Nehru Trophy Boat Race is not only an energetic carnival but is an important part of the history of Kerala. In the year 1952, when Pt. Nehru visited the state, he attended a snake boat and was highly impressed. He also announced a trophy for the winner of the boat race and this is how the Nehru Boat Race competition was formed. The trophy that is given to the winner looks like a snake boat that is made from silver, on a wooden abacus that has Nehru’s words are inscribed just above his signature.
During the boat race, each boat carries 95 oarsmen, 10 nilakkar (cheerleaders) and, 5 amarakkar (controllers). Vanchipattu or energetic songs that have appealing rhythm are sung constantly by about 10 singers who also accompany the boat to keep the spirits high up. The songs sung by them are mainly mythological and religious in nature. Along with snake boats, other locally-customized boats such as Churulan, Iruttukuthy, and Vaipu also partake in the race. The practice and preparations Nehru boat race start a month before the date of the main event.
This race became a regular annual event after the visit of India’s 1st prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952 to Alappuzha. He was so impressed with the impromptu race conducted on his behalf that he donated a Silver Trophy, which is a replica of a snake boat placed on a wooden abacus, with the words “To the winner of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore – Cochin” inscribed on it.
The water festival in Kuttanad is unique. No other country in the world has such festivities. A large number of participants in a racing boat marks still the uniqueness that no other sport in the world has such a large number in a team. The synchronized way of rowing needs long and devoted training and inherent aptitude. Those who steer the vessel need knowledge of water current, observation power of high order, and they must be well versed in the different aspects of boat racing. The most notable fact in the races of boats is that a single neglected act of a single participant will lead a boat to lose in the race.
The racecourse has a length of about 1370 meters is divided into various tracks for the conduct of the competition. When they are advancing through various tracks, it appears like the fast-moving snakes. The oarsmen splash the oars in unison with the rhythmic chants and beats of drums. The movements of competing boats are so thrilling that the spectators get a tune with the exciting mood of the surrounding uproars.
The festival begins with a procession of the snake boats. The snake boats and the smaller varieties of Kerala race boats like the ‘Churulan’, ‘Veppu’ and oadi’ move in a formation down the 1.4 KM stretch of the lake as the sturdy villagers, their biceps rippling in the sun, row with an elaborate flourish of the oars to the singing of couplets from “Kuchelavritham Vanchipattu” the classic Malayalam poem written by Ramapurathu Warrier to regale King Marthanda Varma of Travancore in early 19th century during a boat journey from Vaikom to Thiruvananthapuram. The numerous beaded umbrellas held aloft in each boat, the gilded sterns of the ebony black snake boats, and the changing patterns that the rowers weave with their oars transform the lake into a kaleidoscope. Floats giving glimpses of Kerala’s rich cultural heritage follow the race boats, with artists performing “kathakali” “theyyam” “panchavadyam” and “padayani”.
And then a quiet falls on the lakefront, broken only by the sound of ripples lapping the embankment and the rustle of palm leaves in the wind. The snake boats line up at the starting point for the great race. As the starter’s flag goes up, the scene freezes into a tableau the rowers tense with their paddles poised, the pace keepers alert, and the steersmen straining against their long oars.
The flag falls in a blur and suddenly the thumping begins. The crowd erupts into a roar, birds flutter up from their perch on the trees and the snake boats hiss their way down the lake in a haze of spray, fighting a pitched battle in the dappled waters. “Ayyo-poyye… ayyo-poyye” – the cadence grows to a crescendo as the oars dip and flash 100 to 120 times a minute and the steersmen hurl their gigantic oars in a high arc.
Even in the days of untouchables, this was a feature of the regattas with caste Hindus, Scheduled Castes, Christians, and Muslims sitting in the same row for the feast symbolizing the communal amity in Kuttanad. In fact, the Church has a traditional role in the celebrations at Champakkulam though the water festival there is associated with a temple legend.