Ancient Indian Sports

India is home to several sports. The cultural diversity and also the colonial rule have had resulted in India having a wide variety of sporting disciplines in the country. Sports in the country range from tribal games to more conventional sports such as cricket, badminton, etc.

Field hockey is a successful sport for India at the Olympics; however, cricket is the most popular sport in the country. Some other games are also quite famous such as football, boxing, wrestling, tennis, etc.

The history of Indian sports dates long back to the Vedic period. The culture of physical games & sports in ancient India is known to have taken influence from religious beliefs. As the mantra mentioned in Atharvaveda, the fourth of the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, states, ‘Duty is in my right hand and the fruits of victory in my left’. This Vedic mantra is similar in context to the traditional Olympic Oath, ‘For the honor of my country and Glory of the Sport’.


an ancient depiction of the Badminton

Quite a few famous sports and games of recent times have taken their origin from ancient India such as the game of Badminton. Badminton has evolved from an old children’s game known as Battledore and Shuttlecock, a game that was quite famous in ancient India.

The story of Badminton starts from the British Rule. British army officers, who were posted in Pune in the early 19th century, were the pioneers of the Badminton game. Since Pune was initially known as Poona, the game also started being called as ‘Poona’, and the Britishers played the game quite well.

Two shuttlecocks with a badminton racket placed on the grass

During the 1870s, the Britishers got well-versed in Badminton and decided to take the game back to their homeland in an attempt to introduce it in Europe. In 1873, the Duke of Beaufort hosted a lawn party in a place called Badminton in England. The game of Poona was played in the party by the guests, and the game was thoroughly enjoyed by all. It was after this that the name ‘Badminton’ was coined for the game.


A game of Kabaddi being played between players

Kabaddi is a contact team sport. Contact sports are the games where physical contact is emphasized or necessary to score points and win. The game is played between two teams of seven members each. The defending team needs to tackle the offender from the other team, who tries to touch as many defenders as possible and run back to the other half of his arena.

The game became popular in the 20th century but historical accounts show that the game has its origins in ancient India. Although the exact origins of Kabaddi are disputed, historical narrations indicate that ancient India is the cradle for Kabaddi. Religious believers have put forward theories that indicate that Kabaddi could be an origination of the Vedic period. Some narrate that Kabaddi came from the Sistan region of present-day Iran.

The game is known to be popular among the Yadava people; ancient Indians that called themselves to be the descendants of Yadu, a mythical king. Other religious narrations also narrate that the god Krishna played the game in his youth. There are also accounts in Mahabharata stating Arjuna playing games that are similar to the game of Kabaddi.

Regardless of the disputes, India has played a significant role in formalizing Kabaddi as an international game rather than a game that was initially only played in villages. India was the first country to have organized formal Kabaddi competitions in the 1920s.

Similarly, the era of the Mughal Empire saw the development of a sport known as Pehlwaniwhich was the amalgamation of the native Malla-yudha with influences from the Persian Varzesh-e-bastani.


Different colored snooker balls spread on a snooker table

In the late 19th century, Snooker originated among the British army officers that were stationed in India. During 1874, a slight variation of the game, with different colored balls except for the usual red and blacks, was introduced at the officer’s mess in Jabalpur. Later, in 1884, the first formalized set of rules for the game were issued by Sir Neville Chamberlain in Ooty, an Indian hill station.

The name of the game has also been derived directly from ‘snooker’, which was a slang used for first-year cadets or inexperienced personnel.


players on horses holding polo sticks during a game

The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babar, in the 15th century, is known to have firmly established the popularity of Polo in the Subcontinent. Between the fall of the Mughal Empire and the establishment of British Rule, the popularity of Polo slowly died down in India.

In the 19th century, during the British Raj, Modern Polo originated from Manipur and became quite famous. The name Polo stems from ‘Pulu’ which was one of the olden names that were given for Polo. The first Polo club was founded in Silchar, Assam, in 1833, whereas the oldest Polo club still in existence is in Calcutta and was founded in 1862.

Martial Arts

Karate players striking a karate move during practice

Judo and Karate have been known to originate from ancient India. The initial name being Kalaripayate, which later got evolved as the sport moved from India to the countries in the far-east.

Physical strength is considered to be a significant part of the Hindu religion. One of the means to fully realize one’s self was through the body. Kaya sadhana, or physical perfection, was considered a way to gain salvation and was only possible through a thorough understanding of the body and its functions.

Kalari is considered to be the mother of all martial arts. Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from India, introduced Kalari into China and Japan in the 5th century. His teaching of Kalari evolved into what we know today as Karate and Kung Fu.


Five cards kept on a table with a deck of card stacked in the background

Ancient India is the birthplace of the game of playing cards. Kridapatram and Ganjifa were the names given to it in the ancient and medieval times, respectively. The game of cards was famous among the nobility and royalty. In medieval times, Ganjifa was played in all of the royal courts. The Mughals also played this game; however, their deck of cards used to be different than that of the ones played in Indian royal courts.

Some scholars believe that Mughals were the ones who introduced this game to ancient India. As accounted by the author of Ain-e-Akbari, AbulFazal, the game of cards was of Indian origin and was a very famous pastime in the Indian royal courts when Muslims came into India.


black chess pieces kept on one side of the chessboard

Chaturanga, an ancient Indian strategy game, is known to be the ancestor of the modern board game, chess. The Mahabharata also mentions an incidence where a game named Chaturanga was played between two cousins who were at war with each other. One of the cousins places his bets on his kingdom, his wife and all his material possessions, and later on, loses it all.

This narration of the event goes on to prove that chess has ancestral links to ancient India, dating back 3000 years ago. The time when Mahabharata was written is dated to be around 800BC – 1000BC. In another account, H.J.R. Murry, in his book titled, ‘A History of Chess’, concluded that chess is an evolution of a game played in India in the 7th Century AD.

Snakes and Ladders

an ancient game of snakes and ladders

On the other hand, GyanChauper is a dice game originated from ancient India which is said to be the old version of today’s Snakes and Ladders. It was created in the 13th century by a poet named Gyandev.

The concept behind the game was ethics-related. The ladders in the game represented good deeds that help you make your way to heaven whereas, the snakes symbolized sins or vices that pushed you back to a cycle of re-births.

In the original game, square number:

  • 12 was faith;
  • 51 was reliability;
  • 57 was generosity;
  • 76 was knowledge; and
  • 78 was asceticism.

These were the squares where the ladder was found, indicating that if you had these traits in real life, it would be easier for you to achieve heaven.

On the contrary, square number:

  • 41 was disobedience;
  • 44 was arrogance;
  • 49 was vulgarity’
  • 52 was theft;
  • 58 was lying;
  • 62 was drunkenness;
  • 69 was debt;
  • 73 was murder;
  • 84 was anger;
  • 92 was greed;
  • 95 was pride; and
  • 99 was lust.

These were the squares where the snake was found, signifying that sins or vices will make it difficult for you to achieve heaven and you will be pushed back in a cycle of re-births. The last square, the number 100, is either indicated as Nirvana or God.

Today, all these sports and games are quite famous in the international scenario. These games have evolved and modernized over the years, but their origin lies in ancient India; a place that gave birth to many famous sports and games that we now so often enjoy watching or playing.