Tuesday, July 4, 2017

105. Back in the race

Beating each other in the slush race  
(Pic: Luke Metelerkamp)
It was a race of a lifetime I was witness to. It neither involved horses nor cars but a pair of buffaloes racing on a slushy track with a determined athlete in toe. Much like the sturdy pair of bovine, the six-pack athlete was no less determined to win the race either. With hundreds of villagers cheering the racing duo, it has been a long-held tradition of celebrating the man-animal co-existence for a bountiful harvest in coastal Karnataka. And, there were any number of teams from different coastal villages vying for the coveted title.        

I had my first brush with this cultural extravaganza, called Kambala, few years ago in village Venur in the coastal region of Mangalore. It was a pleasant wintry evening in January 2011, the well-lit arena was decked up in celebration with people in all hues thronging the racing track. What had begun as a thanksgiving event for protecting the cattle against diseases, the annual racing event has grown into a competitive sport that enthralls and entertains. The animal rights activists may continue to think otherwise!     

Keeping pace with raging buffaloes on the slush track was indeed testing, as if bovines were running for their life. Racing at an incredible speed, it was a perfect test for human endurance against incredible bovine power. For the fear of running over, half a dozen villagers had to herd together to take control of the animals at the finish line. They would calm the animals by giving it a hug, make it eat and rest before the next race. Each of the racing pairs looked well groomed and healthy, as did the accompanying athletes.

At the finish line
(Pic: Luke Metelerkamp)
Were the animals tortured during training? Were these creatures intoxicated to run the way they did? The organizers had led me to the animal resting places to find for myself if that was the case. 'These are no ordinary cattle, they bring laurels to the village', quipped a team member. These are treated like sportsmen, nurtured and trained in the art of racing from early years. No wonder, there were no marks of external injury on any of the participating animals. So much is at stake that some owners train their buffaloes in separate swimming pool for getting them used to conditions before every race.  

That these are special animals, treated like children and selected for their sturdy features including disease resistance, make me think that this annual cultural event is more than just an occasion for fun and frolic. It promotes the process of natural selection in disguise. The best among buffaloes get selected, nurtured and tested. The animals people race are the animals that help breed the next generation of calves, sturdy to withstand adverse conditions. That such a valuable process is conducted by the communities at their own initiative, and for the benefit of the society at large surely calls for a celebration!        

With hardly anything worth celebrating in the countryside these days, the assent for re-conduct of Kambala by the first citizen of the country has given something for the last citizens to cheer about. Let the race begin again. 

Kambala was banned in 2014, but the outgoing President of India gave a parting gift to the people of Karnataka by granting assent for (re)conducting the sporting event on July 3, 2017.