Friday, July 28, 2017

Back To Its Glorious Best

The members of the Maliyil-Pulikathra family reflect on their recently-renovated snakeboat, 'JaiShot', and their plans for the future

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 4.30 a.m., on June 30, it is pitch black on the banks of the Muvattupuzha river at Chempu (27 kms from Kochi). The only sound is of the crickets chirping and, surprisingly, an occasional cawing of a crow. A bare-bodied priest, in a white dhoti, who has come from the nearby Nadakavu Temple, sits cross-legged in front of a fire. The Ganapathy Homam Puja is taking place. Lord Ganesha is known to remove all obstacles. As the chants begin, offerings of coconut, honey, banana, ghee, and puffed rice are made.

The puja concludes before sun-rise. Then, in the true traditions of a syncretic Kerala, at 7.30 a.m., a priest from the local St. Thomas Jacobite Syrian church arrives. He also chants prayers.

All this is being done beside the just-renovated 'JaiShot' snakeboat. At 10 a.m., the boat is finallypushed into the water, by several people, amidst shouts of 'Come on' and 'Jai Ho'.

And the one person who looks the most pleased is Minoo Verghese, of the Maliyil Pulikathra family, which owns the 'JaiShot'. For the past few years, the boat had remained idle. But there was a reason for this: for the snakeboat races, the boats now seat 60 people, while the 'JaiShot' had only 48 oars.

There were several discussions among the family members,” says Minoo. “And we decided that, instead of selling it, we would increase the number of seats.” The 'we' includes Minoo's wife Resina Sarah, aunt Molly John, and first cousins Sam C Maliyil and Dr. Abraham Oomman.

The renovation, at a cost of Rs 20 lakh, was done by a fourth-generation master boat builder Uma Maheshwaran, along with his brother, sons and nephews. Today, the boat has a length of 85 feet, a width of four feet and a depth of one-and-a-half feet. “The wood is top-quality wild jack, which we got from a large tree in our property,” says Minoo, a businessman. The rims are made of teak, the rivets, of copper, while the planks have been joined together using pine resin and silk cotton grounded together.

It took eight-and-a-half months. “There were many difficult moments,” says Resina. “But we are happy we did it, because we have kept up our family tradition.”

This began in 1926, when their grandfather MC George bought a boat from the skilled boat-builders of Varapuzha and named it the 'Pulikathra Vallom'. A Director of the State Agricultural Department, George was also a rice farmer. “The boat was used to transport men and materials,” says Sam. “And since it was fast, it could speed through dacoit-infested marshes and rivers.”

In later years, the boat also participated in snakeboat races. And it reached its apogee of fame in 1952. At that time, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the chief guest. He was accompanied by his 35-year-old daughter Indira. When Indira saw the speed of the Vallom, which won the race, she said, “Look, look, it goes like a [bullet] shot!” This was repeated by the radio announcer as well as on the public address system. “So, everybody came to know about it,” says the elderly Molly.

Immediately, the boat was re-named as the 'Shot'. And in the 1970s, the 'Shot' entered racing folklore when it won the trophy three years in a row. “That was a proud moment for all of us,” says Molly. Incidentally, following a renovation in 2001, the 'Shot' was re-named as 'JaiShot' by the next generation. “'Jai' is a short form of Jai Hind,” says Minoo.

Meanwhile, as the family members are conversing, and downing glasses of fresh palm toddy, at their spacious bungalow, beside the river, a group of muscular men arrive. They are the members of the Kumarakom Town Boat Club, who had come to take the boat. The family have allowed them to use it for upcoming races. “We look forward to many victories,” says a smiling Minoo, as he raises a glass.


The Men On The Boat

Traditionally the boat is controlled by a Kaarnavan or a village leader. There are three main rowers (Amarakaran) at the back who control the movement using 9-foot long oars. The rowers sit two to a row, and follow the rhythm set to the vanchipattu (boatman's song, see box below). This rhythm is set by the drummer in the middle who beats the 'odithatta' (firing platform) with a staff.

The boat song

The song was composed by the poet Ramapurathu Warrier (1703-53), who belonged to the court of King Marthanda Varma. During a boat journey from the Vaikom Mahadeva temple to Thiruvananthapuram, Warrier sang the 'Kuchela Vrittam Vanchippattu' and used the hypnotic refrain, 'thi thi tha thi thei tho'. This poem tells the story of Lord Krishna meeting up with his poverty-stricken friend, Kuchela. Warrier was also indirectly hinting at his own situation. The king got the message and rewarded him amply.

The history of the races

During the 13th-century there were many feudal kingdoms in Kerala. Now and then they would go to war with each other. During one such war, between the kingdoms of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery, the latter suffered a defeat. A frustrated King Devanarayana asked a noted carpenter in his realm to make an efficient war boat. He made one and it was called the Chundam Vallam (Snake Boat). Later, races took place on these boats during the harvest festival of Onam.

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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