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The Birth of Ganga Kayak Festival and women kayakers

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

Ganga Kayak Festival (GKF) has seen its 7th successful year this month (Feb'19). The jaunty man who founded this festival giving an international extreme sport a platform in India, sips on his piping hot coffee under the sunny sky of spring narrating the birth story of GKF and women participants. Inspire Crew in conversation with Mr. Bhupendra Singh Rana (aka Bhupi).

Bhupendra is blasting through the gates in Tariffville, Connecticut. Credit: Facebook
Bhupendra is blasting through the gates in Tariffville, Connecticut. Picture Credit: Mr. Steve Silk
“Two Years!” says Bhupi. “It took me two years of planning to conduct the first GKF in 2013. But what made me dream this dream is an interesting story.”

My girlfriend Trina (now my wife), Joe Leader, Ryan Vekins from UK and I were sitting in my apartment when I shared my idea with them and immediately all of them got on board and we created a facebook page so called ‘Ganga Kayak Festival 2013’ and starts reaching out to the participants and sponsors. My dear friends Harendra Rawat, Vikash Bhandari,

Bheem Singh Chauhan, Raju Negi and many other volunteers are the real faces of a grand success of GKF 2013! Without their hard work and dedication GKF wouldn’t have happened.

Bhupendra is the first Indian to participate in Extreme kayaking world championship ’Sickline’ in Austria, 2012. “I traveled everywhere I could for 4 years to train, before I represented my country at the World Championship. I knew one thing, I had to be my country’s best and my country should feel proud when I represent them. India should not look weak because of me''. Bhupendra moved to Norway in 2009 and used to take up small jobs wherever he traveled to meet his survival and training expenses. “I never saw an easy day in those four years; self-motivation was all I had.” His efforts definitely paid off when he was awarded the honor by the Governor of Uttarakhand after becoming the overall champion at National Kayaking Championship in 2011, Rishikesh.

“But Bhupendra says, “Sach kahoon toh, mazaa nahin aaya mujhe.” (To tell you the truth, I wasn’t ecstatic with the award). “They invited me on stage, gave me the prize money, took pictures with me, and the celebration of my victory was over within minutes.”

Bhupendra thought why did he not deserve as much coverage as any of the mainstream sports icons? The coverage could help leverage his career. But here, he was amidst a nation who did not even understand the weight of his effort. Seeing him feel dejected, Bhupi’s high school teacher advised him that he must bring this sport to India and give it an identity. He’s one among the few people who is with in-depth knowledge and has the ability to see it through.

More than 50 participants from 7 countries partcipated in 2019 GKF festival. Picture Credit: Facebook
More than 50 participants from 7 countries partcipated in 2019 GKF festival. Picture Credit: GKF

The following two years, Bhupi gave his all to find information and resources to host a festival for the aspiring kayakers in the country. At first he thought, “Kaise? Aur kahan sey shuru karu main? (How? And where do I begin?). I was in hefty doubts. Will people be interested to participate and compete in a risk taking challenge? Will I find interested sponsors? Will the government and state legals give permits and cooperate? Are the people of my country even ready for this?” The questions never stopped.

A community was formed by the name The Adventure Sports Society (TASS) in 2014, which was the organizing committee for Ganga Kayak Festival. “GKF, could not start and end with me. My existence should not define the tenure of this festival. The aim behind creating this community was to make sure the show goes on year after year, even without me.” Slowly when things started to shape-up, Bhupi found his direction.

Kayakers getting ready to get in the holy river. Picture Credit: Facebook
Kayakers getting ready to get in the holy river. Picture Credit: GKF
“While designing the festival, I had to ensure that our competition matched the international standards. The format, the point system, procedure, equipment, conducting safety training, building a rescue team, everything; or else the festival would have no vision.”
Women kayakers riding their way in 4+ rapid grade, Picture Credit: Liz Heath
Women kayakers riding their way in 4+ rapid grade, Picture Credit: Liz Heath

“The toughest rapid in the course was chosen to conduct the competitions. Bhupendra’s dream wasn’t just to introduce and teach his nation a new game. His dream was to prepare the participants for the international games. “People had to be educated into the game to realize it’s not a game of speed but a game of tactics. In a matter of microseconds, your fate can change.”

For Bhupendra, who won or who lost was not important. Helping athletes develop the skill was. And this platform was a great place for the locals to showcase their potential on an international competition level. 20th February, 2013, the whistle blew loudly in the valleys of Rishikesh commanding the start of the first race of Ganga Kayak Festival. Bhupi always believed in ‘if you don’t find the book written then you should write it’.

“The roars and cheers echoed in the mountains. I heard the euphoric joy that I was longing to hear that day on stage while receiving the honourable award. A new identity was born for my country. I found my lost satisfaction.”
Winning moment. Picture Credit: Facebook
Winning moment. Picture Credit: GKF

Sharing life inspiring stories, Inspire Crew was humbled by Bhupendra’s appreciation for the kind of the work that is being put out there. He says, “A platform like Inspire Crew is much needed in India. One of the best utilisation of easy access to internet is to exhibit such great talent and be their voice.”

