“With the kind of extreme exertion they put into rowing the boat for the unforgiving 1.4KM, one can easily expect an year to be reduced from the rower’s lifespan. Their hand’s simply refuse to lift after reaching the ‘kurishadi’ (church cross) which is 200M to the finishing line”, says my friend Aneesh who works in a houseboat. “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru jumped into winning boat ‘nadubhagom chundan’ to celebrated with them, and when he went back to Delhi, he wrote a letter to the organizing committee congratulating them, and donating a rolling trophy of a boat made in silver. The nadubhagom chundan still has a foot carved in the boat to commemorate this”, adds Aneesh.
Being a native of Kuttanad, I witnessed people’s interest towards snake boat race right from childhood. But I couldn’t involve much in their passion since I was part of a rat-race called CBSE schooling and engineering. Even-though the things are no better now, I was looking forward very much to this year’s Nehru Trophy Boat race. It came in the long weekend, and I wanted to wield my new camera at the carnival.
In the previous years I tried the conventional way of purchasing tickets and going to the stands at the finishing point only to find a place in the last row. This time I found the contact of Aneesh, who works in a houseboat, and owns a small boat. He plans to park the boat opposite the finishing point and next to the VIP stand. The perks that only the native who knows the place like the back of his hand can get!
Umpires of the race: They aften end up in controversies regarding early starts and incorrect time-keeping
Smaller boats having a gala time making business in the peak time
The air was supercharged with enthusiasm: the running commentary by veterans explaining the history of the event, the boats and clubs taking part, the ‘vanchippattu'(songs sung by the rowers to synchronize their throwing the oars), blow-horns of the cheering crowd, and the cool lake wind to dispel the weariness. Tourists from both within and outside the country have secured spots atop and on the balconies of houseboats. I am told that the organizing committee issues passes costing 40 to 50 thousand rupees to the houseboats wishing to park opposite the finishing point stands, adjacent to the VIP stands. Many boats were parked tightly packed. I was jumping from boat to boat to try to get a good shot of the boats. Never did I get a feeling that I was not standing on the land, but a floating Island made of several boats tied together!
People take a day off from work on the day of the race, which falls on second Saturday of August every year, and will literally be ‘off’ in the evening.
The heats of snake boats began at around 2:30. The boats appear as a tiny spot in the distance first, the tiny oars moving up and down look like the limbs of a centipede, the water splash creates a mist around the boats creating the illusion of the boat emerging scything through the fog. And when they reach near, the mystery gives way to veneration at the scale, exertion, synchronization, music, and the crescendo of the running commentary. And in the midst of such energy, I realize that nobody born human can withstand the euphoria and the shouting out in joy.
Ecstatic supporters often jump into the water to cheer
I also got the rare chance to be amidst one of the rowing teams and could see the emotions and apprehensions. People keenly observe the rival teams rowing performance and bet on their teams victory. Elation and sorrows here come deep from the heart. I was touched by a supporter who was weeping like a kid who lost his toy, and his friend who was comforting him.
The finals got delayed than usual because of the new automatic starting system that was introduced. The sun set and it was dark when the final heats started. Everyone in the stands switched on their mobile flashes and started waving. It looked as if a thousand lamps were lit along the shores of Punnamada lake. Gabriel chundan rowed by the Thuruthipuram boat club lifted the trophy this time.
While returning, it was already dark and there were too many passenger boats and houseboats criss-crossing the lake. We switched on our mobile flashlights to let us be seen in the dark. It was a play of diesel power on the water stretch, with the house-boats engines roaring and the passenger-boat engines tweeting like the old Yamaha two-stroke. Seen from distance, the finishing point was bathed in light from the numerous boats moored there and the brilliantly lit ‘Ramada’ resort. What was a cool breeze in the evening, now started feeling freezing. I wondered about the need for A/C in the houseboats, as the lake has the best weather in Alappuzha. Ah yes, luxury: asking for even more when you have more then enough.
I found a few answers as well, in the pursuit: about why I was not particularly interested about popular sports or TV series about which everyone was crazy. My place has a sport which is a lasting tradition, and there is no void in my heart for the extravagance to come and fill.