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Optimism Grows About Return of Bullock Cart Races at Punjab’s ‘Rural Olympics'

After the Supreme Court gave the nod to holding bovine sports in three states, locals of Kila Raipur village near Ludhiana hope that the bullock-cart races could be resumed in its uniquely fascinating annual "Rural Olympics".
Bullock cart races have not been part of Kila Raipur's 'Rural Olympics' since 2014. Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Kila Raipur (Punjab): The recent Supreme Court order permitting the bull-taming sport of Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, has triggered optimism in Punjab’s Kila Raipur village, near Ludhiana, that it too could resume long-proscribed bullock-cart races in its bizarre, but uniquely fascinating annual “Rural Olympics”.

There was all round optimism in this village, 20 km from Ludhiana, that these races around a 300m track, banned since 2014, would recommence next year, bringing much-needed josh or fervour back into this wacky event, with roaring hysterical crowds and equally frenzied bookies handling heavy bets.

Till they were banned by the Supreme Court nine years ago, these races were the climax of Kila Raipur’s three-day Olympics, an event which began 90 years ago in 1933. It takes place each February, two months before wheat is harvested in this predominantly agricultural region and is the high point in the local population’s social calendar.

Retired Colonel Surinder Grewal, who heads the Kila Raipur Sports Society, responsible for organising these Olympics, told the Times of India over the weekend that since the Supreme Court had permitted the resumption of Jallikattu – also banned in 2014 – it was just a matter of time before restrictions on their local bullock cart races were also lifted.

“These races were hugely popular amongst people and were the essence of the Games till they were banned,” Grewal said. To further press their case, a delegation comprising Kila Raipur Sports Society members met with federal sports minister Anurag Thakur last week to seek his intervention in resuming the bullock cart races.

The sports minister was asked to get the president’s assent for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2019, passed by the Punjab assembly that year, which will allow bullock cart races to be regulated. The Supreme Court allowed bovine sports to be held in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka recently because these states formulated rules to “rigidly regulate” the games.

“The bullock cart races will inject jaan (life) back into the Games which, over the past nine years had become somewhat lack-lustre and vapid,” local resident Sukhdev Grewal told The Wire. Once resurrected they will, without doubt, bring back tens of thousands of spectators from across Punjab, and even overseas, to the makeshift stadium on the village outskirts where the games take place, the 81-year-old added.

An outlandish event

Kila Raipur’s Rural Olympics are indisputably unique in their outlandishness, imaginativeness, and audacity, more a 21st-century smorgasbord of medieval fairs, featuring some 3,000-4,000, largely local Sikhs and their relatives who came specially from the UK, US and Canada for the event. Till recently, the latter invariably timed their visits home to coincide with the adrenalin-inciting and much-anticipated Olympics, but after the bollock-cart racing ban, their attendance had considerably thinned.

Sukhdev Grewal said all events in the Olympics were exclusively rural in their composition, and even trophies for victors were analogous – they included farming implements, fertiliser bags and seeds. At the height of their popularity, before the bullock cart races were banned, locals even re-scheduled weddings to ensure that they did not clash with the Olympics, he declared.

The Rural Olympics included contestants pulling tractors and loaded trolleys attached to ropes with their teeth or ears, lying under moving tractors and participating in bicycle races with the tyres aflame. In the latter event, many contenders ended up pedalling comically on just their wheel rims, cheered on by hordes of spectators. Equestrians riding two horses simultaneously by standing on them, musclemen lifting massive bullock cart wheels, much like in European village fairs, and “real men” bending thick iron rods with their hands, or around their necks, were some of the other Olympian disciplines.

Furthermore, there were ram fights, dog and camel races, tent pegging, kabaddi, wrestling, kite flying and dramatic displays of Sikh martial arts like gatka or dextrous fighting with sticks that simulated swords.

For the less adventurous, there was a well-managed hockey tourney, whose winners received a solid gold cup donated in the 60s by a local Grewal who had migrated to Kenya and made good and who journeyed each year to Kila Raipur for the Olympics. The recently launched octogenarian race was yet another event that guaranteed kudos for its winners. In short, said Sukhdev Grewal, the Olympics were a collective event played out in a fair-like atmosphere that everyone, especially children, enjoyed.

“These sports are not for the faint-hearted,” declared the Indian Luxury Trains website which publicises upmarket and unusual travel destinations and events across the country. All the sports activities are a spectacle to watch, states the website, adding that people can also be seen performing stunts on moving vehicles or playing with fire at every corner of the event.

And each night, after the sporting is done, Punjabi women folk dancers perform the energetic Gidhha with elan in their colourful and elegantly draped shalwar kameezes, alongside the equally robust Bhangra to the infectious rhythmic beat of the dhol or drum.

Representative image of the Punjabi folk dance Giddha. Photo: Dr Manavpreet Kaur/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Kila Raipur’s Olympic Games were launched by a group of locals, mostly Jat Sikh Grewals, many of who had migrated to Kolkata – then Calcutta – in the early 1900s to seek their fortunes, but returned home frequently to farm their lands for extended periods.

One such votary was Harchand Grewal, a Calcutta transporter – like many of his fellow villagers – who began lobbying in the 1940s to expand Kila Raipur’s Rural Olympics to inspire a larger number of village boys and girls, and even veterans to showcase their athletic and sporting prowess. He helped raise funds for these games from prosperous Sikhs in Calcutta and consequently, over the years, a handful of village youngsters went on to play hockey for Punjab, whilst others earned laurels in athletics at the national level.

“The reopening of the bullock-cart races will definitely revive the Rural Olympics to their earlier grandness,” said Sukhdev Grewal. It’s a hoary rural tradition of Punjab’s Malwa region that needs sustenance and back-up to perpetuate it as it nears a century of existence, he advocated.

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