About Hinduism and India

Previous Indian generation may still recall having played some Indian game during their child hood, otherwise our ancestral legacies in play-field have already been swallowed by colonial Sports.

Unfortunately today, reference to games in India is associated primarily to Cricket. In addition Hockey, Volleyball, Football, and Tennis and some other European games are also being played as legacies of the British Raj. It appears that until the British arrived India had no games to play. The British employed cheap Indian labor on the play fields in service of players to for cheering them up while the white men played.

Commercialization of Sports

The regrettable aspect that stands out is that the sport fields today are no longer within the reach of common man. People have to stay in their rooms only for watching games being played over TV screens. Few can spare time and money to witness the same alive in big cities. Those who applied during childhood could be fortunate to avail the facility of Sports Clubs shortly before their Vanaprastha stage.

Sports clubs are used by business minded members for commercial contacts or socializing, because games are no longer within the reach of street children and youth. Budding sports-boys have to get immune to frequent scolding from disturbed residents staying near miniature ‘playfield’ if they venture out to play. Moreover, they cannot afford the expensive equipment required for modern game and have to practice with crude improvised gear.

Those who are fortunate enough to play, sportsman-spirit has given place to their ambitions for amassing wealth, and learning skills of cut throat competition. Many of the aspiring sportsmen end up frustrated with nothing left for living. Sports are now a wagering profession.

Sports for Self Development

But that was not the case with sports in Ancient India. Physical perfection (Kaya- Sadhana) was an integral part of Hinduism and a pre-requisition to salvation. It involved perfect coordination between body and mind. The capstone of Hatha Yoga was strength, stamina and supreme control of the body functions.

The ‘eight-fold’ Yoga encompassed techniques associated with body posture (Asanas), breathing control (Pranayama), and withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara). Religious rites provided impetus to physical culture in ancient India. Many of the present day Olympic disciplines are sophisticated versions of the games involving strength and speed that traveled from India to Greece.

Encouragement to Body Development

To belie the misconception that Indians had no sport aptitude, it is relevant to recount some traces from our past.

  • Vedic Period – Individuals were encouraged to improve their body potential along with intellect at Gurukul by strict adherence to Brahmacharyaand practice of Yoga. Even in the marriage, physical efficiency and skill were tested as evident from Ramayana and Mahabharta Balarama, Bhimsain, Hanuman, Jamavanta, and Jarasandha were some of the great wrestler-champion of yore.
  • Excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro confirm that during the Indus valley civilization the weapons involved in war and hunting exercises included bow and arrow, dagger, axe and the mace out of those Toran(Javelin) and the chakra (Discus), were also used in the sports arena. Men were expected to be well-versed in chariot – racing, archery, military stratagems, swimming, wrestling and hunting. Cart races were also held.  Many of the Olympic traditions travelled from India to Greece and Rome.
  • Buddhist Period– With the spread of Buddhism, Indian sport reached excellence. As a prince Siddhartha Gautam (Buddha) was a player in the sport of archery, chariot racing, equitation and hammer throwing. Tiruvedacharya has described many of these games in detail in Villas Mani-Manjri.  In Manas Olhas of 1135 AD, Someshwar writes about Bhara-shram (weight lifting) and Bharaman-shram (walking). Both the items are now established Olympic disciplines at present. Mall Stambha was a peculiar form of wrestling, wherein rivals wrestled from the shoulders of their helpers standing in waist-deep water during the bout.
  • Gupta Period – The renowned Chinese travelers Fa-Hien and Hieun-Tsang have recounted swimming, sword fighting, running, wrestling and ball games; that were immensely popular among the students of Nalanda and Takshashila Universities.
  • Medieval Period– Medieval Period in our history was a period of turmoil. The nobility indulged in games like Chowghan (polo) or taming of hostile animals and Buzkashi. Aimed to practice youths to serve as mercenaries in the royal army, the games played were barbaric and violent. Gradually common folks lost interest in outdoor games except few games that could be played locally for moderate exercise. However, even then the range of sports activity and sports venues impressed a Portuguese ambassador to visit Raja Krishnadeva, the ruler of Krishna Nagar, who was an ace wrestler and horseman.  

