7:00 AM, Sun is beginning to rise in full glory amidst the grey clouds over Alleppey town. The wind is quiet and pleasant. Smell of old buildings, sight of narrow lanes, tall coconut trees hovering over, waterways running across the city and a few lungi clad locals off to start their day. But we know things are going to change as the clock moves ahead. We quicken our steps towards Punnamada lake; the battleground or we should say battlelake . Today Punnamada lake is going to witness another year of the fiercest snake boat race; the Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race 2016.
As we come closer to the Punnamada lake, policemen are ready for the day with barricades. But, we too are on a mission to find the best spot to watch the race. We take a small mud road and reach the lake. The lake is almost ready to host the race. Start and finish points marked with colorful flags, motor boats on inspection, snack stalls coming up, houseboats lining up for the best view, pavilions being given the last touch and the press setting their cameras for the boat race
Suddenly there is an unsuspecting entry of a chundan vallam; the mighty snake boat about 50m long, powered by 100+ strong men, slicing the silence of the calm lake waters on the rhythmic beats of vanchipattu (the boatman’s song). 4 hefty helmsmen stand on the end of the boat and help it steer with their long oars. What an adrenaline rush! If this was the practice, we definitely can’t miss the best spot to see the finale.
Few locals warn us that there will be rowdy crowd hence to look out for ticketed spots near the finishing line. We walk by the side of the lake towards the boat race ticket window. On the midway, we find temporary structures of bamboo erected for the spectators. This will definitely not hold on the crowd. No, definitely not this pavilion.
We move ahead and come to the Rose Pavilion, just opposite the finishing point pavilion. That’s our spot for the day.
9:00 AM, Sun gets in full mood, setting aside the clouds. We can already see swarms of people coming in. The ticket window is yet to open. There was a huge confusion about pavilion names and their positions. Nobody has a clear answer. 2 tickets for Rose Pavilion-Rs.750/, taken. By the time, we stepped out (after buying our tickets), the road is already buzzing with hawkers, tourists and locals. The stalls by the road side are up, waterways busy with boats ferrying the tourists, travel agents take the roads to sell the last tickets, all of this clouded with sounds of toy trumpets. We head to the Indian Coffee House to grab an early lunch.
12:15 PM, Sun has also decided to not to miss the show and is shining bright. We enter the Rose Pavilion. It is already full, with chairs occupied; we grab a place on the steps.
An ecstatic group of supporters of Nadumbagham chundan vallam steal all the stares in the crowd and of the press cameras, as they jump, dance, cheer, blow their toy trumpets loudest. Spirited crowd give a loud cheer, we turn our heads to see one mighty chundan vallam heading our direction. And the pattern followed. So this is just the practice and real show still has time.
03:00 PM, Sun’s tempo has also gone down with the wait. The impatient yet excited crowd is holding on to their hunger and bladders, waiting for the final moment. There is sudden outburst of deafening Malayalam commentary and the entire crowd is stirred. The wait is getting longer with the formal speeches. At last we see them. Each one gracefully, slicing its way with the power of its oarsmen on the rhythmic beats. 15 plus, lined up for the drill, are indeed a brilliant spectacle together and worth the entire wait. A riot of colors; men clad in red, blue, purple, pink, green uniforms raise their oars together. The oarsmen do the final salute and flag is hoisted. The race has been declared open.
04:00 PM, Sun has taken the backseat giving way to rain also to witness the spectacle. Much awaited rain adds the extra cheer. The timer boards lit up with the names of the racing boats. Zeros turned to numbers in a blink. We know the race has started. 1.4 KM, 16 boats, race their hearts out to get the best timing in the heats of 4 boats each. Finally we see them; hundreds of oars cutting through the waters at flashing speed, with pace-keepers increasing their thumping, each boat racing to edge the other, fighting the close battle to finish first. For us the greens have timed this heat the best. The chundan heats are followed by the heats of smaller boats.
Frenzy supporters are up on the coconut trees, down in the waters almost coming in way of the racing boats. The umpire boat in white shows off its exclusive rights to wade through these waters today.
5:30 PM, Sun relaxes to watch the finale. Four best timers in the heats have got their names up on the timer board. Our supporter friends also have their boat in the finale. They have gone ballistic. The air is drenched with sounds of drums and trumpets. The commentator has cracked his nerves in bringing the first hand account. The cheers have gone louder; the winner is clear cut this time. Slicing their way much ahead of rivals, Kaarichal Chundan rowed by the Vembanad Boat Club lifts up the Nehru Trophy in the 64th year of the event and set a new record of 4 minutes, 22.10 secs. Interestingly the boat was rowed by a mix army personnel and locals.
6:30 PM, Sun has also decided to retire for the day as the exhausted crowd. We also head back to catch our bus for our next stop, Kochi.
To help our fellow travelers plan their trip for upcoming Nehru Trophy boat races, we have also put the top travel tips here.
Happy exploration !!