As I’m speaking to Sharad, a sudden, deafening trumpet startles me out of my skin. Amidst peals of laughter from the crowd, I turn around to photograph the offending musician, who offers me a split-second sheepish grin before solemnly launching into an upbeat melody accompanied by other assorted trumpets, bugles, and even a nadaswaram. An intrinsic part of the Kambala is music, entertaining people during breaks, which are necessary because readying these massive water-buffaloes, each weighing a few tonnes, for their run, is no mean feat. In these gaps of almost ten minutes between races, the bovines are led down the finishing slope towards the starting point with much fanfare and music.
Rapid-fire Tulu orchestrates the frenzied activities around the starting point: words of encouragement to teams readying for their run, soothing words to buffaloes being cooled down post-race by a jet of water, and, the breathless words of last race’s runner, quickly discussing his performance with his team. Amidst this cacophony are seemingly grinning buffaloes, as a referee intently takes stock of their teeth — yellow, brown, black, sometimes missing altogether — and makes a quick decision, categorising the animal as junior or senior. Only senior buffaloes are considered privileged enough for certain races; a roar from the crowd tells me that one such category, where the runner balances himself on one leg, on a cube of wood tethered to the buffalo’s yoke, is about to begin. Even as I gape at the acrobatics involved, water gushes up as a jet through a hole in the block, spraying me in the bargain. I don’t really mind; the jet has touched one of the many banners tied across the track as height markers, declaring the team victorious.
As the sun slides its way to the horizon, peeking occasionally between swaying palm fronds, unnaturally strong yellow floodlights are pressed into service to simulate daylight. Races continue well into the relaxed Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon, once the champions have been crowned, a weary crowd will head home, some jubilant, some dejected, but all having savoured the Kambala. The triumphant runner and his glittering trophy will probably be hoisted on the winning team’s shoulders, for a boisterous victory lap around the track. A few runners and buffalo owners will be a couple of lakhs richer. Yet, somewhere deep down, Kambala remains a village pastime. If you steer clear of the larger Kambalas, you can travel back in time — where the bond between the runner and his bullocks is palpable, where competitors also share camaraderie, where the entire village turns up decked in their festive best.
I turn away from the glare of the evening floodlights, and see them there — three friends running into the setting sun, words unspoken, yet, in perfect sync; their emotions saying it all — a friendly slap on the back here, a joyful splash of water there, washing away the sweat from the day’s toil; the air echoing with their audible breathing and the heavy thudding of five pairs of legs; Kambala, in its primal form — nothing more than man and beast enjoying a run
When to go
Kambalas are organised between November and March every year. Races are typically held over weekends, with qualifying races beginning by 9am on a Saturday, running all night, and ending by Sunday afternoon. The Kambala Samithi organises almost twenty events. The race calendar is published, a few weeks prior, in local magazines and newspapers. Smaller Kambalas are also organised by villages or temples.
Larger Kambalas are organised in Mangalore and Moodabidri. Smaller races are spread throughout Karnataka’s southern coastal region. Calling hotels in Mangalore or Udupi, or asking locals, is the only way to get the schedule for the season; they are very obliging. Sometimes Kambala enthusiasts post the schedule online after it is published in the local paper.
Mangalore, Udupi or Manipal make for the best bases for most Kambalas. Mangalore is well connected by air (about Rs 13,000 for a round trip from Delhi), train and bus, from most parts of the country. Udupi is 60km (1 hr by road) north of Mangalore, with buses plying frequently between the two. Specific directions to the venue need to be obtained from your hotel in Mangalore or Udupi.
Where to stay
Mangalore: Gateway Hotel on Old Port road (from Rs 4,500; thegatewayhotels.com), Hotel Goldfinch (from Rs 3,600; goldfinchhotels.com) and Hotel Veenu International (from Rs 2,000; hotelveenuinternational.com)
Udupi & Manipal: Fortune Inn Valley View (Manipal; from Rs 4,500; fortunehotels.in), Paradise Isle Beach Resort (Mazpe beach, Udupi; from Rs 5,000; theparadiseisle.com) and Kediyoor Hotel (Udupi; from Rs 1,700; kediyoorhotels.com).
Need to know
Dates for the smaller Kambalas can often be shifted at the last minute, so calling a local hotel in the town/village a few days prior to your arrival is advised.
Kambala is not a ticketed event.
Carry water and snacks. The larger Kambalas have stalls selling basic food and beverages, though.
Restrooms are not available.
Winters along the coast can be quite deceptive; dress for a hot, humid day.
Once you arrive at the venue, meet the organisers, who are extremely helpful to visitors, putting you at ease with their hospitality. They can give you any information you may need.
Chairs are unavailable, except in certain ‘sitting’ sections of the larger Kambalas. Spectators often stand, sit on the ground, or, on cement steps built at some venues.
Do not wander close to the race track as it may lead to accidents.
Carry telephoto lenses, which allow you to photograph from a safe distance. The use of a flash is strictly banned, as it agitates the buffaloes.