How too much professionalism made Kerala’s famed snake boat races a costly affairWritten By Jaijith James | Published on Sep 25, 2022, 10:13 IST | 1664081009691Unlike earlier days when a sumptuous lunch hosted by village families could get the rowers to work, training sessions lasting for months together and costing a bomb are now just enough to keep the loyalties intact
Alappuzha, Kerala: “Those were the days!” Like a skilled oarsman slicing his way through the famed waters of Punnamada Lake, Joji Philip slides effusively into a rewind of the period leading up to the Nehru Trophy Boat Race (NTBR).
“In my youth, meeting the oarsmen of chundan vallams (snake boats) was the high point of the weeks preceding the race. The entire kara (village) would deck up to welcome the rowers. There was no system of daily allowance for participants then. But a sumptuous non-vegetarian lunch would be prepared in their honour every day,” reminisces Philip (42), who hails from Pulinkunnu village in Alappuzha district.
A much sought-after destination on Kerala’s tourism map, Alappuzha hosts the Nehru Trophy Boat Race on the second Saturday of August every year. The regatta was not held for two years due to COVID-19 restrictions. It resumed this year, albeit on September 4. Twenty snake boats participated in the 68th edition, with Mahadevikadu Kattil Thekkethil Chundan rowed by Pallathuruthy Boat Club winning the coveted trophy and a cash prize of Rs 9 lakh.
The NTBR is the first race of the Champions Boat League (CBL), a Kerala Tourism venture modelled after the Indian Premier League to showcase the rich tradition of the land. In its second edition since 2019, the CBL’s next 11 rounds are on consecutive Saturdays starting September 17.
Besides Alappuzha, waterbodies in Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kottayam and Kollam districts will host the CBL-2, which concludes with the President’s Trophy Boat Race in the picturesque Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam on November 26.
The CBL revolutionised the way races are organised, with prize money shooting up to above Rs 1 crore and Star Sports becoming the official broadcast partner. Nine teams with preppy names (for example, Pallathuruthy Boat Club is Tropical Titans in the CBL) will fight it out to become the speed king of the backwaters.
Kara spirit takes a back seat
“Till the mid-1990s, the NTBR participants voluntarily came forward to practice, after winding up their day’s work by noon. They never expected anything in return. They only wished their kara should stay ahead in the race. That changed with the introduction of the daily allowance system,” observes Antony Arilchira, a researcher on regional boat races, hailing from Champakulam village in Alappuzha district.
The players quickly learnt to break the emotional bond with their respective villages, preferring clubs that were willing to pay more and offer better training.
“Too much professionalism dismantled the traditional spirit of the game. Unlike earlier days, boat clubs mostly hire players from other villages, districts or sports forums as physical fitness plays an integral role,” says Valentine Antony, a race enthusiast from Champakulam. On certain occasions, even kayaking and water sports players from other states made it to the NTBR!
“Money power ultimately decides a team’s strength. The recent victories registered by a few clubs establish this theory,” suggests Valentine, who has never missed an NTBR event in the last 60 years. He endorses the rumour that at least 10 chundan vallams spent over Rs 70 lakh each to prepare for this year’s race.
The inevitable change was all the more visible from 2008, when Jesus Boat Club Kollam organised training camps lasting for around 40 days. Rowers received daily allowances, but were barred from exiting the camps. The result was astonishing. They became the champions in their first outing, and repeated the magic next year too. The shocking fact of a new entrant lifting the trophy was an eye-opener for other clubs, which did not think twice to adopt the strategy.
“The intention was to make the competition more aggressive with a professional approach and to take the team to the next level,” says Arilchira. However, this trend substantially escalated the budgets of local boat clubs, with training lasting for more than a month nowadays.
“Training camps, professional coaches from other states and dieticians — all sound good. But we still cherish olden memories,” Joji Philip turns nostalgic. “In those days, the regatta helped build a strong bond between the villagers from different backgrounds. By the end of a month, almost all families would have treated the team to a feast. Sometimes, families jointly hosted it. The responsibility kept rotating,” Philip recalls.
Ben Boban Velloor, a boat race enthusiast from Kainakary, shares a different view. "People of all faiths stay, train and pray together for a common goal and it teaches them that unity is the biggest strength. That aspect of the race has not changed.”
However, there is no denial that something truly inexpensive in yesteryears has transformed into a money guzzler, to such an extent that the CBL’s prize money may not be sufficient to meet the expenses of premier clubs in this race season.
Big money, big aspirations
Over the years, fundraising has become the most prominent aspect of all boat clubs. Participation in the NTBR incurs a cost ranging anywhere between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 1 crore for a reputed club. In most cases, sponsors will not get back even 10% of their investment, but they still pump in money in line with the spirit of the game.
“This year, we raised around Rs 70 lakh for the NTBR. For 35 days, we paid Rs 1,000 for freshers and Rs 1,500 for experienced rowers. We also had to pay support staff and a medical team. Other main expenses included purchase of 200 fresh oars, nutritious food for the team thrice a day, and regular boat maintenance charges. This time, we had over 90 rowers and around 30 support staff. Just calculate how much manpower we deployed in a single day of training," says Vakkachan Theverkkat, who led the prestigious United Boat Club Kainakary for many years.
"The Nehru Trophy regatta is probably the most expensive rural sports event in the country. I still remember the reaction of a foreign tourist when told about the expenses involved. He was so inspired that he voluntarily came forward to bear the cost of a day’s training,” shares Subhash Abraham Parambil, a tour operator in Alappuzha.
Non-resident Indians (NRIs) are the biggest donors of most boat clubs. They yearn to nurture a strong bond with their native villages, and hence lavish money on their favourite clubs or boats. Local fundraising from the public, community leaders and businesspersons happens yearly. A previous win or a spot in the final four immensely increases the fund-raising capacity of the clubs.
For Champakulam Boat Club, an active player in the NTBR, things are well defined. They raise funds through the Champakulam Chundan Welfare Association (CCWA), a registered organisation that gets most of its contributions from the NRIs in the US and UK. “UST Global, a multinational technology firm, is our main sponsor," says CCWA president Vipin Bharathan, who adds that they could grab only the fourth spot despite associating with the rowers of the Kerala Police Boat Club.
A majestic tradition
Normally, a chundan vallam is 47.5 to 50.5 koles (one kole is equivalent to 24 inches) in length and accommodates around 100 to 115 people. There will be 70-91 thuzhachilukar (rowers), five pankayakkar (rowers with large oars to control direction) at the rear end and 10 to 12 nilakkar (folk singers).
The team captain plays a key role in every aspect of the game. Training starts at 6.30 am and ends with trials at sunset. Alcohol and other addictive drugs are prohibited. Before the daily trials, rowers offer prayers at temples and churches. “They follow many age-old rituals practised by their ancestors. This is evident right from the launch of chundan vallams for training to the day of competition.” Vakkachan explains.
“Probably, this is the only sporting event in the world where you can see over 400 players compete at once in a km-long track. This is purely a game of ear-hand coordination. Oarsmen are tuned into the claps, bangs, and folklores of nilakkar as it carries some instructions to change the pattern of performance at certain junctures,” Subhash explains.
Though chundan vallams are stars of the NTBR, competitions of smaller boats such as veppu vallams, iruttukuthy vallams, odi vallams and company vallams attract huge crowds and participation locally as they involve fewer practice sessions and trials. They make the competition more meaningful.
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)