Nehru Trophy Boat Race: A Race towards Universal Brotherhood

Nehru Trophy Boat Race

Nehru Trophy Boat Race

August is turning out to be a month of bonanza for the sports lovers. Apart from the ongoing Rio Olympics, they also have the Nehru Trophy Boat Race to look forward to, which is scheduled to take place on 13th of August. Conducted on the Punnamda Lake near Alappuzha in Kerala, this race has been named after the erstwhile first Prime Minister of India post independence, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

The race is held on the second Saturday of August every year, and the participants include the residents from every village in Kuttanad. The tranquil lake is transformed into a battlefield on the day of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race with the participants fiercely fighting for the first position.

The First Race

In 1952, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, while visiting Kerala, took a boat trip from Kottayam to Alappuzha. Alappuzha was a part of the erstwhile state of Travancore. Based on its geographical location, the word ‘Alappuzha’ means the land between the sea and a network of rivers flowing into it.

During the boat trip, Panditji was accompanied by a pageantry of other boats, when enroute an impromptu boat race was organised for the then Prime Minister of India. 8 snake boats participated in the race, including Nadubhagom, Chambakkulam (Amichakari), ParthaSarathy, Kavalam, Valiya Diwanji, Neppolean, Nethaji, GearGoss (I.C.Vallam).

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was impressed both with the performance of the boats as well as the skill of the oarsmen. In his excitement, Panditji insisted on riding the rest of the way across the lake in the winning snake boat, Nadubhagam Chundan, without any security arrangements.

Jawaharlal Nehru then proceeded to Delhi from where he sent a silver trophy to the winners of the boat race. The trophy was shaped in the form of a snake with the inscription,  “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore”. Since then, every year the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is organised in Alappuzha.

The Preparations

Preparation for this race begins months in advance.

  • Sardine oil is smeared on the boats for smooth passage through water.
  • Around 150 best oarsmen representing the different villages are selected.
  • These oarsmen take an oath of life of abstinence and celibacy until the races are over.
  • The oarsmen are trained under the supervision of the older and experienced oarsmen.
  • Mass feasts are held on the river banks every day while the training session is on and the affluent families of the village take turns in feeding the oarsmen.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race sees the Punnamda Lake front getting transferred into a sea of humanity as nearly 2 lakh people, including tourists from India and abroad, head out to Alappuzha to witness the much awaited race.

  • The star attraction of the Nehru Boat Race is the chundan vallam or the snake boat. At 100 ft in length and a raised prow it are indeed an impressive sight.
  • Each snake boat can accommodate around 100 rowers, 4 helmsmen and 25 cheer leaders.
  • The name, snake boat, was given by the British colonial rulers who had named the chundan vallam after the snake boats in Norway.
  • The other smaller varieties of Kerala race boats that participate in the race include the Churulan, Veppu and Oadi.
  • The entire lake front and the lake gets transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours with beautifully beaded umbrellas held afloat in all the boats, the floats portraying the rich cultural heritage of Kerala, artists performing ‘kathakali‘, ‘theyyam‘, ‘panchavadyam‘ and ‘padayani‘, and the ebony black gilded stern of the gigantic snake boats.
  • The sight of the oars dipping and flashing 100 to 120 times a minute and the steersmen hurling their gigantic oars in a high arc is indeed mesmerising.
  • The race course on the lake has a length of 1370m and is divided into multiple tracks for a number of boats to participate in.
  • The race begins with the oarsmen rowing in unison and chanting rhythmically to the beat of drums.
  • The popular couplet among the oarsmen is called the ‘Kuchelavritham Vanchipattu‘: the classic Malayalam poem written by Ramapurathu Warrier. The song is written in honour of the Travancore King, King Marthanda Varma in the 19th Century. Vanchippattu is a poetic form of folk origin.
  • The visual is indeed beautiful with the boats looking like snakes slithering down the lake.
  • The lakefront with the massive crowd of spectators resonates with the sound of cheering.

Nehru Trophy Boat Race 2016

The 64th edition of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race will be held on 13th August, 2016, and the chief competitors in this race are the snake boats including the Champakulam, Kavalam, Karichal, Jawahar Thayangari, Kallooparamban, Pacha, Pulincunnu, Nedubhagam, Cheruthana, Kandangari and Paippad. There will also be other kinds of boats participating in the various other events which include the Churulan Vallam, Iruttukuthy Vallam, Odi Vallam, Veppu Vallam (Vaipu Vallam), Vadakkanody Vallam and Kochu Vallam.


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The Race that has always Promoted Community Amity

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race has seen the boundaries created due to economic status, social status, caste, creed and religion getting erased. Post independence, when the Indian Society was struggling with caste discrimination, this race saw Hindus, Scheduled Castes, Christians and Muslims sitting in the same row for the feast that is organised on the river banks during the training session. While the race is associated with the temple, the church also is an active participant. India needs more of such gaming events which speak of Universal Brotherhood, and bring people of every faith together.