“If Spain is known for bull flights, India should be known for snake boat races,” Dr P Vasudevan of Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere tells me. We are sitting in an enclosure by the edge of the Punnamada Lake in Alleppey. Around us hundreds of people are chanting, singing and cheering. “And betting too,” adds Dr Vasudevan “And the one who predicts the winner, gets a free night’s stay at our hotel.”
Neat, I thought to myself wondering why I wasn’t in on the betting game. But if participating in a boat race is an art, betting on the boat race is an art, too. I had been holidaying at Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere for a week now, and by some stroke of luck, I found myself sitting at the VIP enclosure with Dr Vasudevan and his team, waiting for the famous Nehru Boat Race to start.
The snake boat races of Kerala are considered to be the ultimate test of endurance and skill. They usually happen during the harvest festival of Onam. An old tradition, the races have about 15-20 teams participating, representing various villages and district. Some say it is the largest team sport in the world. A form of canoe racing, a typical Vallamkali (as the snake boat race is locally called), has about 16 snake boats standing in line, each more than a hundred feet long.
“Notice the boats — long, slender and narrow, with ends that curve like the hood of a snake,” Dr Vasudevan tells me “That’s where they derive their names from.” Boat races happen throughout the year in Kerala but the one we were about to watch (the Nehru Trophy race) is world-famous. A version of it happens in the Canadian city of Brampton too. The Nehru Boat Race gained popularity in 1952 when the former Prime Minister, on an official visit to Kerala, decided to watch a local snake boat race. Nehru was so taken in by the performance, he donated a trophy to the winners. And as they say, the rest was history.
“The Nehru Boat race is quite an important event today with officials and dignitaries as chief guests,” says Dr Vasudevan. But as I could see the crowd, which seemed to be doubling in number, was filled with people from far off places too, locals and travellers alike. Some sat by the banks, some atop houseboats and the most enthusiastic of the lot were on trees! According to Dr Vasudevan, winning not just brought prestige to the team, but to the entire village as well.
It was late afternoon when the race was about to start. The waters were suddenly filled with boats — red, yellow, blue, orange…different teams had different uniforms on and one boat carried at least 100 men. I was surprised to see each both had their own music troupe in tow. “They pump up the spirits of the boatmen by singing different Vanchipattu (boat songs). Even the participants sing along, it helps to keep the motivation up,” explains Dr Vasudevan. I think about how in different parts of India groups of people burst into song whilst working. “Work music” it is called — music that accompanies or is closely associated with various kinds of work. Farmers, weavers, fishermen, cattle herders are often known to sing during work because they feel music bestows a certain rhythm on their work — something which helps them. I turn around to mention this to Dr Vasudevan, but just then the whistle blew. It was time for the race to begin.
What followed was quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. A furious flapping of arms and oars, screams and shouts from the crowd, drumbeats and songs — the competition was in progress. The boats swayed dangerously from side to side, struggling to keep straight, but the boatmen rowed on, undeterred. “Have you ever seen such energy elsewhere?’ Dr Vasudevan shouts over all the cacophony the crowd was making. I certainly had not.
A big hit in these boat races, I later found out, are the womens’ teams. They usually have a separate ladies competition but apparently in 2012, an all women team (well, almost — there were three-four men too) competed in the Nehru Competition for the first time.
These unassuming women, dressed in stark saris and with flowers in their hair, are known to participate with equal gusto, and sometimes even give the mens’ team a run for their money. And here I was thinking the boat races were a means to prove your masculinity in traditional society. I was indeed pleasantly surprised.