Just as I start to get grumpy about India -- because it's always honking at me and there is no escaping its vicious mosquitoes -- India pulls something else out of her vast bag of tricks to bring me back into the fold. :o)
Last Saturday, Kerala held its annual Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race -- and what a magnificent show it was! Snake boats are loooooooooong rowboats, 100-158 feet, powered by up to 120 rowers. The length of these things is just astonishing. The event has been called the largest team sport in the world.
This year, 56 boats competed in 14 different events on Punnamada lake in Alleppey (Allapuzha). 18 of the boats were full-length snake boats, while others were smaller boats composed of about 30 rowers each. The winners take about five minutes to cover the 1360 meter distance (a little less than a mile). I've read that the boats go up to 50 kilometers (~30 miles) per hour, although it didn't seem like they were going that fast in these races.
That's all one rowboat!
The event included three all-women teams, rowing in full saree costume (above). No wonder the women's race goes only half the distance of the men's -- I cannot imagine having to row in those tight little saree blouses, and with all those yards of fabric wound around me!
A women's team looks on while the men go by.
Another women's team.
In addition to the oarsmen, each boat included several "cheerleaders" who stood between the rowers and at the back end of the boat. They used drums and whistles to maintain the rowing rhythm and pump up the rowers.
Some teams looked like professional athletes, spiffed up in company-sponsored team t-shirts and baseball caps (above). But many of the teams were simply representatives of local villages who were not athletes. A local man who took me to the race in his small boat proudly pointed out the team that was representing his village.
A thirsty rower takes a last sip before his race.
On the shores of the lake, thousands of spectators, including this group of rowdy boys who formed an impromptu plastic-bottle band, cheered on the rowers.
The winning team in the women's event (above) included several foreign women, the only foreigners in the event. (As far as I know, there were no foreigners in the men's events.) Of course, this brought calls for banning of foreigners from the races.
I'm of two minds on this controversy. On the one hand, foreign involvement in an ancient local event definitely changes the very nature of the event. Many of the villagers who originated this event in the 1900's can no longer afford to compete against the wealthier corporate-sponsored teams, something that will only get worse as more foreigners join in.
On the other hand, if you are going to hold a world-class competition -- which is how this is being billed by Kerala -- you cannot be afraid to compete against the world. Should France have banned American Lance Armstrong from the Tour de France for winning 7 years in a row? Should the U.S. exclude African runners from the Boston Marathon, because they have won the marathon for the last two decades?
What do you think?