A decorated archway marking the turn-off from the highway to Moodbidri town, hoardings every few metres advertising the Koti Chinnaya, and the roars of the crowds. These sights and sounds were all one needed to follow to reach the venue of the second kambala, or buffalo race, of the season on December 1.

The event has been held in the same two-acre paddy field in Moodbidri, some 50 km from Mangaluru in Dakshina Kannada district, for nearly 16 years. A pair of buffaloes race on slushy tracks around 146 metres in length, egged on by cheering crowds. The seating includes a gallery on top of a flight of steps reserved exclusively for women, and ample space around three sides of the tracks for the kambala enthusiasts. There is also an expansive dais with chairs for the buffalo owners, an assortment of VIPs, and politicians from the panchayats of nearby villages and the Moodbidri town municipality.

This year’s event featured 142 buffaloes. The races began around 9.30 am, continued through the day and then the night – under floodlights – and ended around 11 am the following day. In each of the six categories, the winner received 16 grams of gold, the runner-up 8 grams of gold, and the winning jockey separate prizes.

The prize-giving ceremony was presided over by Professor Gunapala Kadamba, a kambala expert who, despite strident opposition from animal rights activists, has fought to keep the traditional rural sport alive.

A view of the racing arena at Moodbidri on December 1, 2018. Photo credit: Pushpa Iyengar.

History of the race

Kambala is believed to have started at least 500 years ago in the villages of Dakshin Kannada. Some stories suggest that it originated as a way for the farming community to appease the gods for a good harvest. Others believe it started as a means of amusement for the royal Hoysala families. The races were at first non-competitive, with the winners receiving coconuts and bananas. The competitive form of kambala began only in the last 50 years.

Around 18 kambalas are held in one season, which starts after the harvest in November and ends in April, in different villages in the coastal areas of Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada and a part of Kasargod district in Kerala.

In November 2014, the Animal Welfare Board of India had directed the deputy commissioners of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts to ban kambala on the grounds of cruelty to animals. But on December 16, 2014, the High Court of Karnataka stayed the ban and asked the authorities to record the race to verify the claim of cruelty. In November 2016, a division bench of the High Court banned the races based on a public interest writ petition filed by PETA. The Karnataka legislature then passed a Bill exempting kambala from the purview of The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, and an ordinance was passed. As a result, the races resumed in November 2017.

During the ban, Kadamba says, 5,000 people suffered, including those who cared for the buffaloes, prepared the tracks and organised the races. The sport “is the backbone of agriculture and a source of entertainment in coastal villages,” he said. “All of it resumed after the Karnataka government passed the ordinance.”

Around 18 kambalas are held in one season. Photo credit: Abhishek Chinnappa/Reuters

Kadamba first witnessed the sport when he was a child at the 500-acre property that his family owned between Moodbidri and Karkala. It must have left an impression. For 27 years, he taught Kannada at a local pre-university college, before becoming its principal. After that six-year stint ended, he started the Kambala Samrakshane Nirvahana Tarabeti Academy (Kambala Conservation, Maintenance and Training Academy) at Meeyaru in Udipi – the only academy that trains young men to become “kambala jockeys”. In the past six years, 149 jockeys have studied at the academy.

The 12-day training programme included workouts, practice races, and feeding, oiling and bathing the buffaloes. This year, 27 men – including graduates, agriculturists and even a statistician working with a government department – learned how to command the buffaloes using a betha or bamboo cane, with sponge attached at the end, so as to not hurt the animal.

Sandeep Shetty, a 21-year-old commerce graduate, was one of the men selected for the academy’s training programme out of the 155 who applied. “I love the thrill [of the kambala],” he said, as he wiped the sweat off his brow. His father, Satish, was a jockey too, as was Girish Anathangadi’s father, Ravi, who had won several races in his time. Anathangadi, an agriculturalist, has been racing for four years.

“The jockeys can earn as much as Rs 7 lakh in a season of four months,” said Kadamba.

Kambala jockeys Sandeep Shetty (left) and Girish Anathangadi (right). Photo credit: Pushpa Iyengar.

‘Beating isn’t cruelty’

The use of the betha was banned by the Supreme Court, an order that didn’t go down well with most buffalo owners. Ashok Shetty, whose buffaloes won at the December 8 races in Barady, which is 8 km from Moodbidri, as well at the December 14 races in Kasargod, said that while he was “opposed to holding them [the animals] and beating them to instil fear, one has to beat an animal to make it run, else it will get lazy”. While the cane wasn’t used in the races in Moodbidri, in other kambalas, its use was restricted to three strikes. “In Barady, a jockey beating the buffalo more than three times was disqualified,” said Ashok Shetty.

Yogi Shetty, who hails from the Hosbeth gram panchayat, reasoned that “beating is entirely different from cruelty. There is no himsa or cruelty here.” “We treat them [the buffaloes] like children and give them affectionate names like Appu, Putta, Kutty and Raja,” he said.

Sixty-year-old SBR Shetty from Manjeshwar too says that he would never harm his buffaloes. He has been entering them in kambalas since 2003, and in this time, they have won eight prizes, including the first prize at the Jeppu Kambala in 2016. “I am so proud of them, I would never harm them,” said SBR Shetty, whose regular job is as a PRO in a Mangaluru medical college.

This season’s first race was held in Myra-Uli in Kakyapadavu village of Bantwaltaluk on November 24. This year, Kadamba says proudly, the races feature a laser beam networking system with an electronic timer at the finishing line to ensure accuracy of results. Nearly 10 acres of land is being set aside around each racing venue just for parking visitors’ vehicles. A Yakshagana programme will add to the entertainment value.

Buffalo owners claim they'd never harm the animals. Photo credit: Abhishek Chinnappa/Reuters

Kambala and PETA

Despite protests from animal rights activists, there have purportedly been no human or animal fatalities in kambala, unlike jallikattu, the bull taming sport popular in South Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court had banned jallikattu in 2014, but following protracted protests on Chennai’s Marina beach, the Tamil Nadu government issued an ordinance that amended the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and the bill was unanimously passed in the Tamil Nadu assembly in January 2017. Similar protests had erupted in support of kambala, following which the ordinance was passed by the Karnataka government.

But PETA isn’t convinced with the “guidelines” issued by the Karnataka government that include a committee of tahsildars and local police to watch over the event. PETA’s investigations into the the race in Moodbidri on November 11, 2017, revealed that the buffaloes were allegedly beaten with the bethas – on the back and even the face – and the ropes running through their nostrils were roughly yanked.

The organisation said the animals had injuries indicative of severe beatings, many seemed to struggle and frothed at the mouth because of the heat and stress during the race, and reluctant animals were forced to take part. PETA has also put up a video on its website showing money changing hands, a possible indication that spectators bet on the races.

“Cruelty is inherent in kambala,” said the organisation. “We will now be examining the new Karnataka legislation and continuing our efforts to stop it.”

Kambala protests. Photo credit: PTI.