Kambala: The race of the buffaloes

What is Kamabla

A popular sport of a buffalo race in  Tulu naadu region of south India conducted during summer season. A pair of buffalos are made to run in a muddy water field  and a winner will be chosen . On as average 100-130 pairs of buffaloes and  20000 spectators  participate each Kambala. There are 45 known kamablas presently held between the month of November to March out of which 15 are conducted under Kambala association ( Kambala samithi) on each weekends.

A popular quote from Kambala ( courtesy : Internet ): "Hold your breath. Silence rules the air as thousands watch in stunned anticipation! The man is crouching behind the buffaloes on a slive of wood attached to the animals. Not a muscle moves. Only the wind is playing on his lock of hair. For him the race is all that matters. Suddenly the scene explodes, the man springs up, his hand cocked, his whip held high and the huge animals lunge forward, bellowing, their hooves churning the muddy waters and sending their wet spray in the hot air, their eyes wide, wild and white - man and beast engaged in one spurt of activity and one aim - victory."
A single race in progress


There are multiple opinions on the  origin of  Kambala. Some claim it was  started by kings and some say  farmers started Kambala . The history of Kambala goes to 1000 years ago to the age of kings.  The  traditional Kambala started  as a part of celebrations and entertainment  after a heavy farming work  after the end of rainy season. Over the years it flourished  in to a big sport or  kings , landowners of Tulu naadu ( Tulu region)  and it became  part of the society.   Traditional kamabla is still  in observance in  some part of south Kanara.

Another popular  form of Kamabla also born  which was more like a sport, a race between two pairs of buffalo which is current form of Kambala.  Many kings and rich landlords organized these races and  the final  winner will receive a big amount of money. And today this form of  Kambala is a big event in south Kanara and for many  it is a matter of pride, prestige , glory and money. For spectators  this is  pure entertainment and relaxation after a hardworking  farming days are over during the year before sowing the second round of crops.

Modern Kamabala

Early days one track( kare, ಕರೆ)  is used  for the race but from past 50 years  double track ( ಜೋಡು ಕರೆ ) is in use  for the  races. But single track is also in use for traditional Kambala in some regions  for conducting  time based races and training .

This runner can run at 40km/hr!

A runner will make a pair of Buffaloes run on a track of muddy water. The runner will be driving those buffaloes all along the race. The time is  recorded or  he gets   another competitor  on the other track to decide who is best  .

Kambala   has got different categories as every other sport in the world.

  1. Negilu( ನೇಗಿಲು : Plough)  category:  The runner will hold the  plough ( it is not actual plough which is heavy and bulky, it is just a representation of  which is tied to pair of buffalo. This type is mostly for the Junior buffaloes or entry level buffaloes. But there is again a junior , senior rounds  in this race.

    The "Negilu"
  2. Hagga ( ಹಗ್ಗ: rope)  category : A rope is directly tied to the buffalo pair. And this is for  Senior buffaloes  as the speed is more here and the participating buffaloes are well experienced. This also has a Junior, senior levels.
  3. Adda halage( ಅಡ್ಡ ಹಲಗೆ: cross wooden block ) category : A cross wooden plank is tied to the pair and the runner  stands on it while racing. This is just  for the senior category.

    The "adda halage"
  4. Kane halage (ಕಣೆ  ಹಲಗೆ: round wooden block)    : A round wooden block where the runner  stands on it on his single leg. There will be two holes in the block out of which the water forces out while running. The height of the water forcing out is measured to choose the winner. The more the speed is more the water height is. And this is only for senior most category.

The buffaloes.

These are  water buffaloes widely used for domestic purposes and  they are farmer’s true friends in south Karnataka. They are even worshipped and are part of farmer’s family. Racing buffaloes are  male and  like warriors, specially trained.

They are most loved by the farmers

There is a unique way of deciding the junior and senior buffaloes. It is decided by the age of the baffaloes not the size or how many races they have participated .Old pair tooth falls and new tooth will come when a baffalo hit its 4th year . This goes on for its 5th and 6th year. After 6th year the baffalo gets all new teeth and becomes senior. The owners are very expert and they can decide the age of the baffalo by just looking at its teeth!

