Crazy People and Insane Feats: India's Rural Olympics

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  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    A participant demonstrates amazing balance atop two galloping horses.

    A man lies on the ground while the crowd cheers on a tractor that slowly drives over his ribcage. No, this isn’t some horrible execution scene, but an event at the annual ‘Rural Olympics’ – as they are popularly known – a festival of strength and skill that takes place every year in the village of Kila Raipur in India’s Punjab region.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    Bullock cart racing was arguably the most popular event at the Rural Olympics, until it was banned.

    Held in February, during the Indian winter, the Rural Olympics draws crowds not just from its native state and country but from international shores as well. The festival has made a name for itself hosting both regular sport events and more unusual competitions – as we will see in these photographs, taken by Ritam Banerjee.

    We’ve featured screwball antics here on Environmental Graffiti plenty of times before – from crazy people who clothe themselves in bees to equally zany people who do crazy things with roller coasters – but some of the participants in the Rural Olympics definitely deserve their place in the pantheon of the batty and downright bonkers.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    A man demonstrates his extraordinary dental strength.

    Apart from people being run over by farm machinery, other extraordinary events traditionally held at the festival include bullock chariot racing, horseback acrobatics and various other outlandish demonstrations of strength – including participants having stones broken on their chests and others pulling heavy vehicles with their hair.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    There is no age limit for those entering the Rural Olympics; some competitors are over 70.

    Strong teeth are particularly prized here, as competitors use them to pull vehicles and to lift heavy objects such as bicycles and iron ploughs. Toothpaste marketers might be wise to look to Kila Raipur as fertile ground for potential endorsements and sponsorship.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    It wouldn’t be the Rural Olympics without a tractor race.

    Unlike in the regular Olympics, one doesn’t have to be a trained athlete to compete in this annual extravaganza – formally known as the Kila Raipur Sports Festival. Competitors range in age from their teens to their 70s and beyond. There are also games for disabled participants. And for those who are less keen on doing the physical work themselves, there are races that horses and dogs can enter.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    These elephants display the creative body art with which they are adorned.

    Not all the competitors are local folk, either. Indians living abroad return to compete in the tug-of-war and the popular South Asian game kabaddi (in which individuals try to touch people in the opposing team without being captured), among other sports. The players come from as far away as the US, Canada and England to participate in the festival, which attracts over 4,000 sportsmen and women annually, not to mention the million or so spectators who are estimated to attend.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    Tent pegging is a sport that involves picking up a target from horseback using a sword or javelin.

    The origins of the Punjabi Rural Games stretch at least as far back as the Sikh Guru Hargobind Sahib, who lived during the 17th century (though some trace the roots back even farther). Guru Hargobind was a big advocate of maintaining physical fitness and is credited with initiating wrestling bouts in the Punjab and inventing the martial art known as ‘Gatka’. Because of him, sports became an important part of the culture in the region.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    Nowadays, the tournament includes international participants.

    The Rural Olympics as we know it today was founded in 1933 by a philanthropist named Inder Singh Grewal, who desired both an event in which farmers could compete against each other in sports and to preserve Punjabi culture. Yet Grewal would probably never have imagined the size his Kila Raipur get-together would grow to in the years since its inception.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    The Rural Olympics have become an important part of Punjabi culture.

    Of all the competitions at the Rural Olympics, one of the most popular, at least until recently, was the bullock cart race. Indeed, the sight and sound of these enormous beasts stampeding their way down the track is truly a memorable experience. The bulls themselves are carefully raised on a diet of ghee (clarified butter) and mustard seeds and are highly prized by their owners – who go so far as to give them nightly massages.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    Tent peggers in discussion

    Unlike many of the games held in Kali Raipur – which require relatively little, if anything, in the way of expenses for the participants – bullock racing can be a pricey business. A good racing bull can cost up to 100,000 rupees (around 1,800 USD), while jockeys charge anything from 5,000 to 10,000 rupees (around 90 to 180 USD) per race.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    One of the more conventional-seeming sporting events

    Despite their being such an important aspect of past Rural Olympics, the bull chariot races were cancelled at the last minute in the 2012 festival amid much controversy. Various animal rights organizations have been trying for years to stop the races, which they claim are cruel and exploitative. This year, they succeeded, with the Animal Welfare Board of India ordering a ban on the use of bullocks in competitions.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    The winners get their prizes, which may be as simple and everyday as a packet of ghee.

    However, farmers who own the bulls say they don’t mistreat their animals and can’t understand why they are being penalized, especially when horse racing, for example, is allowed to continue. While some are working to lift the ban on bulls, others are trying to end any animal participation in the tournaments. We’ll have to wait until next year’s Rural Olympics to see which side is successful in their respective campaigns.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    Spectators of all ages enjoy the games.

    As suggested, not all the events at the Rural Olympics are strange to outsiders; Kali Raipur is also an effective testing ground for future athletes in more conventional sports like hockey, volleyball and athletics. Past competitors who have gone on to sporting careers include Olympic hockey players, discus throwers and sprinters.

  • Image: Ritam Banerjee

    Conventional sportswear is not compulsory.

    The banning of the bullock cart races is not the first setback to hit the Rural Olympics. There has been political opposition from some quarters, and in the 1990s a bomb was planted, which preceded the tragic massacre of 25 people at the Kila Raipur railway station. Still, the festival has kept going with the active support of villagers throughout Punjab. Many see it as a grassroots sporting event that needs to be preserved.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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