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Speeding Bulls and Fighting Cocks – Rural Sports

The protagonists are often cocks, bulls, buffaloes and camels. There are no medals or podiums for these heroes of the drama. But they are goaded and cheered on by the collective cry of, in many instances, some 30000 rural audiences. It may appear paradoxical, yet for the slow pacced life of the Indian peasants lusty sports have always been a way of life.

Across the length and breadth of India, these rural sports generate tremendous interest. There is no big money, no fanfare, no colourful “togging” up. Only challenges and action in the raw – every true sportsman’s dream. The fine old sport of bullock racing, for example, is one of the world’s hottest competitions on wheels. Combining the more rugged elements of harness racing, the chariot tourney and the drag strip, the sport is a popular feature at country fairs in the sun-baked plains of central India.

It takes strong men to “giddy-up” the two bullocks of the racing team into their harness, while the driver ensures a secure foothold on his light but sturdy cart. And then, inspired by blood curdling yells and whacks on the rump, the bullocks hurtle down the track- a straight line between two gates. But the charging teams are often erratic, keeping the tense audience on its toes, ready to scatter before a veering team. Daring drivers try and gain speed by twisting and biting the bullocks tails. The best time turned in over a 200 yard course is 12.90 seconds.

More dangerous and therefore exciting, is the 2000-year-old sport of jellikatu is tamely reminiscent of Spanish bull fights and wild west rodeos. In the sport, aptly termed “grappling with bulls” in Anglo-Tamil literature, an unarmed man tackles an angry bull with his bare hands in an endeavour to snatch a small cloth bag containing prize money tied round the horns of the snorting bull.

The jellikatu bulls, a compact, quick muscled cunning version of the notorious scrub bulls of Australia in the 1880s, are specially bred and trained for the sport. Over a 100 bulls assemble in a circular stockade at a selected village. A narrow exit gate in the stockade opens onto a long lane, sometimes fenced with palings on either side, but more often fenced in by a mass of enthusiastic humanity.

A bull is let out of the stockade and as it careers down the lane, the waiting grappler, naked but for a skimpy loin cloth, throws himself at the speeding bull. The bull thunder ahead, carrying the man, who, releasing a hand from his insecure hold, tries to unite the prize money cloth bag from the horns. Aspirants – a cross between Spanish toreadors and American cowboys – are often gored and always thrown badly.

Some years ago, a heavily built black bull with a white lacing on his face, pale grey flanks, an ample dewlap and pointed straight horns was the jellikatu superstar – unconquered in seven years. This incredibly smart bull from Rapusal, a seasoned campaigner, had a few man kills to his credit, and the experience and cunning to floor a whole string of noted experts. At a jellikatu near Dindigul, the Rapusal bull raced down the lane. With quick turns of the body and fierce tosses of th head, he kept waiting grapplers at bay. He had reached almost the end of the rack when a young man darted in from the sidelines. Seizing the bull by an ear and a horn, the man snatched the cloth bag and jumped to clear the fence. Quick as a cat, the bull caught him with a toss of the head and threw him down. And the young man lay dead.

Equally redolent with the stench of sweat and blood is buffalo fighting. There are, strictly speaking, no active sportsmen, but the sport is packed with thrills. Two mighty, ill-tempered buffaloes are pitted against each other. Heads locked together life battering rams, they fight to the finish which comes when the losing buffalo turns tail. This marks a point of panicky excitement, as the losing buffalo and the pursuing winner charge pell-mell into the crowd. During the fight, short jabs with the horns are permitted. A broken horn ends the career of a fighting buffalo.

When both opponents refuse to give up, and are almost equally matched, the owners and their assistants find the going tough in trying to separate the enraged animals. Buffalo fighting is prevalent chiefly in the hilly areas of northern India.

A sport unsurpassed for sheer absurdness is laddi ounth or loading the camel. It originated at the Pushkar fair in Rajasthan, where it was popular annual event ill animal welfare societies succeeded in putting a stop to it. But the spirited peasants of Rajasthan cannot be weaned away so easily from a sport they have relished for generations. It is no longer a feature of the Pushkar fair, except on odd occasions. Basically, it is test of strength for a camel – the gauge being the number of men it can carry.

The camel is made to kneel. About 10 boisterous men clamber onto the ship of the desert. Rising, with its load, the camel begins a specified number of rounds in the sandy arena. With each round, one more man attempts to add himself to the precariously balanced human pyramid, until the camel rebels and gets rid of its load by flinging the human cargo in all directions. Amidst much laughter at the plight of those thrown off, the camel which has retained the largest number of men is declared the winner. The record stands at 14 men to a camel.

