Kabaddi is an ancient sport that likely originated in India during the Vedic period. Today, it is difficult to trace its origins and there is even some debate that kabaddi came originally from Iran. But it is India that has claimed the sport as its second favourite sport (right after cricket, of course) in modern times.
With the establishment of the pro kabaddi league, the sport has seen a surge in popularity in recent years and is no longer just part of the Asian Games but spreading far beyond that. We are looking at why this sport appears to be so popular and its significance in India is.
As best as anyone is able to tell, kabaddi has been around since the Vedic period of India, though some claim it was first played in the Sistan region of modern-day Iran. It seems unlikely that this debate will ever be fully settled, but kabaddi and other games very much like it have been around for many centuries.
There is little debate around the fact that it was first played in rural areas, where locals came together and could simply gather in an area where they wanted to play, form teams, and enjoy this fun and exciting game.
In modern times, kabaddi saw a rise in popularity in the 1920s, though it is entirely unclear as to what triggered this interest. Perhaps someone simply loved the game and wanted to organise it better to make it more accessible.
In any case, in 1921 a framework of rules for kabaddi was established in Maharashtra, which were intended for kabaddi competitions. These rules were somewhat amended in 1923 for the All India Kabaddi Tournament played that same year.
From there, the sport slowly spread not just across India, but into Bangladesh, Pakistan and other Asian countries.
The All India Kabaddi Federation was founded in 1950, which once again saw an overhaul of the structure of kabaddi, resulting in the establishment of the Senior National championship in 1952.
Since 1972 the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India has been the governing body of everything related to the sport. The organisation mostly oversees competitions for junior teams for boys and girls around the country, where new talent is trained and discovered.
In 1990, kabaddi became part of the Asian Games and India has been the reigning champion 7 times to date.
Nowadays there is even a World Cup, which is also firmly ruled by India, though countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Korea and Thailand also enter their teams.
As a sport, kabaddi has gained a lot of significance in India, which is by no means just a nation of cricket fans. It has been the sport of the people for centuries, especially in villages or among the so-called lower classes. It’s a simple game that requires some tactical thinking, a lot of speed and agility and quite a bit of daring.
The game can easily be played anywhere out in the open or in a courtyard of sorts. Children play it, young adults and full-grown men and women.
Indeed, in many other countries around the world, kabaddi is played as a much simpler version known as ‘tag’. The principle is the same and children play it everywhere.
Perhaps it is the simplicity that makes much up much of the appeal. The official rules of kabaddi make it a fast-paced and exciting game to play and to follow. And whilst adult kabaddi players take the game quite serious, there is still the element of a childhood game that cannot be denied. Really, anyone can play kabaddi.
And for skilled players it has indeed become a viable career option in recent years, where nobody cares about your origins or where you grew up.
As such, there is plenty of reason as to why the players themselves engage in the sport, which can bring fame and fortune these days.
But the sport is not just popular among those who play it. Spectators are just as keen to follow and bet on kabaddi. It is not only exciting to play but it is exciting to watch. Skilled players raiding the opposing team and scoring after a successful escape are celebrated like heroes.
Moreover, kabaddi is a fast-paced sport rich in action. A game only lasts 40 minutes, each raid only lasts the length of one breath (or about 30 seconds). Viewers are often perched on the edge of their seat, holding their breath as they follow everything that is happening on the court.
Fans of kabaddi have always known that, and it was likely the main drive behind the establishment of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014.
Whilst kabaddi has been part of the Asian Games for three decades, the PKL is still very new and the first real opportunity to establish a proper franchise-based league. Initially, there were four teams, then eight and now there are 12 teams that participate in the biggest kabaddi league in the world, which is sponsored by Vivo.
The initiators of the league managed to get support from Bollywood actors in particular, who show up as prominent guests during tournaments.
As we mentioned, kabaddi is played between two 7-player teams over a course of 40 minutes (20 minutes per half, 5-minute break in between). The goal of the game is for players to enter the opposite side of the court and ‘tag’ their opponents while chanting “Kabaddi! Kabaddi!”. This is known as a raid, and the raider has the goal of tagging (touching) one of the players of the opposite team while the remaining players try to catch him. It’s essentially a combative sport which may look easy but is pretty difficult.
The attacking team players are called Raiders while the defending team is known as Antis. When the raider touches an opponent, that player is out until his team ‘scores’ during their raid. The Antis can catch the raider while he’s on the prowl.
There are two major forms of kabaddi. The first one is the standard form which is common in professional tournaments and is played on a rectangular field. The other form of kabaddi is circle-style (Punjabi) kabaddi, which is more common for street players and played on a circular court.
The standard version kabaddi is common for international competitions and teams. The players occupy opposite halves of a rectangular field, usually 10x13 m. in size (8x12 m. for women). Each team has 5 substitutions on the bench. For a raid to be successful, a player must cross the line into ‘hostile territory’, tag a player (or more) and go back to his side without being touched. Of course, he must also chant “Kabaddi!” while he’s attacking. Just like in many other sports, there’s a 30-second limit for the attack.
The raider scores a point for his team for each opposing player he tags. If he manages to go beyond the bonus line, he scores another point. If he’s stopped, then the opposing team wins a point. As we said, the tagged players are taken out of the game, but they can be ‘revived’ if their team manages to score a point.
Depending on the competition, there are additional kabaddi rules that add more excitement to the game. In the popular Pro Kabaddi League, there are rules such as “do-or-die raid” which eliminates a team from contention if they have 3 unsuccessful raids in a row and “super-tackle”, which increases the worth of tackles to 2 points when the raiding team has only 4 players on the field.
Circle-style (Punjabi) kabaddi is played on a circular field and with a few rule differences – for example, the team that manages to oust all the opposing players earns 4 extra points. The game has no fixed duration and has four major forms – Punjabi, Amar, Gaminee, and Sanjeevani kabaddi. All the forms are recognized by the Amateur Kabaddi Federation.
The All-India Kabaddi Federation was the first governing body for the sport. Formed in 1950, it had the role of popularizing the sport in India, where the first Senior National Kabaddi Championship took place in 1952. Three years later, the first men’s and women’s national tournaments were separately organized in Kolkata and Chennai.
Later, the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India was formed in 1973 with the goal of bringing the sport closes to the people. The KFI reshaped the rules for kabaddi and can be accredited with the sport’s popularity boom in the 70s.
In Asia, the main governing body for the sport is the Asian Kabaddi Federation. The AKF made kabaddi popular in Asia, where it was demonstrated at the 1982 Asian Games which later added it on their schedule in 1990.
Thanks to the growing popularity of the sport in the rest of the world, kabaddi has taken a new shape and new governing bodies and tournaments were formed. The International Kabaddi Federation organizes the World Cup, the Kabaddi Asia Cup and the Kabaddi masters which are all played on an international level.
At club level, the most popular kabaddi leagues are the Pro Kabaddi League in India, the Super Kabaddi League in Pakistan, and the World Kabaddi League which is the first circle style kabaddi league that includes teams from India, Pakistan, Great Britain, Canada, and the USA.
Unlike in the past, kabaddi is not confined to Asia only. Pakistani and Indian immigrants have brought the game to the UK, eventually sparking the creation of the England Kabaddi Federation UK.