India

The great snake boat race of India

Boat race Image copyright Tibin Augustine
Image caption Each team has 110 players

The annual snake boat race in the southern Indian state of Kerala is a unique sporting spectacle because of its scale and popularity. Faizal Khan watched the event at the weekend to explain why millions love the sport.

A hundred men bring down their oars in perfect harmony with frenzied beats of drums, creating a drizzle in mid-air as spectators go wild during the race. The boat that springs forward is one of the biggest in a water sport anywhere in the world.

Each team has 110 players. The wooden boats they row are nearly 140ft (42.6m) long with the stern rising 15ft above the surface of the water. And each race has at least 20 teams, leaving the audience with an unenviable task of viewing 2,200 players competing at the same time.

'Olympics on water'

If it were in the Olympics, the snake boat race would be the largest team sport in the world.

Most people have come to watch the marquee race for the Nehru Trophy in the famed backwaters of the seaside town of Alappuzha (Allepy).

But there are 50 more boats of various sizes and shapes, which are participating in different categories. One of those categories is for boats that used to be kitchens for the king of the region centuries ago.

Image copyright Tibin Augustine
Image caption The snake boat racing season ends with the race for the Nehru Cup
Image copyright Tibin Augustine
Image caption The participants practice for weeks before the race

"The snake boat race is an integral part of the culture of our community living in a place surrounded by water," says R Gopakumar, the captain of one of the boats competing for the Nehru Trophy, which is named after India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The race represents the relationship between the community and the water.

Interestingly, the relationship is best manifested in the spirit of competition. The thousands of small islands spread across the backwaters divide themselves into teams for the purpose of the race. They then build snake boats and rally behind their teams, almost always named after a village. Some boats are also named after saints and angels.

The perceived harmony of the backwaters community seems to dissolve in the face of the fierce competition. "We share our stories and our love with the other villages," says Antony Francis, a 40-year-old veteran of the snake boat race, who heads the Jawahar Boat Club. "And we try to win the race."

Image copyright Tibin Augustine
Image caption Kerala backwaters are popular among tourists

The snake boat race boasts of the biggest statistics for a game, but it takes only a little over four minutes for a boat to row to victory over a watery track of 1km (62miles). The oarsmen are put in high gear by the songs sung by the chanters and the beats of the drummers on board.

The Nehru Trophy race is hosted by the port town of Alappuzha on the Arabian Sea, called the "Venice of the East" for its labyrinth of canals.

"The people of the backwaters celebrate the race as a festival of waters, coming together to support their teams by singing traditional boat songs," says R Girija, the top official of the region and the chairperson of the charitable society that manages the race.

"For the people of the backwaters, it is their own 'Olympics on water'."

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