There is a buzz in the air. At 11 in the morning, the dozens of houseboats lined up on the edge of the water are all packed, people already sitting on rooftops for that vantage view. Police patrol boats have been going up and down the lake for the last hour, with the cops making security announcements over the megaphone. A local model dressed as a king, gilded crown and all, is peddling life insurance from another boat. A speedboat whizzes past, with an ‘Umpire’ banner fluttering in the air. On the other bank of Punnamada Lake, there are rows upon rows of plastic chairs neatly laid out for those holding tickets sold by the government.
On the second Saturday of every August, the placid Punnamada Lake on the backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala hosts the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Alleppey in 1952, locals held an impromptu boat race in his honor, to which he donated a silver trophy. And it became an annual event, with his name attached to the race and the prize.
The Nehru Trophy is the most popular of the boat races in Kerala. It attracts dozens of teams from across the state, who prepare for it months in advance. Winning the trophy bestows prestige not just on the team but their entire village and district. Not surprisingly, villagers pool in money for the boat and all other expenses. And sponsorship from local brands flows in generous amounts.
The highlight of the race is the contest among the snake boats (locally known as Chundan Vallam). Named for their long and narrow shape – they can be between 120 to 140 feet long – they glide gracefully through the water. Each of these boats has over a hundred oarsmen, four key helmsmen who steer the vessel and a group of musicians to keep spirits from flagging. Indeed, the latter fully live up to their roles as floating cheerleaders, as they sing special boat songs and maintain the rhythm with peppy drumbeats.
The race begins a couple of hours after lunchtime, just when all the biryani and booze is threatening to send everyone to sleep. All the rowing teams have their own uniform: sleeveless T-shirts and shorts in their team colors and soon reds, yellows, purples, whites and blues fill the backwaters.
While only 16 snake boats actually compete for the Nehru Trophy, other categories of boats kick off the event with exhibition rounds and minor races. The big favorites are the “ladies teams,” who have their own contest. They are seemingly petite women in their sparkling white saris with blue or red blouses and strands of fresh jasmine in their hair. A fresh roar of approval rents the air as they row furiously. Go, girls! For the first time in 2012, an all woman team (with only four men on board) met the others head on for the Nehru Trophy.
Through all this, there is a lot of action offstage too. The sight of men holding up pink umbrellas – even in a land where umbrellas are quintessential fashion accessories – is distracting. Colorful language floats in the air when too much beer under too much sun causes people to drop their mobile phones into the water. Elsewhere, it is not beer but toddy (local fermented alcohol) that works its magic on locals. Friendly rooting for and wagering on opposing teams soon leads to fistfights and there is the quick flash of a knife before someone intervenes.
By the time the macho oarsmen of the Chundan teams come vying for the big prize, all is forgotten. Throats are hoarse by then but everyone hoots and cheers loudy. On the Punnamada, the dozens of men on each snake boat row as one, arms moving up and down in a steady tempo, water slapping loudly against the sides of the narrow boat. Only the locals know the teams by name and can identify each Chundan. The rest are happy to just enjoy the spectacle and applaud lustily when one of them finally reaches the end point with a resounding splash.
This year, the race is on August 10th. Visit the Nehru Trophy website for more details.
A different version of this was published in India Real Real Time (The Wall Street Journal) on August 10, the day of the race.