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A traditional practice of the region
People from the undivided Dakshina Kannada are fighting hard to save Kambala - a traditional sport.
Kambala enjoyed a special place in the traditional practices of the region and was part of the worship, Prof Prof K Gunapala Kadamba, president, Kambala Academy and founder secretary of Dakshina Kannada Kambala Committee said. There has been documentary evidence in inscriptions. A portion of the vast paddy fields were reserved for Kambalas that were practiced during the end of the second crop season. Then all the buffalos were made to run on the paddy field (Kambala gadde), which was also entertainment for the farmers. The traditional Kambala was held between November and December because after that, there would be no water in the fields. There were many traditions and beliefs that had to be followed and the sanctity of the paddy field had to be maintained, he said.
With the land reform act, the paddy fields were divided, but Kambala continued to be practiced. A few Kambalas were celebrated for a month like the Mulky Seeme Arasu Kambala or Vandara Beedy Kambala because it was a festival of the farmers and farmers even bought tools and equipment for the fields during the festival.
“The villagers have strong beliefs attached to the Kambala fields. At a few places, rituals are followed as a vow,” he said.
With the Bajagoli LavaKusha Jodu Kere Kambala in 1969-70, modern Kambalas were born and began to be practiced on an artificial track. Though several modern Kambalas were started, many were still attached to ‘Nagaradhane’, ‘Bootharadene’ or related to a temple. For instance, in Puttur, the Kambala is performed on a track right outside the Mahalingeshwara temple.
Prof Kadamba said, “Over the years, Kambala developed and it began to be held under floodlights. Video finishing was used for accurate judgment. The Kambala academy was established to train jockeys and other developments took place to the extent that the Kambala Academy at Miyar introduced laser beam network system for the finishing point. There are scientific studies to prove that buffalos of the coast are fit to run,” he said.
The modern Kambala takes place from November and goes on up to April. “Unfortunately, people think only of modern Kambala and forget the traditional Kambala. Hundreds of traditional Kambalas were followed in the coastal region, a practice that begins by noon and ends by evening, which is generally followed by a puja at a temple. Traditional Kambala is practiced the highest in Udupi and Kundapura regions. Kambalas also unite the family and village as well help in the development of the village,” he said.
Speaking to Bangalore Mirror, Kadamba said, “It is unfortunate that Kambala is being misunderstood. Kambala is part of Tulunadu tradition and religious practice. It is not a buffalo race.”
CASE IN HC
Currently [in 2017], the case is in the High Court and those in favour of Kambala have been demanding that the court grant at least two years to an expert committee constituted by the government to study Kambala before banning it.
Kambala - the buffalo race
When the fields are filled with water there is one sight not to be missed, the kambala or the buffalo race that is unique to Dakshina Kannada. This is a unique sport of this region.
The historically famous Kadri Kambala race is held annually at Kadri Kambalaguthu. Historians date the roots of this race back to more than a thousand years. At that time Kambala was the event when farmers paid tribute to their gods for protecting their crops. There used to be lot of celebration and games as part of this festive atmosphere. Some say Kambala also marked the beginning of sowing operations for the second round of crops. Traditionally, there were two types of kambalas, Pookere Kambala and Bale Kambala. Bale Kambala was discontinued some 900 years ago [around A.D. 1200].
The Mangalore Kambala, popularly known as the Mangalore Hobali Kambala, is an annual feature at the Kadri Kambala fields here. Run in a paddy field by pairs of buffaloes, egged on by a strong-musled ryot in an atmosphere so taut that it can be slashed by a knife, the kambala event is closest to horse race. According to people associated with the sport, it flourished under the royal patronage of kings and famous households in Mangalore. In the olden days, the buffaloes were brought in procession to the accompaniment of `dolanalike' (drum dance).
Below is a popular quote on the race.
"Hold your breath. Silence rules the air as thousands watch in stunned anticipation! The man is crouching behind the buffaloes on a slive of wood attached to the animals. Not a muscle moves. Only the wind is playing on his lock of hair. For him the race is all that matters. Suddenly the scene explodes, the man springs up, his hand cocked, his whip held high and the huge animals lunge forward, bellowing, their hooves churning the muddy waters and sending their wet spray in the hot air, their eyes wide, wild and white - man and beast engaged in one spurt of activity and one aim - victory."
