How a sleepy Kerala town became Asia's biggest kayaking destination

Kodencheri town in Kozhikode hosts the annual Malabar River Festival, which is ranked the largest kayaking competition in Asia.
How a sleepy Kerala town became Asia's biggest kayaking destination
How a sleepy Kerala town became Asia's biggest kayaking destination

Seven years ago, residents of Kodencheri would have offered blank stares at the mention of recreational whitewater kayaking. A verdant town tucked under the Thamarassery mountain ghat in Kozhikode, Kodencheri boasts of two clean rivers - the Iruvanhipuzha and Chalipuzha - cutting through it. 

These rivers are tributaries of the Chaliyar river and during the wet months, the water here swells up, roars its way downstream and turns into a paradise for water sport enthusiasts. Yet, using these water bodies as an adrenaline boost seemed like a crazy idea for the villagers, until a bunch of kayaking aficionados arrived here in 2013.  Today, Kodencheri hosts the annual Malabar River Festival (MRF), ranked the largest kayaking competition in Asia. This year, the festival turns seven.

Over the course of seven editions, a lot has changed in Kodencheri. To say that tourism has picked up remarkably well in this part of Kozhikode, especially during June to August, would be understating it. Every year, locals rub shoulders with adventure sports enthusiasts from across the globe. Big names from the kayaking world can be seen munching on sugiyans (a fritter made of pulses and jaggery), parotta and omelette at the chayakadas (tea shops) that line the streets of Kodencheri. In 2018, the town was ranked among the five best destinations for whitewater kayaking in the world and several children from neighbouring villages, too, have learnt the art of kayaking and gotten hooked to the rapids. 

A Facebook chat that culminated in kayaking

For Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera, 2019 will see their seventh success story at hosting the festival. The two co-founded Madras Fun Tools, an online shop that sells imported kayaking equipment in India. In their free time, the duo also traced maps of the south Indian rivers to unearth potential kayaking locations. This is how they landed up in Kozhikode, to literally test the waters of the Chaliyar.

It was in 2011 that Jacopo found Manik via Facebook. A wine farmer from Verona in Italy, Jacopo had settled in Chennai for a brief period in 2013. Manik, who is a software architect based in Bengaluru, had by then already tasted the adrenaline rush that comes with an intense water sport like kayaking. Manik and his kayaking buddies would frequent Rishikesh, a well-known rafting destination in India, to test the rapids of the Ganges. Before his visit to Rishikesh in 2011, Manik received a message from Jacopo.

"He was a total stranger then. He asked me if he could accompany me to Rishikesh. I agreed and the next thing I know, Jacopo and I were navigating the rapids of the Ganges and forging a great friendship," Manik tells TNM. 

In Kodencheri, Jacopo, Manik and their friends kayaked through the tributaries of the Chaliyar, evoking wide-eyed gasps from locals who wondered what this crazy bunch of outsiders were up to. 

"Most people don't understand what we are doing. Whenever we used to kayak in Karnataka's rivers, locals would promptly report us to the police and we would get arrested. For them, we looked crazy, trying to perform deadly stunts in the frenetic waters. But in Kerala, people were strangely welcoming. They were shocked and curious but never told the police on us. In fact, more villagers crowded on the bridges to watch our activities in the water," says Manik. 

Support from all corners

Pretty soon, it became quite obvious that Kodencheri was an ideal spot to host a kayaking festival. It wasn't just the presence of two raging rivers, but the conveniently located towns and its lovely residents that made this idea feasible. In addition to this, the Kozhikode District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) jumped at the idea with a little nudge from the Collector. Today, the Kerala Tourism Board, Kozhikode DTPC and the Kerala Adventure Tourism Promotion Society (KATPS) fund the event with some help from sponsors. 

Their technical partners are Goodwave Adventures with Manik and team organising the events of the three-day competition. If the festival was hosted on a tight budget of Rs 2.5 lakh in 2013, this year, the sum has grown to Rs 50 lakh. Moreover, big names such as Red Bull and GoPro have been roped in as sponsors for the events this year.

Most importantly, the festival pulls big crowds and could probably give the famed Alapuzha boat race a stiff competition in the coming years. In July 2018, Kodencheri and Pullurampara saw a footfall of 40,000 from Kerala alone. Both towns together house a maximum of 9,000 residents. In addition to this, experienced and amateur kayakers from 21 countries arrived in the town to chase the rapids. 

"Hotel businesses around the area pick up swiftly during this season, as the town has to feed all these additional mouths. Many people come just to witness participants navigate the busy water," says Manik. 

Adventures for children and adults

Sensing the potential for kayaking in the town, Manik and Jacopo set up Goodwave Adventures, a kayaking instruction company, which held courses for children and adults. The courses held in Kodencheri during the monsoon months became a hit and several local families sent their kids to try out the sport. Today, at least 15-20 people from Kodencheri participate in the festival's amateur category every year. 

The three-day championships, held at Thusharagiri in Kodencheri, includes five events, split into experienced and amateur categories. For seasoned kayakers, the Giant Slalom, boater cross and downriver time trial are held. Amateurs can participate in boater cross and slalom events designed for them. 

"Slalom is an event where we place gates or obstacles in the water and kayaker has to move from point A to B and navigate those obstacles. Boater cross is a classic race where four kayakers start from the same point and the first two kayakers who navigate the rapids the quickest will qualify for round two. Downriver time trial involves kayakers being timed on how fast they run the river or kayak. The participants kayak one at a time and their performance is timed," explains Manik. 

For winners, prize money of Rs 10 lakh awaits for different contests this year. The amount is distributed among the winners, in male and female categories. The man with the maximum prizes is titled Rapid Raja and the woman is titled Rapid Rani. Both receive equal prize money, adds Manik. 

Like many other nature-focused festivals, Manik and Jacopo try their best to be the environment’s friends, as Malabar River Festival essentially celebrates the river. Food is arranged for three days and plastic water bottles are discouraged. 

"We ask kayakers and audience to bring water bottles and fill it up from the water stations we set up. Generally, kayakers are pretty aware of not polluting the river and its banks. It becomes only hard when the audience increases every year. We cannot force them to be environment-friendly," says Manik. 

The festival organisers also rope in the police and fire department for safety. Flex boards to flash ads are strictly prohibited. With sponsors too, Goodwave Adventures asks them to bring their promotional material and take it back with them. 

"We make sure everything we have made for the festival is reusable, so that nothing goes to waste later," Manik adds. 

The Malabar River Festival will take place between July 26-28 in 2019. For more details on the festival and registration, visit the official website

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