“He continues to acknowledge the way women have evolved and shining in the extreme sports section. “Aapka kaam dekh ke mazaa aa jata hai. (I enjoy watching the work you guys are doing). Because of your work and the features you’ll do, many women will find the inspiration to come out of their shells.”

Trying to understand how the response has been on that front Bhupendra mentions, “Many have come and asked me before why do we specifically not have a women’s category. Well to have a category we need at least three participants to place them based on their performances. If there is only one participant, she can’t be competing against herself and how will she know where she stands in terms of performance and skills? The format of the game cannot be tweaked for a single category, these are all as per the international rule books”.

Women are welcomed to participate in the open category at the Ganga Kayak Festival. Bhupi adds to it, “Gender equality has its grey areas. Kayaking is definitely a male-dominated sport, but that is only because till a decade ago beliefs and lifestyles stopped women from doing many things. Times have changed as we all know it. There are more women stepping up and indulging into extreme sports. And to be frank participating in mixed categories always raises the bar for you, pushing you to achieve bigger.”

Sunita Chauhan, Naina Adhikari, Liz Heath and Nidhi were participants in the pro women category this year.

Women kayakers posing for a picture before starting their race. Picture Credit: Gokul Krishnan
Women kayakers posing for a picture before starting their race. Picture Credit: Gokul Krishnan
“The competition was a great success and it’s like my biggest achievement in whitewater kayaking till now and I am very proud of that. Everything was organised and the competition was done so professionally including safety and other things. Whenever I am Kayaking it’s like best time of the whole day. It’s the best thing on earth for me. Sports have changed my life very drastically specially kayaking. It would be right to say kayaking has been a game changer in my life. I used to be hydrophobic. With kayaking I have overcome this fear. I have learned to get out of my comfort zone and to do something challenging. My next goal right now is to continue kayaking. If there will be any India camp I will be joining that. And like recently I got selected for The Australian Canoe Slalom Championship but unfortunately Indian team could not go because our visa got cancelled. Otherwise I am hoping soon there will be an Indian camp and I will be heading towards that. I am also aiming the Malabar river festival now." - Naina Adhikari
Naina Adhikai enjoying her moment: Picture Credit: Naina
Naina Adhikai enjoying her moment: Picture Credit: Naina

"For me this years competition was awesome. I have paddled in 4+ grade rapid for the first time in my Kayaking career. However I am not satisfied with my performance but I enjoy my time in the Ganga. When I saw the rapid, I felt horrified at first, but I enjoyed. My next goal is that I want to be an overall Champion at the Ganga Kayak Festival and represent India." - Sunita Chauhan

Nidhi who gained the India No.1 spot in Canoe polo after playing 17th Asian Championship says that

"When I got to know about whitewater kayaking competition, I decided to give it a go. This is my first time. It was a reliving performance for me. I enjoyed watching and playing with pro kayakers like Naina Adhikari, Liz and Sunita Chauhan. Water is my second home. There are lots of future plans. I want to represent my country first in Canoe polo, slalom and whitewater kayaking. Thanks to my Coach Digvijay Singh and my godfather Nama Ashish Prem Singh.
Nidhi in action while playing canoepolo. Picture Credit: Nidhi
Nidhi in action while playing canoe polo. Picture Credit: Nidhi

26 years old Liz Heath from Australia who was fortunately in India to spend a month kayaking says that,

"I never planned to be at the festival, it just happened to be on when I was in Rishikesh. I was initially sure that I wouldn’t race but I had a lot of support from the boys around which helped a lot with my confidence. The experience was unreal, I was really shocked to see how much effort went into making the event, from the organizers, the athletes and the villagers. It’s been really impressive to see how huge the kayaking scene is here in India. I wasn’t expecting the festival to be so huge and the majority of the competitors were Indian. I definitely felt lucky to be there. I feel pretty mixed emotions when I kayak. Bit of excitement, bit of fear, lots of love. I hope to paddle many places in future though, and am now on my way to spend a month kayaking in Nepal. My biggest project was to paddle the East Glacial river in Iceland last summer. After 4 months of practice on easier waters, I finally got to paddle the river at the end of the season. My only goal is to keep getting better."

Liz playing in white water during Ganga Kayak Festival. Picture Credit: Liz
Liz playing in white water during Ganga Kayak Festival. Picture Credit: Backcountry Films

Bhupendra Singh Rana and Inspire Crew definitely figured it out and manifested the opportunity to have this hearty conversation, hoping the world will listen.

Author’s BIO:

Growing up amidst the tiny lanes and concrete surroundings in ‘The City of Joy’, she responds to the call of the mountains and the whistles of the seas as often as her career path permits. She is an Old Soul, sometimes walking her solitary path in search of the foolish freedom that imbibes the responsibilities of the unknown. A chef’s daughter with the natural stroke of a gourmet, she allows her taste buds to explore from the local to the most exotic cuisines in and around her circumambience. She is an activist for the environment with strong moral convictions and a dreamer to dwell amongst nature’s lasting happiness.

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