A visual treat beyond compare
It is once again the season of boat races in Kerala. The unique spectacle of scores of oarsmen rowing in unison to the rhythm of rural songs on long, ornate boats comes often during the period, extending almost to the end of the year. Races of ‘chundan valloms’, the majestic-looking boats, over a 100 ft in length, have evolved over the centuries, drawing huge crowds. The event is poised to ascend greater heights in the form of a grand league of races.
About 40 races, big and small, are held during the season across the State, rich in rivers and backwaters. Prominent among them are the Nehru Trophy boat race on the Punnamada lake in Alappuzha, Champakkulam in Kuttanad and Kodimatha in Kottayam, apart from the Aranmula race in Pathanamthitta, which is associated with the observances of the Parthasarathy temple there.
The races at most places had begun many years ago when water transport was popular and the means of surface transport were limited. There are legends behind many a race. For instance, the Champakkulam race is associated with the famed Sri Krishna temple at Ambalappuzha. The history of the Champakkulam race, also known as the Moolam vallomkali, dates back to the 15th century when the erstwhile Travancore State was ruled by the Chembakassery dynasty. The race commemorates an episode linked to the installation of the idol of Krishna at the Ambalappuzha Sri Krishna temple.
The idol was brought from Kurichi near Kottayam by boat. The boat carrying the idol had a halt at Mappilasseri, a Christian traditional family at Champakkulam. The entourage was given a warm reception by the family and the people of the locality. After an overnight stay, the voyage to Ambalappuzha was marked by festivities, reflecting the communal harmony that prevailed at the time. The annual race falls in the Malayalam zodiac sign of Moolam in the month of Mithunam in the Malayalam calendar. Representatives of the Sri Krishna temple continue to honour the descendants of the Christian ‘tharavad’ on the day of the boat race.
The Aranmula boat race is held on the Pampa on Uthrattathi day of Chingam according to the Malayalam almanac. The snakeboats taking part in the race are called Palliyodams, a respectful term linking the divine presence to the boat (odam). Vallasadya, a sumptuous feast offered by devotees, is again one of a kind. The Vanchipattu, the devotional song extolling the virtues of Lord Krishna, set to a rhythm in tandem with the movement of the oars, is yet another speciality of the race, which is more of a display of religious fervour than a competition. Vanchipattu has gone beyond the boat races and is today an event in contests at arts festivals. Training in the singing of Vanchipattu is part of the preparations for various boat races.
A variety of boats
A variety of boats take part in the races. The ‘chundan’, with raised prow and helm, is the longest, exceeding 100 ft in length. The moving boats, having steersmen holding long oars and scores of rowers splashing water in unison, provide a spectacular show unique to this part of the world. The chundans are believed to be the boats used by the naval forces of the erstwhile dynasties. ‘Veppu’, ‘iruttukuthi’, and ‘odi’ are among the other varieties of smaller boats taking part in the races.
Boating has been a part of the life of people of Kerala in general and Kuttanad in particular. Smaller boats were used as a means of transport in Kuttanad, a landmass surrounded by waterbodies, including the Vembanad lake. Preparations for the boat race begin months ahead of the races with the boat clubs hiring the boats for a price. The chundans that have bagged prizes in the races held earlier are in good demand. A healthy competitive spirit among the clubs comes into play at the hiring stage itself.
Practice sessions play a key role in ensuring a final berth in the competitive races. It is no easy task to get all the oarsmen on the days of practice as the majority of them are ordinary workers. It is for the boat clubs to make arrangements for the rowers to be present at the stipulated time for the practice. Daily wages and food are offered to the participants. “Boats are hired for several lakhs of rupees. There are reputed snakeboats that have a hire value of ₹8 lakh or more. The practice sessions cost about ₹1 lakh every day,” says Oommen Mathew of the Kerala Race Boat Owners Association.
The year-long maintenance of the boats is a matter of much concern to the owners. Financial grants are given to boats that take part in the Nehru Trophy boat race. But the smaller boats get much less as the chundans are considered the mainstay of the races. Of the 66 boats that took part in the 2016 edition of the Nehru Trophy boat race, 41 belonged to the smaller version of snake boats such as veppu, odi, churulan and thekkanodi. The latter get only a minor share of the bonus given by the organisers, laments Mr. Mathew.
“The chundans participating in the Nehru Trophy race get a minimum of ₹1.75 lakh of bonus provided by the organisers while those entering the finals get ₹5 lakh each. On the other hand, the veppu and odi categories are eligible for a maximum of ₹1.10 lakh. The smaller boats carry about two-thirds of the number of oarsmen on the chundans. They deserve proportionate grant and bonus,” he argues.
“There is scope for getting international attention for the boat races,” says C.T. Thomas, president of the Kerala Rowing & Paddling Boat Club Association. There are expert rowers who have participated in international boat races such as Dragon boat races in Thailand and Singapore. He wants their services to be utilised by the organisers of boat races in Kerala with a view to elevating the races to a higher pedestal.
An international ‘swan boat race’ was organised in Kochi a few years ago. Foreign boats had participated in the race. Similarly, participation by foreign boats at the Nehru Trophy, as a separate category, would invite global attention to the race, according to him. “Our suggestion to organise races in the international category had been submitted to the organisers a decade ago, but the proposals were never taken up. Boats of certain categories are available in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and other States. The organisers could consider the prospects of including such boats in the race so that the boat races would elicit greater attention from different States”, he says.
The race and executive committees of the Nehru Trophy, he says, should have experts who had participated in foreign races. Absence of international experts in the Nehru Trophy boat race executive committee is one of the main drawbacks in the running of the event. The committees should have experts whose services are available in Alappuzha, but political nominees who have little expertise in the field have dominated the committees during successive years. This is the main reason for disputes relating to the races, according to him.
Women’s participation is one of the most attractive features of Nehru Trophy boat race, but the smaller boats paddled by women are neglected in the race, says Binu, secretary of Sangeetha Boat Club, which had participated in the women’s category in last year’s Nehru Trophy boat race. The women are included in the category of smaller boats such as Thekkanodi, Kettuvallom and Thara vallom. “The smaller boats get a bonus of ₹60,00 per year. But a single day’s practice session would cost ₹30,000. The Nehru Trophy boat race regulations insist on practice for at least 7 days to be eligible for participation in the race,” he points out.
Women should be encouraged to come forward in greater numbers. While women are getting more representation in legislatures and local bodies, why are they kept out of the boat races, he asks. “A number of women rowers are available and more would join if they are given an assurance of adequate opportunities in the races. An all-women chundan had taken part in an exhibition race of Nehru trophy a few years ago,” he recalls.
Houseboats have a great role in ensuring a clean race, says Jibin Thomas, a former oarsman and a boat race enthusiast. The 1,000-odd houseboats plying in Vembanad contribute to pollution in the lake. The authorities have not been able to curb the illegal practice of dumping houseboat waste into the lake, recognised as a Ramsar site by the United Nations. “It is a common practice for the oarsmen to consume the water of the lake during their performance hours. It is mandatory to have clean water in the waterbodies where water sports events take place. It is criminal negligence on the part of the authorities to ignore this,” he says.