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From Along-Dolong to Ukulli-mukuli: this man is documenting indigenous games of Northeast tribes

They might not be as popular as football and cricket. But in remote areas of Assam, a thriving culture of indigenous games has existed for years— marked by ingenuity and played by children and adults alike. Now one man is on mission to document them all.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: May 18, 2019 10:00:59 am
Assam and the Northeast have a rich tradition of indigenous sports and games — Since 2011, Guwahati’s Chiranjib Sharma has been documenting them. Photo Courtesy: Chiranjib Sharma

More than three decades have passed since Chiranjib Sharma and his friends formed a “tenga” ball team — demarcating imaginary goalposts, choosing captains and spending countless evenings kicking around a pomelo in the fields of their village.

In Namti — a village in Assam’s Sivasagar district where Sharma spent his childhood — the large circular citrus fruit grew in every backyard. Known as robaabtenga in Assamese, when mixed with salt, chilli powder and mustard oil, the pomelo made for a tantalising pre-lunch snack. Post-lunch, however, the kids of Namti had only one use for the fruit.

“As a football,” says Sharma, now a 43-year-old publisher based in Guwahati, “It was just the perfect shape and size.”

It’s been years since Sharma has kicked a “tenga”ball. But the memories are vivid. “We didn’t have the money to buy a football, we didn’t know what a real football looked like but we were happy,” he says. In 2011, Sharma started travelling across Assam, in search of the “tenga”ball. To his disappointment, the pomelo he found in villages these days, was just a fruit, and football was actually played with a football.

But then the travels weren’t entirely futile: Sharma discovered much else. The findings now occupy two thick volumes of a book titled: Axom’or Tholua Totha Poromporagat Khel Dhemali (2014) or the Traditional Sports and Games of Assam.

From tengaball to football

In the mid-2000s, Sharma was working as a sports journalist in a local daily in Guwahati, writing about cricket, football and badminton. “But my mind would wander back to games we played in the village— it wasn’t just tengaball, but many more: along-dolong (a version of London Bridge), luka-suri (hide-and-seek) etc.”  

He would think to himself: were kids still playing these games? Were there any new ones? Had the football reached the remotest parts of Assam or were kids still kicking around a big, round robaabtenga? Sharma then decided to travel on a quest to find the “lost” games of Assam.

Chiranjib Sharma, Since 2011, Chiranjib Sharma has been travelling across Assam — from Karbi Anglong to Sivasagar to Dibrugarh — to document the state’s indigenous games. (Express photo)

Just a year earlier, he had quit his job as a journalist and started his publishing house, Olympia Prakashan, which published primarily sports books.

When he began his journey from Guwahati, Sharma didn’t have a proper plan. “All I knew was that by the end of it — whatever I found — had to be documented in a book,” he says.

And find he did. Two years later, Sharma has documented 302 indigenous games of Assam — which are explained with history, origin and rules, in his two books. 

In Bokolia, Karbi Anglong, he came across a group of women amusing themselves with the “dhup khel”, essentially a game of catch with a ball made of cloth. 

“It’s one of the most popular rural games of Assam among women,” he says. While it’s a cloth ball that is used these days, in the olden times, the ball was painstakingly made over days by layering a tomato with glue from a bor gos or banyan tree. “When the tomato would dry up, it made for a sturdy ball.” This is the kind of trivia that his books — both of which are in Assamese — are filled with.

A woman playing the ghila-khel, which is a version of hopscotch played with the flattened seed of a tree. Photo Courtesy: Chiranjib Sharma

Last year, one volume was translated to English. By his own admission, the book, titled Traditional Sports and Games of Assam, isn’t perfect in its grammar and syntax. “I did not study in an English medium school and the book is probably filled with grammatical errors,” says Sharma, “but the translation is just a tiny step in spreading knowledge beyond Assam.”

The games that he played

Over the past eight years, his travels have introduced him to a network of people — headmasters, teachers, government employees — who helped him in his book. “It’s a topic that got everyone excited. People would feel so nostalgic” he says, pointing out that the disappearance of such games, especially in urban settings, was a lament of many older people.

Sharma has documented 302 indigenous games of Assam.

In Karbi Anglong, he was introduced to a man named Jibon Pator, a headmaster of a local high school, and a store-house of knowledge. In Dibrugarh, he met Gohin Sonowal, a retired railway official, who regularly wrote columns on Assamese culture in local papers. Among these, were articles on various traditional games: konir jun (egg-fight) or gila khel (a version of hopscotch played with a flattened seed of a tree). “90 per cent of the games I wrote about were the ones  I had played,” says Sonowal — the 60-year-old eventually teamed up with Sharma, to write the first two volumes of the book.

“I had long conversations with these men. They would tell me about these games — the rules, the history, the skill involved — and I would jot down everything, hanging on to their every word,” says Sharma.

Ising Bising

In his recent visit to Dungeon, Karbi Anglong, Sharma came across a group of little girls, engaged in a complicated game. “They had formed a pyramid, and one had to jump over the other,” he says, “The kids told me it was called Ising Bising. I had never heard of it before.”

The obvious benefits of games and sports apart, points out Sharma, his project also is an attempt to preserve the environment, language and culture of a place. “Games like these are passed on from generation to generation orally. For example, take Ising Bising. Only the kids playing it knew about it.”

Assam, traditional games, Along Dolong Kids playing Along Dolong (a version of London Bridge) in rural Assam. Photo Courtesy: Chiranjib Sharma

On April 10, 2018 the state government organised Assam’s first-ever Indigenous Games Festival in Guwahati. Smaller meets in places like Kokrajhar take place through the year. The objective of these meets is to, in the words of CM Sarbananda Sonowal, “provide a fillip to strengthen social and cultural values of the state.”

Yet Sharma’s venture has missed the government’s notice altogether. “I guess it is because I never approached them myself,” he says, adding that his documentation project would have stopped years ago if it had been a “profit-making venture.“

Unifying Games

Sharma’s two books categorise the games according to the various tribes of Assam. The difference, however, is only on paper. “Very often, a single village in Assam has various tribes: Kalita, Hajong Rabha. Their festivals and food habits might differ but when they get together to play, it does not matter, who is a Rabha or a Hajong. The games act as unifiers,” says Sharma.

The 43-year-old is now busy working on the next volume (which will have 50 new sports documented) but there is much more in the offing: a film and a book on the games of Northeast, for which he is in touch with people from Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.

A bunch of women playing the dhup-khel in Assam. Photo Courtesy: Chiranjib Sharma

At his office Olympia Prakahshan, located in a picturesque lane in Guwahati, Sharma pins down his project to one feeling, encapsulated best by the Assamese word, foorti, which means merriment. “Have you ever seen how delighted a group of village women competing to smash a tekeli (clay pot) look?” he asks.

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