For a few days during the monsoons every year, the calm backwaters of Kerala transform into an electrifying race course. Picture this - 30 m long narrow boats, each with 100 odd muscular oarsmen, a singer in the centre breaking into song - ‘arpu irroh’ sending the entire team into synchronised frenzy under the control of the chief oarsman perched at the highest point some 15 feet above water. There is pride at stake, passion for victory and the vibrancy of the backwater culture on display.
I have often wondered what it is about this event that draws travellers from all over the world? I guess it is the energy the place exudes, the heightened emotion of the participants, the boat songs that render the air and the genuinely thrilling sporting experience that makes this quintessential Kerala spectacle totally worthwhile.
Witnessing a snake boat race is immersing yourself in a cultural pursuit that is uniquely native and etching unforgettable memories of Kerala
With the annual Nehru trophy boat race just around the corner, we thought a practical guide on planning your trip would be useful. So here it is.
During the race day, if you are not familiar with the area, the festival can be a little overwhelming. Which is why we bring in our personal travel experience. The ‘my experience’ section runs you across the event through the eyes of a traveller. We provide you with some background and share practical travel information. There are some of fun facts and tips towards the end. You may click directly to the section of your interest if required.
Oh thithi thara thithey, thithey thaka they they tho…
Oh thithi thara, thithey thaka they they tho…
Oh thithi thara thithey, thithey thaka they they thom…
It was hardly 11:30 am and the energetic songs were already spicing up the mood. From the comfort of our houseboat parked strategically near the race finishing point, we soaked-in the charged up environs. The crowds were everywhere. The villagers had encroached on the lake banks, some were swimming in the water and some even perched camouflaged atop the trees (dear God!). For a day, the Punnamada Lake had shed her serene attire. Here was the celebration of the backwater community. Boats had arrived from various villages of the backwaters. It was a show of strength and a clash for prestige. Only one thing mattered, winning the trophy for one’s village. The 63rd Nehru Trophy Boat Race was just a few hours away.
The thrill of the whole experience lay in it's ambiguity. We had no clue about the goings-on and the announcements were barely audible. Four tracks for the race had been laid and practise sessions were on in full swing with villages cheering their teams. Amidst this were the display boats with tricolour symbolism, live music and display floats adding colour to the contagious energy of the setting. After the formal inauguration and a little showmanship with flowers being shed from a helicopter, we were ready to start.
The first race was the finals of the women’s boat race. The roar from the crowd grew louder when two beautifully decorated small boats made an appearance. Catch a glimpse of this fine spectacle:
A fine display of culture as women clad in traditional Kerala dress skid through the waters in a spirit of competition.
We soon realised that the pavilions were not the place to be. Standing amongst the locals, we had a feeling of being one with the crowds. One guy would start with “Aarpoo..irroo” and all would erupt into a folk song. Electrifying! The race of the famed Snake boats was on. My ears could capture the sounds of the boat names “UBC, Payipaddan, Jawahar Thayangari…” with excited locals displaying loyalty with their running commentary. The 3rd heat of snake boat race was going to be a clash of the legendary teams. The crowd was now thrown into a frenzy and boy, what a race it was. It was worth travelling from anywhere in the world just to watch this race alone!
All four snake boats neck to neck till the very end, a clash of the titans. Watch this Absolute thriller!
In between races there were breaks of 7-10 minutes when there was nothing much to do besides watch the locals sing drunken songs. Also some races had clear winners so it got less exciting. Besides Chundan Valloms (snake boats), there were highly competitive races of other smaller boats too like Iruttukuthy and Churulan Vallom some of which also had nail biting finishes. At 5:30 pm the finals took place and in fascinating display of skill the ‘Jawahar Thayankari’ team from Kumarakom won the Nehru Trophy of the year in a record time of 4 m 26s.
As the crowds dispersed, our evening had more in store for us. We embarked on a peaceful sunset cruise on the houseboat the after the race. This was where we stumbled upon scenes that were a total eye opener. As the teams returned to their villages, the villagers had lined up on the banks cheering them home. It was an amazing spirit on display, and one could really feel the commendable effort the villages made for the races.
This show of camaraderie and competition is more than a vignette of the backwater village life. Your mind lingers on the after effects - the mighty oarsmen propelling the boat in unison to the rhythm of the pulsating "vanjipattu" or boat songs. It is truly enlivening to watch one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful events. A one-time experience everyone should have.
