Saturday, October 20, 2012

First Football Game in Kashmir, 1891

A photograph from National Geographic Magazine, Vol 40, 1921

It was in the autumn of 1891 , when I returned from Bombay with Mrs Tyndale-Biscoe, that amongst our luggage we brought a football, the first that our school-boys had seen. I remember well the pleasure with which I brought that first football to the school, and the vision that I had of the boys' eagerness to learn this new game from the West. Well, I arrived at the school, and at a fitting time held up this ball to their view, but alas ! it aroused no such interest or pleasure as I had expected.
" What is this ? " said they. 
" A football," said I. 
" What is the use of it ? " 
"For playing with. It is an excellent game, and will help to make you strong." 
" Shall we gain any rupees by playing it ? " 
" No." 
" Then we do not wish to play the game. What is it made of?" 
" Leather." 
" Then we cannot play ; we cannot touch it. Take it away, for it is unholy to our touch." 
You will see that matters had not turned out as my optimism had led me to expect. 

" All right," said I. " Rupees or no rupees, holy or unholy, you are going to play football this afternoon at three-thirty, so you had better learn the rules at once." And immediately, with the help of the blackboard, I was able to instruct them as to their places on the field, and the chief points and rules of the game. 

Before the end of school I perceived that there would be trouble, so I called the teachers together and explained to them my plans for the afternoon. They were to arm themselves with single-sticks, picket the streets leading from the school to the playground, and prevent any of the boys escaping en route. Everything was ready, so at three o'clock the porter had orders to open the school gate. The boys poured forth, and I brought up the rear with a hunting-crop. Then came the trouble ; for once outside the school compound they thought they were going to escape; but they were mistaken. We shooed them down the streets like sheep on their way to the butcher's. Such a dirty, smelling, cowardly crew you never saw. All were clothed in the long nightgown sort of garment I have described before, each boy carrying a fire-pot under his garment and so next to his body.' This heating apparatus has from time immemorial taken the place of healthy exercise.

We dared not drive them too fast for fear of their tripping up (as several of them were wearing clogs) and falling with their fire-pots, which would have prevented their playing football for many days to come. 

At length we are safely through the city with a goodly crowd following and arrive at the playground. Sides are made up, the ground is cleared and ready, the ball is in the centre, and all that remains is for the whistle to start the game. 

The whistle is blown, but the ball does not move. 

Thinking that the boys had not understood my order, I tell them again to kick off the ball immediately after hearing the whistle. I blow again, but with no result. I notice that the boys are looking at one another and at the crowd of spectators with unmistakable signs of fear and bewilderment on their faces. 

On my asking them the cause, they say : " We cannot kick this ball, for it is an unholy ball and we are holy Brahmans." I answer them by taking out my watch and giving them five minutes to think over the situation : at the expiration of the time, I tell them, something will happen if the ball does not move. We all wait in silence, an ominous silence. The masters armed with their single-sticks are at their places behind the goals. 

Time is just up, and I call out : " Five seconds left — four — three — two — one. Kick ! " The ball remains stationary ! My last card had now to be played, and I shout towards the right and left goals : " Sticks ! " 

Sticks won the day, for as soon as the boys see the sticks coming the ball bounds in the air, the spell is broken, and all is confusion. Puggarees are seen streaming yards behind the players, entangling their legs; their shoes and clogs leave their feet as they vainly try to kick the ball, and turn round and round in the air like Catherine wheels descending on any and everybody's head. The onlookers who have followed us from the city are wildly excited, for they have never in their lives before seen anything like it — holy Kashmiri Brahman boys (in dirty nightgowns) tumbling over one another, using hands and legs freely to get a kick at a leather ball. 

Well, as I said before, all was noise and excitement, when all of a sudden the storm is succeeded by a dead calm: the game ceases, the Brahmans, both players and  onlookers, are all sucking their fingers for all they are worth (a Kashmiri way of showing amazement), and all eyes are turned towards one of the players who is a picture of misery. And no wonder, for this unholy piece of leather had bounded straight into this holy one's face, had actually kissed his lips. He had never before in his life felt the smack of a football, and certainly never dreamed of such a catastrophe. He thought all his front teeth were knocked out and that his nose was gone for ever. He would touch his mangled (?) features, but he dared not. Once or twice he essayed to do so, but his heart failed him. His face was defiled, so that he could not do what he would, and would not do what he could. He did the next best thing, which was to lift up his voice and weep, and this he did manfully. This moment was a terrible one for all concerned, and especially for me, for now all eyes were directed to the primary cause of all this misery. 

