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Bengaluru to Alleppey: Off to the races

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-08-2017 Supriya Sehgal

The ubiquitous Kerala houseboats that glide over Alleppey’s (Alappuzha’s) Punnamada Lake offer picturesque views of life by the backwater canals that link the lake to the Arabian Sea. Sun-blasted in the summer, the coastal town gets a coat of green when the monsoon makes its way there in late June. Sturdy black umbrellas feature in every hand as the dark grey lumpy clouds roll in day after day, barely giving the lush region a break. In the thick of these pounding rains, the otherwise dull holiday season cashes in on the seasonal influx offered by the annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race on the second Saturday of August. On this day, chundan vallams, or slim 100-seater boats, battle each other in Punnamada Lake.

With my abiding love for all things Kerala, it was no surprise to friends that I wanted their company on my third visit to the event. Since the race falls on a weekend, it made for an ideal getaway.

The overnight train to Alleppey deposited us early so we could check in in leisurely fashion at the Akkarakalam Memoirs home-stay, 12km from the race action. We had time enough to admire the 150-year-old Syrian Christian house at the edge of the Pamba river and pack in a heavy breakfast of appams and stew. Having booked a houseboat for the day, we were in for a plush time, complete with an air-conditioned room to relax in and an in-house cook to make us a local feast on the water.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

The race starts at about 2pm, but we were off hours earlier to bag a spot in the front row, with a clear view of the watery track. We hopped on to our ride for the day, taking half an hour to reach Punnamada Jetty, where the race finishes.

On this day, the otherwise serene waters of Punnamada Lake witness stories of sweat and sinew that become the stuff of legend. It was in 1952 that Jawaharlal Nehru visited Alleppey and the rolling trophy presented by him went on to become the most prestigious amongst the several championships organized on the canals. But the boats hark back to a time when these were the only way kings and their armies could navigate the complex canal system. The raised hood of the boat (an allusion to a snake) would bear the royal symbol; this was also where the navigator would watch out for approaching enemy boats.

Every year, Alleppey witnesses the same astute navigation in a simulation of this remarkable tradition. Snake boats are pitched by neighbouring villages, with teams practising for close to a month before the main day. Ten boats qualify for the final race after a series of heats organized a week earlier.

Ours was among the hundreds of spectator houseboats that had set out from villages. A sea of locals, high on arrack and enthusiasm, cheered on their teams, erupting into the traditional vallam kali (boat race) song every few minutes.

Finally, it was time for the competition. Oarsmen propelled the boats, about 135ft in length. They swayed from front to back, digging their oars in the water to the beat of the singing entourage of 12, seated right in the middle. Cheers drowned out the announcements of who had won—we were just happy to have witnessed the action.

Exhausted by the sultry air and cacophony of chaotic backwater action, we returned to the home-stay and slept deeply.

The next day was reserved for reading and lazing in the garden, overlooking the Pamba. And every once in a while, one of us would begin humming the vallam kali song.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @supsonthemove.

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