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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

India features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

19 places to get utterly lost

19 places to get utterly lost

One of the great joys of travelling is stumbling across unexpected places, wandering without a single destination in mind and embracing the journey. These place…

12 Sep 2017 • Keith Drew camera_alt Gallery
The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

There's nothing like an amazing view to inspire you to book your next trip, whether you're drawn by rolling countryside, isolated islands or soaring mountain …

30 Aug 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
13 tips for backpacking India

13 tips for backpacking India

Whether you’re hurtling along in a rickshaw, eating fantastic curries, kicking back on the backwaters or hiking in the mountains, backpacking India will alwa…

15 Aug 2017 • Helen Abramson insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month