It was on one of those evenings when we were eating ice-cream at Ideals in Mangalore that Bart (my friend from Poland who writes for a travel magazine) said he is going to Kambala the following morning. I was totally clueless as to what this might probably be. Out of mere curiosity I googled what Kamabala was, and what I found was rather surprising. I found some photographs of buffaloes being chased by a man with a bare upper body and a headgear. This reminded me of the bull race from Nicholas Sparks book – The Longest Ride.
Out of excitement, I called up Bart saying I would love to go with him too. He said it starts at 9.30 a.m. but we need to leave early since it takes an hour to get to the location. Kamabala on 21st February was held at Vamanjoor in the temple premises of Shri Amruteshwara Temple. We left around 10 a.m. and by the time we got there it was around 11 a.m.
The event had already begun, but they were taking it easy. The races had not begun yet, but the buffaloes were undergoing warmup sessions where they were made to run the trail. The water wasn’t muddy yet, neither the people excited.
After watching it for a while we decided to grab something to eat. Cut fruits, fresh fruit slices, tender coconut and aerated drinks were available. A plate of cut fruits and two tender coconuts later we decided to head back to the trail.
This time the tempo was rising. The race had begun and with this the people’s excitement. The music got louder and the commentators voice got louder. Even though we couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying (since he spoke entirely in Kannada, the local language here), we managed to spot people who might know English and interrogated them.
What is Kambala?
A very popular annual festival in Dakshin Kannada District of Karanataka in South India, Kambala involves the traditional buffalo race, a popular and unique sport among the farming community of the state. We were told the festival season begins in November and continues until March. Celebrated to commemorate the beginning of the harvest season, special days are allocated to each village.
As we got talking to people, we were told many stories related to Kambala – each one with a different version. According to one belief, Kambala is a festival that originated in the farming community of Karnataka. The festival is dedicated to Lord Kadri Manjunatha, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. It was celebrated to please the Gods for a good harvest. It was also a form of entertainment or recreational sport for the farming community. The winner of the buffalo race was rewarded with a coconut and such other things.
The other belief regarding the origin of Kambala is that the buffalo races originated as a sport for the royal family’s amusement or pleasure. According to legend, the festival was started by the Hoysala Kings to see if the buffaloes could be trained and used in war. The Hoysala Kings were astonished to see the speed of the buffaloes and started racing them against one another. As such, this developed as a sport for the royals. Later the tradition was carried on by the feudal lords of those regions and finally it was continued by the ordinary people.
From my research and talking to people around, these were some of the details I found which I shall share with you’ll. The festival of Kambala is a joyful experience that must not be missed by anyone who wants to see the traditional sight of Karnataka.
How is Kambala Festival Celebrated?
Kambala is a simple event of buffalo races that is usually held over a two-day period. The festival begins with an inaugural ceremony and a parade of the participating farmers along with their prized buffaloes. Soon after, the much anticipated buffalo races start.
Each team comprises of two buffaloes and a farmer who controls the buffaloes. Two teams are made to race down two slushy tracks to determine the fastest team.
A Buffalo Race and 2 Muddy Tracks
The buffalo race is held on 2 muddy tracks that are placed parallel to each other. The racing tracks are normally about 120 to 160 metres in length and 8 to 12 metres in width, depending on the space available. The tracks are ploughed into a muddy field that is made slushy with water.
Traditionally there used to be just one track. But now 2 tracks are used for the race, though in some areas the tradition of a single track is still followed.
The Kambala – A Festival of Cheer
The festival takes place among a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers and supporters. The atmosphere becomes taut with anticipation and excitement during the races.
As each farmer frantically edges his buffaloes to race on the track and reach the finishing line at the earliest, the crowd cheers them. The farmer whose buffaloes cover the distance within the shortest time is the winner.
The races continue overnight. Different types of races are held at different levels that lead up to a grand finale. The grand finale is generally held in the of the second day. The swiftest pair of buffaloes is declared the winner of the race and the farmer controlling those buffaloes is awarded the prize.
Areas Where Kambala Festival is Popular
Kambala is a festival that is most popular in Mangalore and other southern coastal regions and remote villages of Karnataka. Districts such as Dakshina Kannada and Udupi celebrate this festival with much fanfare.
Every year Kambala is held in places like:
- Baradi Beedu
Present day celebration of Kambala festival
The Kambala festival started has evolved into a major festival for the farmers of the coastal Karnataka region. Today the festival has turned into a popular annual event that draws people from far and near who accumulate to witness this unique show of speed and balance.
These days the buffalo races are organised professionally. The buffaloes are trained throughout the year for the event. A well-organised Kambala sees the participation of 130 to 140 pairs of buffaloes and a crowd of around 20,000 spectators. As per a report of The Times of India, more than 45 Kambalas are held annually.
About 18 Kambalas are held under a Kambala Samithi while the rest are organised under the auspices of various temples or with political patronage. The awards range from gold to cash rewards. Even tourists plan their trips during the Kambala season to witness the event.
Care for the buffaloes of Kambala Festival
Kambala is a festival that testes the speed and swiftness of the buffaloes. As such, the buffaloes are well-fed and cared for throughout the year. Some owners of the buffaloes also build separate swimming pools for the buffaloes that compete in the races.
Even the high court has imposed certain restrictions on the organisers and the participants regarding the treatment of the buffaloes during the races. The court primarily mentioned that the buffaloes should not be subjected to cruelty and they must be well-looked after and adequately fed.
Safety measures taken in Kambala festival
The Kambala festival involves high speed races of buffaloes in front of several thousand visitors. Accidents do occur sometimes while the races are in progress. As the buffaloes race ahead, sometimes they skid or topple. Even the farmer running with the buffaloes sometimes falls and gets hurt.
In this race both, the buffaloes as well as the farmer may suffer serious injuries, including fractures of the bones. As such, large Kambala organizers generally have an ambulance and veterinary doctors ready at the site of the festival for immediate control of such situations and to provide emergency medical aid.
Controversy regarding Kambala festival
The age-old tradition of buffalo races in Karnataka has been the cause of concern among animal lovers and animal activists for quite some time now.
The celebration of Kambala was stopped in Karnataka based on an order of Supreme Court, dated 7th May, 2014. This order was actually meant for the violent game of Jallikkatu, a bull taming sport in Tamil Nadu. The order did not mention Kambala.
However, due to a misinterpretation of the order by the animal husbandry department, the ban was linked to Kambala as well. As such, the district administration in Karnataka was issued directive from the animal husbandry department to ban Kambala. This order was met with much resentment by the organisers, the participants and the spectators of the popular festival.
This led the district Kambala committees to approach the high court on behalf of the Kambala committees. The high court passed an interim order on 15th December, 2014 and stayed the ban on Kambala.
Photographs by Flexcia D'souza || blogger Goa