Popular Indigenous Sports Of India

India is known for its rich cultural heritage, food, and embattled history. But only a few are aware that India also has a rich legacy of indigenous sports culture. India’s diversity of culture, people, and tribes is reflected in the country’s wide variety of traditional sports. Indigenous sports of India are intrinsically linked with the life and times of the people across generations. They aimed to create awareness about the culture and heritage of the states to which they belong. Some of these traditional sports, or versions of them, are still played today to continue the tradition of indigenous sports. The practical aspects of these games will improve the basic fundamentals required for excellence in sports and could be incorporated into the training methods of popular sports as well.

Some of the famous indigenous sports of India are kalarippayattu, kabaddi, kho-kho, kushti, dhopkhel, insuknawr, silambam, mallakhamb, etc. Each game teaches leadership, agility, strength, balance, patience, and many more skills. These skills are learned at an early age through games and maintained throughout adulthood through play.

This article aims to provide a greater understanding and appreciation of India’s indigenous culture and sports.

Here is a list of India’s most famous indigenous sports that are still played today.

1. Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest martial arts in India. It originated in Kerala, southern India (North Malabar), and can be traced back to 15,000 BCE. This indigenous martial art uses swords, daggers, and spears as weapons. It tests the coordination between mind and body. Training of Kalaripayattu is very meditative as opposed to being violent. Kalaripayattu is considered to be one of the oldest surviving fighting systems still in existence in the world.

2. Kabaddi, the pioneer traditional sport of India

Indigenous Sports Of India

Kabaddi is one of the oldest indigenous sports in India. Played between two teams of seven players, the objective of the game is for a single player on offence to run into the opposing team’s half of a court, touch out as many of their defenders as possible, and return to their own half of the court, all without being tackled by the defenders. It is known as the game of struggle.

There are two major disciplines of kabaddi: “Punjabi kabaddi,” also referred to as “circle styles,” comprises traditional forms of the sport that are played on a circular field outdoors. In contrast, the “standard style,” played on a rectangular court indoors, is the discipline played in major professional leagues and international competitions such as the Asian Games.

 A sport once played on dusty grounds and generally not embraced by the urban flock has now become India’s second most viewed sport. At present, Kabbadi has its own national league called ”Vivo Pro Kabaddi”.

3. Kho-Kho

Kho-Kho is the second most popular traditional Indian sport after Kabaddi. It is played on a rectangular court with a central lane connecting two poles which are at either end of the court. During the game, nine players from the chasing team (attacking team) are on the field, with eight of them sitting (crouched) in the central lane, while three ”runners” from the defending team run around the court and try to avoid being touched. The tactics and strategies of this game are likely from the Mahabharata epic. Even today, this game is being enjoyed by small children and teenagers playing on playing grounds and parks.

4. Kushti or Pehlwani

Kushti, also known as pehlwani or Indian wrestling, is one of the oldest sports in India, and it originates from the bygone age. Earlier, the game of Kushti would end when one of the competitors signaled defeat. However, matches today have separate rounds and a referee who intervenes. The ancient Indian form of wrestling is called Malla-yuddha. The Mahabharata epic has one of the first mentions of Kushti. Kushti or pehlwani is one of the sports that influenced catch wrestling, which partially inspired folkstyle, freestyle, and mixed martial arts (MMA). Today, this sport has also come to find itself as one of the events in the Olympic Games.

5. Silambam

Silambam is a weapon-based indigenous martial art of India that originated in Tamil Nadu. It has a rich tradition and heritage, mentioned in Tamil Sangam literature, and dates back to the 4th century BC. The weapon used in silambam is a bamboo staff, and the length of the staff depends on the practitioner’s height. The staff is immersed in water and strengthened by beating it on the surface of still or running water. It is often tipped with metal rings to prevent the ends from being damaged. Silambam relates slightly to the martial arts of Kerala, which is kalarippayattu.

6. Gilli Danda, an ancient Indian indigenous sport

Indigenous Sports Of India

Gilli danda is an ancient indigenous game, possibly with origins over 2500 years ago. The game is played with two sticks: a large one called a danda which is used to hit a smaller one, the gilli. It is a famous game in rural areas and small towns among children who still continue to play today. This sport is widely popular in India as well as in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Gilli danda also bears many similarities to bat and ball games such as cricket and baseball.

7. Archery, oldest indigenous sport of India

Archery is one of the oldest indigenous sports that involve the practice or skill of using a bow to shoot arrows. In India, archery dates all the way back to the Vedic period. The earliest mentions of archery in India are in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Many of the characters were said to be great archers in these two epics. In the beginning, man used archery for hunting animals, a basic necessity for survival and hunting food. Later, the bow and arrow became a weapon for war. Now archery is a sporting event for pleasure and is one of the events of the Olympic Games now.

8. Mallakhamb

Mallakhamb is an ancient Indian traditional sport that combines yoga, gymnasium, and wrestling. This sport originates from the 12th century. The word Mallakhamb also refers to the pole used in the sport. In this sport, the gymnast performs aerial yoga or gymnastic postures and wrestling grips in concert with vertical stationary or hanging wooden pole. The pole is usually made from Sheesham (Indian rosewood) polished with castor oil. On April 9, 2013, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh declared Mallakhamba the state sport.

9. Tug of War

Tug of war, also known as rope pulling or tugging war, is an indigenous sport that pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Both teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull. The contest of pulling on the rope originates from ancient ceremonies and rituals.

The origin of the game in India has strong archaeological roots going back at least to the 12th century AD in the area that is today the State of Orissa on the east coast. The famous Sun Temple of Konark has a stone relief on the west wing of the structure, clearly showing the game of Tug of War in progress. The sport is played almost in every country in the world, and it was part of the Olympic Games from 1900 until 1920, but it has yet to be included since.

10. Dhopkhel

Dhopkhel, also called ”dhoop khel”, originated in the Indian state of Assam. It is a traditional game of catch with a ball made of cloth that two teams of eleven players play on a 125 m ? 80 m field bounded by four flags. The players take turns throwing the ball at the opponent to knock them out of the game while seeking to catch the ball and evade other players. This indigenous sport requires stamina, speed, acrobatic skills, and tactics. In the olden times, the ball was painstakingly made over days by layering a tomato with glue from a banyan tree. When the tomato dried up, it made for a sturdy ball. People come from various places to play this sport in the spring festival called Rangoli Bihu in Assam.

11. Insuknawr

Insuknawr, or rod pushing game, is an indigenous sport of Mizoram, a state in North-East India most popular among the Mizo community. The game is played by two players, each holding the wooden rod under his arm, as in the game of tug of war. Each player tries to push their opponent out of the ring, through the back or the side of the circle. If a player falls to the ground or releases the rod, he is declared the loser.


Indigenous sports aim to create awareness about the culture and heritage of the states they belong to. Some of these traditional sports, or versions of them, are still played today to continue the tradition of indigenous sports. But the majority of people are unaware of all the indigenous sports of India. It is tragic to see some of these traditions slowly fading away. The coming generation must acknowledge and respect the traditional custodians of our great land and promote the culture of sport and fitness in our country. 

Parents should consider exposing their children to indigenous sports as they have many benefits. Each game teaches leadership, agility, strength, balance, patience, and many more skills. These skills are learned at an early age through games and maintained throughout adulthood through play. Playing indigenous sports also improves a child’s physical development and brain stimulation. Children also learn social skills because most of these games are played in a group. They learn to play to win and to lose gracefully from these indigenous sports!

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