What was I to do? I was not prepared for such a turn of events. I could " shoo " an unwilling school to the playground, I could make unwilling feet kick, but how could I make an unholy face holy ? Fortunately the idea of water came into my distracted mind, and I said : " Take the fool down to the canal at once and wash him." Immediately the thoughts and the eyes of the victim's sympathisers were diverted to the cleansing waters and their magical effect on the outraged features of the body. On their return I placed the ball again in the centre, blew my whistle and the ball was kicked off. All was excitement once more, and the game was played with enthusiasm until I called "Time!" 

Everyone left the field and scattered to various parts of the city, to tell their parents and neighbours of the great "tamasha" they had witnessed or in which they had taken part. The remarks made about me and the school in their homes over their curry and rice that night were, I expect, not all favourable. 

I have been told more than twice that I behaved in an un-Christian like manner, and that I had no business to force football or any other game upon boys. against their will. 

Well, we cannot all see alike, and it is just as well that we cannot, otherwise Rome would never have been built and there would not be much progress on this terrestrial sphere. That game introduced the leather ball to Srinagar and to the holy Brahman who lives therein, and although for the first year my presence was a necessity at every game, football came to stay. 

Now all the various schools in the city have their football teams, and in all parts of the city you see boys playing this game with a make-shift for a football. 

This year I watched an inter-class match, most keenly contested, the referee being not a teacher but a schoolboy. His decision was not once disputed, nor was there any altercation between any of the players ; it was a truly sporting game. 

~ Kashmir in sunlight &shade; a description of the beauties of the country, the life, habits, and humour of its inhabitants and an account of the gradual but steady rebuilding of a once down-trodden people (1922) by C. E. Tyndale Biscoe


This was a time when football was first introduced by emissaries of Raj to far off places like Afghanistan and Tibet too. What is interesting in the description of the event provided by Biscoe is the powerful consciousness on part of the missionary that he was irreversibly changing the social mores of the natives. And according to him, for the better and forever. He was building Rome. Rome or no Rome, he did add a new chapter to how Pandits assimilated some new things from Missionaries too. But the path, as often is the case of evolution of a society or a community, wasn't as smooth as one would like to believe now.

While C. E. Tyndale Biscoe would have one believe that after initial reluctance Kashmiris wholeheartedly gave up their Pherans and Pugrees and started playing football, in a photograph published in National Geographic Magazine (top) just around that time, we can see kids playing football with their Pugrees and some even in the beloved pheran. The truth is that the acceptance of strict missionary ways wasn't accepted by purist Pandits without giving a tough fight. Pandits employed all kind of tactics as a way to block the path of missionaries. It was almost modern warfare that included media blitz, calling for support from mainstream Hindu Nationalist leaders and employing age old Kashmiri technique of giving nasty nicknames to people who were siding with the Missionaries. The National Geographic Magazine tells us that these Pandits were nicknamed Rice Christians, or 'Batte Christain', one who converted to Christianity for rice. Much late, when communism arrived in Kashmir, the term was modified and became 'Batte Communist' or 'Rice Communist', for one who claimed to be a communist for discount in Rice rations (this was probably around 1950s of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad). Also, around this time moniker Kari was coined for people who were suspected to have changed religion to Christianity.

The above photograph from 'Character Building in Kashmir' (1920)' has Biscoe boys dragging a "dead dog". The story:

Around that time often leading the social attacks on Biscoe school were Brahmins and the supporters of other "more normal" schools including ones that had the backing of Mrs. Annie Besant, of theosophical fame, who opened Hindu School, on the other bank just opposite the CMS school near the third bridge of Srinagar. Often local Newspapers were filled with News snippets targeting the school and its way of functioning. In one such news story, the paper claimed that Mr. Biscoe made Brahmin boys drag dead dogs through the city. Strange as the news may seem, Mr. Biscoe's response was equally typical. He writes in his book 'Character Building in Kashmir' (1920):

