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The Hindu
The Hindu
Priyadershini S

The fifth race of the Champions Boat League-2 kicks off in Kochi

Aaarrrrppppooo…..Aaiyo. The full-throated cry of boatmen will boom on the waters off Marine Drive tomorrow as the fifth leg of the Champions Boat League gets underway.

Before Kerala Tourism brought the famed snake boat (chundan vallom) races of Kerala under a League competition (CBL), in 2018 there were four major snake boat races held in and around Alappuzha.

The history of boat races can be traced to warring kings of the region who used architecturally superior war baots to abttle each other. the wooden boats were handmade without any technical blueporint and the tradtion continues till datye. As a boat, most often, belonges to a village and oarsmen come from there, entire villages are part of the races.

Kerala’s famous boat races
The CBL season begins with the Nehru Trophy Boat race, which throws up the nine teams that compete in 12 races at venues across Central Kerala, ending with the grand finale at the President’s Trophy Boat race (November 26) on the Ashtamudi lake in Kollam. Besides the Nehru Trophy race that is held on the Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha the other three major traditional races, and now part of CBL, are the Champakkulam Moolam, which is the oldest race, held along the river at Champakkulam in Changanassery, (25 kilometers from Alappuzha), the Payippad Jalotsavam held on Payippad Lake,( 35 kilometers from Alappuzha) and the Aranmula Boat Race on the Pampa River at Aranmula, near Chengannur, around 50 kilometers south of Alappuzha .

With 100-odd oarsmen rowing rhythmically, singing the boat song (vanchipattu) to power their moves, and guided by the war cry of helmsmen and leading captain, the races were visually magnificent and present high wattage drama on the waters. to include nine teams and 12 races in a period of two months coinciding with the tourism season, from August to March.   

Evenly poised race

The was much drama in the last race in Piravom (October 1) , when the Mighty Oars (NCDC) propelled themselves ahead of defending champions Tropical Titans (Pallathuruthy Boat Club) by just 30 microseconds. Raging Rowers (Kerala Police Boat) finished third edging out Ripple Breakers (Punnamada Boat Club), the second runner’s up in a race a week ago. With upsets galore and excitement peaking the snake boat race is thrillingly poised.

“Our strategy went slightly wrong,” says Vinod P, coach of Tropical Titans, at their loss by a whisker, adding that the Marine Drive track is challenging. In the 2019 tournament, it was the only track on which the Tropical Titans had lost after winning all 11 races of the season.

The Marine Drive track has proved challenging for most teams as the 1.3 kilometers stretch is in the sea, not a river or the backwaters.

RK Kurup, president of the Kerala Snake Boat and Rowers Association and one of the organisers, says, In a site survey, it was found that the water lacked depth in certain places and required dredging. The track has been deepened and is 1000 metres.” He adds hat a minimum two metres depth is a basic requirement.

Viond explains, “the track close to the shore is not deep, hence slow; the outer track is deep, with strong currents. The team closer to the shore negotiates steady water while the teams in the outer track have to battle the current and waves.”

As hoped by the Tourism Department, the race is drawing tourists. A group of 22 Americans, on a South India tour, will begin their Kerala experience with the famed snake boat (chundan vallom) race. “It’s a surprise for them,” says Madhukar Sood, of Incredible Journeys, adding that the CBL calendar enables tourists coming to Kerala to plan their trip and include the snake boat race.

Kochi and the Iruttukuthi

“Kochi had its own snake boat race- Indira Gandhi Boat Race- about two decades ago. It was successfully conducted for two to three years but was discontinued thereafter. This CBL race is happening after the pandemic and will revive the race,” says, Kurup,” 

Vinu K John, a Kochiite and a commentator at the Nehru Trophy Boat race this year says, “Ernakulam district has its own boat races. The big difference is that in Ernakulam the boat clubs use the ‘Iruttu kuthi’ and not snake boats.” While snake boats carry 100 rowers the Iruttu Kuthi are of three categories —A, B and C — and have a smaller number of rowers ranging from 25 to 40. The only snake boat race held traditionally in Kochi is the Chembakkara Boat Race,” says Vinu who is from Cheppnaam, a locality that has its own boat club.

The Gothuruth Boat Race
One of the oldest boat races, the Gothuruth Boat Race (GBR) began in 1938. Called the Nehru Trophy of Iruttukuthi boats races. The Gothuruth Boat Club has six iruttukuthi. Its most famous race, called Pallithirunal Vallamkali, is conducted on the occasion of the Holy Cross Feast on the third Sunday of September.

Jijo John Puthezhath of Gothuruth Island belongs to a family that has been patrons of the oldest boat club in Ernakulam district, the Gothurthu Boat Club. He says, “There are as many as 40 small and big boat clubs and committees and as many local races associated with the sport in Ernakulam.”

Vinu adds that Kochi may have been added to the boat race circuit for tourism but it has its own thriving network of rowers, supporters, boat clubs and races.

Jacob J Mappilacherry, 73, recollects the 1993 Indira Gandhi Boat race at Marine Drive. Though nominal captain, of ‘Champakulam’, he was onboard it in the race.  “In the finals, we faced the one and only Karichal. After an unbearably tight race, we won by the skin of our teeth. Our leading captain K N Chandran Kalappurakkal collapsed from the excitement and had to be taken to the hospital” says Jacob. Yearning to be back on the waters in a race, he says, “the old blood still boils,” and adds the Kochi track “presents more adventure, a greater challenge with unpredictable winds and currents.”

Chambakkara Boat race
This is the only snake boat race in Ernakulam. Held every year on the premises of the Chambakkara Bridge it enables people to watch from both sides of the river. Though primarily for snake boats, smaller crafts like churulan, odi and veppu participate. There’s a race for women too.
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