It was almost considered to have been cancelled, the 66th Nehru Trophy Boat Race, Kerala’s prestigious water sport. Two floods and the outbreak of a virus made it seem impossible to put together the annual snake boat race. But three months after the deadly floods had soaked Kuttanad in water, it has risen, and is hosting the largest boat race with nearly 5000 people taking part in it.
“Eighty one boats – the largest number of boats to take part in the race since it began in 1952,” says Vinod, a clerk handling the race. “There will be 25 chundan boats, 56 small boats. The chundan will carry more than a hundred oarsmen, the smaller ones will carry 40 to 50 people each.”
The Nehru Trophy Boat Race that usually happens on the second Saturday of August will now take place on the second Saturday of November – on the 10th, at the Punnamada Lake, Alappuzha. Tickets for the race can be booked here.
After the preliminary selection rounds, the final race will begin at 2.30 pm and end at 5.30 pm. Kerala Governor P Sathasivam will be the chief guest, and Union Minister for Tourism, Alphons Kannanthanam, the guest of honour. Actor Allu Arjun will be a special guest. The Kerala Blasters team has also been specially invited.
Back To Backwaters
A houseboat rally put together by the District Promotion Tourism Council has ensured that the message is being spread. It's called 'Back To Backwaters'. “About 220 houseboats took part in the rally, giving rides and food to people, giving a message that everything was back to normal in Alappuzha,” says Kevin Rozario, state secretary, All Kerala Houseboat Owners and Operators Samithi.
Minister Kadakampally Surendran, cricketer Kedar Jadhav launch Back To Backwaters campaign
The ride took the visitors through the most affected areas of Kuttanad, clearing all doubts about the safety of the place. They were requested to spread the message on social media using hashtags. The authorities knew that was the best way to take a message across, much better than calling a press conference and saying how safe Alappuzha is.
“Domestic tourism is yet to catch up, but international tourism is picking up in a big way,” Kevin says.
After the second flood came to Alappuzha in August, the houseboat industry had to remain shut for half a month. It’s on September 1 that tourists came again, from New Zealand.
“There were three calamities that happened back to back in Kerala. At first there was the Nipah Virus. Then a flood in July brought down the houseboat business, which is the backbone of the tourism industry in Alappuzha,” says DTPC secretary Malin Muraleedharan.
After that first flood, they were trying to revive business and prepare for the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. But that’s when the second flood came. The houseboat business had to be shut down from mid August to September 1.
“We received guests again but the same flow wasn't there any more. Business had become about 10 to 15 per cent of what it used to be. We knew we had to do some event,” Malin adds.
The rally has done half the work. The rest, they hope will be done by the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
“The message we want to give is Alappuzha is back to tourism, and the houseboats are ready to take you around. We have been doing a lot of rehabilitation work under an initiative called ‘I Am For Alleppey’,” says Alappuzha sub collector VR Krishna Teja Mylavarapu .
Under the initiative, they have brought in corporate companies, NGOs and the affluent to help bring back the district to normalcy. “We are encouraging them to adopt schools or villages. We also have a progamme called student rehabilitation, giving school kits and education kits, announcing gifts like notebooks and pen sets if the children came back to school. That’s brought back full attendance at schools,” Krishna Teja says.
All the people with disabilities who had lost their supporting materials like wheelchairs in the floods have had them replaced, the sub collector adds. “There has also been green rehabilitation – which means not only people and animals, but the vegetation too is being brought back to normal.”
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism Facebook page
When PM Nehru jumped into a racing boat
The race is the next big step. History would take one back to 1952 when the first snake boat race was conducted impromptu for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who was visiting Alappuzha. The story goes that the Prime Minister, accompanied by his daughter Indira and grandchildren Sanjay and Rajiv, was so excited that he jumped into the Nadubhagam Chundan, which came first in the race. Against the advice of his security officials, Nehru insisted on staying in the boat for a few minutes. The boat proceeded to the boat jetty with him. On his return to Delhi, Nehru passed on a silver trophy that became a rolling one, carrying the replica of a snake boat on a wooden abacus. The trophy reads:
"To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin."
Jawaharlal Nehru presents winning trophy at the first boat race in Alappuzha in 1952;
Picture Courtesy: www.oldindianphotos.in
In 1969, it became known as the Nehru Trophy.
Tickets for the race can be booked here.