In the Nadi-Matrik land (born to the river) of Bengal, where a blade of grass takes on layered meanings, river boats are not to be taken lightly. For boatmen who row down a vast river for days at end, a boat is more than a mode of transport. It is symbolic of the mortal body: frail, tattered and adrift, in search of a safe harbor.
For the people who have been making these boats, the mistris, the boat-makers, crafting a boat out of wood is like birthing a precious daughter. The bow of a boat (front) is her head, marked with vermillion, oars are hands to propel her forward, Haal are legs to give her direction. When such a boat is chiseled and crafted out of light, strong wood, boat makers are worshiping “Lokkhi” or Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity.
And then when a new owner comes for the boat, it is dressed in a red and white sari, decorated with flowers and betel leaves, and given away with ceremony. This is irrespective of the religions: a cultural practice, rooted in the land and the rivers of Bengal.
When Swarupda tells this story, his voice takes on a dreamy quality of storytellers from a bygone era. Swarup Bhattacharyya has been researching boats of Bengal for over 25 years now. He has been my colleague at SANDRP in the past and is now a Visiting Fellow at the Anthropological Survey of India. He was instrumental in setting up the Bengal Boats Museum in Kolkata and has spent most of his academic life researching riverine boats. This deep and abiding love adds an unmissable poignant quality to Swarupda’s work. His stories are the ones we ought to listen to. They start with the technique of boatmaking and meander into rivers, flows, boat-songs, trees, silt and fish in Bengal’s rivers.
When I met Swarupda in Kolkata during Durga Puja in 2018, he introduced me to hundreds of kinds of boats in Bengal, their form, their function, their beautiful names (Kosha, Sultani, Mayurpankhi) and stories. He talked about silt and reduced flows affecting the last remaining wooden boats of the state, about the boat makers moving away from a way of life, about mechanized motorboats all over Bengal’s rivers. Till that time, I had travelled in river ferries thick with the smell of diesel, small rafts and dinghys which felt like they will topple any minute, only they didn’t, dug-out canoes maneuvered by long poles through the dense silt of the river.
But I had never seen a racing river boat.
A few days back, Swarupda sent a video where thousands were gathered on the banks of a copious, full-bodied river, waiting for a show to begin. And then, rapidly cutting through the dense apprehension, several long, sleek wooden boats darted through the water like arrows, propelled by dark and angular men, paddling and heaving. The men, women and children on the riverbanks burst into cheering, clapping and laughing.
It was a carnival alright.
This is Nauka Baich, River Boat Race of Bengal. Nauka is boat and Baich is water-sport. Nauka Baich has been taking place around the Sundarban region of Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh) since time immemorial. In Ritwik Ghatak’s unforgettable 1973 film Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, this race is captured in all its glory, in fact the original book cover of Titash depicts Nauka Baich.
(The boat race in Titash takes place till date, this year it happened on the 11th of Sept 2022 in Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh. [i])
In West Bengal, Nauka Baich takes place in the Sundarbans region, downstream of Kolkata, a land crisscrossed with hundreds of rivers, rivulets and estuaries as the distributaries of Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana system meet the Bay of Bengal.
This year, the 5 racing boats took part in the race: three from Kultali region and two from Ghusighata region. The races took place at different riverine stretches, at the invitation of respective village committees. Paddling race is 1.5-2 kms at a time and at each section, the race happens thrice to select best of three performances.
The places where the race was held this year are:
- Ghusiaghata, North 24 Paragana District n Bidyadhari river
- Malancha, North 24 Paragana District again on Bidyadhari River
- Nazat, North 24 Pargana District on Kalindi River
- Kanmari again on Kalindi River
- Kachukhali, a tributary of Datta River
Swarupda witnessed all races and travelled with the boatmen/ racers “Majhis” in a separate boat. Boats are homes in this part of the world. These “houseboats” were decked with modest groceries, cooks, village elders to tell stories, village kids (all boys) to keep the weary boatsmen entertained. The children were the cheerleaders of their home-teams. The paddlers were farmers, fisherfolk or farm laborers and were taking part in the race not for money or fame (both meagre!) but for fun and camaraderie.
The teak wood racing boats are 50 “haat” long: 75 feet in length and just 30 inches in width and are seasoned for lightness and strength. Each boat has 22 paddlers. Of the 22, one takes up the bow of the boat (the front) and is called the Bodo Majhi while the one at the back is Kol Majhi. One provides direction while the other orchestrates the rhythm.
The boat race is organized at river sections where the width is at least a 100 meters so that all boats can race in parallel. The boats travel downstream and are then are hauled upstream again for the next race.
