In the weeks preceding the boat races in Kerala, oarsmen spend hours practising in the palm-green backwaters of the Allapuzha district near Kochi. With the precision of an army drill, they thrash down the canals, their arms rising, flexing, and falling to the rhythm of the vanchipattu, the song of the boatmen. Each boat holds about 130 men: four roaring helmsmen who steer the vessel, 25 singers to keep the rhythm, and at least 100 rowers.
Race days are filled with drama. Hundreds of locals and tourists gather on the banks of the rivers and lakes, jostling for space amidst electricity poles and coconut tree trunks. Temporary VIP zones are erected for municipal corporators, movie stars, and visiting politicians. The air is filled with the squeals of excited children, the chatter of families, and the calls of hawkers selling piping hot pazham pori (banana fritters), and plastic cups of milky, cardamom chaya. Dressed-up boats from neighbouring villages parade slowly down the river, rowers waving to the hooting crowds, until they reach the starting point.
A number of races are conducted, but the most important among them are the Champakulam race (held in June), the Nehru Race (13th Aug), Payippad Race (16 Sept) and the Indira Gandhi boat race (28 Dec) in Kochi. All contests feature only traditional, wooden boats.
The chundan boats are 130 feet long, a little shy of six feet wide, and have raised prows that give them the appearance of serpents, which is why they’re called snake boats in English. The vessels were once used as navy boats by the warring rulers but are now reserved for races and ceremonial pageants. The races also have contests for the veppu, iruttu kuthi, odi and churulan—wooden boats of varying lengths. Most of the racing day is dedicated to preliminary races for boats of each category until finally, around 5 p.m., the finals begin.
The actual event doesn’t last very long, since the course is quite short. The energy for those few minutes however, is kinetic. The crowd’s screaming reaches ear-splitting levels, commentators screech through loudspeakers, and musicians beat large drums as the boats near the finish line. Here’s a top-down view of what the races are like.
Appeared in the November 2013 issue as “Speed Boats”. Updated in November 2017.
The races are not ticketed but visitors should arrive by 11 a.m. to secure an unobstructed view of the water.
Stock up on snacks and beverages. If you leave your spot, you’re likely to lose it.
Visit www.keralatourism.org/festivalcalendar.php for details.
Visit www.nehrutrophy.nic.in for details of the upcoming Nehru Trophy Race.