According to Times of India, there are more than 45 Kambalas held annually, starting from November to March in the distrct. Nearly 18 are held under a Kambala Samithi and the rest are held under the suspices of temples and with political patronage. The increased interest in Kambala has given rise to a similar sport known as `kare'. The difference is that the traditional Kambalas are not held on Amavasya and Sankramana days. A recent addition has been tug-of-war for men and women in the slushy paddy fields.
On the verge of oblivion
Kambala organisers and participants allege that the ‘beef mafia’ is bent on banning Kambala.
The man who rides the buffalos during Kambala gets paid well, sometimes in lakhs.
Kambala, the rural rage in the coastal districts, is traditionally held before the second crop is sown. It is held between Vrishika and Dhanu Sankranthi (usually between November 15 and December 15). Pairs of buffalos are made to run on the slush and the pair which completes the race first is the winner. Traditionally, Kambala was held in villages as a religious event. However things started changing in 1969-70 when modern ‘Jodu Kare Kambala’ began with the aim of entertaining and attracting the masses. The Kambala at Bajagoli village was the first modern Kambala. It had several innovations with the race now between pairs of buffalos. Tracks were drawn, floodlights were installed and attractive prizes too were conferred. Earlier, the winner was given two lemons and betel leaf with arecanut. Now, they get gold sovereigns too!
“The traditional Kambala has a history of over 600 years. There are many inscriptions in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts giving details about Kambala. Modern Kambala or the buffalo race has a history of about 60 years,” Kambala Academy founder Gunapal Kadamba says. The academy provides training on every detail of Kambala to those keen on mastering the sport.
“People have great belief in traditional Kambala. Even today, nobody gets into the Kambala field with footwear. If there is any death or birth in a family, they do not participate in the event. Organisers consume only vegetarian food till the event is over. Those with health problems carry leaves on their head and spread it in the racing field believing that it will solve their problems,” he says.
“Kambala is held in some places as a temple festival and is associated with ‘Kola’ (spirit worship). The belief is that buffalos have to run on slush in these villages failing which the village will invite the wrath of God,” explains Rajashekhar Jain, who has been serving as a Kambala referee.
On the accusations of cruelty which is one of the reasons which led to the ban, he says, “There is no cruelty in Kambala, in recent years we have completely stopped hitting buffalos during the race. If Kambala is considered cruel and banned, what about the cruelty inflicted on horses during races?”
“Every buffalo that is used for Kambala is given royal treatment. They are given good and healthy food, regular oil massage daily and also taken for a walk. Some buffaloes are provided swimming pools or given bath in lakes, ponds or rivers. Rearing these buffalos is not an easy task. They are taken care of with great love and affection,” Ashok Rai, organiser of Uppinangady Kambala says. “Let the court allow the sport with restrictions, we will follow them. But the rural sport of farmers should not be banned,” he contends.
There are buffalo owners who take note of every detail of the animal. If the urine turns yellow, they are treated immediately. The stomach is hit gently every day to check and and ensure the buffalo’s health is fine.
Kambala lovers feel a permanent ban may lead to a decline in the number of buffaloes in the region. “Buffaloes are hardly used for farming activity here. People rear them for Kambala and if it is banned, these animals which have brought us fame, will surely disappear over a period of time,” says Devendra Kotian, adding that there are about 5,000 people who depend on Kambala, and the ban will affect them all.
So while those for and against Kambala battle it out in courts, Karnataka’s rural heart will be hoping that amid the droughts and fluctuating monsoons and away from the loan sharks and preying babus, this race will keep their minds racing as they hope for a better morrow.
The word Kambala is said to be derived from 'Gampa Kala' meaning a huge paddy field filled with slush. Kambala faced the anger of animal lovers after the ban on Jallikattu (the rural sport of TN) by the Apex Court. Interestingly, a ban on Kambala was proposed by the NDA government in 2003 when Maneka Gandhi was Union minister.
