If you’re anywhere between Mangaluru and Bhatkal from October to April and come across a crowd gathering around a waterlogged paddy field, chances are they’re there to watch the spectacular rural sport of Kambla, or buffalo racing. It’s a centuries old tradition unique to Dakshina Kannada, the southernmost district of coastal Karnataka.

Two contestants, usually local rice farmers, take part in the race, riding on a wooden plough-board tethered to a pair of buffaloes. The object is to reach the opposite end of the field first, but points are also awarded for style, and riders gain extra marks – and roars of approval from the crowd – if the muddy spray kicked up from the plough-board splashes the special white banners, or thorana, strung across the course at a height of 6–8m. In simpler formats of the competition contestants may be tugged by a single buffalo, connected by a rope or even hold the animal’s tail.

Generally, race days are organized by wealthy landowners on fields specially set aside for the purpose. Villagers flock in from all over the region, as much for the fair (shendi), as the races themselves: men huddle in groups to watch cockfights (korikatta), women haggle with bangle sellers and kids roam around sucking sticky kathambdi goolay, the local bonbons. It is considered highly prestigious to be able to throw such a party, especially if your buffaloes win any events or, better still, come away as champions. Pampered by their doting owners, racing buffaloes are massaged, oiled and blessed by priests before big events, during which large sums of money are often won and lost. In recent years, however, the sport has come under the scanner of animal activists leading to a request for a ban on the practice by the Animal Welfare Board of India, though time will tell whether a law will be enforced.

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