Racing bulls in Swabi

Anees Takar on a sport that seeks to keep alive some of farmers' most beloved traditions

Racing bulls in Swabi
Ever since ancient days, farmers have raised bulls with great love and care because they were the main source of motive power in cultivation. Across South Asia and its vast agrarian tracts, these bulls were used for ploughing the fields, as transportation to carry crops to market or at home in various contexts: with a water wheel and on a gani (sugarcane press) for making gur (jaggery).

Over the past century, modern machinery replaced these all traditional methods with new and faster mechanised processes. Although these machines brought about a great degree of relief from the backbreaking nature of agricultural work and saved much time, even farmers who adopted fully mechanised farming processes have continued to raise bulls with great love. The role that they now see for these massive creatures is no longer one of toil in the fields, but entertainment – or to be more precise, races!

There are other variants of races involving bulls in KP

And so, the farmers of Swabi still relive the age-old cultural tradition of waterwheels, having converted their operation into something of a competitive race. In the last week of the year, the farmers bring their bulls to compete with others.

The contest we are talking about, of course, is quite different from what one normally envisages from the use of the word ‘race’. The bulls do not run on any sort of track. Instead, they take turns. The first bull is attached to the beam of the waterwheel and proceeds to run for eight minutes around the well. Then the next bull does this, and so on. The winner is the bull which can make the largest number of rounds in this set duration.

“When the referee whistles, the drummer starts beating his instrument and the bull starts to run” explains Akhter Ali, the organiser of a bull race. The lumbering bulk of the bulls should not be taken to mean that this is some rough-and-tumble sport. Far from it: Ali explains that it is, in fact, a very sensitive game. The audience is strictly warned to maintain silence, and avoid even whispering. Any unnecessary noise other than that of the drum, after a bull starts running around the well, can disturb the competing animal and lead to an embarrassing end to the race.
The audience is strictly warned to maintain silence, and avoid even whispering. Any unnecessary noise other than that of the drum, after a bull starts running around the well, can disturb the competing animal

“The farmers train their bulls on the waterwheel with drumbeats. The bulls are trained to run faster and slower in keeping with the tempo of the drumbeats.” Akhter whispers to me on the sidelines of a race. The bull is prodded into running with an iron object – after this it all depends on the drumbeats.

Aside from the intense nature of the competition, the bulls are well cared for. The competing animals are fed with special foods while preparing for the contest. The farmers feed them a diet of eggs, black chickpeas, coconuts and maize oil. These bulls are housed with special care and are kept apart from all other animals.

A bull runs in time with drumbeats in the races

Munir Khan owns a competitor bull. He says: “We feel pride when we take part in these races with our animals. In the past, bulls had played a vital role in feeding us and our children. It was the main resource for us in farming. This game gives a traditional touch to our year and brings back our memories of old times, when the use of a traditional waterwheel was necessary for us to grow any crops!”

The contests draw participants from a wide geographical area. The organiser Akhter Ali tells us that farmers from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Punjab travel to participate in this game – and are received with proper hospitality. “It recreates a sense of traditional “rorwali” (brotherhood). The guest farmers are hosted by the villagers. The villagers provide food and accommodation in their Hujras”, explains Akhter.

The main reward is prestige

Interestingly, there is no specific award for the winning bull – other than renown, of course!. The bulls are awarded with the ‘Red Flag’ which is considered a sign of pride amongst the farmers’ community. An animal which has won the Red Flag rises rapidly in value on the market – aside from bringing much prestige to its owner.

Sometimes the organisers also hand out trophies, cups and traditional gifts from the local area. At the end of the game, the attendees are entertained with music and the traditional Attan dance.