Out-door Games of India

A remarkable feature of Indian sports is that no sophisticated equipment was required, nor any umpire was needed to interpret complexity of rules that exist today. The games were designed primarily as source of healthy past time without any pre training or expertise. Some of the popular games played in India were:

  • Sagol Kangjet– The equestrian game like today’s Polo was played around 34 AD in Manipur where it was called Sagol Kangjet; sagol meaning horse, kang meaning ball, and jet meaning stick. Subsequently Muslims introduced the Persian Chaugan and the Afghani Buzkashi versions of Indian game. Buzkashi was cruel since a live sheep was torn to pieces by horsemen who snatched live animal while playing on the field.
  • Battle Dour– Modern Badminton derived its origins from the 2000 year-old game of Battle Dour that was played in ancient India. The game played today with the rackets and shuttles are the refined versions of Battle Dour.
  • Kabaddi –It is the only surviving game on global arenas from India. The game does not require any equipment except a line dividing the playing area into two halves. Two teams play against each other by touching or capturing players of the opponent team. Both teams alternately send players into the opponent’s court. Any player going out of the boundary line is declared out, except during struggle. There are three forms of Kabaddi in India, out of which form ‘Sanjeevani’ is played under Kabaddi Federation of India under its rules & regulations.
  • Gilli-Danda– Unfortunately due to lack of open areas in cities, this game has vanished. It was a popular game played all over India till few decades ago. It was played by using a small round stick called ‘Danda’ and another slightly cylindrical shaped billet of wood called  The objective of the game was to hit the gilli with danda. The person who could hit the gilli to fly the farthest added more credits for his team to be proclaimed the winner at the end. There were many popular local versions of the game. By adding glitter to Gilli Danda, such as leather satchels, hand gloves, eye covers, sun umbrellas spread on lush green vast turfs for the spectators holding binoculars slung around their neck, Gilli Danda has all the potential to compete with Golf.

In-door Games

Not only males had the privilege of entertainment, women, too, excelled in sport. They could enjoy out-door games like cock-fighting, quail-fighting and ram-fighting. Besides that females had indoor venues open to them. Some of the indoor games that were played by both sexes are mentioned below:

  • Chaturanga –Chess was known to Indians as Chaturanga, meaning four wings of the army described in Amarakosa as Elephants, Horses, Chariots, and Infantry. It was also known as Ashtapada, since it was played on a board of 8 x 8 cells. It was taken to Persia in the sixth century during the reign of Anushirvan (531-579) where it came to be known as Chaturanga or Chatrang.  Subsequently in Arabic phonetic system the name changed to Shatranj. The earliest reference to chess in Persia is found in the Karnamak-i-Artakh Shatr-i Papakan, written during 600 AD. In the tenth century, the poet Firdusi related a traditional story in his epic Shahnama of how chess came to Persia through an envoy of the King of Hind. From India, Chaturanga traveled to China and Japan. The earliest reference to chess in China is found in Niu Seng-Ju’s Yu Kuai Lu (Book for Marvels) written during eighth century AD. The countries of Southeast Asia learned chess directly from India. The game has been often complimented as a philosophy and contest of mental athletics.
  • Mokshapata – The earliest version of Snakes and Ladders is credited to 13th century saint-poet Gyandevof Maharashtra, and was called Mokshapat (meaning Salvation Cloth). The ‘game’ was not for entertainment, but to explain the basic tenets of Hinduism to common folks. The game was drawn out on a cloth divided into blocks called houses, each representing emotions like Daya, Karuna and Dar (kindness, empathy and fear). The ladders represented virtues and the snakes, vices. The Hinsa (violence represented by snake) would take one down to Hell, while Vidyabhyas (Ladders of Knowledge) would take one to the Shastras. The game was played with dices and cowrie (shells). The game travelled to Thanjavur in during 17-18th century where it was magnified in size and called Parama Pada Sopana Pata and went through other alterations. The morality of the game appealed to the Victorians, who took to the game. It was popularized in England as Snakes and Ladders in 1892.
  • Ganjipha – This game of Playing Cards had a religious sanction. They were circular in shape and were covered with various kinds of material and paintings. While the poor would use paper or starched cloth for their cards, the wealthy would go in for cards made out of ivory, tortoise-shell or mother-of-pearl. There was a basic set of 12 cards featuring various aspects of Indian mythology. The Navagraha Ganjiphawas a game with 108 cards divided into nine suites, representing the nine planets of our solar system.
  • PachisiPachisi also known as Twenty-Five is very popular game of the masses. Pachisi is like the game of Chaupar, Chausar, or Chaupad.  This game dates back at least 2,200 years.

Besides the above games, there have been many street performers identified as Bazigars. They have been performing gymnastics and acrobats like nomadic circus with much less infrastructure and safety equipment. They are apt in walking on tight ropes fearlessly by balancing themselves only with a bamboo pole.  Also they can walk on hands with legs up and perform high jumps. Sadly, our self-centered politicians have not cared to provide them adequate infrastructure and opportunities to make even some living. Gradually these folk arts are vanishing.  Our heritage is decaying in front our eyes while we remain amusing over selves watching pre-fixed cricket matches that are turning the rich – richer. It is very unfortunate that all Indian sports have been replaced by European sports due to glamorization and own folk arts are dying due to neglect and lack of patronization.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 44/72 – Ruins of our Architecture)


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