Toddy and a bunch of boats: Glimpses from the Nehru Trophy Boat Race

As everything that is good and amazing begins in Kerala, this adventure started with a glass of toddy too.

Toddy kerala

Starting a day with Toddy. It never gets better than this.


It was August of 2016.

It was hot, perfect for a glass of chilled toddy (they now even have grape-flavoured versions!), and the traditional Vallam Kali (boat games) of Kerala. Which is funny when you think of it, because I hail from the northern end of Kerala. Where I come from is the bastion of communism in Southern India, but is not so much famous for boat games – which everyone in India thinks is a common sight anywhere in Kerala. In fact, at 33 years of age, I had never seen a Vallam Kali till now!

Further Reading: Northern Kerala has its own delights. Click to read about Vayalada and the Kakkayam Dam, or the longest drive-in beach, or the 2 forts of North Kerala.


Well, since that had to change, I found myself travelling to Alappuzha in the southern end of Kerala. Most of the year, this trip would have meant that I was going to visit one of the famous houseboats that every other tourist thinks is found everywhere in Kerala.


But in August, a trip to Alappuzha could only mean one thing.


To see the Chundan Vallams on the Punnamada lake.

Punnamada lake kerala

The view across the Punnamada lake

What Nehru gifted to the state of Kerala.

In 1952, a few years after India became Independent, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a visit to Kerala. People gave him a roaring welcome, especially in Alappuzha. After seeing the traditional Chundan Vallams (snake boats) on the Punnamada lake, and seeing how the people were so excited about the snake-boat racing (Vallam Kali) that happens here, Nehru set up a rolling trophy to be awarded to the winner of the race.


And since then, the Nehru trophy boat race has become the premier snake boat race of Kerala.


To get myself prepped up for the atmosphere, I had to do what the people of Alappuzha did : I went to a toddy shop at 9 am in the morning with a couple of local friends I made. After 1 (or maybe 2 bottles) of cold toddy, I found myself with a nice, little buzz and made my way towards the lake.


Note: I travel everywhere in India on my motorbike, but I don’t ride after I drink. I left my bike at the hotel, and took an auto to the toddy shop and to the lake.

Further Reading: Toddy looks really similar to Raki, the Turkish drink. Click to read for the time that Raki got me through the disaster of a visa application for Georgia.

Punnamada lake snake boat race

Waiting for the competitions to begin

Media at nehru trophy boat race

Even the media is perched on really interesting places.

nehru trophy boat race people

And completing the scene, are the people who gather to watch the vallam kali

The Sounds of the Punnamada

I could hear Punnamada Lake even before I saw it. The beautiful cacophony of thousands of people who had come to see the boat race. There were entire families, groups of young men, and plenty of groups of women. They whistled, beat on drums, cheered aloud. It was a party atmosphere, fuelled in part by the toddy that was copiously partook and in equal parts by the people who have been enjoying this water-party for nearly 50 years.

punnamada kaayal crowd

The crowd at punnamada lake

Nehru trophy audience

And there were eager faces everywhere, watching the competition.


So who won the Nehru trophy in 2016? Well, I seriously have no idea! Because its not so much as a competition, as it is a gathering of people and an avenue for celebration. And celebrate is what I did after that, with the damndest care in the world about who won the 1.4KM course eventually.


I can’t tell you who won, but I did manage to click some pictures in the midst of all the merry-making. Here you go.

nehru trophy umpires

The umpires had a nice point of view as well.

Snake boat teams kerala

And thats what a snake boat looks like. Well, this is the tail end of it. I tried, but couldnt fit any of the snake boats entirely into one picture. They were that long!!

vallam kali rowers

The snake boat rowers, chilling and resting before their leg came up.

snake boat racing kerala

Snippets during the actual race.

Chundan vallam kerala

Another race. You see, I am not even sure who won anymore..

womens chundan vallam

And being the badasses that women in Kerala are, they had their own team too!!


This post is part of my photo-essays from Festivals around the world. Click here to check out other amazing stories from Festivals. 

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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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