Kollam, Day 1, 1.30 pm
“Sir, which way is Ashtamudi Lake?”
“Ashtamudi Lake? Entukeaṇṭ? Are you here for the President’s Trophy Boat Race?”
Chandresh, the manager of the guest house, questioned back — his eyes shining up a little.
“Are you here for the boat race?,” he asked again, this time more eagerly.
Chandresh needed no more indication, he swiftly raised his arm pointing to the south-west direction and said with a smile, “If you go this way, you will find the bus stop. From there, you can take a bus or an auto and go to KRSTC Bus Stand. The lake is right beside the bus stand.”
“The race is tomorrow, but today, you can walk around a little… maybe, even take a boat ride. Tomorrow will be more exciting though.”
A 14-hour bus journey to Kollam from Bengaluru had taken its toll but still, the elderly man’s sheer enthusiasm suddenly awakened me. Don’t get me wrong. I had been looking forward to the race but probably, not as much as Chandresh.
Nodding my head, I just walked down the direction he had pointed, boarded a bus and with a little help from a very generous policeman — who, by the way, also lit up at the mention of ‘boat race’ — reached the bus stop. As I got off, I could see the huge billboards which read, ‘Champions Boat League, nine teams, twelve races, one winner’.
And, there it was. The Ashtamudi Lake, in all its glory, gleaming in the golden sunlight.
On first look, it was evident that something big was about to happen the day after. There were people everywhere, some setting up billboards, some constructing platforms for the media and audience, some cleaning the lake.
For me, who is always getting lost in an unreal world, it seemed as if an ensemble cast was acting a well-rehearsed play on the biggest of stages. Everyone worked in motion and in perfect harmony. And then it struck me, the Champion Boat League might be in its debut year, but Kollam’s President’s Cup Boat Race is not.
In fact, snake boat racing or Vallam Kali predates you, me or anyone in this generation. The snake boat races have been a prominent feature of Kerala and a matter of pride and communal harmony for the people of the backwaters. Even today, the 400-year-old tradition has not lost one bit of its charm.
As I made my way towards one of the jetties, a middle-aged man approached by a middle-aged man. “Media?,” he asked.
“You have a lot to look forward to. Have you ever seen 150 people on a single boat, some rowing, some singing, some beating drums — all in perfect harmony? It’s a spectacle,” said Sunil, after I confirmed his assumption and conceded that it will be in my first time at a boat race.
Sunil, the name he goes by, has been living in Kollam all his life. And he has watched every edition of the President’s Trophy since it was instated back in 2011. Not only that, Sunil has followed the boat races in Kerala from his very childhood and has been to many races. His father took him to his first-ever boat race and this year, he is introducing his 7-year-old to the tradition.
“You see those little boats over there,” Sunil pointed towards a couple of small boats floating on the water. “We used to travel in those and walk for days to go to places where races would happen. I remember I was always excited when the season came and would push my father to take me along.”
“Now, I am waiting to see how my son takes to it. He seems like he is interested but I won’t know until the race,” he laughed.
By now, a couple of more localites had gathered around. One of them, Ravi spoke up at this point. “Your son will love every moment of it. I don’t recall my first race, it was so long back, but you know, I do recall how amused I used to be when I was little.”
“One of my uncles was an oarsman and another used to be a cheerleader singing the Vanchipattu boat song in one of the boats. The stories they used to bring back after every race were always filled with drama and thrill,” he answered when asked about his first memory of boat racing.
The sun was setting on the eastern horizon, creating a picturesque backdrop of the lake and a silhouette of a small boat sailing in to the sunset — yes, just as we used to draw back in our childhood. It was time to return to my hotel room (I was hungry!). As I walked back, I could not help but wonder how many people in Kerala have such an intimate connection with Vallam Kali.
The little town and this beautiful lake in God’s Own Country had lived up to all expectations of the first day, but little did I know what the second day would bring.
Kollam, Day 2, 8.20 am
I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off, to the beats of drums. Immediately, the rhythm got inside my head and it stayed with me throughout the journey.
With the race scheduled to get underway from 2 pm, I decided to reach the venue a little earlier and get the feel. As planned, I reached Ashtamudi Lake a.little before 11 am. I was early and thankfully so.
At 11, spectators and other media persons were yet to arrive. The organisers were there, of course, busy going about their jobs. Much to my surprise, all the teams had also arrived.
Some of the oarsmen were hanging around, chatting, taking rest, while some others were on those snake boats — I had only seen in pictures of up till this point — practising.
More than 100 people on a boat, more than 10 just singing and blowing whistles and beating drums and still, my word, were they going fast.
Each oarsman working in sync, rowing with the beats. Keep in mind, everything has to be in perfect harmony, one small mistake and all could go down. To do that, each oarsman on a boat has to think like one and it is the rhythm of the beats that help them do that.
It was the same beats that had filled me with endless energy despite the sweltering humidity. I was running across from one end of the lake to the other all through, trying to figure out every nook and cranny of the race.
Seeing my camera, many of the oarsmen were posing, sometimes with their teammates and at other times with their opponents, for a photograph or two.
Bala, a member of the Tropical Titans, was one such oarsman, who wanted a picture taken alongside a Sreejesh, member of the Mighty Oars. Bala himself has been taking part in these boat races every year since 2014. He was a fan for long but he got a chance to show his mettle at a young age, and since then he has never looked back.
“The race represents the relationship between the community and the water. We come together once a year for a few months. Today it all ends, there is no rivalry after today,” Bala said.
Sreejesh laughed. “You are only saying this now because you know you will win the league,” he said, looking at Bala.
In no sport had I ever seen this kind of dialogue exchange between two competitors before the final. The perceived face of fierce competition seemed to dissolve in the harmony of the backwaters community.
These oarsmen were not there to compete with each other. Instead, they were there to work alongside each other and push each other’s limits. They concentrate on building the perfect harmony within a team and that cannot be achieved by thinking about rivalry.
Soon it was time for the race, and I had to make my way back to the area assigned for media. By then, the VIPs had been seated in their respective places. The viewing areas had also filled up to an extent.
On top of that, there were people on terraces, there were even people on a nearby under-construction bridge who were probably getting the best view of the proceedings.
Thousands of people had gathered to witness the resplendent event, photographers were clicking non-stop and drones were flying all over the backwaters to capture every oscillation of the raging boat men. Most people had come to watch the spectacle unfold, but there were 50 more boats of various sizes and shapes, which were not participating in the main league but in different categories. One of those categories was for women.
For me, the winners of the race did not matter. It was just the magnanimity of the occasion that impacted me. This could well be an Olympic sport, a sport that would be the largest team sport in the world.
Instead, the 400-year-old tradition has been nurtured in the coastal state with pomp and celebration and it has now taken the shape of the first edition of the Champions Boat League (CBL).
Even after four centuries, even after an IPL-style league has taken over, Vallam Kali hasn’t lost its charm one bit. From young children to the elders, everyone comes together to celebrate the festival of Onam and watch the races in the backwaters. It is a tradition that has transcended time and memory.