Each year, on the second Saturday of August, the Nehru Cup Snake Boat Race is organized at the Punnamada lake, marking the festive season of Onam. Though this is not the only boat race held in Alleppey/Alappuzha, Nehru Cup Trophy boat race is the most popular. This race dates back to 1952, when the enthusiastic boatmen invited Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, while he was visiting Allapuzza / Alleppey. Enchanted with the speed and grace of the boats, Nehru donated a trophy with the inscription “To the winner of the boat-race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin”.
So was the popularity that pulled us too to make a weekend trip to Alleppey from Bangalore. Being a part of a travelers group called CouchSurfing, I do not have any dearth of travel companions. The topic was started as a thread on the CouchSurfing website in Bangalore group by one of the CSers (thats what we call ourselves), Puppax. He had been to the race the previous year and was so mesmerized that he wanted to witness it again and have the rest of the gang get enthralled by the race’s magnificence too.
Discussions led to fifty participants from Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai joining the trip. Finally, on 7 September. we started our journey to Alleppey. We were all very excited, for it was our first trip there for most of us. We were around forty from Bangalore CS itself so we hired two buses.
Travel info: There are other options of travel from Bangalore too – luxury (Volvo) buses and trains. You can take a flight to Cochin and head to Alleppey. The train seems to be the best option if you want to travel on a shoe string budget, though you have to be lucky to get the tickets.
On the evening of 7 September, around 5:30pm, we all gathered at Basavangudi, Bangalore, to board our bus. The group was divided into the two buses each with 23 seats – both fully packed.
The bus I was in started with a boring air but, with Mamma Mia songs being played, we all got into a singing mode, which took the form of Antakshari (a musical game where the end of one song sung by one team is continued as the start of another song by the other team) between two teams – SODO and NODO. Weird names, aren’t they?
We had dinner at a road side restaurant called Guruprasad, at a place called Najangud which is around 40km from Mysore…..it was also was a smoke break for many and the right place to get booze for the next two days. We hogged dosa, idly and other South Indian cuisine. The food was good and inexpensive as well.
Just outside the place Monica found a butterfly. It was beautiful but we were sad that it was dying.
We kept on singing, chatting, pulling each other’s legs, almost all throughout the night. Leena gave us all a surprise by remembering the lyrics of songs from the 80s and earlier. There was no dearth of energy in her and kept on singing till we decided to take a nap Yes, we did finally take a nap… a very deep one. At around 10:30am our bus reached our resort, Pozhiyoram Beach Resort.
We were late, so we dumped our luggage, freshened up a little, and rushed to the jetty where our boats were waiting for us. The second bus arrived late and we left for the spot near the finishing line where we could see the winners.
We were really lucky to get the last two front spots. The race was to start at 1:30pm and we reached at 11:00am. We watched the participants practicing.
As we came to know, the preparation for this race starts several weeks prior to the
actual race. A tenuous practice regime is followed by the best boatsmen in the village, under the strict supervision of the senior-most instructors. The boat flows low in the waters and apart from rowers, the Snake boat or “Chundans” carries acox, and leaders who maintain the rhythm of rowing through chants, songs and enchantments. Boats are repaired and polished with mixture of fish oil, coconut shell carbon and eggs to secure fast pace. Victory is the sole purpose of all the commitment.
There were many boats around our boats. One had loud music on. We heard loud music in one of the boats where there was a party on. There were many houseboats as well of different sizes. Ours was a regular steamer with hardly a proper roof. It was hot and humid but we were too enthusiastic to give much attention to it at the onset.
However, later, time didn’t seem to pass and we were waiting for the race to begin. We kept on chatting, singing, eating, and clicking pictures along with whatever other things we could do, to keep ourselves busy.
Finally at 2.00 pm, started after Sonia Gandhi’s speech.
Though most of us didn’t follow who was winning, we cheered for all the teams and the one about to win. We realised who was winning only when the boats were near us at the finishing line. The race seemed to bring out the sportive spirit and cultural heritage of the backwaters.
All around the place, people flocked to watch the race with cameras clicking to shoot pictures. I too was trying to capture the event in my camera.
At around 6.00pm the race came to an end. The end was worth watching, as the participants raced in the setting sun with their wooden hands sweeping away and ribbing the massive waterbody, finally gracefully gliding towards the finish line.
We came to know the winners to be Chambakkulam chundan of the Kollam Jesus boat club.
After a while, all the boats, full with the audience, started moving out of the scene and back to the shore. We too started to head back but after a while we found our boat going towards a nearby island through the water plant, and came to a halt. For quite some time we stood there.. because of some problem in the engine.
Finally, we went back to our resort to freshen up.
The resort, Pozhiyoram, is a nice small resort meant to hold around 10 families with a kind of a courtyard. Its other gate opens up to a small beach. The resort is very clean with good service.
After freshening up when we gathered at the courtyard. We were welcomed by a group of dancers performing Kathakali (a highly stylized classical Indian dance-drama noted for its attractive make-up of characters, their elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion) just for us. A special show that the resort’s management had organized.
Dinner was served at around 9:00pm which consisted of iddiappam, appam, duck, and many other mouth watering dishes. We were all so hungry that in minutes the food vanished.
With our hunger satisfied., we headed towards the small beach where a camp fire was waiting for us. We sang and chatted through most of the night. Most of us hit our bed at around around 3.00am.
6:00am and I woke up – a habit that doesn’t leave me. So I went around in the resort, freshened up and headed out into the beach to capture the beauty of the place in my camera. It was too bright but the view was just awesome.
Breakfast was served. Later, some of us decided to head towards the lake to have a backwater ride. The rest decided to stay and leave directly for Cochin. So, the adventurous group got into one of the bus and went to the lake.
Due to some miscommunication we didn’t get the boat we booked. Instead, we hired a huge boat. If am not wrong, it could hold fifty people while we were only ten. We jumped from this end to that, clicking pictures here and there. It was just a 30 minute ride. Just when we were reaching the jetty, some of the gals and guys dove into the waters of the Arabian sea near the mouth of the backwaters.
We then headed back to Cochin and ate our lunch at a very small restaurant in Cochin. Finishing our lunch we finally started for Bangalore. We slept in the bus, falling down off our seat now and then as the driver stepped on the brakes. We reached Bangalore early morning and headed back home to get ready for office.
Office was a bad dream, the next day…