Each year, India’s Punjabis give their all in the Rural Olympics, an extravaganza of archaic trials of strength, traditional culture, martial arts and animal show
Ouch! A whack on the ankle, a slosh of giddiness. I sit down on the grass, and only now do I see the hockey ball that seemed to come flying from nowhere. Chaos is all around. People perform motorcycle stunts, heft weights, someone leads a dancing camel.
Wheelchair races, tractor races, dog and horse contests, and continuous, deafening announcements blaring from dented megaphones. The man at the mic is master of ceremonies, commentator and ecstatic fan all in one.
I alternately follow the moves of two female discus throwers, both with scarily broad shoulders, while attempting to grasp the rules of kabaddi, a kind of team wrestling that’s in progress a couple of meters away.
But first things first. The turf on which I am sitting, rubbing my ankle, is in Kila Raipur, in the state of Punjab in northern India, 300 kilometers north of New Delhi. Home mainly to Sikhs, most of the time it’s a perfectly ordinary village, where farmers grow rice, wheat and sugar cane, and tend their dairy cows, bullocks and donkeys.
For four days of the year, though, around the first weekend in February, the village becomes a stage. A stadium built especially for the big event hosts a bizarre mix of athletics, animal shows and martial arts. Everyone joins in: old, young, able-bodied, the physically impaired, men and women – well, some women, at least.
This Kila Raipur Sports Festival have been held for 83 years now. The village expects at least a million visitors, as I learned from the official website. That’s huge, I thought to myself. I want to go!
My first feeling: disappointment. The field is more like a rough training ground than a stadium. I count the practically empty seat rows on the covered stands, take a guess at how many spectators could sit on the whitewashed concrete steps to right and left, multiply, add, and come to a rather optimistic total of no more than 20 000.
It’s nine in the morning, and it’s cold.The first visitors begin to arrive, most in the obligatory Sikh turban combined with thick sweaters and jackets. Expectations are high, but as the games haven’t started, everyone homes in on the foreign woman – cell phones are whipped out.
Snap? Selfie? In an attempt to attain invisibility, I drift to the edge of the sports ground, where a tousle-headed man is watering a horse by a lush green rice field.
When I win, I feel that I am someone special
Who are you? Javindar Singh, 25 years old. “But people call me Kaka (boy).” He strokes the gleaming bay mare. She’s not his, he’s her jockey. If he wins the race, he gets 5000 rupees (67 euros); if he loses, nothing. His prospects of earning something today look good, as several horse owners have booked him.
Kaka’s life is simple: He still lives with his parents, two hours away by motorcycle; he trains other people’s horses and travels to local races. For him, it’s not mainly about money. “When I win,” he says, beaming, “I feel special.” He keeps clippings of every press article he finds about himself.
Slowly, I’m beginning to get it. In a country with over a billion inhabitants, it’s not being part of a celebration with millions of other people or the biggest spectacle in the world that matters, but the rare opportunity to stand out from the crowd. So Kila Raipur is basically Indian for 15 minutes of fame.
A firecracker startles a flock of green parrots. The air is now hot in the midday sun, and the stadium has filled up. I meet 19-year-old Prachi Virk, a tall, slim student from Ludhiana, the largest city in Punjab, with her hair scraped severely back but, unlike most of the village women, not covered. She’s running in the 400 and 800-meter races.
In Germany, she would probably go unnoticed, except maybe for her long, silver fingernails, but here in Kila Raipur, Virk is an exception. She travels alone and spends the night in unfamiliar places – freedoms barred to many women in rural India. “I think its awful how backward people are here,” she scolds. “Just look around you – almost only men.”
And the men are having trouble staying in their seats. The marshals try shooing them back, but they keep erupting onto the field to be near the action. I follow suit.
A new throng is forming around a man holding between his teeth the end of a massive wood-and-iron structure with a cycle on top. Arms outstretched, he raises the contraption into the air. Incredulous, runner Virk films the scene with her cell phone, giggling “It hurts me to watch, but I just have to! I’ll send this to my mother, but later – no signal here.”
