A Round Of Races

About one year ago today Crist, Milo and I fairly stumbled out of the Cochin Airport after traveling from Ithaca, New York*** and were whisked to view one of Kerala’s endemic sporting events, the snake boat races. Backwaters villages compete with one another in what traditionally commemorated the carrying of idols to the state’s many magnificent temples.

We had missed the fabled Nehru Trophy Race last year by a few days, but had arrived in time to see one of the other many races that occur every year around the Kerala harvest festival of Onam. The snake boats vary in size but the largest are over 50 meters long and slightly more than 1 meter wide with a high curved stern that represents the raised hood of a snake.  It isn’t only the length and shape of the boat itself that is impressive.  These races are almost certainly (someone please correct me if I am wrong) the sporting event with the largest number of members in a single team:  manned (or “womanned”, as the case may be) by over a 100 oarsmen who row in unison to the fast rhythm of `vanchipattu’ or boatmen’s song.  The boats are decorated for the races with flower garlands, adding an air of festivity to the shouts, songs and splashes.

Yesterday (as you can see in the photo above) we had seating in a covered pavilion

on a small island in the middle of the waterways. The entire scene had a Carnival atmosphere, with the racing boats punctuated by larger passenger boats sporting dancing occupants and flapping banners.

The Nehru Trophy Race has been scheduled on the second Saturday of August for 59 years and this year we were in attendance.  Sung had joined us, and he and Milo were like dueling cameramen, vying for the best shots while en route.  As our speedboat plied the backwaters on our way to the pavilion we saw numerous fully occupied snake boats either being towed toward the lake location or still on the water’s edge, receiving their last minute decorations.  It was interesting to see the boats in this preparatory mode, with rowers enjoying their village camaraderie before letting loose all the adrenalin required to make it to the finish line.

When we arrived our boat circled the area and we could see people lining every available bank, sometimes with awnings and sometimes sitting on what looked like small, uncovered bleachers.  The press was there in abundance, and there were special areas for the judges and sponsors (an important aspect of the race’s continued success.)

We disembarked, entering the crowded pavilion filled to capacity with a healthy mix of Indian and western spectators, talking, playing cards and reading as they waited for the spectacle to begin.  This particular race is one of the most famous of the season because it comes around Independence Day, so it wasn’t surprising to see so many foreigners in attendance.

Despite the crowd, all eyes were on the boats as they skimmed through the water.  The rowers sit side by side, methodically scooping the water with their compact oars in unison with the other men shouting out the rhythmic, time keeping song.  In addition, a half a dozen men stand at the boat’s stern, swinging their oversized oars in full circle, high into the air and then down deep into the water, like a human water wheel propelling the boat forward.

Each village team wore their own colors, but the boats themselves had numbered cards on both sides. The women’s boats were a different style; smaller, with a delicate raised spiral at both bow and stern.  The team’s simple muslin saris added to the overall elegance.

And the winner was…

See my next post after I have the opportunity to scan the Sunday papers for typically exuberant journalistic accounts.

***  (where Seth was about to begin his freshman year of university and, soon enough,  join the Freshman Varsity rowing team)

2 thoughts on “A Round Of Races

  1. Pingback: Let Us Give Thanks « Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Shop on the Water « Raxa Collective

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