952, Pandit Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India was visiting Alappuzha. In honour of him, the people conducted the first impromptu boat race. The boat named Nadubhagam Chundan came first. Alleppey Snake Boat RaceThrilled by the performance of the oarsmen, Pt Nehru jumped into the winning boat, ignoring all security arrangements. This boat carried him and proceeded to the boat jetty. Pt Nehru upon his return to Delhi donated a silver trophy, a replica of a snake boat placed on a wooden abacus, to the winner. The trophy had his signature and also an inscription above saying, “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin“. From then, this trophy is called the Nehru Rolling Trophy and the event is celebrated annually in his fond memory.

Why is it called a Snake Boat Race?

A question that lingered on… The boats which competed first were the Chundan Vallams, also called Snake Boats. It seems the former colonial rulers called them the Snake Boats – basing the name on a native boat found in Norway, although Kerala’s Chundans bear very little resemblance to their European counterparts. This gave rise to its prestigious name – The Snake Boat Race.

The Stage was set…

Colourful boat pageantry preceded the boat race – it was a marvellous treat. The canoes, all colourful and decked up were starting to roar and looked ravishing. Their statistics was no less – they were a 100–‐120 feet long made of a forest wood (called Aanjili Thadi), with a raised prow and carried 90-110 oarsmen and women on each single boat.

Bobbing and rolling beside one another, the raw power and determination of this mass of humanity could be seen. They rowed down the 1400 meters track of waterway as fast as they possibly could row – unmistakably very powerful to row such a gigantic sized snake boat, I wondered how the women could keep up with the men. As the shutterbug in me stood at the tip of my boat, trying to capture the canoes, they zoomed past my vision faster than my zoom lens could catch up with them. The splash emerging from the oars and the knive-like prows of the boats gave me the high.

Witnessing the Chundan Vallam (holding the record of the biggest water vessel used for sports purpose), it was a feast to watch these canoes literally move like a real snake through the channels. And to me it seemed like a wish fulfilled experience; albeit being jostled between two prevalent things at the backwaters – the pace and the race!

More by this author – and some stunning photos – on her own website.

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