I was perched precariously, with my camera gear, on the crowded 4 feet by 7 feet roof of a guard tower at the far end of the Kila Raipur Stadium. A videographer, who had shot at Kila Raipur earlier as well, had captured the lion’s share of the available roof space. There were 8-10 other villagers standing alongside. And the roof had no railing. Needless to say, it was not a very comfortable place to be, but it was a perfect vantage from a photographer’s point of view.
I was asking a local a few questions about the bullock cart race which was yet to begin. He had pointed out the start line, the racetrack and the finish line for this race. The finish line was about 20 feet below and about 50 feet away from where I was located. I had incredulously looked at that line and had asked him – “These bullocks must be running at a fairly fast pace, and naturally, they don’t have any brakes. How do they stop after the finish line?” He says, “They don’t stop. They just continue to run out of the stadium, into the fields, and stop when their pace gradually reduces…”
I am from Ludhiana, but, during my entire Ludhiana life, I had never attended the globally famous Kila Raipur Rural Olympics, which have been covered by BBC and National Geographic, besides multiple other global channels and publications. This year, I was determined to correct this anomaly. Upon checking the schedule, I realised that this unique sports meet was to happen on the weekend after Basant Panchami, in end-February. I planned this trip many weeks in advance. Even though I travel extensively, the excitement of visiting Kila Raipur far exceeded the excitement levels I had experienced lately for any of my other recent travels.
We had made Hotel Sarovar Portico, a centrally located, comfortable hotel in Ludhiana, our base for 2 days (the entire meet is a 4-day affair), but we had decided to be there on day 3 and 4, as the star events happen on these days. From there, the journey to Kila Raipur is normally about 35 minutes, traffic-permitting.
Once we reached there, the programme sheet handed over to us listed some really strange events. Despite the bullock cart races being the star attraction of the meet, the other events had a rustic charm of their own. Dog races, dancing ponies and camels, dare-devil Nihang riders, motorbike stunt riders, bare-back riders racing their stallions, tractor races, timed loading and unloading of trolleys, were some of the rural attractions, besides the standard hockey, athletics, Kabaddi, tug-of-war, etc.
The entire atmosphere was mostly that of a large village fair. The parking lot was large and orderly; the stadium had a semi-finished look, and was surrounded by the lush-green fields that are so typical of Punjab; most of the crowd was the villagers in their ethnic attire – some had come to cheer their village sportsmen, others had just come to watch the action; media persons were there in full force to cover the event; loud and hilarious Punjabi commentary informing the spectators about the action in the stadium was flowing incessantly from the loud-speakers sprinkled across the entire stadium. But what contrasted it from a typical village fair was the presence of a large number of camera-wielding foreign tourists thronging the stadium.
To an avid sports fan, this event may seem slightly unorganised, as there is no schedule being followed; the schedule gets determined minute by minute. But in its’ own way, the event is a hugely organised effort. Some bits of organising that go on behind the scenes, and need to be appreciated are – inviting the participants from far-flung villages across the entire Punjab-Haryana belt where, even in this telecom era, communication is still a challenge (in fact, this year, there were some sportspersons who had come all the way from Lucknow); arranging for funds to get this event going year-after-year (this year was the 78th edition of these games); getting the media to come and cover the event; catering to the media and its special needs from the make-shift media centre; managing the crowds; organising VIP guests who also provide grants for the meet; are just some of the visible aspects. Lots more must have been happening behind-the-scenes and that’s what makes this entire mammoth effort a marvel.
Our two days were hectic since the action was non-stop. For instance, as soon as a race would get over, high-jump or some other athletics event would start. While that was still going on, a Kabaddi match would begin. Show riders would enthrall you, and before you had a chance to share your amazement with your group, the tractors would go flying past as a part of the tractor race. On top of that, the bullock cart races, which punctuate the meet (since there are many heats, quarter finals, semi-finals and final), genuinely take the cake on adrenaline-quotient. But, despite the frenetic action, the experience was awesome.
While you’ll see some glimpses of the action in the images alongside, to take in the entire electric atmosphere and its thrill, it is recommended that you be there in person.