The fierce rivalry that plays out every year between teams from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, as they race pairs of buffaloes down a muddy paddy field, has enthralled people of the region for over 1000 years. My plan was sudden–a team-mate applied for leave to attend the event and intrigued by his description and what google threw up, I called my friends, packed and left for Mangalore.
From November to March, the races are held at various locations across Karnataka on most weekends. We rode our hired bikes to Moodabidri, where the race was taking place that weekend and joined villagers who had poured in from all over the countryside, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere mixed with an air of anticipation.
After jostling our way ahead, I looked disappointedly at the race track–a 120-metre-long stretch of slushy mud, split into two by a foot-high concrete barrier; nothing like the Buddh International Circuit or Mahalaxmi Race Course. It didn't give me any clue of the display of raw passion and sporting fervour awaiting us.
We got into an animated conversation with the villagers–all teams train for eight months before the racing season and each race buffalo has a separate living area, strict diet regime and exercise schedule. Most even have their own swimming pool as trainers don't want them to lose muscle in the summer heat! Over the years, the prize has evolved from fruits and coconuts to gold coins and large cash prizes. But villagers insist it's pride that drives the teams to undergo the rigorous training with such dedication.
Stopping the buffalo from running after the race
The conversation inevitably moved to the bookies's current favourites and as if on cue, the sound of the shank (conch) reverberated through the air, signalling the start of the proceedings. A round of prayers followed and then the first two teams, comprising eight men each, ventured forth in their lungis and turbans. Each had in tow, two large, jet-black beasts that must have weighed a tonne! An excited murmur swept through the crowd (surely exceeding 20,000) and steadily rose to a crescendo as the teams struggled to get the impetuous bovines lined up correctly. It involved a lot of shoving, pushing and cajoling from five members of the team. Two members were busy splashing generous amounts of water on the buffaloes to maintain the optimum body temperature while the last member focussed on the track and sizing up the competition.
Rival teams' supporters tried their best to throw off the opposing teams by hurling the choicest taunts and after what must have been 10 minutes, the buffaloes were finally in the perfect position. All, except the driver and the buffaloes, stepped back. An anxious hush descended upon the arena and all eyes were trained on the thickly muscled animals, who were rearing to go as they kicked the mud back, grunting impatiently with lowered heads. Behind them, the drivers were crouched slightly with gritted teeth and whips held aloft, poised to strike. The pistol fired and all hell broke loose. The drivers cracked their whips, the buffaloes lunged forward in a dazzling display of acceleration that would put even Ferrari to shame and crowds cheered as the beasts and drivers went barrelling down the muddy track, churning up sprays of slush. The run to the finish line must have lasted just 10 seconds, but the visual of passion and power in motion will remain with me forever.
Pulling the buffalo to the right position
That afternoon saw 15 action-packed races, each as fascinating as the other. After the winner was crowned, the team members previously tense under pressure, let loose like teenagers would after board exams–partying to catchy local music and relishing the fare. The otherwise petulant buffaloes seemed mighty pleased with all the pampering and attention, as people lined up to take photos with the 'celebrities' of the day.
Though hugely popular among locals, Kambala hasn't made it to the must-do list of thrill seekers, and unfortunately so. Having travelled for two decades across India, I am yet to find a parallel to