The training of buffaloes.

To train the racing buffaloes, owners build a track near their  home and make them run daily . The owners feed them with most nutritious  foods. During races they even get fruits like apples , oranges . They get special massages , some body treatments as well. Before the race owners are allowed to train on the actual racing track on which they are going to compete.

The need trainig to run!

The runner

These are also specially trained people and one can easily spot them in the crowd. They are handsome, nicely shaped and very athletic . As one can guess they are like a sport persons. The owners hire them for the year and ask them to run all of their pairs of buffaloes. One runner might get multiple deals from different owners depending on his popularity. A good runner paid heavily and if he wins the bonus is also paid. Currently the deal goes 2 lakhs ( $4500) per year for a   reputed runner to participate in all of the kambalas.

The Kambala runners


A fitness is one of the factor to become a runner

The locality

A good paddy field with lots ware availability nearby is considered as ideal for Kambala track.  There should be enough space for spectators, shops , race officials to sit, hotels  around the track. Easy access to the location is also considered for deciding the track location. Some places the tracks are maintained by landlords over the generations.


Lots of space, water, electricity, easy reach is must for a Kambala

Kamabala track

A race in progress

One can feel the energy in the atmosphere there!

There is no fixed rule for size of the track but it also depends on the availability of the space on the locality .Normally  it is  between  120 meters to 145 meters long and 8-12 meters wide.  There is a thick layer of mud and then water on it. The thumb rule is water is filled in the track  so that  it completely contains the mud( close to 1ft) .  The tracks are called by name so it is  easy for communication. In the middle of the track there are two strips of  white cloth  tied across the track  which are used as height measurements for Kane halage ( round wooden block) races. One gauge is at  9.375 meters ( called 7 1/2 kolu :ಕೋಲು ) which is the highest  and the other one is at 8.125 meters (  called 6 1/2 kolu :ಕೋಲು) .

The time

Kamabla is  conducted in several parts of two districts Udupi and Mangalore  from November  to March. It is conducted always on a weekend so that it is  possible for every participant to attend all the Kambalas .

The race starts usually Saturday morning and goes on all night and finishes Sunday afternoon. The final winners will be rewarded by the officials during the Kambala closing ceremony conducted in Sunday afternoon. It is watched by,  on an average 20,000 spectators  in a day. It is a hit among the tourists and lot of people from different part of city , country travel to see this race.

A 20,000 crowd in one day is very common in every Kambala

The management

There is a Kambala association for the  two districts( Udupi and Dakshina Kannada)  and there is written rules and regulations for conducting Kambala events. Each year before the season starts the members meet and decide the 15 Kambala dates . There are associations  for each  major Kambala locations which manage these events .

These are commentators who play an important role too. They announce, talk, comment the happenings. They thank important persons and welcome every one. They crack jokes between the races so the spectators are not bored. I am surprised they even thanked all the photographers, movie personalities who were present at the occasion.

And the race begins

The Buffaloes are brought  to Kambala place on a vehicle along with 5-6  people  who maintain them and  help in the ” launch” of the buffaloes.

Buffaloes being brought on a small truck

All the teams will   tent around the track. The  buffaloes are worshipped  first and tied together by expert before the race begins. ( Maintaining a right amount of gap between them is very important. Small gap results in accidents or falling down and a big gap makes buffaloes go out of control)

Buffaloes being paired by an expert

When  the event begins  the buffaloes were brought in by walking down the track with the accompaniment of drum beats (dolanalike) .

The teams will walk down the track as the excited VIP crowd watches from behind
beats and music are part of entry

First round starts by  eliminating  the slowest  pairs. This is done by time counting method.  The competing team gets ready , with  runner holding the plough or the rope and other members making the buffaloes stand  near the start line.  With everything in correct position runner start petting  the beasts with a nicely decorated  cane initiating the “launch” .Time is calculated to reach the finish line in case of single race.  But if it is race between two pairs it takes longer, sometimes   15-20 minutes to make both  buffalo pairs stand near the start line as they  have to be  launched  simultaneously.

