From where we are standing, the fellow on the left appears to have a slight edge, but he may well be frittering it away as his opponent seems to swiftly catch up. They’re abreast of each other for a bit before Mr Left nudges ahead again, this constant aagey-picchey (ahead-behind) creating a thrilling suspense. It’s a fight that’s too close to call...
So far, so good. Then the vortex of grey-black smoke that rises higher than the flying dust and dredged-up soil fogs our line of vision. Where eyes fail, the ears take over. Over the roar of the cheering, the clapping and the general hubbub, we try to focus on the vroom of the thundering engines. In vain, because it’s over in a jiffy and the winner is declared. Who? All of us standing on the other end of the ground (and the apparent smokescreen) are craning, enquiring, speculating, when the victor reappears for a victory march of sorts, the cocktail of billowing smoke and dust trailing him once again. Proving that well begun is half done is Mr Left, who has won the first preliminary of the year’s biggie: the tractor race.
It may be no Formula One (drat, this doesn’t even have a racing track or glam grid girls), but the pumped-up adrenaline and galloping heartbeats powered by guts, testosterone and the quest for glory are no less. Throw in some good-natured family fun and you, like us, will be enraptured by the bucolic charms of the Rural Sports Festival in Kila Raipur village, just off Ludhiana in Punjab.
What began as one man’s vision in the 1930s to inspire the young to take to sports and healthy habits has transformed into an iconic extravaganza; so iconic, in fact, that it has been dubbed the Rural Olympics of India. The three-day annual carnival, with a footfall of approximately a million spectators, tests strength, skill and stamina of participants — human, machine, animal — in regular track-and-field disciplines and a raft of arbitrary competitions. Everybody’s welcome and to demonstrate their open arms are the fluttering flags of several countries lined up near the stands. You dare, you come, international borders no bar.
From the looks of things, there are no bars on spectator movement either. When we first land at the venue, it’s impossible to tell participant from spectator; they all seem to have homogenised on the grounds of the Grewal Sports Stadium. Only the patient and the not-so-young are seated in the stands; the rest of the enthusiastic crowd is milling around with mediapersons, friends, participants and “outsiders” on the grounds. Multiple competitions play out simultaneously. No large screens need to be put up at the venue as everyone can whimsically form islands around the sport of choice to watch things up close and personal. Men in tights test their reflexes and athleticism in the popular sport of kabaddi in one corner of the stadium. Teams are vying for top honours in hockey. Individual fame is at stake in wrestling, sprinting, hurdles, jumps, pole vaulting — girls in equal numbers as the boys, each hoping to be the one to catch the discerning eye of the national and state talent scouts. If their presence reveals the real merit of the Games, so does the sponsorship from top-notch MNCs. Olympians from the region have also featured and been feted here. Chief ministers are said to have graced its arena (apparently even one president of India made it, well, almost).
A bit of tradition
The events are interspersed with the spirited Punjabi dances of bhangra and gidda. Serious business seamlessly mingles with buffoonery and daring stunts. A frail man perched on a glass bottle elicits cheers from the crowds with his pretzel-like contortions. A large group in white, including specially abled girls, displays spectacular feats of self-control acquired with years of taekwondo practice. Daredevil bikers pull off impossible routines. A four-year-old girl walks a few yards to the finish line with three heavy bricks dangling from her teeth. There’s a team event where 10 players from each team flutter to unload 30 sacks of 35 kilogram each from a tractor, carry it to a finish line 10 feet away, and reload it all on the tractor again. There are races for dogs, camels and elephants. From somewhere, a paraglider takes off. Nihangs (Sikhs of the warrior order) show off their terrific martial skills. Someone is performing mimicry and a bevy of commentators squeaks non-stop into the mike (it’s in Punjabi and audience reactions suggest that they are amusing). Vendors of snacks and sweets are doing brisk business. Everyone’s having a field day. But not everyone’s happy.
Despite the teeming crowds, we discover that the appeal of the festival has been ebbing in the past few years and has even witnessed protests. Apparently, the most popular event used to be bullock-cart races (even now the trophies depict these) followed by horse racing and tent-pegging. However, these have been discontinued to conform with the strict guidelines issued by the departments of health and animal husbandry. Locals worry that the popularity of the games will soon dwindle, drying up the funds and the crowds, and unspooling the hard work put in over the years.
That worry may plague old-timers. For debutants like us, it’s a carnival we are happy to be a part of. After all, where else can one see — apart from the coexistence of serious sportspersons and amusing jesters — the unmistakable pride in being who one is. We witnessed it in the words emblazoned on the tractor of Mr Left: ‘Proud to be Farmer’. Perhaps it’s time for him to append the word ‘Olympian’ to it … Rural Olympian.
Mark your calender!
This year’s games will be held between February 1 and 3.
Getting there: Kila Raipur is about 25 km from Ludhiana, Punjab. There are daily flights from major cities to the international airport at Amritsar (less than 150 km from Ludhiana). Ludhiana is well-connected by train. Entry to the games is free.
Staying there: Stay at Ludhiana and commute daily to Kila Raipur for the games. The city, a manufacturing hub for woollens and sports goods, offers plenty of accommodation choices ranging from high-end (like the Hyatt Regency) to inexpensive.