The prestigious Nehru Trophy Boat Race 2020, the Water Festival of Alappuzha has been canceled this year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Ever since the inception way back in 1952, the event was cancelled in the following year. Right from 1954, till last year, the festival was held continuously till last year. The curtain has fallen temporarily on a major chapter in tourism with the cancellation of the world-famous water festival, which has been in full swing since last year. There were no winners during the competitions held in 1981 and 2011. Due to the floods, in 2018 when the competition was postponed, it was held only in November that year. Cricket legend, Sachin Tendulkar, who was supposed to take part on the scheduled date as Chief Guest, who later joined the fiesta in November. Last year, the water festival was held on September 1. The calculation of the boat race to be the proudest sport in Kerala, which was included in the Champions Boat League and aired by Star Sports, has gone for a toss.
The famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race is held every year on the second Saturday of August on the same day at Punnamada in Alappuzha. Unfortunately, this is the third time in a row that the event was not able to be held on the specific day. In 2018 and 2019, the boat race was postponed due to floods and monsoon related issues. In the wake of the corona epidemic, the competition has been suspended this time as well. The boat race has evolved over the centuries with the characteristics of the Kuttanad agrarian culture.
Signs of the agrarian community and the life of the downtrodden people can be seen in this water festival. It also reflects the commitments of customs and beliefs. The stories of naval warfare and feuds of the fiefdoms also went into the transformation of boats at various stages. It has started as a water festival and has reached competitive boat races. More than 20 boat races, both large and small, are held in Kuttanad and elsewhere during the months of August and September. The most famous of these is the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Trail from water battles to water festivals. It seems that the history of Chundan Vallangal (Beaked Boats) can be summarised in this way. Among the boats with varying names such as Odi, Veppu and Iruttukuthi, however, the best among them is without doubt, Chundan Vallam. Chundan boats are associated with the history of domination and warfare of the local kings of Kuttanad. Later, the unique customs, beliefs and traditions of the agricultural culture intertwined. In the early days, boat races were introduced as part of the rituals associated with the temples. Westerners like W. J. Richards wrote extensively about the Aranmula Boat Race, replete with delighted crowd, about hundreds of years ago.
“Out of these revelers, few of them were holding torches, while the reflection of the fire lit torches were seen in the swirling waters of the lake. The river was active with small and large boats. See how they are singing with excitement! How beautifully they move their bodies together with absolute syncronisation!” thus goes his description.
The Book titled: ‘Native Life in Travancore,’ written by Reverend Samuel Matter, and published in London way back in 1883, evaluates the various types of boats in Kerala and explains how they relate to social life.
Rev Samue Matter writes: “Boat racing is a favourite pastime of the people of Travancore. There are ample facilities in many rivers and lakes. Boating is mainly done by long musket boats, which are submerged in water and have a row and anchorage curved upwards. The rowers sing happily and cheer as the competition progresses. In some places, boat races are an important part of temple festivals.”
Today’s boat race is made up of many types of additions. In the early days, water festivals were organized in the boats of Chundan, Odi and Veppu with song and rhythmic rowing. Later, with the increase in the participation of the boat race and the strength of the competitors, the boat race became one of the biggest battles of its kind today. The birth of Chundan Boats on the history of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which commemorates the visit of the country’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Alappuzha, take us back to the historical stages of the formation of chundan vallams. The history of the Chundan boats dates back to the time when the local kings of Chembakassery (Ambalappuzha), Kayamkulam, Thekkamkoor (Changanassery) and Vadakkamkoor (Kottayam) were the local kings of the old Travancore region about 400 years ago. The king of Chembakassery had to accept heavy defeats from other naval powers. Realising that their failure was due to a lack of warm-up, the king decided to build faster and better warships. The skilled carpenters of the land were called and consulted. After months of hard work, Kodupunna Venkatanarayanan, a carpenter who was famous for building boats at that time, created a model of a boat with the zeal of the king. The boats were fast, maneuverable, and capable of carrying up to 100 warriors. The boat had an eel-like structure. They are able to hide among the branches of trees on the shore and ambush enemy boats. It was from there that the mouse boats we see today were born. The King of Chembakassery won the ensuing battles with these warships. Chundan boats became the strength of Chembakassery’s navy.
While telling the name and glory of the mouse boats, it is impossible not to tell the story of a love affair that took place in the meantime. The King of Kayamkulam, after losing the battle against the troops of the King of Chembakassery, a spy was commissioned to study the construction strategy of the new boats. This man entices the daughter of the carpenter, who had made boat for the King of Chembakassery makes her fall in love with him. Subsequently, the spy, using the closeness with the carpenter, gets to know the know how of boat making. When the King of Chembakassery comes to know of it, he incarcerates the spy for anti-national activity. But the construction of the rat boats was not easy to learn. Although the construction technique was understood, the people of Kayamkulam could not apply it. Legend has it that the king of Chembakassery later released the carpenter from prison. Boats with a length of more than a hundred feet and oars above 100 feet will rise without touching the surface of the water. There are boats of up to 140 feet length. The tip at the back is about twenty feet high. Usually, in a boat, there will be 86 people to row, 10-15 people to cheer rhythmically and four people to control the boat from the stern of the boat will be deputed. Another feature of the Chundan Vallam has has maximum craftsmanship among all other boats. The Chundan Vallam for the competition will be 38.5 to 48.5 feet long. This boat can accommodate between 100 to 150 people. These boats are made with the trunk of Kadambu or Anjili trees. These race boats were collectively owned by the public. Also, there is another approach that is in place that the public will hire the boats from private players to take part in the competition.
The competitive wonder of the lake
The fiesta called Vallamkali is the utmost amazing thing happening in the lake. Obviously, the main attraction among the boats is none other than Chundan Vallam. During his visit to Kerala, Jawaharlal Nehru traveled by boat from Kottayam to Alappuzha via Kuttanad. The then Prime Minister was accompanied on this voyage by a large contingent of small boats. The first boat race was held in the honour of Nehru back in 1952. Then, in the competition among the first item of Chundan Vallam race, Badumbagam Chundan Vallam reached the first place.
The incident of the excited Nehru jumping onto the winning boat scuttling all security measures is now part of the folklore. In 1952 December, while returning from Delhi, Nehru gifted the winners with the shape of a boat made of silver fixed to a wooden pedestal. Later, that was transformed into Nehru Trophy.