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That man is so bony, he shouldn’t be allowed to participate, we think. There has been a barrage of participants before him − tall and short, heavy and burly, middle-aged and young, in short, all kinds − and they’ve all struggled. What can this 20-something poor darling do? Not aware of our unspoken thoughts, he steps forward and, without any fanfare or bravado, begins to lift the 20-kg tyres. One, two…five. He puts five tyres around his torso, wearing them with as much ease as a vest going over his shoulders, and he’s still not done. He steadies himself, swoops up three tyres onto his left arm and an equal number onto his right, and stands bearing the 220-kg load, looking undaunted at the man timing him with the stopwatch. So strength is not equal to mass, we whisper amongst ourselves as all of us in the stands give him a resounding applause. He lasts well beyond the stipulated time and emerges the winner. Of course.

Photo Credit: Indian Express                                                Photo Credit: Rakesh Syal

This, and several more similar, rustic games are enthralling us at the Rural Sports Festival held annually in Kila Raipur village, just off Ludhiana in Punjab. Beginning in the 1930s to instil healthy habits among the young, the event has turned into a major talking point (and entered the social calendar), earning the sobriquet of India’s Rural Olympics. It’s so popular that almost 1 million estimated visitors throng the village during the three-day fiesta that tests strength, skill and stamina − and not just of humans. Animals too, participate though there’s been a dampener on that front lately (more on that later). To fathom its reach and prestige, get this: state and national talent scouts are present at every edition. Olympians from the region have featured and been feted here. Legend goes that chief ministers have graced its arena, and apparently one time, the President of India too took off from Delhi to witness the games but couldn’t as bad weather prevented his helicopter from landing. Now you get its prestige?

Photo Credit: Mukul                                                                                                          Gupta Photo Credit: Tribune India

Muscular men grapple in kabaddi. Girls put up a scintillating display of control acquired after years of taekwondo practice. There’s a competition to see who can lift overhead 37-kg tyres for the longest time. A frail man does pretzel-like contortions with his palms resting on a glass bottle. Another fellow pulls an 1,100 kg car with his teeth. Daredevil bikers pull off impossible routines. There are races for dogs, camels and even elephants, juxtaposed with the usual disciplines of track-and-field. It’s inclusive too as there are events for physically-challenged men and women.

Photo Credit: K1                                                                           Photo Credit: 4to40

All through the three days, rustic (and some flippantly exciting) events unfold, and there’s simultaneous action all across the Grewal Sports Stadium. Owing to the informality of the festival, spectators feel free to leave the stands and saunter around on the ground, mingling with the participants and exchanging social pleasantries with friends. It’s like a neighbourhood park that, every now and then, becomes a serious competitive arena.

Photo Credit: The Backpackers Group                            Photo Credit: Huffington Post

All of a sudden, cheerful men and women in colorful clothes break into the Punjabi dances of bhangra and gidda to break the competitive intensity of individual glory or team reputation. In the background, a paraglider takes off. Nihangs show off their martial skills. Someone is performing mimicry and a bevy of commentators squeaks non-stop into the mike (it’s in Punjabi and audience reactions suggest that they are zesty and jesty, cracking jokes intermittently). Vendors of snacks and sweets are doing brisk business. Everyone’s having a field day. But scratch the surface and you learn that not everyone’s happy. In fact, some are angry. Very angry, and worried too.

Photo Credit: The Indian Express                                                                                  Photo Credit: 4to40

Despite the teeming crowds, we learn that the appeal of the festival has been ebbing in the past few years. Reason: The most popular event of the rural games festival used to be bullock-cart races, followed closely by horse racing and tent-pegging. However, all have been discontinued because of guidelines issued by the departments of health and animal husbandry. Locals worry that the popularity of the games will soon dwindle, unspooling the effects of all the hard work put in over the years.

Photo Credit: Mukul Gupta                                                                                               Photo Credit: Mukul Gupta

That worry may plague old-timers. For people like us debuting at the festival, it’s a jamboree we are happy to be horsing around in. Who is missing the bulls or the horses when there are fellow humans helping us reimagine notions of faster, higher, stronger?

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