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Kabaddi has been played in various forms in the country for hundreds of years. The recent founding of a professional league triggered an explosion in the sport’s popularity both in and out of the country. However, kabaddi wasn’t always as standardized as its modern version looks today. From a broad range of rural leisure games with differing rules to its contemporary, organized, and extra-competitive avatar, kabaddi has come a long way.
Kabaddi’s roots are considered to go back to pre-historic India. It features in Hindu mythology with references to Arjuna playing the game in the Mahabharata. Other ancient writings hint at Krishna having played the game. References to Gautam Buddha playing kabaddi are claimed to have been made in Buddhist literature as well.
While the sport took different forms in various parts of the country, it was the state of Maharashtra which around 1915 crafted the standardized version played at a national level today. The international recognition of kabaddi was made possible after the game was featured in the 1938 version of the Indian Olympic Games, Calcutta (present-day Kolkata).
But it was only in 1950 that the All India Foundation For Kabaddi came into existence and framed the foundational rules of contemporary kabaddi. The Foundation sought to promote kabaddi by hosting regular national level tournaments. And so the first men’s national tournament was held in present-day Chennai in 1955, while the first women’s national tournament was held in present-day Kolkata. Kabaddi’s inclusion into the country’s educational curriculum happened in 1961. Thereafter a number of efforts were undertaken to popularize the standardized version of the sport among school children, and to encourage pursuing it competitively.
The first Asian Kabaddi Championship was held in 1980. This game saw the participation of Nepal, Malaysia, Japan, Bangladesh, and India. After a tense final between India and Bangladesh – where kabaddi is the national game – the former took the championship. The game was introduced at the Asian Games in Beijing in 1990 and saw the participation of seven teams.
The founding of the Pro Kabaddi League, a professional kabaddi league in India in 2014 has significantly changed perception of the sport in the country. With brand and celebrity endorsements, Kabaddi players are more familiar figures to the Indian public today as opposed to a couple years ago. While still nowhere near as popular as cricket is in the country, kabaddi is a much more common sight today in Indian sports channels.