Before modern games, like cricket or hockey took over public imagination, there were traditional games or folk games which became popular sports across the Indian Subcontinent. Although there were no formal rules and many regional variations, many adults still fondly recall the times they have spent playing these games with their friends and community members.
Gulli Danda (called ‘TipCat’ in English) is an ancient South Asian game, developed over 2000 years ago during the Mauryan Empire. It requires a 2-3-foot-long stick called a danda, and a smaller 3-6-inch stick called a gulli. The rules and distances are decided beforehand, and a circle is marked as the starting point of the game. The gulli is placed half on a stone, half in the air, and it’s the responsibility of the person who holds the danda (the batter) to hit the gulli. If they do, they are to run a certain distance while the gulli is in mid-air, and are given out if a member of the opposing team catches it before they complete that distance.
Though it shares common characteristics with popular games like Baseball and Cricket, Gulli Danda is unique because it requires few materials that can be made at home, and does not have the same structure as either cricket or baseball. There are no innings, and the team plays until all their players are out, and one can play as an individual as well. Also, there is no limit to how far you can run, and those who run the farthest, are the winners.
Similarly, Carrom is an indoor board game that resembles popular games like air hockey. The history of Carrom is not known; some say it originated in the Subcontinent, while others believed it was brought from Portugal. As compared to Gulli Danda which requires teamwork, Carrom requires patience and aim. In its basic form, the goal is to flick one of 19 striker disks of one’s color using only one’s hand, into a target area in the middle of the board before your opponent.
Carrom is known by a variety of names in different parts of Pakistan, like Dabbu in Karachi and Fattu in Punjab, and there have been cafes in the major cities where people gather together to play it. It allows one to converse, and notice new members of the community, particularly in tight-knit areas that are of the lower-income group. On a larger scale, The Pakistan Carrom Federation (PCF) started in Karachi in 2004, as a way to get people interested enough to play international tournaments, and gradually the team is getting more competitive on the international stage.
As well as communal games, traditional games are often found as children’s games that require running, hiding, teamwork, and strategy. Young children often got together with their friends and neighbors during the evening to play these games. A study at Agha Khan University, Karachi, showed that aside from being good memories of childhood, these games have been important in developing early cognitive abilities like critical thinking, negotiating and conflict resolution.
Such games can include board games, or games with some props like marbles or balls. Hopscotch, (known in the Subcontinent as Stapu), requires chalk to draw the squares and an object to throw into one of the boxes. The goal is to throw the object (also called a ‘lucky’ into a safe zone, and pick it up while jumping through boxes on one leg. Hopscotch is one of the most popular traditional games, played all over the world, with minor rule adjustments and variations.
In comparison, Pittu Garam (Seven Stones) is also an outdoor game, which is mostly played in villages in South Asia. Like Carrom, it also has an ambiguous history, dating back to South India over 5000 years ago. It requires two teams, a pile of seven stones and a ball (which could be a regular tennis ball or a makeshift ball). One team knocks over the seven stones, and the remaining teammates have to put it back together, while dodging the ball with which the other team would hit them. But, one often requires little more than one’s limbs.
Pakran Pakrahi is the equivalent of ‘tag’, the straightforward game in which children tag each other. Another version of this is ‘Baraf Pani (Ice Water)’, in which you are frozen by the attacker until your friend unfreezes you, and you can continue to run. Oonch Neech (Up and Down) is a third variation, in which there are safe points high or low (one can even use furniture to play this game indoors), and one must alternate safe points to avoid getting caught.
While these games are played informally, Kho Kho (or simply Kho!) is also a game of tag that has intricate rules and strategies which have turned it into a serious sport. The game involves two teams of nine players, including one catcher. The catcher’s team stands in one line equidistant from each other, and their aim is to catch the members of the other team. While the running team can go through the space between the catcher lines, the catcher themselves cannot pass.
The strategy lies in the appropriate tagging of the catcher team member who can take the first catcher’s place, and catch as many runners as possible. As the catchers are switched, they yell out “Kho!”, to indicate the switch. While Kho Kho started out in India, it gained prominence as a demonstration sport in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, and in the South Asian Federation Games in 1987, following which Kho Kho became popular in Pakistan.
Many of these games are quite similar to informal games played all over the world. They required little materials and a great deal of imagination, to pass the time when there was no television or computer games. But they are also increasingly vulnerable to the changing times and lack of interest in traditional, outdoor activities. Through such games, people come together in the spirit of healthy competition and teamwork, and they deserve to be celebrated as traditional sports, alongside the popular sports played in Pakistan.