Nehru Boat Race, Kerala

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It had been raining almost continuously in Kerala for around two weeks – boat mishaps, landslides were in the news.Rain I had planned for a Kerala backwater trip to witness Nehru Boat race at Alleppey with my mom. I had visited only the hill stations in Kerala earlier and so this was a completely different experience. Santosh Nair from Exotic Expeditions had posted about the trip on August 9th, 10th and 11th on meetup.com. Mom showed interest in this trip too when she came to know that the boat race was the highlight of the trip, for she had heard from her father that the race was awesome.

Mom and I reached Shantinagar Bus Stop and acquainted ourselves with the other co-passengers. I was glad that there were three other girls to accompany mom. The delaying of the bus had its repercussions the next day. We reached Ernakulam around 11 AM in the morning and it was 2 PM by the time we reached the homestay after breakfast. The homestay is called Riverside Retreat and has peaceful surroundings with Pemba River and lush greenery in visibility. In the meantime I got on a small boat with an oarsman and rowed it with my mom for some distance. I was proud – mom always had an interest in traveling and this time I was making it happen. We were supposed to have lunch at a village, but as we were late we had to settle down for a normal lunch at Alleppey.

We left to Mararikulam beach in a tempo. It was surprisingly very good with facilities such as A/C, TV and retractable seats, to name a few. It had been a while since I was at a beach and so I took this the opportunity to enjoy the waves. The beach was quiet, clean and beautiful. I had a refreshing jog for a short distance along the shore glancing at the setting sun with its rays splattered over the sea. We had dinner at Indian Coffee House at Alleppey and throughout the trip I never left a chance to savor fish. Sitting on the riverside Dominic (a fellow tourist) pointed out an interesting fact –the direction of the flow of water was opposite compared to that in the morning.

Early next day, Dominic and I bravely got into a boat and tried our best at rowing. Though it wasn’t an actual snake boat, we snaked it – no matter how much we tried, we kept moving in a zigzag fashion touching one shore to other! We managed to displace the boat for some distance and kept bragging about it with rest of the group. After breakfast at the homestay we left for a jetty where we would board the boat house. Shooting of Malayalam serial was happening there and I had a small chat with the Assistant director.  I had never been in a boat house , so was excited. I sat just behind the driver in the front. My eyeballs were rolling with joy capturing the unique things en route to the race venue. The Nehru Boat Race is one of a kind in whole of India and it’s naturally a big day for the people of Alleppey. People were dancing, diving and playing in the water with their own tappanguchi style. Dance The boat house was parked at a location somewhere near the end point.

61st Nehru Boat Race:
Nehru Boat Race is named so because when Jawaharlal Nehru visited Alleppey in 1952, people there conducted a boat race to impress him. Since then I don’t know whether Nehru visited again, but the boat race is conducted at Punnamada Lake on second Saturday of August every year. Inauguration was supposed to start at 2 PM but was delayed due to some reason. We caught glimpses of numerous boats (including few women’s teams) making their way to start. It was a celebratory environment: people (including foreigners) danced to the local tunes. A few jumped into the water to swim close to the racing boats. We had views of neither the starting point nor ending point. But one of the boats stopped in between the course and gave a demonstration of the whole exercise from the beginning. We saw the unison of energy put by oarsmen and the boat picking the momentum. I got goose bumps looking at this amazing team effort. The drums, whistles and tunes played on the boats pepped up oarsmen and filled the audience with enthusiasm. Police were patrolling the course and were sending people who were swimming close to the race track back.
Our house boat was parked around 50 meters from the race track. Others boats had been docked side by side, which reduced our viewing angle. Mom got onto a family boat beside ours which had a balcony like view. I saw a small boat in front of us which had a better view of the race. I asked a person there if I could join him and he readily agreed. So three of us jumped from in our house boat jumped to that small boat and were among few who had the best views of the race. Vishnu, a student on the boat who could speak English, explained many details regarding the race. There were three categories of races. The 100–120 foot long canoes made of a wood carrying 90- 110 rowers which moves like a snake through the channels were called Snake boats. There were 16 snake boats and 5 races to decide a winner with 4 competing in each race. The winner of the final round would get Rs5,00,000 and all the finalists would get Rs3,00,000. Others competing were B grade boats and smaller ones. The boat which we were in was actually a rescue boat, which allowed us to get closer to the course. Indian flagStanding on the boat, having a panoramic view of fierce boats fighting their way to the finish line in the front and people cheering for them in the back I just acknowledged the uniqueness and passion India has. I was proudly saying to myself, “This is my India and these are my people”. I was at an altitude of 15,200 feet on snow covered mountains 2 months ago and now I was at sea level with lush greenery. My country never fails to bring a smile on my face. I am impressed every time I visit a new place. I thoroughly enjoyed the race and had goose bumps whenever the boats zoomed past me. Bidding bye to Vishnu, we went back to our boat house as it had to go somewhere else. A few of us were too impatient to wait till the final and hence we left the venue to explore the backwaters.

