Festival of the month: Kambala buffalo races, Karnataka

Keep your cameras ready to take that prize-winning photo.
Image courtesy: Supriya Sehgal

Call it an indigenous take on the Grand Prix. Kambala, or traditional buffalo racing, is a hugely popular pastime among villagers along the southern Karnataka coast. Kambala events are usually held between November and March, usually on weekends. Parallel tracks are laid out in a paddy field, along which buffaloes hurtle towards the finish line. In most cases the man rides on a board fixed to a ploughshare, literally surfing his way down the track behind the beasts.

Around second weekend of February the excitement around the races reaches a crescendo. By now the top teams have been identified and they all converge at Eedu, a small village in Udupi district. Thousands of spectators attend each edition, and racing buffaloes are pampered and prepared like thoroughbreds making it a fantastic time to capture something completely unique.

The Kambala races began almost 1000 years ago as a commemoration to the Gods for a better harvest and possibly a source of entertainment for the villagers. Today, almost 150 pairs of buffaloes and their owners take part in the 3­­­ to 4-month-long festival where different races are held over a two-day period. This includes running on a slushy 160-metre track in record time or even creating the highest slush wave.

The first day starts with all the contestants arriving in trucks with their glistening oily-backed buffaloes and settling in their camps. A designated water tank is assigned to the teams to wash their buffaloes and keep them cool. Then the freshly watered twin tracks are inaugurated with a small ceremony and all the teams sashay down to showcase their prized possessions! Soon the tracks are ablaze with a farmer dashing down the track with two buffaloes and a hull. The tempo and the height of energy in that brief period of 11–13 seconds are extremely high. With the honour of the village at stake, many get cracking with a whip at the buffaloes. The races continue overnight and the ambience becomes more festive in the evening with the area around the track getting packed with food carts, local carousels and general cheer.

The final race is held close to afternoon on the second day. Not that the winning amount is more than 4–8 grams of gold per race, but accolades are weighed in terms of honour and prestige of the participating villages. Unlike many other festivals in India, the Kambala races have avoided sponsorship from corporates and have still managed to keep their authentic charm intact. So if you are looking to witness a thousand-year-old tradition, veer off from the regular sights in Karnataka and head straight to Eedu.

AUTHOR'S BIO: With a penchant for travelling ‘ungoogled’, Supriya has willingly got lost a number of times in the most obscure places of India for the last 8 years. She lives on a healthy diet of anecdotes and tea with auto drivers, co-passengers and locals! Supriya currently runs a Bangalore based travel-photography outfit called Photography Onthemove and writes regular features for India and International travel publications. More on www.supriyasehgal.com.