Indigenous instinct: How Sundargarh emerged as India’s cradle of hockey

Much before the government took initiative or sponsors came to support the sport, the tribals of the district have been busy playing tournaments for goats & chickens as trophies

Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Monday 16 January 2023
How did Sundargarh emerge to be the cradle of hockey players?
Photo: Collector and DM, Sundargarh / Twitter
Photo: Collector and DM, Sundargarh / Twitter

Odisha’s second-largest district, Sundargarh, has come into sharp focus since the Men’s Hockey World Cup kicked off in the eastern state January 13, 2023.

The district, known for its mineral resource reserves like iron ore, manganese and limestone, is now discussed in sports circles for producing talented hockey players, mostly from tribal communities, over the last few decades. Scheduled tribes comprise more than 50 per cent of the district’s population.  

Sundargarh has several international hockey players who have represented India at the World Cup and Olympics. The Indian team for the 2023 edition of the Men’s World Cup Hockey includes two players from the district — vice captain Amit Rohidas and defender Nilam Sandeep Xess.

Why does Sundargarh produce talented tribal hockey players, most of whom come from poor backgrounds? One may find the answer to the question while travelling through tribal villages of the district.

It is not uncommon to see a group of boys and girls dribbling small rounded stones with their hockey sticks (not factory-made) on their way to school. There is also a fair chance of encountering an old man carrying a pitcher of water or a youth herding his cattle heads with the help of a hockey stick.

Read more: This time for Odisha: Hockey World Cup, investments surge. And culture?

According to former Olympian Lazarus Barla, who hails from Sundargarh, hockey is a part of a tribal household’s social and cultural life. It is an extension of a tribal’s physical being.

“We just love hockey; it is our passion. Unlike in urban areas where children are given toys or plastic cricket bats, parents in Sundargarh give hockey sticks made of local wood to their children to play,” said Barla.

Barla’s first hockey stick was made by his father from the wood of the Kendu tree. His explanation about the craze for hockey in Sundargarh negates the usual theory of sports being the ticket for the poor out of economic depravity.

During the selection for different sports, Barla said, almost all competing youth showed their eagerness to play hockey, though they were found to have aptitude and physical fitness for athletics, basketball, volleyball and even cricket.

The tribals of Sundargarh have been playing hockey for generations. Much before the government took initiative or sponsors came to support the sport, the tribals of the district have been busy playing tournaments for goats and chickens as trophies. 

Most of the villages have their own grounds and village-level tournaments are held on social and cultural occasions throughout the year.

In 2002, former Indian captain Dilip Tirkey was given the Arjuna Award when he was abroad playing for the country. Hockey enthusiast and chronicler Sunil Pattnayak, who helped shape the careers of many of the national players from the district, went to Delhi to receive the award on his behalf.

According to Pattnayak, former President APJ Abdul Kalam too wondered why hockey was so popular in Sundargarh. Pattnayak had an instant answer to it: “Stick, field and ball” are the only things the tribals cared for.

The three-word principle has helped the high school children of Sundargarh to dominate the national sub-junior and junior championships though poverty has made many of the players fizzle out when they grew up. There are many instances of some of the national junior level players — men and women — selling vegetables and migrating to work in construction sites in big cities.

When did it all start?

Hockey, according to local people, players and academicians, was introduced to Sundargarh by European Christian missionaries in the pre-Independence era (mid-19th century) when they came to spread the religion in areas densely populated by tribals and steeped in backwardness. Those areas today form three of Sundargarh’s 17 blocks — Balishankara, Biramitrapur and Gurundia.

The three blocks have produced the most number of international hockey players, including Dilip Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey and Barla. Saunamura village in Balisankara has produced several players like Dilip Tirkey, Amit Rohidas and Subhadra Pradhan, who played for the Indian women hockey team.

Before hockey came to their lives, the tribals had been playing a traditional sport with a stick made of local wood and a ball made of organic fibre or a hard dry rounded fruit like ‘bel’ (stone apple). “They effortlessly co-opted the new stick-and-ball game from England with their traditional sports and enjoyed playing it,” said Premananda Panda, former professor of anthropology in Sambalpur University.

Panda said that besides introducing their Christian rituals in the tribal areas, the missionaries also focused on health and education. Hockey proved to be an effective tool to attract the tribals to the school, hospital and church. 

The missionaries stressed on the education, nutrition, physical fitness and discipline among the tribal, which might have played a role in making the tribals of Sundargarh physically and mentally superior to other tribal groups of Odisha, Sunil Pattnayak said. He added:

We find a certain kind of discipline among the tribals of Sundargarh not usually found in tribal groups in other areas. For instance, if 50 tribals walk on the road, they don’t crowd it, they go in a single column by the side.

According to him, the tribals of Sundargarh are more educated than their counterparts in other parts of the state. They dress well, not in expensive but clean clothes, he added.

The discipline was evidently reflected in the field when they played hockey. It is interesting to note that most of the players from Sundargarh are Christian tribals. The sport did not find traction among non-Christian tribals for a long time, though they also started taking it up as it gradually became popular.

It was in the mid-seventies that national attention was drawn to Sundargarh being a cradle of hockey. Legendary Indian hockey defender Michael Kindo, who was born in Jharkhand, settled in Rourkela in Sundargarh and contributed in grooming new talents.

Kindo, proud of Sundargarh’s talents, once famously said: “Give me 11 tribal youth of Sundargarh and I can beat the Indian team.” Those who closely follow hockey do not think it to be an overstatement.

Before the 2023 Men’s Hockey World Cup, the Odisha government built Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium, touted to be one of the best hockey stadiums in the world, and 17 astro-turfs in 17 blocks of Sundargarh to give a shot in the sports in the district. Will it make Kindo’s assertion a reality?

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