Last Saturday, Nishanth Shetty broke the record for the 100 metres Kambala race, covering the distance in just 8.36 seconds.
The record was previously held by Srinivas Gowda, who had completed the run in 8.78 seconds, during the Sathya Dharma Jodukere Kambala held at Kakkepadavu last year, for which he earned the title of ‘India’s ‘Usain Bolt’.
What Is Kambala?
Kambala is a traditional sport played in Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada districts of Karnataka, and Kasaragod in Kerala. A popular sport in the region, some believe that it has been played for over 800 years.
The festival is purely dedicated to Manjunatha, who is believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu god, Shiva. The sport is a part of the celebrations to please the god, and bless the region with a good harvest. This race is conducted annually and spans through several months, generally beginning in November and ending by March, the onset of the harvest season.
Kambala involves the participation of a man and a couple of buffaloes. The man who handles the buffalo is called the jockey, who drives the buffalo through the paddy field. The buffaloes are tied together, and the jockey uses a stick-like equipment to beat the buffaloes from the back so they run faster.
For years, this race has been supported by the Tuluva ethnic group, native to southern India, and special Kambala associations have been formed to conduct these races. As per latest data, there are 18 such associations in place that conduct 45 races a year.
The racetrack used for this sport is generally a muddy paddy field. The runners participating don’t wear the best of gears to run on the track, although most of them run barefoot. The buffaloes are also particularly reared for the event.
Questions have been raised over the sport repeatedly, citing animal cruelty. The sport was seen in the same breath as Jallikattu, another traditional sport played in southern India, predominantly in Tamil Nadu.
The Supreme Court of India, in 2014, put a ban on Jallikattu, citing animal cruelty as the reason. As a result, Kambala too was banned, along with other races that involve animals (bulls, buffaloes, and so on). But several protests, and a subsequent change in the law in the state, paved the way for resumption of Jallikattu.
This was followed by calls to resume Kambala as well, and the Karnataka government had no choice but to amend the law. There were protests by Kambala organisers in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts in 2017, owing to which the state assembly had to pass a bill that exempted Kambala and bullock-cart racing from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Karnataka Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, re-legalised the Kambala festival in Karnataka. Although then President Pranab Mukherjee returned the bill with some suggestions and modifications, it was finally approved.
Ashok Rai, one of the Kambala organisers in Mangalore said at the time that this was a victory not just of the coastal region but of all the people of the state. However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) approached the court and challenged the validity of the amendment. “The newly amended state law is contrary to the object and purpose of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 – central Parliament–enacted legislation mandating that animals be protected from unnecessary pain and suffering,” contended the organisation. But it was to no avail.
Jallikattu vs Kambala
The organisers of the sport, from time to time, have made a distinction between Jallikattu and Kambala. In Jallikattu, there have been several reports of deaths and injuries, while in Kambala, although there are still chances of injury, no death has been reported so far.
Injuries in Kambala can only happen if a buffalo slips on the track while running, which could lead the jockey to also fall down. Nevertheless, organisers have maintained that all possible medical arrangements are made to ensure that there is no concern of serious injury.
One important distinction between Kambala and Jallikattu is that while Jallikattu involves direct contact with the bulls, in Kambala, the buffaloes only have to run for a certain distance. Jallikattu involves controlling the animal, but Kambala is only a race between two pairs of buffaloes.
After Srinivas Gowda attained prominence last year, the sport has achieved some mainstream traction as several YouTube videos of the race went viral.
This year, the final race is slated to be held on April 16. The festival was postponed because of COVID-19, but now promises to have a fantastic finish tomorrow.