By sharing this travel experience, my attempt was to give you an insider feel of the event and what to expect. The video below sums up the experience best, it is complete with stunning videography and local music.
The vision of a hundred men on a sleek boat uniquely shaped like a serpent’s hood would have certainly intrigued you. For the curious, we share below the interesting tale of how snakeboats were invented and how this unique backwater race came into being. You will also find interesting anecdotes and practical travel information on the event that we have shared below. Read On!
Would you believe that the first snake boats were actually designed as war vessels some 400 years ago?
There is an interesting tale to tell. Some four hundred years ago, the local kings of Chempakassery and Kayamkulam were at war. True to the local setting, the wars were fought on boats along the canals of the backwaters. After suffering defeat at the hands of his arch-rival, the Chempakassery king ordered his principal ‘Assari’(boat craftsman) to design a sleek battle vessel which could speedily transport his soldiers and also fire cannons. Rising to the occasion, the ‘Assari’ built a boat 100 feet long with a revolutionary propel mechanism using the recoil of the cannon. The boat design was such that its ends rose 10 feet above water like the hood of a serpent (that explains the term ‘snake boat’). This is how the first Chundan Vallam, the fastest battle boat of the time, was rolled out in 1614. Amazing innovation, right?
Over time, the wars ended and owning snake boats became more a matter of pride than of utility. In 1952, when the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited Alleppey, a display race of eight snakeboats was conducted. What follows are fascinating reminiscences from that epoch visit which marks the history of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. (Visit the site for more details: http://nehrutrophy.nic.in/)
Here comes…., here comes…” Everyone glanced and every finger pointed to a distance. ‘Special boats’ approached majestically, causing flutters in the lake. The atmosphere was filled with loud cheers. Eight snake boats (Chundan Valloms) darted forward in lighting speed, marking the beginning of the race. Pandit Nehru watched the spectacular sight through binoculars. Like a child who cannot control his ecstasy, he jumped up and down. As the race boats neared the pavilion, the esteemed guest stood on his chair. “There .. Comes ..” and as this chanting grew louder the 'Nadubhagom Chundan' with unbelievable speed crossed the finishing point and hoisted the winner's flag on the boat.
Forgetting all security arrangements, a thrilled and excited Panditji, jumped into the Nadubhagom Chundan. The boat proceeded to the boat jetty carrying the Prime Minister. On his return to Delhi in December 1952, Nehru donated a Silver Trophy, which was a replica of a snake boat placed on a wooden abacus. The trophy bore the following inscription above his signature- ”To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin.
This rolling trophy came to be known as the Nehru Trophy, and in fond memory of Panditji, the people of Alappuzha celebrate the Nehru Trophy Boat Race every year on the 2nd Saturday of August. The boat race is an event- of the community, by the community and for the community. It cuts across barriers of religion and caste with the pride of village and spirit of competition marking the event. We think it is this reserve of energy which makes the Nehru Trophy boat race unlike any other event in India.
The calm backwaters of Alleppey, Kerala come roaring alive every year on the second Saturday in the month of August
Venue: Punnamada Backwaters in Alleppey, Kerala
Date/Timing: August 10, 2019 at 2:00 PM
Snake boat races are the largest team sport in the world with traditionally a boat representing a backwater village in the competition.
Alleppey is well connected by trains, but Ernakulam (Kochi) has better connectivity by both air and rail. Overnight buses to Kochi from Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and other cities can be booked via state run operators (www.ksrtc.in) and through www.redbus.in. You can travel from Kochi to Alleppey using local buses (Go to Vytilla Mobility Hub) or use the services of a local taxi provider.
If you are coming exclusively for the event and not touring other parts of the state, you can stay at Kochi or Alleppey. In Alleppey, reach a day before the event and book a stay in a houseboat or in a resort at Alleppey beach or nearby Marari Beach. You can also stay at Fort Kochi and travel to the venue on the morning of the event.
Specific to Nehru trophy boat race tickets/booking, we have detailed below some options you must really consider.
Our intention with this section is to give you a brief idea of the various options you can consider to witness the Nehru trophy boat race. There are various formal and informal arrangements for tourists which you can pick based on the comfort level, vantage point and experience you are looking for.