In the past few years, checks have been introduced on beating the buffalos with whips during Kambala which was considered cruel. The organisers and Kambala Samithi have clearly instructed Kambala sportsmen not to hit the buffalos. Modern techniques like videos to identify the winner at the finishing point, laser beam and electronic timers have been incorporated into the sport to make sure there is no room for error.
About 24 Kambala events are organised by Kambala Samiti in the twin districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi usually between November and March. This is in addition to the 100 small Kambalas held in these two districts.
No more of the pulsating Kambala race which sets the slushy fields in the coastal districts on fire and makes the blood beat as hard in your head as the buffalo’s hooves pounding the earth? That could really happen with Karnataka high court imposing a ban on the rural sport until the disposal of a PIL filed by People for the Ethnical Treatment of Animals (PETA).Kambala lovers contend that the sport, which resonates the heartbeats of Kannadigas, should be allowed to go on with restrictions which animal lovers consider necessary. Will that happen or will Kambala disappear into oblivion and remain only a fading memory for those who have witnessed this earthy race? Gururaj A. Paniyadi explores Kambala and finds out why it is so closely intertwined with the native traditions of Karnataka’s coast.
Devendra Kotian, the Kambala hero of the coastal districts is in a quandary. How will he explain the presence of the prestigious Kreeda Ratna award which adorns his house, to future generations when the famous buffalo race has been banned?
Forty-five-year-old Kotian has won a record number of medals in Kambala- the buffalo race on slush. He is the first Kambala sportsman to be conferred the Kreeda Ratna award. He has started wondering if anyone will ever realise the hard work which went into winning the medals when the game itself is set to be become extinct!
Like Kotian, Kambala organizers and regular race participants are worried over the future of the sport after the ban though there are plans to approach the Supreme Court. “Whatever I am today is because of Kambala. The recognition, fame and awards I received was because of this game. I was just a common man earning my livelihood from agriculture. Kambala has been my passion for the last 20 years and every year, I have won medals. In one particular year, I won medals in all 15 Kambala events which is a record. People recognise me wherever I go. I am unable to imagine what will happen after the ban,” Kotian says.
Controlling the buffalos and getting them into shape is nothing short of what a horse trainer does, confesses the Kambala expert. His fitness is as important as that of the buffalos he races. “I eat healthy food and have no bad habits. Regular massage and exercise are a must. Sukumar Shetty, whose buffalos I race, helps me a lot,” Kotian reveals.
If anyone remembers, in a Kamal Hassan Tamil film, a group of women activist storm a film shooting set and start protesting that the lead couple are sitting on an ox, like Shiva, Parvathi, calling it cruelty to animal. The shooting is stopped. Kamal Hassan keeps telling them to lift the cloth and see (of course giving it double meaning) but the heroine refuses to do so. Finally he lifts the cloth to show that the animal is standing under a table covered with a table cloth and the actors are actually sitting on the table. In this entire melee, the ox runs away. The activists are taken aback but start shouting against the snake around the ‘Shiva’. The snake man takes it away and in the confusion drops it. The activists panic and stamp on the snake till it dies. The snake charmer is left crying that his ‘child’ is dead.
This scene, though is intended as comedy, gives a feeling that the sarcasm is not totally uncalled for. Agreed that an animal right has to be protected but sometimes the separating line between animal love and cruelty is very thin.
Definitely Karnataka would demand Kambala be allowed. The protest by “common public” at the Freedom Park, intentionally keeping ‘leaders’ out has many things to say.
This has also started a debate about why there is no unity among the Kannadigas on any issue of the state. Former CM HD Kumaraswamy even tried commenting about how the ‘Silicon city’ is silent about Kambala. Now, why would they bother about it? It’s a sport of the coastal region. It’s not a sport even, it’s a ritual. The ritual has actually become a mega money spinning event too. The Kambala bulls are extremely expensive; their upkeep is a costly affair. They are housed in air conditioned sheds.
They are worshipped like deities. Nobody would think of ‘harming’ a bull that is considered as wealth.
Actually, during Kambala the people who get a raw deal, worse than the bulls, are a certain low class community that is used in very inhuman ways in preparation for Kambala. I remember doing a script about this and the animal rights board would not give permission to shoot the Kambala scene but had absolutely no problem with showing any cruelty against the community.
