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When oars move to rhythm of ‘vanchipattu’ -- Part-II
As Nehru said, the boat race does represent a unique feature of community life in Kerala. It represents the life of unity and brotherhood. Every year, for the boat race the best oarsmen are selected who begin practising well ahead of the main event
THE MODERN story of the Nehru Trophy boat race dates back to 1952, when India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to Alappuzha on an official visit with his daughter, Indira Gandhi and grandchildren, Rajiv and Sanjay. He came by boat from Kottayam to Alappuzha, through Kuttanad, known as the Rice Bowl of Kerala. His boat was accompanied by a pageantry of snake boats. A race was held for his entertainment. In that race of the snake boats, Nadubhagam Chundan stood first. (‘Chundan’ means snoop shaped.) Thrilled by the performance, Nehru jumped into Nadubhagam Chundan and the boat carried him to the jetty. He later donated a trophy with a replica of a snake boat in silver placed on a wooden abacus with the following inscription above his signature: “To the winner of the boat-race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin.”

Since then, the boat race has been held every year on the second Saturday of August in his honour. It was later named the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and is rightly called ‘Kuttanad’s Olympics on water’.

Nehru’s words were true. The boat race does represent a unique feature of community life in Kerala. It represents the life of unity and brotherhood. Every year, for the boat race the best oarsmen are selected who begin practising under the supervision of the most senior or seasoned oarsmen. These oarsmen, who represent their villages in the race, take vows of celibacy and abstinence till the races are over. They live, eat and toil together, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, to work themselves into a smooth well-coordinated team. The village people ensure that the necessities of the oarsmen are fulfilled and often locals take turns in giving huge feasts on the riverbank for them.

The boats are also prepared well in advance by smearing sardine oil on them. The boat architects are summoned to carry out the necessary repair and get the boats in shape for the impending race. Over Rs 600,000 are spent in the construction of the boats and lately the length of the boat has been given special significance for entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Meanwhile, this year there were several events in the run-up to the race. Elocution contests for high school children were held and an entire week of other cultural programmes had been chalked out before the D-day.

I missed out on a lot of those cultural events but I got a chance to see the ‘vanchipattu’ (boat song) competition. ‘Vanchipattu’ is a body of special songs sung during boat races, to egg on the rowers. These are highly rhythmic songs and when sung in unison by the rowers and the singers, each knowing their part and joining in at the perfect moment, it is an amazing experience. The classic ‘vanchipattu’ is Ramapurathu Variar’s ‘Kuchela Vritham’. It relates the tale of Kuchela’s visit to Krishna. The rhythms of these boatmen songs vary with the speed of the boat and the lyrics relate ancient folklores, legends or local gossip in beautiful and artistic poetry.

Earlier in the week, the city had also witnessed a procession, which as the locals told me, had been wonderful and something that I shouldn’t have missed. Well, I’ll make a note of it and not miss it the next time. Preparations were in full swing for Saturday and the riverbanks were being dressed up to receive the immense crowd the race had been generating over the years. In 2008, the state tourism department and Outlook magazine had sponsored over Rs.1.2 million for the maintenance of boats, prize money and other necessities for the event, with some 57 boats registering for the race.

The race does not restrict itself to the snake boats or the ‘chundans’. There are other kinds of boats too -- variously called ‘veppu’, ‘iruttukuthi’ and ‘churulan’, each different in size and use. A ‘chundan’ resembles a snake with its front end tapering and the rear end elevated high above the water and resembling a snake’s hood. Hence, the name snake boat.

Veppus were used to carry provisions for soldiers aboard the ‘chundans’ and similar to it in make with one end higher than the other. Its length varies from 28 ¼ to 32 ¼ kole (one kole is equivalent to 24 inches) and can carry 28 to 36 rowers. These boats are made out of a single tree trunk and mostly the wood of ‘kadamba’ (anthocephalus cadamba) and ‘moraceae’ (artocarpus hirsute) are used.

‘Iruttukuthis’ (literally means dark boats) were used in the olden days for smuggling. Thus, they are designed for speed. These boats lack manoeuvrability, both the ends are alike and rowers don’t rotate these boats and instead change their positions while travelling from one shore to another. The length of these boats varies from 28¼ to 32¼ koles and can seat 40 to 60 rowers. The ‘churulans’ are passenger boats and were usually used by the rich in olden days. These boats are shaped like a circular ring and vary in length from 12½ to 20¼ koles and the crew strength ranges from 10 to 36.

So out of the 57 boats registered in 2008, 19 were ‘chundans’, nine Grade A ‘veppus’, five Grade B ‘veppus’, five Grade A ‘iruttukuthis’, 12 Grade B ‘iruttukuthis’, four Grade A ‘churulans’ and for Thekkanody or the women’s race, three boats were registered. Four tracks, 10 metres wide, were marked for the feat and the track length was 1,400 metres.

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