Alleppey is justifiably referred to as the “Venice of the East”. Sitting near the rear end of the house boat, I just let my thoughts wander. We stopped by a place to have Toddy (traditional, social and local drink extracted from coconut tree) and I relished it with tiny fried fishes called Nethili.
After going back to the homestay we had dinner followed by a card game called Continental. It was truly a continental game because our group had people from across different continents. Our group included people from South America (Columbia),Columbia Flag Europe (Spain)Spain Flag and us Asians (including a guy from IsraelIsrael Flag). We had an amazing group: there was a person who could say “Mai hoon Rahul, Naam to suna hoga” and another who could say “Mai hoon Mampi, Naam to nahi suna hoga”! I really enjoyed playing the game. I just wished if life could be so equally simple and fun, but the truth is that we have to earn such moments.

We got into a race boat early in the next morning and tried emulating the actual boat environment by beating empty cans, shouting and rowing in unison. Then mom, my Israeli friend and I went for a kilometre long ride. The rest of the day was spent exploring Cochin and I actually learnt many new things. I never knew that Cochin had more than just south Indian influence. It also has old Portuguese style buildings. I found numerous churches but hardly any temples. We went to a Jewish street lined with shops selling antique pieces of crockery, carved wooden furniture, bronze and brass sculptures, remnants of traditional houses, and jewellery. We then visited the oldest Synagogue (Jewish temple) there and our Jewish friend assumed the role of a guide. When Jews were banished from Europe, they migrated to the East. One of such places was Cranganore near Cochin. The Synagogue was adorned with blue and white tiles on the floor and numerous chandeliers. It had a seating area in the middle. Our friend explained few inscriptions written in Hebrew.
After lunch we went to see Chinese fishing nets around Fort Cochin, which employ a unique fishing technique. Huge mechanical contrivances hold out horizontal nets of 20 m or more across. Each structure is at least 10 m high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. Each installation is operated by a team of up to six fishermen. Passing through the shops lined with varieties of fishes we went to the church which had housed Vasco Da Gama’s body for 14 days, before it was shipped to Portugal. This was a surprising fact, as I always perceived only Goa as the Vasco’s connection. This enriching trip was almost coming to an end. We bade goodbye to few of us in Cochin and left for Thrissur to board a bus to Bangalore. On the way we passed Lullu mall (the biggest mall In India), after seeing which the fellow travellers were making fun of every other thing they saw. They were like “This is the biggest chicken franchise, this is the biggest tea shop board, etc”. We played couple of games en route. As a punishment for losing the game, Santosh was made to snake-dance. The others danced, sang and cracked few jokes. We stopped by Maheshawari restaurant at Thrissur. I mentioned the name of the restaurant because almost everything ordered was tasty. I had two servings of Chole Batura which had mouth-watering curry. We then left for Bangalore to re-earn the money spent over the weekend.

Traveling was enjoyable, but seeing my mom interacting and having fun with unknown people was priceless. I am used to such meet-ups but she was surprised at the way we all got along so well in such a short span of time. This was the first trip I sponsored for my mom and most of it went well. I felt as though I answered my mom’s 23 years of wait and faith in me and this is just the beginning. I have my whole life dedicated to my family now. I had mentioned about the heavy rains and landslides in the area in the beginning of this post. The fact that it rained barely for 30 mins during my stay was nothing short of a miracle. Especially considering that I was at Kerala during peak monsoon. Mother Nature helped me in realizing my dreams to tour with my mother. Travel is my new found love and I enjoy every bit of it: adventures, learning about the place’s history, making new contacts, trying different cuisines, etc. I mentioned about foreigners and my experiences in India for a reason: India is culturally so rich that even people from other countries come to enjoy it. My suggestion to you is to travel India for all its worth before it’s too late.

Here are a few Tips:
• Nehru boat race can be viewed from either the stands or from boat houses. Stands near the finish line gives a better view but house boats give better comfort.
• The earlier you reach the venue, closer you get to see the nail biting finish of the race. So, if you are going on a boat house, please start out early.
• If looking for a homestay/resort in Alleppey, people who love seclusion can look for the places farther from the town. National Waterway 3/Pemba river has lots of resorts on its bank.
• Backwater visit may not be complete unless you sit on a small boat and actually row yourself. Take your favorite ones and row them across the river to make them feel special.

P.S. : I thank Kerala Tourism  for recognizing this post. They have a great website to promote this unique water stretches – Great Backwaters. Visit it to know what to expect in backwaters of Kerala.

Nikhil Navali

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Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Nehru Boat Race, Kerala

  1. Anonymous

    So nice 🙂

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