It is not easy to make buffaloes ready
4-5 men are required to make the buffaloes stand near start line
Often the Kambala track water is sprayed which makes the buffaloes sense the "big event"

Finally we are ready ! observe the style of runner. Its like any other sport, the style is very important too!
The launch :It is not easy to control pair of 3 tonne beast when the race starts. They frequently beat and make them very angry which results in higher speeds. More than 4-5 people hold the buffaloes and make them ready for the run. Once everything is perfect they release and the runner starts driving these big animals.
For single race time is the deciding factor

Races are conducted in different categories  and the losers are eliminated. The race goes all the night and two pairs are finally chosen for the grand finale. Grand finale is attended by local stars, politicians, heads of famous house holds and a huge number of spectators. A big trophy and a crash prize is given during the closing ceremony.

The spilling mud water behind the racing warriors!

When it comes to competition they really mean it!

The last category kane halage is bit different where every participant will be rewarded  whose spilling water touches the measurement cloths.

The spilling water should touch the white cloth to win the prize

Once the race is over the buffaloes get a nice fresh water wash and a good rest before the next race if they are not yet eliminated!

finally the race is over !
fun time for the animals

The speed and the power of  those big animals are just treat to your eyes. The spilling colored  water, the big black beasts , the runner and the screaming crowd  takes you to a different world. One might be  surprised  to see such a harmless, slow and  water loving animal can show tremendous amount of power and speed.

The Speed and the power The speed in which they run is just stunning. A good record is 140 meters track is covered in 11.306 seconds. That is 100 meters is covered in 8.07 seconds and that in a muddy water track!! Remember the olympic record for speed is 100 meters in 9.58 seconds. So the speed of the buffaloes and the runner is 45 km/hr!!. But of course the runner is not actually running by himself he is just holding the rope or the small plough( negilu) so he gets little assistance from running buffaloes.
The beauty of spilling water

One can easily guess the cost involved in ,  right from training buffaloes , hiring runner , transporting to different locations, food and lunch for the buffaloes and the people  is  more than the prize if  they win. And of course there very few winners. So there is no business case in this.

All in the air!

Kambala  is  an event full of happenings , for some it is life, for some it is pride, glory passion and prestige . Some treat this as their war of life .For some it is loosing money,  loosing life but for some it is like hitting jackpot. Some earn money but some loose.  Many families gather and unite at Kambala  but some break because of Kambala. Many make friends and some make foes too. Friends turn enemies and enemies turn friends. Kamabla is pure culture and tradition for south kanara.

Celebrations are part of the event

Photographically speaking  check this another post of mine. I have made this as a different post just to keep this post as small as possible.

And here I thank..

Sham and Sharath who accompanied me while photographing , I thank Naveen Ambuli the   announcer of the Moodbidri kambala who helped me in writing this giving every info I need, I thank Moodbidri  Kambala samithi, I thank  MLA Abhaychandra Jain of Moodbidri who offered their kind hospitality,  finally I thank my dearest uncle Gajanana Upadhyaya who helped me to experience this event .

Last words:

All these photos are from Moodbidri Kambala happened in 22nd Jan 2011. I will post the timetable for next year once it is announced.I will also post which Kambala I am going to visit next year  and anybody is most welcome in my team!

All are shot with Canon 1000d and  18-55 non IS lens, 55-250 IS lens .

I am still building this, whoever thinks any info is wrong or need to be  modified please email me at dmhamneer@gmail.com  or write in the comments section. I am also participating in next year’s Kambala and capture some more photos and gather some more information which help me to complete this article.

All images and writings  are copyright © Dinesh Hegde. All Rights Reserved. Copying, saving, downloading, altering, displaying or redistribution of any of these images or article  without written permission from the artist is strictly prohibited


19 thoughts on “Kambala: The race of the buffaloes

      1. Hey can u send me the details about how u select animal, means age, breed , feeding habit, how u train animals etc

  1. I watched recently uppinangady vijaya vikrama kambala 2013 it was awesome experience great sport to watch treat for all your senses

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