If you want to raise a hand to protest against Kambala it should be to protect the community more than the bulls.
Any sport that is conducted in human spirit is a celebration. Taking away the feasting elements out of a lifestyle can make it drab and uninteresting. Animals are an integral part of our ritualistic practices. To stop the "crossing of fire" by cattles during Sankranthi is not just a ritual but also helps removing the bugs. It is just as scary as taking a child to a doctor for a prick. It may sound over reacting but at times anything taken to an extreme actually defeats the purpose.
How Jallikattu is different from kambala
HIGHLIGHTS Jallikattu is practised in Tamil Nadu, and kambala in Karnataka.
Jallikattu is a rural bull-taming sport, and Kambala is an annual buffalo race.
However, there are important differences between these two practices.
There are many important differences between these two traditional sports. Here's a handy guide with all the information you need.
What is this sport?
Jallikattu is a rural bull-taming sport practised in Tamil Nadu on Mattu Pongal day (mid-January). The word 'Jallikattu' is derived from the Tamil words Jalli and Kattu, which mean silver or gold coins tied to the horns of the bulls as the prize money. There are three variants of the sport - Vati Manju Virattu, Veli Virattu and Vatam Manjuvirattu.
Kambala is an annual buffalo race which is held between November and March by the farming community in Karnataka's Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, and in areas bordering Kerala. It's organised at different times during this period in different areas of the state. Earlier, winners used to be given coconuts. But now, gold medals and - in some places - trophies are awarded.
In Vati Manju Virattu, participants attempt to hold on to bulls for a specified amount of time or distance. In Veli Virattu, bulls are released into an open ground and competitors try to control the animals. And in Vatam Manjuvirattu, bulls are tied to long ropes, and a team of players tries to control them.
Kambala is organised on two parallel racing tracks which are ploughed into a muddy field, and made slushy with water. They're normally about 120 to 160 metres long and eight to 12 metres wide. Two pairs of buffaloes tied to ploughs and guided by racers compete to reach the finish line first. The racers beat the animals with a stick to make them run, and can make them cover upto 100 metres in 12 seconds. The races continue overnight, and happen in stages until a grand finale decides the winner in a particular region.
The Kambala festival begins with an inaugural ceremony, and a parade of the participating farmers along with their prized buffaloes.
Reason for controversy
Opponents of jallikattu say it's a cruel, violent sport which involves tormenting a frightened animal in an arena. The Supreme Court banned the sport in 2014, and animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment on Animals (PETA) was one of the organisations on whose petitions the apex court decided to outlaw the practice. And in the years preceding the ban, bull owners took to feeding the bulls arrack and rubbing chili on the animals' bodies to increase their aggression, a report said in 2014. However, some jallikattu supporters deny that such practices occur.
Kambala was banned last year after PETA approached the Karnataka High Court, citing animal cruelty in bull taming and buffalo racing. The high court had earlier stayed this event in view of the apex court's verdict on jallikattu. Kambala committees have opposed the ban, and the next hearing is scheduled for January 30.
Dangers faced by participants
Between 2010 to 2014, there were reportedly around 1,100 injuries and 17 deaths because of jallikattu events. Over 200 people have died during the sport over the past two decades. On Sunday, two people died during a jallikattu event in Pudukottai district.
Accidents do occur sometimes during Kambala races. Buffaloes may skid or topple, and the farmers who run along with them also may fall and get hurt - sometimes badly. Ambulances are kept ready during these events.
Bull baiting was common among the ancient tribes who lived in the 'Mullai' geographical division of the ancient Tamil country. It became a opportunity for men to display their bravery, and prize money was introduced for entertainment.
Sangam literature, nearly 2,000 years old, talks about 'eru thazhuvuthal' — hugging the bull — as a rite of passage for a man seeking a girl's hand in marriage, says writer Stalin Rajangam (who opposes jallikattu).
According to one belief, Kambala originated in Karnataka's farming community around 800 years ago. The festival is dedicated to Kadri's Lord Manjunatha, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. It's believed that the recreational sport is organised to appease the gods for a good harvest.
Another belief holds that it's the sport of the royal (Landlord) family.