Indian travel writing: The Ancient Art of Buffalo Racing in the Muddy Waters of Karnataka

Suruchi Dumpawar writes about his Indian travel tourism adventure racing buffalo in Karnataka

The rhythmic beat of drums and trumpets reverberates in the air. The area from where the sound emanates is jam-packed and I can barely see the goings on from my position. Camera in hand, I make way through the all men crowd dexterously, swinging my head to the intoxicating music.

I find myself inside a unique arena (I had been expecting a marshy field all along); two tracks dug up and filled with slush run parallel to each other for about 450 ft. with the spectators’ stands adjacent to the two tracks with a well defined boundary to keep the spectators in check. The chaotic scenes that I had been imagining in my mind all the while are put to rest; Koti Chennaya Kambala organized at Puttur, a small village in Karnataka, India, is a highly professional affair.

What is the fuss all about?

And this entire hullabaloo is for the buffaloes; paired with the help of a yoke they are lined up with their owners ready to enter the arena. Fresh after a pooja and a wash at the temple nearby, their black skin gleams in the blazing sun, they are decorated with fancy ropes, mirrors and some of them even sport amulets. The men are well sculpted; having a six-pack is no big deal here. Most of them are bare chested wearing just a modest lungi.(A kind of wrap common in South India.)

A man wearing a red turban and a matching lungi checks the buffaloes’ teeth with the air of a specialist. Checking for bad breath? No. I later come to know that buffaloes are partitioned into different groups (small, medium and big I guess) according to the number of their fallen teeth. Ingenious, I must say!

An organizer is very happy to see my friends and me, mistaking us for reporters as all of us are sporting cameras. When we inform him that we are just hobbyists he sportingly gives us the scarves which the volunteers are wearing. “Go close and shoot” he tells us in Kanadda and that’s exactly what we do, we have an up close and personal encounter with the buffaloes of Puttur.

…and the action begins!

We position ourselves at the starting line. An enclosure is made for the buffaloes waiting in line for their turn; it is difficult to control some of them who are raring to be free and have a go at the slushy track. The main race will only start in the afternoon now is the time for the first timers to show their skills.

The first buffalo pair looks every bit menacing their muscles taut, quivering with excitement and their noses flaring. Agitated by the incessant whipping and war cries of the lone rider (who is called Saarthi) behind them, they rush past us at maddening speed leaving a trail of water flying behind.

Splash, Splash, Splash!

All this happens so fast that I fail to retract my camera in time and so it gets a generous helping of the mucky water. A fitting start to a day that is going to be action packed. No serious damage done though, thankfully. After a few runs I am taking pictures with the ease of a photographer seasoned for kambala.

Some of the buffaloes cover the length of the track in a mere 10-15 seconds. I realize that running in water keeping pace with galloping buffaloes is no mean feat. Many a men fall in the slush, face down, unable to keep up with their more sturdy counterparts. But some men make it look really easy and I secretly wish to run in the slush; the muddy water does look tempting in this scorching sun. Maybe I’ll do this in Kadri Kambala sometime where there are races for women and children too sans the buffaloes.

All thanks to an underworld don.

The area around the arena dons a festive look; bhel and pani puri the ubiquitous Indian street food are present here too, “Pepsi Coca cola” a stereo announces running in a loop continuously, the pao-pao of the candy-floss man’s cart adds to the din. We settle for a glass of sugarcane juice that as always is surprisingly refreshing.

Muthappa Rai looks down on us from huge posters, sporting a French beard and talking on a mobile phone. I find him good-looking quite contrary to the appearance I had expected when I had heard that he was a underworld don turned social worker. He hails from Puttur and is the organizer of the Koti Chennaya Kambala this year, which I later come to know, is the largest Kambala in Karnataka drawing a crowd of around a lakh people.

We now stand close to the finishing line that slants upwards; a simple braking mechanism to stop the buffaloes running at break neck speed. But still some of them crash straight into the crowd standing at the finishing line; some men rush with whips to control them and no harm is done.

As photography in the scorching sun is a tiring job, hunger pangs start making themselves felt in no time. There is some time for the main event to start, so we head towards a friend’s cousin’s place for lunch. I simply love the way these traditional homes are built, they are so inviting and cozy, and make you feel right at home. All characteristics of an ideal home I feel. The lunch is traditional Tulu (pertaining to Southwestern Karnataka) fare and is delicious. Revitalized, after the lunch and a little rest we revisit the arena.

Scampering for life amidst crashing buffaloes.

The bands are playing elaborately; the main event has started. The buffaloes are burlier now; they run even faster and splash more water in the process. I want to get some head-on shots of the buffaloes so we join the freelance photographer with his bazooka like lens, who is already standing at the finishing line.

This is as adventurous as it gets! I point my camera on the buffaloes till I feel they are at a safe distance and then scamper inside the crowd for protection. The men look at me amused and sometimes I have the eerie feeling that the buffaloes too are eyeing me curiously, but then it is just a feeling. None of the buffaloes crash on us but we do have some close shaves.

Contest of a different kind

As the evening matures it becomes even more cool and pleasant; the floodlights cast obscure reflections on the track. The dignitaries have started to arrive and the speeches on the stage run parallel to the commentary in the arena. Now comes the part for which I had been waiting for all through.

Kambala is not just about completing the stretch of the track in the least time, that is one aspect of the race. There is another unusual aspect too. In the middle of the track some markers are placed at the height of 6.5 and 7.5 feet respectively. The idea is that the splashing water should rise to this height. And for this the Saarthi has to stand on a plank attached to the buffaloes.

As the first pair with the Saarthi on the plank arrives it is a most bizarre sight. The blurred outline of a man is visible through the diaphanous film of water rising all around the buffaloes. The man himself seems to be hanging on to nothing but air and when they approach the middle of the track, where the markers are placed, the water astonishingly rises to great heights and manages to touch the 6.5 ft mark. I feel that the man has fallen into water by now but as the pair approaches the finishing line I am shocked to see that he is still there hanging on to the buffaloes.

Leaving in the middle of action

Many buffaloes thus pass by, but none touch the 7.5 ft mark. But there is enough time; the competition will go on through the night ending only on Monday evening. And that reminds me that I have to be in office tomorrow. The night seems promising, Yakshagana , an opera like art form of Karnataka, is also supposed to happen and I’ve been wanting to watch one for quite sometime.

Loath that I am to leave I wonder at the juxtaposition of the two different lives I seem to live on the weekdays and weekends. I’ve been really lucky to have watched Kambala; the one in Puttur is amongst the last to happen during the Kambala season, which starts from Dec. and goes on till March. Information about the Kambala schedule is hard to get by on the Internet, but I promise myself to come back for the Kambala next year, if not Puttur some other location. After Jallikattu, a bull taming sport that happens in Tamil Nadu India, and the action packed Kambala, I want my tryst with rural sports to continue.

by Suruchi Dumpawar. (These exciting India Indian travels were originally posted on the excellent site India on Foot here.)