Punjab’s Rural Olympics

As the 77th Kila Raipur Sports Festival takes place GT1588 team member Harbakhsh Grewal looks at the wonder that is India’s Rural Olympics, and asks what the future holds for traditional sports.

Pick up one of the major travel guidebooks to India and look at the Punjab section and you’re likely to find the name of my ancestral village, Kila Raipur. Strange as it may seem, this otherwise sleepy ‘pind’ is home to one of India’s most bizarre yet life-affirming events.

Known as India’s Rural Olympics, the event was the brainchild of Inder Singh Grewal 80 years ago in 1933. From modest beginnings it now attracts visitors from as far afield as North America and Japan, as well as international media coverage.

I can still vividly recall a Japanese film crew wandering around in wide-eyed astonishment back in 2001. Further back in the mid-1990’s I remember being shocked to see a picture of the games in the Daily Telegraph of all places. It has also spawned numerous imitators with villages across Punjab now running similar albeit smaller versions of the original.

Grewal Sports

Organised by the Grewal Sports Association the Games are now big business, with global brands to tractor oil manufacturers vying to sponsor the three day event in India’s agricultural heartland. In turn dignitaries, bhangra singers and packed out crowds throng year after year to a permanent stadium in the fields not half a mile from my family’s village house.

And so every February or thereabouts a mass of cycles, scooters, motorbikes, tractor trolleys, trucks, bullock carts and cars descend on the open air Grewal Sports Stadium whilst food and balloon sellers set up stall along the roadside.

The main attraction is without doubt the ox racing. Criticised by animal rights activists the races were stopped last year but after legal wrangling are firmly back on the agenda for 2013. With prized oxen costing the equivalent of thousands of pounds sterling competition is fierce and pride in winning matched only by the prize money which this year amounts to 7 lakh Rupees.

All the fun of the fair

Other mainstays include kabaddi, hockey, volleyball, gymnastics, cycling, greyhound racing, tug-of-war and the bizarre modern-day equivalent to the ox races – tractor racing! Age is no deterrent to participation with a regular seniors-only 100m sprint whilst women’s sports are represented but are still something of a sideline, mainly consisting of kabaddi, a few track races and gymnastics.

No games is complete without horsemanship displays by Maghar Singh and his fellow daredevil Nihangs, as well as the obligatory strongman antics including the pulling of tractors laden with bulky farmers by a single man – with his teeth, naturally. One game peculiar to the region is the team sport of loading trucks with sacks of wheat or other heavy bags – truly a sport created for India’s breadbasket!

Add in mule cart racing, the occasional appearance of camels, elephants and dancing horses and you have a heady Punjabi masala of rural competitiveness and festive fun.

Going, going, gone? 

However one notable sport tends to be conspicuous by its absence: Pahelwani or traditional wrestling. Despite producing some of the world’s greatest wrestlers from Kikkar Singh and Dara Singh to Gama and Ghulam, the once famed Punjabi wrestler is now an endangered species (as recently highlighted in this BBC video news story from Pakistan).

There was a time, my late Father used to tell me, that every village had its champion. Held in great esteem their prowess and success was shared by the entire community who would give freely to support these stalwarts. Even up till the mid-twentieth century the remaining royal courts of Punjab and Himachel Pradesh (once known as the Punjab Hills) would maintain wrestlers who would fight on behalf of their royal patrons.

The evidence even within the GT1588 team is clear. My Father was a competitive level wrestler as a student in pre-partition Punjab and never lost his love of the sport, or his active lifestyle, right up to his final days. Fellow GT1588 member Parmjit Singh lays claim to an even greater heritage. His grandfather wrestled in several of India’s royal courts as well as Nepal (and hailed from the neighbouring village to Kila Raipur).

Other sports have also helped create the legend of Punjabi sporting prowess. India’s hockey sides including the all-conquering Olympians of 1948, 1952 and 1956 have tended to be Punjabi Sikh dominated, with the great Balbir Singh Senior having being named as one of the greatest Olympians of all time; whilst post-independent India’s cricket team was once never complete without a demon bowler or two (both spinners and fast) from Punjab.

But today, whilst cricket with its millions of viewers and millions of rupees in sponsorship and TV rights prospers, wrestling akharas are hard to find on either side of the divide and those who remain in the sport survive without the great patrons of yesteryear.

Continuing traditions or sideshow?

So what of the future? Speaking last year main Kila Raipur organiser and former Indian hockey Olympian Sukhbir Grewal stated: ‘Going forward, we want the infrastructure of our rural training centre to be functional all year round to coach kids in volleyball, hockey, etc. We’re pushing it to be a week-long national event with craft, culture, food, folk music and of course, sports.’

This is encouraging news. I love the Games and the Punjabi spirit that it embodies. I hope it continues to prosper and encourages future sporting excellence.

But is it enough? Do the Games represent the continuation of the enduring Punjabi sporting spirit or are they just a remnant of a long gone culture? Is Punjab losing its traditional sporting culture including Pahelwani? And if so, does it even matter in today’s increasingly money driven society?

Picture CreditOx Racing at Kila Raipur Sports Festival (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

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