Cry for kambala

Print edition : February 17, 2017

At a kambala race in Manipal, a file photograph. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Members of a student organisation demanding the the ban on kambala be revoked, in Bengaluru on January 25. Photo: PTI

A Kambala buffalo bull being given an oil massage before a bath at a farm in Manipal. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A farmer with his buffalo bulls at a kambala in Mangalore on January 26. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Following the jallikattu protests, people in the coastal districts of Karnataka take up the cause of kambala, a buffalo racing event that is going through a difficult phase of transition.

THE mass protests in Tamil Nadu against the ban on jallikattu have galvanised people in Karnataka, particularly in the two coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, to demand the revocation of the ban on kambala, the popular buffalo racing sport. The move has received support from popular Kannada film actors, Kannada activists and politicians cutting across party lines, with many of them agitating for kambala under the rubric of Kannada pride. Several mass protests have been planned in the coming days, and some politicians have also called for a Karnataka bandh.

Some time after the Supreme Court’s order on May 7, 2014, that bulls cannot be used as performing animals—a ruling that also proscribed jallikattu and bullock cart races—the Department of Animal Husbandry of Karnataka sent out a directive to the Deputy Commissioners of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada. According to this directive, all events relating to kambala were to be stopped immediately. Coming as it did sometime towards the end of 2014 when local kambala committees were gearing up to host these festivities in all their splendour, it severely affected the social calendar of the region.

In the legal wrangling that ensued at the Karnataka High Court towards the end of 2014, kambala was allowed to be conducted, only to be banned again after members of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) observed three kambala events and filed close to 60 objections, which were non-cognisable offences based on violations of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Among the objections that the AWBI raised were that violent acts were committed against the bulls, including hitting them, pulling their tails, hitting them on the face, and yanking their nose ropes. The buffaloes also had two or three tight-fitting nose ropes, each two to 2.5 centimetres thick, inserted through their nasal septums, causing distress and pain. There were also objections raised because of the way in which the animals were unloaded.

Opposing stands

At the time, Dr Manilal Valliyate, Director of Veterinary Affairs, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, had stated: “In kambala events buffalo bulls are subjected to fear, pain, discomfort and distress when they are forced to run. The findings of the inspection teams during the last three kambala events prove beyond doubt that cruelty is inherent in such events and no regulation can protect animals from abuse.” Kambala-organising committees from coastal Karnataka have challenged the High Court order, but kambala remains banned for the time being.

K. Gunapala Kadamba, a founding member of the Dakshina Kannada-Udupi Kambala Organising Committee and the main force behind the professional five-year-old Kambala Academy in Miyar village near Karkala town, cautiously dismissed these observations. He said: “While I accept that there may be exceptions, and we have brought in strict regulations to deal with such cases, kambala does not involve cruelty to buffaloes.” He also repeatedly emphasised that it was wrong to restrict the definition of kambala to “buffalo racing”. “Kambala is the name given to the marshy land where the buffaloes run. This ritual is an intrinsic part of the religious and social culture of undivided Dakshina Kannada district and extends across all communities and classes. It is linked to the economy and leisure and is an important component of our lifestyle,” he said. (Udupi district was carved out of Dakshina Kannada district in 1997.)

In coastal Karnataka, kambala has a hoary tradition, and proponents of the ritual cite evidence from medieval rulers as well as British-era writers. As paddy is widely grown across the region, the traditional kambala was conducted in water-laden paddy fields after the second crop was harvested. The race coincides with the festival of Makar Sankranthi. The ritual is sacred to the people and is believed to be accompanied by bhutas, local deities who inhabit humans during certain periods and visit the “kambala”, as the area is known, to sanctify the marshy quagmire. This traditional kambala is still practised in the region at varying levels and has links to the temples in the area. Like many religious rituals that demanded the patronage of large landholders, it is clear that feudal and casteist elements were a part of traditional kambalas. With only rich landowners able to afford the buffaloes and own the land required to organise an event where buffaloes sprinted across water-laden stretches, obviously power equations were involved. Naveen Soorinje, a journalist from Mangaluru who currently lives and works in Bengaluru, writes: “Kambala racing was evolved as a tradition to establish the supremacy of the Bunt caste and to provide it cultural legitimacy over the plebeians.”

In 1969, this ritual became professionalised and emerged as a “sport” when a twin track was prepared in Bajagoli village near Karkala. It has evolved over the past few decades and has been recognised by the State government, which doles out considerable amounts of money every year. When Sadananda Gowda, who is from Dakshina Kannada district, was the Chief Minister of Karnataka between 2011 and 2012, he sanctioned Rs.1 crore for the development of kambala. There are 26 recognised kambala events that happen every year across Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts starting in the last week of November and going on until the end of March. Some of the larger competitive events, like the ones that take place annually in the towns of Miyar, Moodabidri and Puttur, attract 50,000 to one lakh visitors, with up to 250 pairs of buffaloes competing in the day-and-night events. The prize money runs to several lakhs of rupees.

“There are four categories of races that take place in kambala: plough, rope, cross-plank and pin-point,” said Vidyananda Jain, a postmaster in Ranjala village in Udupi district who doubles up as a referee at kambala events. “The track is 145 metres long with about six inches [15 cm] of water. We even have electronic time boards now that measure the time taken by the buffaloes accurately. The current record stands at 13.5 seconds for the distance.” Sridhar Achar, a trainer at the Kambala Academy, proudly stated that prizes given to the winning buffalo owners ranged from two sovereigns of gold to a few lakh rupees.

The “sport” continues to have vestiges of its feudal origins. Naveen Soorinje writes that in all Kambala events, “…it is either the Bunts or the Jains who are the organisers. But the person who runs along the buffaloes and drives them, the caretakers of those buffaloes and other volunteers generally belong to the Billava and other lower castes.” While it is hard to verify this accurately without spending a considerable amount of time at kambala events, a cursory look at the members of the Udupi Kambala Samiti shows that almost 30 of its 36 members belong to the Bunt caste.

In a press release on January 25, 2017, PETA India stated: “Now, not content with being permitted to deliberately terrify bulls during jallikattu, protesters are also calling for legalisation of bull and buffalo races…. All of these cruelties have long been illegal, just as are the cruelties inherent in jallikattu under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960. If this trend toward cruelty is allowed to continue, it may not be long before agitators start demanding the overturning of laws that protect vulnerable humans too.”

While the large-scale professional kambala racing events have been discontinued over the past couple of years after the ban, local residents report that smaller, traditional kambalas have continued to be held unchecked. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah made it clear in a statement that his government would take all steps to legalise kambala. The matter is listed for hearing in the High Court.