South India has two sporting traditions going back hundreds of years involving buffalo, Jelikatu (buffalo wrestling in Tamil Nadu and Kambala in Karnataka. Both were outlawed in 2016 and 2017 as animal rights activists put pressure on the federal government. But in a typically complex set of events involving water rights on the Kaveri River betweeen the two states, first Tamil Nadu declared that if Karnataka wasnt going to follow federal guidelines regarding water flows to Tamil Nadu, then Tamil Nadu would ignore federal guidlines regarding Jelikatu. Karnataka responded by saying “fine” then we will ignore feederal guidelines over Kambala. By 2019 both traditions had been restored with the silent support of the federal govermnt, during Narendra Modi’s campaign year–neithter of the two states have historically embraced Modi’s party, BJP.
Kambala begins around November and ends about March in hill villages above Mangalore. Typically the races will rotate between diferent villages each weekend, the schedule is diffiult to find and subject to last minute changes. The event begins at 10am, with local politiicans giving speeches about how important Kamabala is to Karnataka culture. A little Kanada is helpful here as few speak English and fewer will admit to speaking Hindi. During the speeches is the best time to connect with the various teams as they are having tindi and keeping their buffloes cool by dousing the with water and keeping them in shaded tents. Most teams are extreemely friendly towards anyone who takes an interest in their buffalo and are happy to share their stories over a meal. Each team is from a separate village, most team members are related to each other, fathers, sons, uncles, and grandfathers. The older family members act a coaches, while the younger ones take on the more menial tasks of getting food and water, or moving th buffaloes into cooler spots. The atual competitors range from their 20s to their 40s although I did see a few men pushingg 50 and 60–all, remarkble physical specimans. These atheletes had abou the same body fat as 8-10 year old age group swimmers, with rippled muscles thoughout their bodies. I asked abou women particiation in the sport. Occasionlly somone had a story about a woman competitor, but mostly the question yielded blank stares. For a remarkble movie about Indian Women in a non-traditional sport, check out Mary Kom.
After the speeches are over, the teams walk to the finish line of th 100 meter race track for pooja and musical performances. Then the teams walk to the starting point. The track is a concrete pool about 40 feet wide with a short wall down the middle separating two lanes 100 -120 meters long, filed with a layer of sand an topped off with covereed with about 12 inches of water. Judges and competittors congregate at the beginning of the track and it takes a bit of wrangling to get the buffalo teams into line, one per lane the start is given via whistle, hornm, and shouting. Each part of the race is unique, after the start the men are trying their best to get the buffalo up to top speed, the midlde part of the race shifts to pacing and using the small rudder-lik handle atached to the bufflo yoke trying to steer the animls towards the midle of the lane. The finish, of course is exciting, where you see the real heart of the competiors as they fight exhausstion to keep up their pace.