The air is thick with tension. Taut muscles, piercing eyes and a tight grip on leash is the expression that all the farmers bear before erupting on to a slushy track, following a pair of angry buffaloes. Twelve to thirteen seconds is all one gets to see the trio blaze through, leaving a muddy wake. Hundreds of farmers and their trusted animals participate in the annual Kambala Buffalo Races in coastal Karnataka each year between December and April. A number of villages double up as venues and eagerly await the festivities, which go on for two full days and nights.
The sport can appear a bit harsh on the buffaloes, but for a musafir this still remains an intriguing occasion to witness an enduring tradition. The festival is celebrated for the harvest Gods to keep showering their blessings on the farmers. Since water buffaloes are integral farm animals, they partake in the homage in a significant way. More than 150 pairs of buffaloes are bred especially for the season, and are pegged against each other in a muddy battle for the prize money. The word ‘Kambala’ literally translates into ‘slushy field’ in Tulu, the unique language spoken on the Karnataka-Kerala border.
A Kambala track is a double path of 160 meters, ploughed into an open field. A copious amount of water is poured before the race, making the soft mud even harder to run on. The two-day race starts with a small ceremony at a central pole dug in the middle of the tracks, known as a pookare in Tulu. The team of buffaloes, runners, and the owners parade through the slushy tracks, kneading it with their feet to make it softer. Different levels and types of races are held over a day and a night, leading up to a grand finale the next morning. Frenzied locals flank the tracks as the athletes dash past them, egging on the animals with a combination of lashing and shouting. The end of the track elevates into a ramp to break the speed. As soon as the person finishes, the buffaloes and the runner are doused in water to cool them down. Consumed with the spirit of competition, things heat up pretty quickly. Entire villages attend the event, the rest of the area filling up with a festival feel. A popular Kambala can draw a crowd of more than 20,000 people.
Accolades and honours apart, the winners are awarded with 4-8 grams of gold, depending on the ability of the sponsoring village. More importantly, it’s the dignity of the athletes at stake; hours of practice and heaps of money spent on preparing the cattle means that winning is paramount. As is the appreciation of people who’ve come to see them. Let’s go ghoomne?