Aravind Bremanandam is from a town called Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. An Internet marketer, his work took him to places like Budapest in Hungary, New York and many African countries.
As he vacationed there, Bremanandam found that automotive adventures were a common way to engage tourists and that India had nothing along those lines. That was when Bremanandam thought of organising such trips here. “What is a very ‘India’ vehicle, I asked myself,” he says. “Ambassador cars, or maybe the Tata Indica — an Indian-made car. But really, coming to India and travelling in a car isn’t out of the ordinary.”
That was when Bremanandam zeroed in on the humble, home-grown autorickshaw — foreign tourists were even known to go gaga over its kitschy charms. And thus was born the now world famous Rickshaw Challenge.
In 2006, Bremanandam organised the first such challenge that had 16 teams participating in a 1,000km journey from Chennai to Kanyakumari. Four years later, Bremanandam’s Chennai Event Management Services (CEMS) typically organises four rickshaw rampages a year (minus the customised trips): the Classic Run that takes participants from Chennai to Kanyakumari, the Mumbai Express that travels from Chennai via Bangalore to destination Mumbai, the Tech Raid, which explores India’s tech cities focusing on Bangalore and Hyderabad, and the upcoming Malabar Rampage scheduled to be flagged off on April 2, which takes a participant journeying from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, covering nearly 2,800km over 19 days.
This zara hatke tour bills itself as “a race for the clinically insane” and speed isn’t the criteria here.
How much does one such challenge cost? Well, it’s no paltry sum as it comes at a cost of Rs1,00,000. Justifying the price, Bremanandam says, “It’s not just riding a rickshaw, but when on this trip one explores the nuances of the place, you have loads of exciting tasks to perform every day. We even get a prominent person from the place to flag off the rally the next day.” Moreover, a part of the money goes to charity, as his company has partnered with a not-for-profit-organisation called Round Table India. “We even take the participants to the various Round Table projects, as we travel around, so they know how their money is being utilised,” he adds.
Travelling around India in a rickshaw might be a novelty for foreign travellers, and considering the steep price tag, is this targeted at Indians at all? Bremanandam says it is. “We have many Indian participants, too. The extraordinary experience makes it worth the money,” he adds. If need be, one can even find sponsors, as expat Adrianna Tan has done.
Tan, a Singaporean participating in the upcoming rampage, has two sponsors: GamingZion.com and AirAsia.com. For Tan, who’ll be riding through South India with her teammates Andrew Crum, an American ex-banker, and Karthik Seetharaman, an Indian PhD physicist, the rickshaw challenge was something she had to do: “I love India. I love autorickshaws. Put two and two together — a natural way of seeing India all over again. I’ve been to India many times. But to do it in an auto, while driving it... is completely different. I wanted to do it for the adventure of being on a road-trip in India’s most iconic vehicle.”
The three-wheeled, seven horse power ‘tuk-tuk’ will be provided by CEMS. While no modification that gives the rickshaw an unfair advantage is allowed, one is allowed to dress it up: Add DVD players, chargers, speakers and paint it in the wackiest of colours. CEMS does all that for an extra cost.
Tan says, “Mine will be painted red and white, in the fashion of an F1 racing car.”
The flipside of driving an autorickshaw on rough Indian country terrain is that it could break down or get stuck in potholes quite often, but the organisers always have a back-up car with mechanics to bail one out. Or one could even repair it oneself or push it to a roadside garage.
The Malabar Challenge will require contestants to travel an approximate 150km daily, performing a variety of tasks on the way. Tan is most excited about the ‘make an amphibious auto rickshaw’ task, which will entail modifying their auto in such a way that it can either float on water or can be steered across water.
Finally, when it ends after 19 long days, like all of CEMS’ Rickshaw Challenges, the winning team will be crowned the world champions of the rickshaw challenge and will be awarded an ultra-cool trophy: a pimped up autorickshaw meter.