Kerala’s “Flying” Snake Boats
By Awake! correspondent in India
“GOOD heavens! What otherworldly creatures! What are they?” exclaimed Neville, my Australian friend, as he spotted some black objects speeding toward us. They came on fast, seemingly beating their wings and flying, barely touching the surface of the water.
My friend could not stay in his seat. Perched atop a wooden gallery, he craned his neck for a better view. He was watching a snake-boat race for the first time.
The boats were still nearly a mile [over a kilometer] away, but we could hear rhythmic drumming and shrill whistling. Then, as these swift vessels with their 100-man crews drew closer to the finish line, the excitement of the crowds grew to a frenzy. Cheering their favorite boat teams, fans of all ages jumped and clapped wildly. Colorfully draped women madly waved their silk handkerchiefs. This was just the beginning of the annual Nehru Trophy boat race at Alleppey in the state of Kerala, south India.
Snake boats are a unique feature of the water festivals held in the rivers and back waters of the low-lying central Travancore area. ‘But exactly what are snake boats,’ you may wonder, ‘and how did the whole affair come about?’
A Bit of Background
Snake boats were originally designed for use in battles. At one time the modern state of Kerala was ruled by a number of local rajas, or kings, each with his own small territory. Wars were frequent and occurred at the slightest provocation. Five snake boats could easily carry the entire naval power of a king.
Eventually, a strong ruler took power and unified the area, so the boats became just showpieces. They are decked out on festive occasions and used to welcome visiting political and religious dignitaries. Boat races are always held on such occasions. In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, visited Alleppey and watched a boat race. Unmindful of his age and security precautions, he was caught up in the excitement and jumped aboard the victory boat, clapping and singing with the rest. His later gift of a silver snake-boat trophy gave birth to the Nehru Trophy race my friend and I were watching.
Relics of a Bygone Culture
The snake boats are long, slim, sleek, and streamlined wooden canoes. They vary in length from 80 to 100 feet [25 to 30 m], and at their widest point, they are only about 5 feet [1.5 m] across. The stern rises in some cases 20 feet [6 m] above water level and is shaped like a cobra’s hood, hence the name snake boat. The bow, however, is pointed like the beak of a bird.
These rare relics of a culture centuries old are seldom constructed nowadays. Very few skilled artisans—descendants of ancient carpenter families—dare attempt this stupendous task, involving tons of costly timber and months of hard work. When a boat is finished, it is dried in the sun and carefully treated with grease and oil mixed with egg whites to make it “fly” faster.
Training and drilling a team to man such a boat for racing is no easy task either. About a hundred oarsmen with short oars sit in two rows along the length of the vessel. At the stern of the boat stand two or three others with longer oars to steer the craft. To keep up the rowing momentum, a man beats time with a wooden pestle on a sounding board. At least half a dozen others ride along to cheer the oarsmen, clapping in unison with whistles and shouts.
As the race proceeds and excitement mounts, the beating of time increases, and the oars are plied as a single harmonious unit. The rhythmic up-and-down movement of 50 oars on each side of the boat gives the appearance of a vessel flying on its wings. It was this that amazed my friend and caused him to stare in wonder as the boats seemed barely to skim the water.
Racing demands tremendous concentration and a well-coordinated group effort. Just a moment’s distraction on the part of a single oarsman is enough to throw the whole team into confusion. So at times singers on board rival boats try to break the concentration with strange sounds and sights. Often tricks are played to gain advantage over the others.
During one race a team captain displayed a monkey on the elevated tip of his boat. As the creature sat gibbering and grinning, the rival captain quickly realized what was happening. Not to be outdone, he cheered loudly, flung off his clothes and stood stark naked at the tip of his boat. This had the desired effect. While the other team looked his way, his own men kept their steady speed and won the race. For him, the ignominy of losing the race would have been greater than his shame at being naked.
It is a sign of prestige for a village to own a snake boat and an even greater honor to win a race. At race time the entire populace turns out to cheer its team. Undaunted by bad weather, fans will brave torrential monsoon rains and mosquitoes, standing knee-deep in muddy water to watch the races. Supporters of rival teams often clash, blows are exchanged, and scores kept for next year’s meet.
Kings no longer compete for control of territory and rulership as their ancestors once did. But the competitive spirit continues on in Kerala’s cherished sport of snake-boat racing.