The racing season is here

The air is filled with festivity with the crowd erupting in a loud cheer as pairs of buffaloes, decked with headgear get ready to take part in the traditional slush-track buffalo race — the Kambala. The anxiety and euphoria increase as the race is on the course, with spectators cheering for each pair of buffaloes and its jockeys.

This is a common scene during the Kambala season held between November and March in different parts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, and Kasargod districts. As many as 18 Kambala races are expected in this year’s Kambala season. At least 160 to 180 pairs of buffaloes take part in each Kambala. 

The cheer gets louder as the pairs race across the track covering a distance of 140 metres with a jockey running behind each pair. Kambala venues are filled with fanfare with thousands of people attending the popular races on the calendar. It also provides an atmosphere of a village fair with food stalls, music and dance performances. Kambala, a recreational sport for the farming community, is celebrated to appease the divine for a good harvest.

Various types

The modern-day (adhunika) Kambala race is organised in six categories — Kane Halage, Adda Halage, Hagga Hiriya, Hagga Kiriya, Negilu Hiriya and Negilu Kiriya. In Adda Halage, a wooden plank is tied to a pair of buffaloes. The jockey stands on the wooden plank during the race. While in Kane Halage, a circular wooden block is used during the race. The jockey stands on the wooden block which has two holes through which water is splashed as the race commences. In this category, the height of the water that gets splashed through the holes is used for determining the winner. Two strips of white cloth are tied across the track to measure the height of the water.

In Hagga Hiriya and Hagga Kiriya, the buffalo pair has a rope tied directly to them and the jockey holds it while the race is on. The hiriya and kiriya are categorised based on the number of teeth buffaloes have. All those buffaloes that have more than six teeth come under hiriya category (senior) while buffaloes with less than six teeth come under the kiriya category (junior). In Negilu Hiriya and Negilu Kiriya, the jockey holds a plough made of light wood, tied to the pair of buffaloes. These ploughs are specially made for the race.

Traditional Kambalas are organised in the Barkur region of Udupi district wherein the race is held on a spacious paddy field filled with slush-mixed water, unlike the modern double-track Kambala. About 60 traditional Kambalas are organised in Barkur region and conclude by December. 

According to researcher Prof Gananath Ekkar, “In the past, Kambala was more of a tradition than a sport. It symbolised the celebration of agriculture in this region. Now, Kambala has transformed into a sport held for entertainment.” 

It is said that Kambala was held in over 200 locations in Tulunadu. Over a period of time, with the shift in agricultural practices, the Kambala fields disappeared. There are four types of Kambala—  Pookare, Baare, Arasu or Devara, and Adhunika Kambala. Pookare, Baare, Arasu Kambalas focused on rituals and were known for their association with temples and daivaradhane. Adhunika Kambala is what is being practised in the modern days.

The Jilla Kambala Samithi was constituted several decades ago to organise Kambala race in a systematic manner with a calendar of events and to ensure a smooth flow of the races.

On the track, the jockey commands a pair of buffaloes to reach the finish line. The jockey who commands the animal runs barefoot on the slush-filled track. The winners are given a gold coin which weighs either
8 gram or 16 gram.

Iconic events

Some of the iconic Kambalas are Moodu-Padu Kambala of Mulki Seeme, Kanthabare-Budabare Kambala at Aikala Bava, Moodu Padu Kambala at Katapadi Beedu and Shesha-Naga Jodukare Kambala at the paddy fields of Ballamanja Sri Anantheshwara Swamy Temple.

There are several buffaloes that have gained a place in the public memory for their charm, poise and speed. Rocket Moda, one of the iconic buffaloes that had carved a niche in the field for 15 years, died recently. Rocket Moda had huge followers for his unique style and speed of running in the Kambala field. He is a Pairu breed buffalo of Udupi-Kota origin and had created a record in 2014 by completing the 144-metre distance in just 13.57 seconds, along with his partner, Kutti. His medal tally had crossed 100.

After the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took up a campaign against similar forms of sports practised in Tamil Nadu (Jallikattu) and other parts of the country, the Supreme Court banned such sports in 2014. The ban triggered discontent in coastal Karnataka leading to huge protests forcing the Karnataka government to bring in an ordinance – Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Karnataka Second Amendment), to continue Kambala. The ordinance enabled the organisers to resume traditional sports from 2017.

Though PETA has filed a special plea in the Supreme Court to overturn the ordinance, the Supreme Court has sought a response from the Karnataka government on a plea questioning the validity of a state law granting sanctity to a buffalo racing sport.    

Rajiva Shetty Edthooru, general secretary, Jilla Kambala Samithi, says, this year, the time of Kambala events has been reduced from 36 to 24 hours. Unlike in the past, a Kambala jockey can participate only in any of the three categories and not in all the six categories of an event.

Changing with the times

In response to PETA’s main allegation of the jockey whipping the Buffaloes with a stick during the sport, the Kambala Horata Samithi has designed a whip that does not cause any harm or pain to the animals. The whip is covered with sponges. These sponge pads are two-inch thick and half-a-feet long and do not inflict any injury to the animals, the committee claims.

Further, Kambala lovers have come up with a Kambala Protection, Care and Training Academy in Meeyaru near Karkala, which trains youths in jockeying. The academy was formed in 2011 with the twin objective of imbibing the required skills to sustain the rural sport while adhering to the court’s directions.

The 12-day training held before the commencement of the Kambala season includes different types of exercise, running race, Kambala practices, the preparation of rope and the decoration of bamboo sticks used in the sport. The training also includes activities like tying the buffaloes and giving a bath to the animals after an oil massage. It also gives an exposure to the nutritious food that has to be fed to the animals. The Academy has already trained 122 youths of which 70 are active in the field. 

Ganesh, a jockey, says, earlier Kambala was seen only as an agriculture sport. These days it is a sport offering a livelihood. “I am proud to be part of the rural tradition,” he adds. Kedubari Guruvappa Poojary, 70, was a Kambala jockey.
Now he is a caretaker of Kambala buffaloes. He says, “I rear a pair of buffalo like my own family members. My day starts at 4 am by feeding buffaloes with grass and water. In the past, I used to own two pairs of buffaloes. I will continue to rear these Kambala buffaloes till my age permits me to do so.”

For Kambala buffalo owners, it is a matter of status to possess Kambala buffaloes. They consider the animals as part of their family and rear them with utmost care. There are instances of people building a swimming pool for these buffaloes. The main diet of the buffaloes includes cooked horse gram, paddy straw and jaggery. Oil massage, bath and swimming are also part of their routine. 

In a region, which has rich anecdotes about the life-long relationship between the Kambala buffaloes and their caretakers, enthusiasts have initiated various efforts to keep the tradition alive.

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The racing season is here

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