VENKIDA NARAYANAN ACHARI
It is no wonder that Jawaharlal Nehru fell in love with the long slender and powerful snake-boats -‘Chundan Vallam’ of Alappuzha.
In the year 1952, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin. The story goes that on Nehru’s way to Alappuzha from Kottayam the people of Alappuzha, escorted by the huge snake-boats, gave him a roaring reception. Having gone through the tremendous excitement of sailing in a snake-boat popularly known as Chundan, Jawaharlal Nehru donated a rolling trophy to be awarded to the winner.
The trophy is a replica of a snake boat in silver, placed on wooden abacus on which the following words of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the first prime minister of India are inscribed above his signature."To the winner of the boat-race, which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin". This was later named, 'Nehru Trophy'. Nehru’s visit and love for the boats proved to be a blessing for them, as later the boat race became Alappuzha’s major event.
Aaranmula boat race - Image from Wikipedia.
The above things are well known to us, but have anyone done study on the evolution of the design of the slender boats, which can travel at a tremendous speed? However, it is interesting to know that a master craftsman Kodipunna Venkida Narayanan Achari did the very first design of the ‘Chundan Vallam’ in 1614. His name is still remembered by the people of Alappuzha. I came to know about the Venkida family from my uncle Edavankadu Neelakandan Asari, whose late wife Bhanumati was the daughter of Venkida Neelakandan Achari.
The Achari’s of the family were the vassals of the Raja of Chempakasherri, the only Brahmin king of Kerala. They were specialized in the construction of boats. In those days, boats were the major means of transportation. They were also used in battles on the backwaters of Kuttanad. The story says that the Raja of Chempakasherri once lost a battle with his enemy, the Raja of Kayamkulam. It soon dawned on the Chempakasherri Raja that the real defect was with his war boats, which were slow and cumbersome.
Venkida Narayanan Achari in Chempakasherri Raja's court - sketch by the author.
He summoned all the boat architects in the land to his court and told them of his desire to have better and faster boats for the troops. After days of hard labour, a man who was reputed to be the best boat architect in Chempakasherri, Kodipunna Venkida Narayanan Achari, came up with a specimen, which satisfied the Raja’s requirements (1614). He made a miniature model of boat made of coconut husk and coir ropes and explained to the Raja about its advantages as follows. Both the Stern and the Nose were proportionally higher than the middle part of the boat. So those who stand at the stern could see long distances from its elevated position, which helps them to change the course of the boat or boost extra leverage with a few strokes of the sculls, which is equivalent to ten oars.
Four people could be placed in the stern position for inflicting massive power surge of 40 oars at a time. There was a provision to seat eight scullers at nose to maneuver the boat easily as this part is above the water. 64 oarsmen could be seated in the middle of the boat, as they were capable of delivering a massive power surge for this lean boat that is 26.25 meters long and 80 cm wide at the center part. Arms could be stored underneath the ‘Vedippadi’ were the elite warriors used to stand waiting for their ambush. Should there arise a need for an extra boost for the oarsmen, or a sudden change in the course of the boat, the scullers at the stern strike a few massive strokes with their mighty sculls and the boat dashes like a bolt of lightning through the water with immaculate speed.
The king was flabbergasted with this design and ordered to make it immediately- which eventually led to his victory over the ruler of Kayamkulam. This was the first ‘Chundan’ boat build and over the years, there have been modifications to improvise the exclusivity. As the rule of the monarchy ended, the elite war ships become recreational objects. Thus, the craftsmen of Venkida family became the official Achari of the Raja’s boats.
One story says that the defeated Raja of Kayamkulam heard of the moothassari who made these boats and ordered his servants to make arrangements to take the Achari to Kayamkulam. The Achari was taken to Kayamkulam and was forced to make boats for the Kayamkulam Raja.
The Raja of Chempakasherri came to know that his Achari had made boats for his enemy too. The Raja ordered his servants to kill the Achari, who was now a traitor in the Raja’s eyes. However, insisted that he has done no harm to his Raja. He told that while the boats he made for Chempakasherri went forward when rowed, the boats he made for the Kayamkulam Raja would go backward and thus they will not be able to catch up with the Chempakasherri Raja’s boats. Actually, the Achari had played a trick on Kayamkulam Raja who had under estimated his dedication to the Raja and to his country. Chempakasherri Raja was happy with the Achari’s cleverness and dedication and gave him many presents.
I got another version of the story from internet;
“…The story goes on to tell how the defeated Kayamkulam Raja sent a spy to Chempakasherri to learn the secret of the new war boat. The spy, a handsome youth, succeeded in seducing Achari’s daughter. The girl’s mother was overjoyed by the prospect of getting him as her daughter’s bridegroom and persuaded her husband to teach him the construction of the boat. Needless to say, the deceitful youth disappeared the moment he thought that he had learnt the secret. Chempakasherri Raja imprisoned Achari for treason. However, he was released and showered with many honours when the snake boats built by the Kayamkulam Raja proved to be no match for the war boats of Chempakasherri in the next battle. The subtleties of the snake boat’s design are hard to pickup and even today it requires years of apprenticeship under a master boat architect before one could independently undertake the construction of this ancient boat.”
Venkida house in Kodipunna is still a prominent family of the area. They have a family temple; Veerabadran and Badrakali are worshiped as their family deities.
Sharat Sunder Rajeev