Supriya Sehgal traces sporting festivals across Indian villages, and wonders what has kept them going for hundreds of years.

The air was absolutely still with tension on a warm sunny day in Eedu village. It shattered with the crack of the whip and suddenly the crowd roared in encouragement. The trio burst on to the slushy track and emerged at the finish line 12 seconds later. To me, it felt like an unbelievable display of sporting aptitude. How could a pair of buffaloes and their owner make a dash that fast?

It was early February — middle of the Kambala buffalo racing season in coastal Karnataka. More than 1,000 years old, these races started as an entertainment for the villagers, possibly to showcase the physical prowess of farmers. Eighteen prominent races, 45 in all, still take place between November and March every year. The event is held only for two days but the preparations start months in advance. There are sponsors galore and the winners get cash and gold coins. Special diet and exercise for the buffaloes are followed by rigorous training with the runner. On the day of the race, teams arrive in trucks and settle in close to the two mud tracks, created especially for this. To add to the complexity of the race, water is poured on the tracks, making the slush a veritable obstacle.

After inaugurating the event with prayer, whip-toting farmers stand behind a pair of buffaloes that are ready to explode into the 160-metre track of mire. Cheering crowds add to the mood of the festival, till the race comes to an end the next afternoon. The fact that the buffaloes are at the receiving end of the zeal of the competitors does not go well with the animal welfare activists, but witnessing this age-old custom was certainly interesting. In fact on needling Ashok of Padiyar House on the cruelty of the sport, I got an unequivocal answer from everyone there: “One does not question tradition. We love these buffaloes and take good care of them through the year. It is an emotionally weak moment when the animal is hit.” Ashok is a racing veteran for over 20 years and has won many Kambalas.

Intrigued by the sheer physicality of the sport, it struck me that in the urban context, sports in India started and ended with cricket. Fortunately this seemingly pervasive sentiment remains confined to cities. Out in far-flung destinations of the country there is more at stake; honour, team spirit and most of all, tradition. Away from the world of controversies and TRPs, strapping young men train hard for the annual showdown.

My next stop in the middle of the year was the serene backwaters of Alappuzha. The commotion on the second Saturday of August announced the battle on the Punnamada Lake: The Nehru Snake Boat Race.

The edge of the lake was colourful. A mayhem of cheering teams for the 100-ft-long fleet of Snake Boats jostled for a view. Four hundred years ago, these narrow boats were the only war vehicles in the network of backwater canals. Today, these denote the pride and honour of brawny young rowers who participate in the annual boat race. Each team comprises about 100 rowers, five guides, a captain and a few people who set the rhythm for the rowers — a total of about 110 on a single boat. Aanjili thadi, a local forest wood is crafted into this architectural marvel by skilful master craftsmen. Needless to say that alcohol in the form of toddy, playful jeers between villagers and photography opportunities, flow freely on this day. Though cut-throat marketing and sponsorship paraphernalia have left their mark on the perfect backdrop for this epitome of challenge, the sport remains a visual and cultural treat.

The afternoon was filled with announcements of races between different kind of boats and categories, small groups singing drunken songs of encouragement, glorious wins and like any other sporting gaffes — plenty of toppled boats. By 6 pm, the area retuned to normal tranquil self as the boats left for their respective villages leaving behind the harmonious strains of vanchipattu, a traditional song that resonated through the day.

The haunting melody from the boat races made my mind drift to similar strains, but from the eastern edge of India. Tracing the festivals of the country had landed me in the middle of the colourful Nagaland Hornbill Festival.

As the year closes and the days shorten, the town of Kohima in Nagaland plunges into the week-long celebrations during the annual festival (December 1 to 7). Converse sneakers are soon abandoned by the local Nagamese youngsters, to join their elders in traditional dances. Sixteen main tribes of the State converge at a large venue. Each tribe is assigned a makeshift morung (traditional community house), where local delicacies are prepared, the interiors are furnished with distinctive artefacts and jewellery. Despite the chill in the air, tribal groups take the stage for wrestling matches and dances that are performed in a large amphitheatre. The diligence with which all the traditional performances take place is a testimony to the deep attachment that the region invokes in its habitants. Melodious songs and the rhythmic thumping of feet waft into the valley as the festival ends with a massive bonfire that draws everyone into a final dance. As rightly put by a German friend who was accompanying me, a peek into the lives of the Nagamese was “life changing”. Their condition in the cold mountains not once interfered in the celebrations.

Having witnessed only a slice of India’s rich cache of sporting festivals, I was delighted that the focus remains on challenge, sweat and sinew, regardless of religion or caste. These festive athletic meets, celebrate not only the agility and health of their participants, but also communal accord among villages.