The sleepy town slowly opens its eyes as the fury of monsoons turn into a pleasant drizzle. The angry rivers have calmed down and the churning lake lay placid. There is a bright sparkle in those eyes that is otherwise stoic. The rhythm of a land starts reverberating in their steps. It is that time of the year, when the heart of a land beats in perfect symphony to the clarion call of its boatsmen, “Aaarrrrpppo, Irrrro, Irrrro, Irrrro.” And for us kids, the culmination of an year of wait.
The story goes back to the wars of yore between the small water logged kingdoms of Chempakassery, Kayamkulam, Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor, parts of today’s Alapuuzha and Kottayam districts. The king of Chempakassery was a worried man after continuous defeats. He did a root cause analysis and arrived at the conclusion, his war boats were too slow and ill prepared. So started a search for an aashaaari, or a boat craftsman, that zeroed in on one Koduppunna Venkitanaryanan Aashaari. The rest, as they say, is history. The Aashaari crafted a long, sleek boat that could cut through water and carry more than hundred warriors at the same time. The boats that were more than hundred feet long were called ‘chundan valloms’ after their pointed sterns. Wonder who translated it as ‘snake boats’. The helms supposedly looks like the hood of a king cobra. I’ve always thought it looks like the decorated trunk of an elephant. Anyway, the king of Chempakassery never had to look back again. The bollywoodesque epilogue has a dashing young guy sent as a spy by the king of Kayamkulam to learn the art of boat building. Seducing the aashan’s daughter and with promises of marrying her, the roguish spy learns the secret and promptly disappears to build similar boats for his king. Alas, when it came to the proof of the pudding, or payasam as you would have it, his boats were nowhere near the original aashaari’s. The master craftsman was a crafty one, for sure.
The snake boats must have continued to be used as boats of war, but no particular stories seem to be recorded till our first Prime Minister decided to visit Allleppey and Kottayam in 1952. Around ten such boats accompanied as he traveled in a motor boat across the water and a race was organized for his enjoyment. And enjoy, he did! Apparently, he was so excited that he jumped into the winner, the ‘Nadubhagom Chundan.’ He went back to the capital, but the excitement stayed with him. He had a replica made in rosewood and sent it back to Kerala and thus was born the now world famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
There was a time when I used to literally detest my village. Those were the days of youth and foolishness, when fast was better and slow was looked down on. Imagine a place where you could reach only by boat, that too after travelling for more than an hour and half. Wow, you say? Bah, would have been my retort. There were no roads, the only mode of raw sport was boats, motor or the ones that someone had to row. Years had to go and the place turn distant for it turn into longing. Anyway, let me get back to our yearly wait.
The second Saturday of August needed no reminder in a calendar. It is etched in stone in the heart of every true Kuttanadan / Alleppey-ian. And like most of the other homes in the town, a day of festival when all the friends and relatives would descend in droves and walk as one to Punnamada Lake. No GPS was needed, the genes were grafted into the feet at birth.
Our family was large, especially on my mother’s side. Between my grandfather and his three siblings, there were thirty kids. And most of them were few years elder to me. Yes, many of my uncles and aunts were more like my siblings. Led by my normally stern grandfather, at least fifteen of them would arrive by ten in the morning. Our young feet would be tapping in impatience if they were late even by minutes. The fire in our kitchen would have been burning overtime for the past few days, ending up on dining table that had not even a single inch uncovered by food. Off we would go, after a sumptuous lunch, with packets of crisp cutlets and bottles of water in hand, obediently like school kids out on a break, with grandfather in lead.
The Punnamada Lake borders the town of Alleppey and its canals lead to the largest lake In Kerala, the Vembanad Lake. The otherwise quiet waterways comes to life from early July, the time when the season of traditional boat races, or vallom kali, as it is called, starts. This was years before tourism and its by product, the house boats, became ubiquitous. Temporary galleries would come up, made of the trunks of arecanut trees and firmly held in place by sturdy coils of rope. Made in Alleppey, it was, totally.
Spending money on fun was anathema, but this was life itself. And my grandfather would have only the best seats. By default we would, too. Another wait started. We had to claim our seats by 12, first come first served was the norm and the races started at 2. First would come the procession, all the participating boats out in full splendor, the boatsmen rowing in slow rhythm, the oars against the water as one, to the tunes of the traditional boat songs, the vanchi paattu.
The races started with the prelims or ‘heats’ as they were called. Four to five rounds each and four to five snake boats in each. The winners of these would compete in the finals. But in between, would be the others. Veyppu vallams, used for cooking, or veyppu, as it is called in Malayalam, the Churulan vallams, that formats name from the curved ends, and the Iruttukithi, literally meaning one that traverses darkness. The last one was supposedly used by pirates and hence the association with night. Then there was the customary round of a woman’s boat race, usually in the Churulan variety. These were but mere interludes, when we feasted on cutlets and watched the antics of drunk guys frolicking in water. The navy helicopters would come and we would watch in awe as the troopers parachuted down, dutifully bursting some colourful powder into the atmosphere, whence the very same copters would come back for rescue.
The fun started in all seriousness after that. First round after the interval was all the fourth place holders from the heats, then the ones that came third, the losers final and then the race of the day. The Nehru Trophy Finals. Yes, we had our favourite clubs and boats too. The sleek Kaarichaal, the stately Nadubhagom Chundan, the legendary Kavalam Chundan whose heydays were over by then, the famous Jawahar Thaayamkari, the rebuilt Aanaari Puthan Chundan, were names that were etched in our hearts. And the last fight would almost always be between two stalwarts, UBC Kainakary and Kumarakom Boat Club.
The starting point was far away, for the track had to be that long for boats that were more than 100 feet long. The small transistor that grandfather carried came into handy to know who was leading. The whole gallery would move as one. Glistening bodies arching in rhythm, hundreds of oars cutting the lake as one, a single beat in those hearts and in ours, the ‘hee haw’ of the helmsmen, anything could change in a matter of seconds. The boats well oiled in sardine oil the previous day, glistening in the evening sun and gliding across the waves, and the quintessential nail biting finish. The winners raising their races in a unified salute, was a sight that filled our hearts to the brim and sometimes made it overflow, irrespective of who the winner is. I have goosebumps all over even as I watch this.
We grew up and apart. One after another, the family dispersed. Living room couches took the place of those makeshift galleries as Keltron TVs moved Punnamada Lake into our homes. As other interests and life interfered, Nehru Trophy turned into a news item in Malayala Manorama. As I read the Sunday newspaper announcing Jawahar Thaayamkari as this year’s winner, it doesn’t take even a moment to get transported back to those second Saturdays of August. And I realize, it is no more the races that I miss. It is that feeling of togetherness, of being connected. That seem to be lost, forever.
(photos courtesy – The Hindu, The New Indian Express)