In West Bengal, Nauka baich takes place on the day of Manasa Devi Immersion. Manasa Devi is a fierce pre-aryan deity who protects her devotees against snake bites, famines and violent natural calamities. She is seen as a protector of children and fertility. Manasa Magla Kavya circa 13 Century has been immortalized in the beautiful painting tradition of Patachitra “scroll paintings” by the Patuas in Bengal.[ii] In the story of Manasa-Behula too, river plays an integral part. These are compelling myths: A David and Goliath story of sorts, but one is never sure who is who. The myth of Manasa Devi colors Amitav Ghosh’s novel Gun Island.
This year, the race started from Ghusiaghata on the Bidyadhari River near Kolkata on the 17th September, 2022. Both riverbanks bloomed with people who came out to see Nauka Baich after two years, when it could not held due to covid restrictions. Swarupda tells me that Bidyadhari was an important river with a prosperous riverine port, but has desiccated over the years. It has little freshwater now and Kolkata’s sewage flows in the river unchecked. The river further meets Raimangal river in the Sundarbans delta region.
More than 40,000 people gathered on the banks on the first day. The race was organized by Ghusighata Villagers’ Association. The next day, at Malancha the crowd was more than 50,000. Between 17 and 23 September, more than 1.5 lakh people enjoyed the boat races and the Mela (Fair) on the riverbanks! These are majority rural folk: farmers, farm laborers and fisherfolk. Before Jamindari system was abolished in Bengal, boats were paid for by Jamindars and the races ended up being Jamindar’s races. But now, the village associations take up the organization responsibility. It is nearly impossible to keep political parties out of a public event like this, but Swarupda tells me religious tensions are unheard of during the races.
True to its ecological nature, Sunderban region of Bengal holds some of the most complex syncretic traditions which unite not only Hindus and Muslims, but also humans and nature. Same holds for the boat-races. From the boat-makers to paddlers to the people who gather along the banks, there are Hindus, Muslims, tribals together. When I asked this question, Swarupda seemed taken aback: the cultural mix here is so organic that an outsider’s question about it must look peculiar. May this complex togetherness prosper in the lands where rivers meet.
Expenses of organization of these races, including prizes, a huge mechanized boat to tow all the boats in travel, meals for the crew and the company etc., all came to about one lakh rupees and the amount was raised by the villagers themselves. In comparison, boat races in Kerala run into millions. Kerala Tourism promotes these races, there are wealthy sponsors and they even have a premier league boat race happening!
When Swarupda called the Department of Tourism, West Bengal and requested them to highlight or at least announce these races to the wider public, he was told that this is a rural activity and that no promotion of boat races is happening or on the cards. Hardly anyone in Kolkata knew about the races. When Swarupda shared a few videos on Facebook, more than 50 urban Kolkata residents went to the riverbanks. Hardly any media houses covered the races except the Times[iii].
Like fish, boats too tell a story about the rivers they sail in. Riverine boats, their rituals, songs and races form a long and unbroken link to the riverine culture of our land. The Tamil epic Ponniyen Selvan opens with majestic boats sailing down the Cauvery, cloth-mast boats still ply in the Narmada and West Bengal has over 50 types of indigenous wooden boats. Most of this living history is being forgotten with each passing day. In the past, boat races were accompanied by Sari Gaan (Boat Songs) but none were heard this year. Boat-makers are dwindling, rivers are desiccating and are polluted, river banks are being privatized.
And yet, throughout our history, riverbanks and boats have been the places for friends and lovers to meet. From Moha-lined banks of Godavari in Gatha Saptashati to the songs of Sohni-Mahiwal and Heer-Ranjha on the banks of Indus and Chenab, from Ponniyen Selvan being saved by Cauvery Amma herself while trying to rescue a handful of Kadamba flowers to the hundreds of wise boatmen who sing, pray and race down Bengal’s many-armed rivers: Rivers have been bringing us together in joy.
River races are one more excuse to go down the river and be a river-citizen. Let us hope that we can flock to the banks of Bengal next year, cheering the boats, boatmen and rivers of this storied land.
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, email@example.com
Riverine boat races in Asia
Ngo Boat race in Maspero river Vietnam[v]
Phicit Boat race in Nan River, Thailand
Bon Om Touk Boat Festival in Cambodia, when the Tonle Sap river reverses its flow direction and again starts flowing into Mekong. (Which even worships Goddess Ganga!)
The best known boat races in India are the Vallamkali Boat races in Kerala which occur in different rivers, wetlands and lakes at different times. Kerala also has a Champion’s Boat League[vi]supported by Kerala State Tourism.
Boat Races from Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (Screengrabs from the Film. Highly recommended watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTsHcW9-yD8)