To water your cricket ground or irrigate your cotton field has set off a huge political debate in Maharashtra. Few realise that this would hardly ever have been an issue in traditional India, for we never played ball games and, therefore, never needed grass pitches, ergo, no water wasted.
Once the British brought sports like cricket, hockey or golf, grass became essential. When it comes to keeping golf courses in shape, the gallons of water needed goes well past being scandalous in the Indian context. It is near impossible to play any of these ball games well on hard, gravelly, earth.
None of our traditional sports needed well tended grass because none of them required a ball: Not Kabbadi, not Khoko, not Mallakhumb, not Thangta; and the list goes on. Quite obviously, the sports we play, and entertain ourselves with, must match our physical environment.
Grass grows abundantly in Britain which is why all ball sports first began there. As the empire grew, these sports found favour first in its colonies, then gradually, to other parts of the world. Many European sports too depended on these British exports; so powerful was the influence of this tiny island worldwide.
Nursing the texture and finish of the village green in an English village is the easiest thing to do, therefore, playing a game of cricket or golf is just no bother. Football, for example, began with the Shrovetide matches in medieval England. Field hockey, a game we once played well, was invented in London and the first international match was between Ireland and Wales — both places where grass grows in abundance.
Move to Asia where rain is patchy, or visits the region only during the monsoons, and grass becomes a luxury and expensive to cultivate. Consequently, ball-based sports never got a look-in, that is till the Europeans, more specifically, the British, dropped in. Growing grass, even for a private lawn, is also British in origin and most of us do not realise how much damage that does to an environment where water is a scarce commodity.
Before Europe dominated Asia, our gardens were not known for their green expanses as they were in England. The lawn is always the centrepiece of a British garden but not so in Asia, not even in Iran. What matters most in oriental gardens, where the weather is hot, is to have cool places to duck into. This explains why these gardens have many resting places where flowering fruit trees provide both shade and beauty.
In fact, if one were to look at miniatures of Iranian or Mughal gardens of the past, then it is quite clear that the Quranic understanding of paradise played an important role in their making. The gardens, such as the Iranian Chaharbagh, were fashioned near streams and water sources so as to afford a fountain and water channels; growing grass was not on the gardener’s to-do list.
This aspect comes out clearly in several traditional Islamic gardens whose portraits we have today. In fact, the Garden of Eram in Shiraz, which is now a Unesco heritage site, has hardly any grass at all, not even of the wild kind.
Some of these Iranian gardens became so well known that they were emulated not just in Mughal India, but in Europe too. The famous garden at Versailles in France has been clearly inspired by the gardens of Iran. Here again, we find rectangular arrangements of trees with grass playing a very minor role and that too in strictly confined spaces.
Polo is the only ball game that was played in traditional times, particularly in regions northwest of India, right up to Iran. Qutubuddin Aibak was impaled while at this game and so was his son, paving the way for Iltutmish to take over. Why, some even believe that Alexander died of exhaustion after a polo match. It was obviously a game indulged in with great passion; but on green grass? Hardly.
Interestingly, Iranian miniatures rarely show a green field where polo is being played. The ground is either brown or yellow, and it is only in very few instances that horses are seen stamping on grass. This is so unlike contemporary polo grounds, where grass is essential. Arguably, the best of these were built in Argentina, sponsored by European settlers and encouraged by the wide open ‘pampas’ — where grasses flourish, but trees are rare. When the Shandur polo ground, the highest in the world, was made in Gilgit-Baltistan, it was under British supervision and, naturally, it was all lush and green.
But the traditional Afghan polo, called Buzkashi, was, and is still, played on a hard earth surface but without a ball. In this version of the game, a carcass of a sheep, or goat, is what rival teams on horseback fight over to get to the opponent’s end. It was ‘Talibanned’ in Afghanistan, but so popular was Buzkashi that it has made a huge comeback in recent times.
What the British call badminton actually originated in India and China, but here again there was no ball but a shuttlecock. In Manipur a game called Yubi Lapki is played but instead of a ball, it is a coconut that is passed around. Ping pong, that is so associated with the Orient today, is however, an English invention and the name was actually trademarked by a London sport equipment dealer.
If farm lands or cricket grounds is a modern Indian dilemma it is because we missed saying, when we should have: “the ball stops here.”
Dipankar Gupta is an eminent sociologist and taught at JNU for nearly three decades
The views expressed are personal