At Indus we have been regularly organising trips to boat races for over a decade. The general trend is to plan a tour package centred on the boat race event. Here are 4 popular options to consider:
The Nehru pavilion which is at the end point of the race is the formal arrangement for tourists by the event organisers. Tourist Gold (Rs.2500) and Tourist Silver (Rs.1500) tickets are available for travellers. You can book tickets for this online at https://in.bookmyshow.com/. There are also lawn tickets/ corner tickets which meant for locals which can be purchased at village offices.
Good to know: The Kerala boat race pavilions are always crowded which makes the experience less exclusive. Some travellers have complained of facilities like restroom and food/drinks availability not meeting expectations.
Many houseboat operators have special packages on race day (Rs.2500 onwards/per person). The boat is positioned at a great vantage point to view the race, there is an upper deck and lunch is provided on the boat. Generally the event is concluded with on board entertainment, sunset cruise and after party. Don’t go for unsafe options like motor boat.
Good to know: This is a popular option among international travellers. It is exclusive, basic facilities are taken care of and so is transportation to and from the venue. We would certainly recommend this option.
Want to book a seat on a houseboat on the race course? Click on the link to check booking options available for NTBR 2019
Ramada Alleppey is a 5 star hotel which offers an exciting opportunity to watch the snake boat race. It offers a unique vantage point from the luxury of their 7th floor Terrace which is converted to a stadium. They make excellent arrangements with welcome drinks, lunch, snacks and hi-tea. Bamboo lagoon is a homestay on the racetrack from where you can catch the action from your balcony.
Good to know: This arrangement is usually exclusive to travellers with room bookings at Ramada. It is priced slightly higher than other options but it is ideal with no crowd issues and perfect for families.
This is yet another popular experience which ideally suits travellers who want a more personal and behind the scenes experience of the boat races of Kerala. Stay at a lovely homestay and learn from your host about the backwater culture. Watch the teams practice for the grand finale and learn about the rituals. Watch the boat race live and do a private cruise. This is a complete backwater experience.
Would you like us to plan an experience around the backwaters or the boat race? Need more information on any of these options?
We hope the above information will help you take an informed decision on your boat race planning. Feel free to get in touch for any help. Below we have shared some exclusive anecdotes and tips to make your boat race experience better.
Some of the anecdotes listed below are sure to blow your mind. It should give a real perspective on the race and what it means to the locals
The largest of the boats called Chundan Vallom (Snake boats) are about 125 ft in length and can seat 120 rowers (60 on each side). The end of the boat curves to a height of 15-20 ft and 5 men with long oars control the boat from there. In between there are 5-10 singers who help keep the rowers in rhythm. So a Chundan Vallom has close to 120+men on it at the time of the race.
Preparation for the big race event begins 1 -3 months before the race varying from village to village. The150 best oarsmen from the village are selected by senior-most oarsmen and a camp is set up for yoga, physical training and rowing practise. The rich of the village take pride in sponsoring the camp and mass feasts for the rowers. The oarsmen live, eat and toil together to work themselves into a smooth, co-ordinated team.
The main steersman who is called ‘Amarakkaran’ is generally the captain of the boat. The efficiency with which he handles the long oar establishes the balance and speed of the boat. A single strong plunge by his oar into the water at the right time can take his boat leaps forward and beat competition. The ‘Amarakkarans’ have the critical skill and are the stars in boat races!
Check out this rare slow motion video which captures the impact of a really good steersman
The ‘Amarakkaran’ ability to handle the boat with unerring co-ordination is a rare skill and can change the fortunes of boat race teams. With competition getting fierce, talented steersmen as sometimes poached with offers as good as a vehicle and 2 Lakhs of rupees.
Generally, snake boats are smeared with sardine oil for smooth passage. On race days the crews are seen visiting the local temples and churches with the stroke and largest steering oar to offer prayers to the Almighty. It is almost like the old ritual of warships!
From our experience of organising trips for travellers to the boat race, here are a few suggestions we have that you might find useful.
We hope this information served as a helping hand in your travel planning to Kerala. It is not every day that you get to see hundred rowers, skim through the waters egged on by the fierce competitive spirit of the event. So come along and tell us how it was. If you found this interesting/useful kindly share this page with friends and family. Happy travelling!
Related Tour Packages
Nehru Trophy Boat Race 2019: Booking Options
Nehru Trophy Boat Race: The essential guide
Everything you need to know about an Ayurveda Holiday in Kerala
Thinking about Kerala for your next holiday? Start right here!
Ten secrets to a fascinating backwater experience: Discover it!
WE ARE SOCIAL, LET’S CONNECT