A sport that is no longer regional is kabbadi. It is said to be the brainchild of Lord Krishna. A sport devised to keep his army fit. Known by different names in some states – to-to in Uttar Pradesh, hu-du-du in West Bengal and Bihar. Chundu-guddu in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, kabbadi is an unusual sport of action-packed suspense played in village squares, or dusty lanes, or in fields.

A lone barefoot player from a team mutters kabbadi, kabbadi, kabbadi, thumps his thighs, kicks his heels, claps his hands, then rubs them menacingly, and raids the territory of his enemies, usually five to 10 in number. The solitary raider can attempt to touch or bring down and thus “kill” one or more of his enemies while staying out of their reach as long as he has the breath to keep repeating kabbadi, kabbadi, kabbadi.

If he runs out of breath in enemy territory, he is declared “dead”. There is more than one way of “dying”. “Death” results if the opposing team succeeds in grabbing him and holding on till he can no longer utter kabbadi, kabbadi. Some raids, in which the raider, retreating to the safety of his own territory is chased by a member of the opposing group. The positions of raiders and defenders are now reversed.

The players, alert and watchful, resort to intimidating postures, quick lunges and feinting manouevres. The sport calls for gumption, agility, lightning reflexes and of course, the capability to keep up the war cry, kabbadi, kabbadi, kabbadi, kabbadi. A great favourite with villagers, kabbadi with seven players to a team and formal rules and regulations, is now also played at the national level. Once played only by boys and men, the sport has attracted girls too in recent years.

The beginnings of kho-kho are traced to ancient wars when shrewd charitoteers steered their colourful chariots in zig –zag manner as a tactical measure to ensure greater safety from the enemy. Played between two teams, kho-kho, which has an exceptionally large following in the state of Maharashthra, is based on the dodge and chase pattern.

An individual from one team stays on his feet, while his team mates squat on the ground in a straight line. One player sits facing north, the next facing south, then north, then south, or east, west, east, west and so on it alternates down the line. Thee members of team B, who remain standing, must, when they are chasing by a team A players squatting on the ground.

The sport, now formalized like kabbadi into a national level game, with nine players to each team, hots up when a chasing A team player suddenly says kho and taps a strategically seated team-mate into continuing the chase. The team-mate can leap up and take off directly only in the direction in which he is seated. After two rounds, there is plenty of screaming and shouting as the kho taps come in quick succession.

The sport of cock-fighting, frowned upon by animal lovers, has staunch supporters in the countryside of northern India. The town of Phagwara in Punjab is as well known for its fierce cock-fights as it is for its range of textiles. Cock-fights enthusiasts aver, rightly or wrongly, that there is nothing cruel about the game. It would have been cruel if cocks did not normally fight. The only difference in this case, they maintain, is that the fight, instead of being unobserved, has a sizeable audience; that many of them have laid hefty bets is another matter.

The gorgeously plumed cocks are especially picked and trained for fighting. In the terrible scrimmage, the cocks, cackling vengefully, go for each other with beaks and murderous claws. Flying feathers and spatters of blood mingle in the dust of the small arena formed by an applauding blood-thirsty audience. Many cocks are seasoned fighters, while the lives of some debutantes are cut tragically short.

My long nurtured desire to witness a cock-fight was fulfilled some time ago in Bhatinda, a steamy hot town in Punjab. However, I must confess that after watching for 10 minutes or so, I had no stomach for the rest of the fight, nor for chicken dishes for a long time afterwards. I was, in short, chicken-livered.

But I did gain some insight and understanding of why cock-fights appeal to so many people. The colour, atmosphere and the drama aparat, there is something primitive about a cock-fight. A play on life and death, it seems to paralyse the crowd’s thinking before arousing their aggressive instincts. Fascinated, they are drawn to the cock-fight inspite of themselves. In the background, perhaps, is a sneaking pride over man’s domination on all living things. It has also been said that like bull fighting, cock-fighting is akin to drinking wine, the degree of enjoyment being in direct proportion to the knowledge on the subject. For some, it is this ingredient of controversy which makes cock-fight that much more interesting as a sport.

The rough and tumble of traditional sports yield many evenings of fun for villagers. Down the years, the sports have developed a fanatic following and a fearless legion of practitioners – contestants who seek no exercise of reward other than the exercise of their lusty skills. The roars of an appreciative, frenzied crowd provide a fitting climax.