Thursday, November 25, 2010

Riding the quiet backwaters

(This piece features in the November 2010 issue of Outlook Lounge. There is no direct web link to the piece online).
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(Kerala's backwaters come alive at the annual Nehru Trophy Boat Races in Alleppey.)
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Getting ready for battle
The Devas is getting ready for the big day. Its surface is of thick, seemingly unbreakable wood. The pale wood is slowly acquiring a luster under the polish being applied. The metallic spear at its tip makes it look like an arrow ready to be let loose. The Devas lies in a nondescript backyard. Four strategically positioned houseboats protect it from being viewed from the lake just yonder.
The Devas is a snake boat that is being readied for the Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Races in Alleppey, Kerala. A team of 15 carpenters fuss over the boat - rubbing, scraping, polishing - making sure it is just right for tomorrow's races.

(The Devas in its yard)
I am in Alleppey, South Kerala, sometimes known as the Venice of the East. Alleppey is a major access point to the Vembanad lake, which is the center of the Kerala’s network of backwaters that have put the state on the world’s tourism map. I’m here to see the Nehru Trophy Boat Races, the highlight of the monsoon season in Alleppey.
My friend Kuriachan is showing me around Alleppey on the eve of the race. Kuriachan had promised to arrange a sneak peek of one of the snake boats before the race – he has brought me to the yard of the massive Devas.
The boat Devas has sitting compartments for some 50 rowers that somehow suggest the rigid discomfort of slave ships. The raised prow towers upwards to some 7-8 feet. At over a 100 feet in length, it is massive and intimidating.
I ask Kuriachan if I could get to meet the architects of the boats. He’s well connected in the town, but he says it’s unlikely during a race weekend. However, he adds, he can connect me to someone who’ll be far more informative than any architect, or for that matter anyone else in Kerala. He knows one of the commentators for the Nehru Trophy, and he might be able to get me some time with him.
Soon, I have an appointment with ace-commentator VV Gregory at 8am the next day.
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The beginnings
VV Gregory has a pencil moustache and a near-diffident, almost shy smile. Gregory has been a commentator at the Nehru Trophy Boat Races since 1977, and is somewhat of a legend in the region.
Gregory gives me a bit of a historical perspective about the races. South Kerala hosts 47 boat races every year – Gregory commentates on more than 30 of them. Most of the other boat races in the state are held on religious occasions, and are connected with temples. The races are, in a way, religious processions. Indeed, in these races, having elaborately decorated boats and paying respects to deities is as important as winning.
While most other races are very old(the oldest, at Aranmula, is about 600 years old) , the Nehru Trophy boat race is far more recent. In 1952, when Jawaharlal Nehru was passing through Alleppey, people organized an impromptu boat race to welcome him. Nehru donated a trophy for the winners, and the race continued to be held every year thereafter.
But why, I ask, did the Nehru Trophy become far more popular than the older, traditional races? Most other races, Gregory tells me, were organized by temple committees, or at best by village/town officials, who had meager budgets. Because of its association with Nehru, the Nehru Trophy was organized by the district and state administration. This gradually led to much more money being spent on the Nehru Trophy, which in turn resulted in its much greater popularity.
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The Snake Boats
Gregory tells me it takes at least 4-5 months and Rs. 20-30 lakh to build a snake boat. Snake boats are built from a local variety of wood called ‘anjili’. Each boat, typically more than 100 feet long, needs around 700 cubic feet of wood. The wood needs to be fortified for strength and stability, so you also need around 300 kg of iron and 30kg of brass for each boat. It’s a delicate balance, having to pack enough power into a boat without making it too heavy.
Gregory tells me that most people get involved in the boat races out of pride. Each team represents a town or a locality. The locality’s people often pool in money to build boats and maintain them. It helps, of course, that prominent rich men from the region pitch in, for it is a matter of prestige for them to be involved in the races.
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Raceday
It’s raceday. There are stands on the lakeshore that are but rusty metallic steps. The race starts 2pm, but there is no sitting or standing room by 11am. These are no railings, nothing to prevent an accidental push from turning into a splash.
Across the water from the stands, houseboats line up in a row with spacious decks. There are tourists atop them, peering at the water from camera lenses.

