Battle on the waters: How snake boats get ready for Nehru Trophy Boat Race

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Punnamada Lake is all decked up to host the 67th edition of Nehru Trophy Boat Race (NTBR). Practicing sessions of various boat clubs are on the last lap and the team members are ready for the festive occasion marked by revelry, sportsman spirit, and vigour. Tourists from across the globe flock to watch the oarsmen of the snake boats (chundan vallam in Malayalam) splash the waters in sync with rhythmic chants and drums. But the toil behind this peak of festivity is taxing.

The people of Kumarakom have been waking up to the pulsating training of oarsmen moving in unison through the canals with the sole aim of winning the race. Such intense training sessions have become a game-changer these days with most of the clubs opening their camps in the villages.  

Training sessions

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The practice race sessions are held twice a day - morning and evening- along with physical exercise and training classes for at least 15 days. A normal day starts at 5am with the team members leaving for a physical exercise for the body and muscles to relax before they row the boat. Exercises like jumping pushups, stretching, and special training for legs and hands are also done. NTBR happens in a 1.4km stretch and the oarsmen practice on the boat six times a day- three in the morning and three in the evening. After the physical exercise, the oarsmen get into the boat and are seated in two rows. The trials are a blend of harmony and camaraderie.

Once back from the trials, they are served healthy wholesome food to maintain their fitness. From ginger coffee and palappam in the morning to rice and fish curry for lunch to chapathi and chicken curry for dinner, their food is no less than a feast. They are also given green gram and Bengal gram to equip their body for the tough competition. After breakfast, the team takes rest. The second session of the training begins at 3pm and concludes by 6pm.

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When they are tired, the rowers take a short break and assemble at the nearby paddyfields. For the captain, it is the time for the peptalk. He explains the oarsmen importance of the competition and urge them to give their heart and soul during the preparations. Before the final trial, the oarsmen sing a folk song and then get on to the boat. 

It is a costly affair

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Around 100-120 oarsmen practice on one wooden serpent and they are picked wisely by the coaches of each team. The expenses for the team are also mounting every year. The Navajeevan Boat Club of Maniyaparambu in Kottayam had won the coveted trophy in 1997 and 2003. But they failed to enter the team for the past few years owing to financial difficulties. Food alone would cost nearly Rs 30,000 a day and the entire expenses for the 15-day training session would touch anywhere between a whopping Rs 40-45 lakh. 

“We are participating in the competion this year because we got a sponsorship. Jameskutty Jacob, the captain of last year's winning team, is sponsoring us,” says Mohan C, president of Navajeevan Boat Club.

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The club's boat – Jawahar Thayankary – has a diverse mix of rowers. Apart from local talents, the club hired rowers from Indian Army, Police and professionals from Hyderabad, Maharashtra and Punjab. The oarsmen are paid Rs 1,000 a day along with food and accommodation. The club set up a camp to accommodate all the sportspersons. "We give them good food and accommodations. Even if we win, the amount we get is less compared to what we spent," says K V Vinod, vice-president of club.

Roles of the oarsmen

The chundan vallams - or snake boats - are an icon of Kerala culture. The boats, 100 to 138 feet long, are built according to the specifications of Sthapathya Veda. Each member in the team – from 'ottathuzha' who accelerates the boat from front to 'amarakaar' who steers the boat from the rear – has a different role to perform. The ‘thalakkar’ begins to hum a song once the 'idiyans' who stand in the middle of the boat sets the right rhythm. Then, the oarsmen paddle in tune with the rhythm. The boat then glides through the waters gradually attaining immense speed. The music fades as the boat speeds away.

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'Ottathuzhakar' row on both sides and are seated from the front tip to the seventh row. The hands of these oarsmen literally fly before reaching the finishing line. ‘Thalakkar’ who forms a team of 5-7 oarsmen sing songs to energise the crew. They are also known as 'nilakkar.' On the bow of the boat, there are 28-34 oarsmen and are considered the booster jet that propels the boat. A boat often has 5 'amarakars' and are the best among the oarsmen and ensure that the boat remains steady along the track in the backwaters. 

Only those with a good physique could perform at a level. An oarsman should be able to row at least 80 times per minute for the team to have a chance of winning.

On the day of the race which coincides with the beginning of Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala, the oarsmen dip their oars in unison with the sole aim of lifting the silver cup. 

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