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Kerala’s snake boat races to get IPL-style makeover

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-06-2017 Nidheesh M.K.

Bengaluru: Kerala’s traditional backwater snake-boat races, known as “vallom kalli”, are all set to get an Indian Premier League (IPL)-style makeover, with the support of the government.

Held during the harvest festival of Onam, the snake-boat race is among the biggest mass sporting events in the world, and is more about just touching the finishing line in Kerala.

Dozens of such races are held every year in a charged atmosphere, with thousands of spectators turning up along the state’s placid backwaters, cheering their home team racing on snake boats (the name derives from the shape of their bow, like a serpent about to strike) which will be usually 100-ft long and carrying about one hundred oarsmen or women.

The biggest among them, the Nehru Trophy boat race, has a story that goes all the way back to 1952 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came down to Kerala. The locals arranged a boat race to make the occasion, and the story is that Nehru got so excited with the spectacle that he also jumped into a boat along with the rovers and later donated a trophy to hold it every year; hence the name.

The boat races also have a secular credo to it in Kerala-- the organisers take proud of the fact that the hundreds who wield the oars cut across religion, caste and of recently, even gender.

While most of them depend more or less on local patrons for funding, of late the organisers have been airing concerns of not been able to cope up with the rising costs of holding the races. For instance, a yearly race in Alappuzha district’s Kayamkulam last year was skipped altogether because of the lack of money.

The new move, which was formalised after a meeting between officials in the current communist government and the stakeholders of the racing community on Wednesday, is aimed at a makeover of the situation.

The very nature of the race will change once it turns into a league (tournament) format, wrote economist-turned-finance minister Thomas Isaac, in his Facebook page on Thursday.

In the tournament, there will be nine races, each having nine teams competing against each other, said C.K. Sadashivan, a legislator who was also part of Wednesday’s meeting.

The teams will be selected depending on who comes up at the top nine positions in the Nehru Trophy race, held on the second Saturday every August, he said.

This year’s race will begin in August, and the final will be held in October. The venues will be three backwaters in Alappuzha and Ernakulam districts, he said.

On the finances, the government will foot a large part of the bill this year, said Sadashivan. “We have requested for a special grant of at least Rs 4.5 crore from the government. Depending on how it goes, and how the private sponsors react, we will soon fix a prize money for the winning team,” he said.

The return for the government, Isaac wrote, will be a potential boost in the tourism as it would streamline the scattered races all over Kerala into one big spectacle that runs for two months.

“For the past several years, local clubs have been struggling with conducting the boat races. Something like the Nehru Trophy race will require above Rs 2 crore every year. This is our last bet to keep the tradition continue,” said Sadashivan.

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