From cave paintings of the ancient age to the modern agricultural practices, ox and bull still remain the object of immense interest; value and proud possession of village folk. Of all the domesticated beasts, ox along with the horse is man’s best companion and his most trusted possession.
Bulls appear on ancient seals (like the ones excavated from the Indus Valley archeological sites) as well as the paintings and sculptures discovered and recovered from excavations elsewhere in the world.
Ancient agrarian civilizations had always set their prime focus on activities that particularly included the sports, on either the horses or the oxen. Whereas horse was the proud possession of nobility, ox enjoyed the patronage of common men. For the masses, this docile beast was a means to earn bread (through cultivation) and for transport. But the most preferred pursuit for entertainment by rural folk has always been the humble domesticated beast, the ox for its race and the thrill.
The common festivities patronized by rural folk in particular have always been the village carnivals (WOP already covered one such carnival in its Sep. 2008 issue) or the melas, where not only the oxen, the cows, the bulls and buffaloes are brought for sale and purchase but also for one of the most thrilling entertainments in our rural districts. Along with equestrian sports, oxen race is the second most popular game after tent pegging (the sport of the kings and generals) which offers a magnificent display, the thrill and the pageantry at its best.
Adil Najam described the drama of an oxen race in his equally thrill filled essay “Adrenaline Rush”.
“This is an event,” says Adil “that pushes the animals as well as the jockeys literally to the edge of their physical prowess that demands amazing control, concentration and courage. It’s quite simply, a sight to behold and an experience that gets your adrenaline rushing as fast as that of the men and the beast on centre stage”.
Its there at the race trek that oxen / or the bullocks are carried to, the area (usually a large field) with great pomp and show. The owners demonstrate an air of pride in their possession and walk at a pace, in complete synchronization of the gait of the beast they are taking along. The cattle (oxen or the bullock) are ushered on to the trek at a slow pace so as to familiarize the animal with the ground surface and the environment. The crowd starts gathering along the boundary.
Once the animals are right on the race trek, a thunderous clapping and shouting welcomes the participants (the animals and their proud owners). Dhole beats follow the clapping, roars and chants set the mood of the crowd. Every body sits or stands enthusiastically awaiting the approaching thrill.
Here on the village field, not only is the owner’s pride at stake but also the entire village is eager to hear the news ‘who won the race’. And if it’s your party that won, this is the time for you to rejoice, to celebrate and to boo you rivals.
By passage of time these races are also getting professional. It’s the special breeds now that are now reared for the racing events only. No more are these docile beast now sent out to farming or other chores so common in our rural economy. The animals are fed on specially prepared protein and vitamin rich ‘wanda’ (the cattle feed) and are kept in relatively comfortable rather luxurious conditions. A strict regime on injuries or any other health hazard by regular vet visits is strictly enforced. The bull muscles are also invigorated and physically strengthened through regular massage and other exercises.
For a typical race in a circle, wooden planks are tied to the pair of the oxen; the jockey stands on the plank and then pushes the pair to run on the oval track. That being the main part of race training. In some parts of Punjab and Sindh, instead of wooden plank, a cart is attached to the bull. Carts for this purpose are specially crafted, carved and painted in vibrant colours.
Not very long ago, the village carnivals aka mela madis were a regular feature in Central Punjab and Sindh. However, the urbanization especially of our rural districts has limited these activities to some more remote parts of the country. Urbanization and over-industrialization offered more lucrative ventures to the people in rural societies, so many traditional sports including the oxen races started vanishing from the scene. To further discourage the people to indulge in these simple, home grown enjoying moments of fun and frolic, came also the NGO’s and animal rights activists who argued that such races were cruel sports that tormented the animals for humans’ luscious enjoyment only.
“Bullocks and oxen are not the horses, argue these activists. They are meek and gentle creatures already worn out from a hard day’s labour, even then they are forced to run. Many a time chillies are thrown into their eyes or even pushed into the arses, jabbing them in their privates with naked sticks; lashing them with steel whips and forcing alcohol down their throats”. Then the difference in the height and weight of one bullock can exert a tremendous amount of pressure on the other bullock, no wonder, that muscular injuries are common in case of these racing bulls. Such injuries are mostly caused through lashing and poking of sticks to make the animals run faster which sometimes cripples them and may even cause their death as well.
Another uglier aspect is the gambling, which unfortunately in some areas, has become a regular feature. To this comes the loss of losing face as the defeated party has to surrender the pair of bullocks to the victor, an aspect which in our rural culture is often taken as a loss of honour and pride and that too just before his rival. This and similar aspects are discouraging enthusiasts to loose interest in this simple, indigenous and thrill filled activity
To add fuel to the fire, reports of inhuman treatment to these humble animal-beings further motivated the people not to frequent such melas where the oxen races were the prime show of the event. To further discourage these races, reports were published by Vet groups hyped up by the media [who out of fierce competition to solicit prime sponsorships are now ‘blood’ thirsty for “Breaking news”]. Animals get frequent heart arrests during these races causing instant deaths on the fields, cautioned these reports. Barring some scattered incidents reported by them, they generalized the whole situation to turn a gentle, peaceful, entertaining event to a cruel game. No body doubts; some scattered events might have occurred in some scattered places, away from the general masses, yet to deprive the common man of a healthy, gentle and peaceful way of enjoyment is a cruelty in itself. No one especially a person who loves the animal and the sport can even think of being so cruel to their humble yet prideful animal beings. Yet these reports start pouring in, marring the very beauty of the game.
However, with all the good, bad and the ugly aspects, in the world of oxen sports, the race still goes on. To quote Adil Najam once again:
“Pairs of oxen, racing against each other in a fast paced high drama, a heart pounding racing event, an absolute spectacle that rivals any car racing event.”
Photo Credits: 1: on top by Nadeem Khawar 2: in the middle by Imran Waheed, 3 & 4: bottom by Umair Ghani
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