Oh, the Internet. Jagbir Singh Grewal sighs and flops down onto a saggy sofa. Grewal is a bulky man in glasses, vest and corduroy pants. I meet him in the media center set up under one of the stands for the duration of the event. The walls are hung with framed photos of former hockey stars.
“If the government gave us more money, we could afford WiFi – and floodlighting!” Grewal introduces himself as a descendant of the festival founder, Inder Singh Grewal. He tells me about his ancestor, who was an influential member of village society and a visionary who believed that athletics were important for Punjabis.
He was committed to promoting physical education among the young men living in villages and decided that the best way to achieve this was to hold sports contests.
It was the perfect place for this idea, since the people of northern India had always been fighters due to the regular bloody conflicts between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. The Sikhs established the Nihang military order in the 17th century, whose members still cultivate their riding and fighting skills to this day.
A young troop of Nihang are performing today – the oldest is possibly around 20, the youngest no more than four or five years old. Their uniforms look fantastic: Bright-blue robes and either a blue or mustard-yellow turban. To up-tempo Indian music, they leap and whirl through the air, wielding knives, sabers and battle-axes, now individually, now in groups.
They told me the weapons weren’t real, but I can’t help hoping they can control them, especially when the youngest gives the final flourish and swings a metal ball on a chain round and round at a crazy speed.
No doubt about it, the Nihang show is the most impressive here, and that includes the next turn, featuring riders straddling two horses – one foot on each horse’s back. First up is a teenager, who looks a bit shaky and keeps his eyes on his feet.
The next rider shows what determined training can achieve: He’s as relaxed up there as a seasoned surfer on his board, his long beard fluttering in the wind, his right hand swinging a scimitar above his head.
“That’s the tradition with us,” explains a young man awaiting his turn. “Our forefathers did it, too. If you can’t do it, you’re not a real man.” The small boy beside him nods.
Tough judgement but, I suspect, water off a duck’s back to Nichhattar Singh – 80 years old, bushy, white brows shading clouded eyes, shaggy-bearded chin. He tells me that he cycles three kilometers to the sports ground every day, where he runs for two hours, and that, as a police and military trainer for 28 years, he has always kept himself fit.
This is his fourth time in the seniors’ race at Kila Raipur, he says proudly, and his first in the Over 80s category. But now he has to hurry along, sorry, his race… he disappears into the crowd.
The stadium speaker blasts “The Final Countdown” in a permanent, manic loop. Teenagers in taekwondo suits smash boards. An old Sikh circling on his motorcycle zooms by, endlessly blowing on a whistle. Above our heads, the latest attraction: another Sikh, this one also circling, but with a paramotor 20 meters up.
There’s action all around, and it’s slowly getting too much for me. I need a break. The horse racing is about to begin. While most visitors flock to the finishing area, I head over to the starting line on the edge of some wasteland a few hundred meters away, where a dozen spirited horses are waiting with their jockeys.
I seek out Kaka. Barefoot and in thin sweatpants, he looks like a kid in pyjamas. Kaka is here with a black mare, Rani, who’s rolling her eyes, snorting and prancing.
Kaka talks softly to her, clicks his tongue. Is she nervous about the upcoming race or has she had something stronger than a little sugar and water, which he obviously denies? He mounts.
Someone waves a red flag on a bamboo cane and the first race begins: The horses shoot off with their jockeys on their backs – each without a saddle but yelling loudly.
I meet Kaka again on the last day at the awards. He won the race with Rani. He poses briefly for a photo, while men slap him on the back. He still has to lead his horse out to the parking lot and into a pick-up truck. After all the fuss, Rani finally gets some peace.
I, too, have had enough – seen and heard enough, and had more than enough dust up my nose. But before I go, I want to find out how Prachi Virk, the runner, fared, and actually manage to find her. She beams. She, too, won her race, and plans to spend most of the prize money on new clothes.
The old Sikh is nowhere to be seen. I do find a list with his name in second place, though, but I don’t know whether the result made him happy or annoyed him. But one thing I do know: This year, he, too, had the stage for a brief moment, had his moment of fame.
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