At 2pm, rowers on the 16 snake boats begin a mass drill in front of the chief guest, the President of India, raising the oars up and down in response to the conductor’s whistle. While the ancient boat races elsewhere in Kerala pay respects to temple deities, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race pays its respects to the President and politicians.
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An upset
The races begin. It’s the second heat of the snake boat category. There is a quickening in the crowd’s shouting and cheering, for an upset is on the cards. Jesus Boat Club from Kollam, the winners of the last two editions and hot favourites for this one, are in third place with the last 400m to go. Jesus find inspiration. Their intent, muscled arms plow into the water. But it isnt easy to surge ahead in a 100 foot long boat, not when you’re up against another such furiously rowing boat. Jesus’ burst is too late, too little, they finish third and are knocked out of the finals.
There are 4 categories of boats – snake boats are but one of them. Heats and finals for the other categories go on, one after the other.
While some teams are in uniforms and some in coloured vests and shorts with sponsors’ logos, there are some teams in lungis and shorts. Most rowers don’t quite have the sculpted bodies of sportsmen. Many rowers have prominent paunches. Some have prominent white hair and wrinkled skin. Rowing clearly hasn’t become a professional, full time activity yet(according to Gregory, most teams practice only for a month before the races).
The packed audience in the very full stands decides it needs a release. Some viewers jump into the lake, and with tyres around them float next to the first track, thereby getting a close-up view of the races.
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A photo-finish
The last race of the day, at 6pm, is the snake boat finals. Even with the favourites out, there are some big names in the fray – the UBC Kainakari and the Town Boat Club Kumarakom have both won multiple times in the past. The race starts, and the boats appear far in the distance. There is a flurry of rapidly moving brown of the oars. As they come closer, the boats are but a series of splashes from the oars cutting in. The pointed fronts of the snake boats come into view.
The rowing of a snake boat is a neatly choreographed performance. Two members of the crew stand in between the rowers, and rhythmically ram down a pestle-like wooden block into the floor of the boats. This is to make sure the rowers row in sync to the beating of the blocks. Another man on each boat blows a whistle or a horn, again to mark the rhythm of the rowing, as he waves his arms animatedly, much like a western classical composer.
The boats approach the stands, the cheering increases even further when the crowds notice there is very little to separate the four teams. The boat Pattara is ahead, but only just. The boats race forward, impelled ahead by viciously rowing arms. The boat Jawahar Thayankari is crawling ahead, inch by inch, little by little.
It is a photo finish. Two of the teams have their arms up in exultation – who will it be? People huddle around the TV screen near me. We see four pointed fronts of the boats inch towards the finish line. Only in slow motion does it become evident that the Payippadan of UBC Kainakari and the Jawahar Thayankari of Town Boat Club Kumarakom are very nearly together in front. Jawahar Thayankari, though, seem to have pulled ever so slightly ahead. After about 5 minutes of waiting, the results are officially announced – Jawahar Thayankari, winners from 2004 to 2007 have won, but only just.
Elsewhere, crowds trickle out from the narrow entrance. Houseboats with watching tourists on the other side of the shore slowly pull out. Boats of sponsors patrol the lake once again, displaying hoardings of their Slice, Minute Maid, Malayala Manorama and their ilk.
Some supporters and locals remain in the stands, as dancing and cheering breaks out. Boats of supporters near the finish line shout and cheer. The winners climb atop motorboats that lazily drift in front of the pavilion.
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(The pics here are by Anoop Krishnan(more here and here), who I was fortunate to meet at Alleppey. The print edition of the article in Outlook Lounge has pics by Ravi Menon).
(Here're some more notes from this trip.)
(Here's a link to all my published work).

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