The 69th edition of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race (NTBR), Kerala's much-loved 'Olympics on water', will be held on August 12. The race, held at Alappuzha's Punnamada Lake, is an event with over 400 years of rich history.
A few months after NTBR, the lake will also witness the Champions Boat League race aka CBL, an IPL-style water sport with nine teams vying for the championship. The final dates are yet to be announced.
Are you planning to check out these events this year? Here’s all that you need to know, from event dates and controversies to the history of the races.
Timings, dates and more:
On August 12, NTBR starts around 11 am, with the heats of Iruttukuthi boats. After the inauguration at 2 pm, there will be a mass drill at 2.30 pm, followed by the much-awaited heats of the snake boat races. The finals of all categories of boats will be held from 4 pm. The regatta will have a total of 72 boats, including 19 snake boats, vying for the trophies.
Alappuzha-based Pallathuruthy Boat Club, which won the Nehru Trophy three times in a row, is the reigning champion. Last year, they won the title on the boat named Mahadevikaad Kaatil Thekkethil.
Karichal Chundan, the boat which won a total of 15 trophies, has won the championship the most number of times. In the 1952 event, which was inaugurated by the former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Kavalam Chundan emerged winner and took home the first-ever Nehru Trophy.
As for CBL, in its inception year of 2019, Tropical Titans of Pallathuruthy Boat Club emerged winners. They retained the position in 2022 as well when the event was held after a two-year pandemic-induced break.
History of NTBR, CBL
While the snake boat race has been a regular affair in Kerala for centuries, the event in 1952 was inaugurated by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The PM was apparently quite enchanted by the majestic event and even jumped into one of the boats.
In memory of his experience in Alappuzha, he donated a silver snake boat trophy to the event, later. From there on, the event was rechristened the 'Nehru Trophy Boat Race.'
The Champion's Boat League, meanwhile, was kicked-off in 2019 to woo tourists and promote Kerala's destinations globally. Its participants are the top nine teams of the previous year's NTBR. The event is usually held across 12 venues, including those in Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kottayam and Kollam.
Tale of the boat race
Veteran boat race expert Kummanam Ashraf, who has been part of NTBR both as a participant and office bearer for more than 50 years, says snake boats were initially made as vehicles for kings to travel and transport armouries during wars.
“There was a constant rift between the kings of Chempakasseri and Kayamkulam,” says Ashraf, narrating the tale of origin.
He explains: “Once, the king of Chempakasseri, named Devanarayanan, announced that a backwater-based special war machine need to be made for the kingdom. Many carpenters crafted various models; the king chose the one made by Kodupunna Narayanan Ashari.”
Once he built the craft, the Kayamkulam king was jealous, and the carpenter was kidnapped by his people, Ashraf narrates.
Apparently, the carpenter was forced to build a similar boat for this king as well, though it was considered an act of treason in those times: “When Chempakasseri king saw the new boats of Kayamkulam, he was enraged and ordered to behead the carpenter. However, the carpenter apparently said: "Please execute me only after the boats I built are used in a war," and the king obliged.
Once a war erupted, the Chempakasseri king noted a surprising aspect. When arms are fired from the boats made for Chempakasseri, they moved a bit forward. But whenever Kayamkulam boats fired, their boats only inched backwards!
“Discovering the carpenter's brilliance, the king set him free and even bestowed his own name on the carpenter. Thus, Narayanan Ashari was re-christened Devanarayanan Ashari. After a while, the king donated the special boat he made to the carpenter. The skilled craftsman that he was, the carpenter transformed the boat into a chundan vallam and presented it to the people of the place he belonged,” explains Ashraf.
Then again, the boat race with chundan vallams started much later. Once upon a time, they were paraded in water like elephants during temple festivals, as part of the rituals. The idol of the respective deities was carried on the boats as processions. The ritual later evolved into a sort of competition.
Interestingly, the competition gradually urged different 'karas' or regions to have their own boats.
Ashraf says: “The residents of various regions themselves were the oarsmen, leaders, singers and much more until about 15 years ago. During my school days, we had a period dedicated to rowing practice every day, during the 'vallam kali (boat race)' season. It was like preparing for today's school youth festival. There were even boat races between different schools, that's where I learned the sport. Today, the local participation on boats is minimal; most rowers are hired from many other parts of the country.”
Evolution of 'fanfare'
In the past, every regional team enjoyed a strong fan base and support from the residents of the area. However, according to Ashraf, that too has changed with time.
“Now, the loyalty is club-based, as the regional participation is anyway minimal. For instance, a Pallathuruthy Boat Club can have fans both inside and outside of its home. The same goes for other clubs too. It's like supporting Mammootty or Mohanlal,” he says.
Participation of women
Women participate only in the 'thekkenodi' category of boats now. In the past, they used to participate in churulan, iruttukuthi and veppu boats too. “Women can row any boat, though no women's team has tried the chundan vallams yet. It's because of the difficulty to find enough participants to row,” Ashraf says. A chundan vallam team should have a minimum of 75 to maximum 95 rowers to ensure participation.
Time and again, various controversies have cropped up in various yearly editions of the boat race. This year, the boat clubs and oarsmen are worried about the organisers planning the CBL event probably for November, months after NTBR.
Generally, CBL is scheduled for the next Saturday after NTBR; this helps the teams to manage finances and rowers easily. However, many teams said that having a delayed CBL puts extreme financial pressure on them. The teams deploy professional rowers from Haryana, Mumbai and Kashmir; around Rs 20 lakh is spent on them. They will have to pay Rs 2,500 as their fee per day, say teams. The council meeting to finalise the CBL date will be held around August 18.
This year, there is also a demand to change the selection criteria of CBL. The top nine teams and boats during the last edition of the Nehru Trophy qualify for the opening round this time. Often the teams change; people may switch over to another club or paddle for another boat. And with limited funds, it’s very difficult to conduct many practice sessions.
So it would be ideal if the winners (team and boat) of the first nine positions in the Nehru Trophy this year qualify for the CBL, according to players. “We run a 45-day practice session for the Nehru Trophy, costing Rs 1 crore. If the CBL is delayed and held towards the end of the year, we have to restart the practice and do it for another 45 days,” said Padma Kumar Puthenparambil, the captain of United Boat Club, Kainakary.
“Another issue is that most of the team members have taken a break/leave from their professions/education. The uncertainty over the schedule announcement is affecting them. There is a chance that major players won’t be available if the event is delayed further and the same will make the races less colourful,” he pointed out.