Many of the native papers had done us the honour of telling their readers what they thought of us, and gave accounts of what had not, as well as of what had, happened chiefly the former. For many of the Indian papers greedily swallow the lies made red hot in Srinagar. One of the yarns that appeared is worth quoting :
" Mr. Biscoe, principal of the Church mission school in Srinagar, makes his Brahman boys drag dead dogs through the city."
This " spicy " bit of news took our fancy, and we thought it a pity that one of these yarns at least should not be founded upon something tangible, so we decided to help the editor of the paper in this matter.
We possessed an obedient dog, a spaniel, who was in the habit of "dying" for his friends when required to do so. The rest of the cast was quite easy a party of boys, a rope, and a photographer. The obedient spaniel died, and remained dead while we tied a rope to his hind leg, and placed the boys in position on the rope for the photographer to snap.
So henceforward if ever we find a citizen disbelieving Srinagar yarns, especially those spun against the schools, we can produce this photograph to show that one at least of their stories is true. Papers may err, but cameras never (?).

In one of the still more strange case, Pandits even sought help from Vivekananda on the matter when he arrived in Kashmir in around 1897. Although not naming him directly, Biscoe in 'Kashmir in sunlight &shade' writes about Pandits asking a certain Sadhu to intervene in their favor. This man he describes as, "A certain yellow-robed and much-travelled Sadhu" who "visited Kashmir with his cheelas." and "had travelled in Europe and America, and was highly educated." Based on the description and chronology of the events this man has to be Vivekananda. What followed was that initially this Sadhu favoured the Pandits but later after talking to Biscoe and seeing his school and work, he did a u-turn and advised pandits to send their children to Biscoe.

And yet the Pandit hatred for Biscoe, this man who was challenging their way of life, didn't subside. They didn't understand all this strange business of swimming, rowing, mountaineering, cricket, cleaning street and rivers. They expected the school to just to teach their children maths and essential skills that will help them get a government jobs. But they saw that Biscoe was in-effect changing their children into little Europeans. And he was doing it with a certain brashness. If children drowned while rowing in Wular, Biscoe believed that other children would readily filled their place. He believed in football and its power to change a society. But the ripples that his little experiment was causing in the Kashmiri society can be gauged from writings of Biscoe's son  E. D. Tyndale-Biscoe. In his book  'Fifty years against the stream. The story of a school in Kashmir' (1930)* he writes that the children in order to avoid football would often puncture the ball and their parents would shoot off angry letter's to CMS headquaters in London. One of the letter read like this:

"We, the inhabitants - Hindus and Muhamadans of Kashmir - want this, that if Mr. Biscoe is allowed to remain in Kashmir as a Principal of the school, not a single boy will attend it, and the Society will have to close it for good. Therefore, please sir, transfer Mr. Biscoe for his is exceedingly a bad man, illiterate, deceitful, ill-mannered, uncultured, cunning, and a man too fond of cricket."

And yet Biscoe stayed on, building his little roman empire in Kashmir, little by little, with diligent social work and an unshakable faith in his unconventional methods.

* Mentioned in 'Confronting the Body: The Politics of Physicality in Colonial and Post, edited by James H Mills, Satadru Sen.


  1. "... a man too fond of cricket"

  2. Hey, I am Abu Bakar shaikh from R.V. college of architecture, Bangalore. Currently pusuing my undergraduate thesis, and your blog has been of great help for my ongoing research for the same.
    So, my site is located in Present day eidgah maidan in downtown area, near the Ali masjid. And i have been trying to Understand the land and its releationship with the social, cultural and political life of the people.
    Below are my findings till now and along with it I have posted certain questions, which i dont know the answers yet.

    Origin of the ground -
    "Historians say around six centuries ago, 400 kanals of land at Eidgah was donated to Kashmiris by Mir Muhammad Hamdani (RA), son of sufi saint Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (RA)—who brought art and crafts into Kashmir from Central Asia."- Official apathy takes sheen off historic Eidgah, Greater Kashmir.
    Aali masjid located in its precint was "constructed in 1471 A.D. during the reign of Shahmiri king of Kashmir, Sultan Hassan Shah. The building was substantially renovated by tge mughal governor of Kashmir Ali Mardan khan (1650-57)." - Restoration of Aali masjid by INTACH J&K Chapter.
    So that places the ground somewhere around 1400's (A.D.), (Syed ali hamdani passed away in 1384 A.D.)
    Q1) So the Aali masjid was constructed after the ground was given to the kashmiris or the construction had started simultaneously?

    Usage of the ground -
    "The open ground Idgah was also much frequented by the city dwellers and the numerous Urs and festivals held throughout the year Provided unique ocassion for prayers and festivities." - pg 26-27, Srinagar : An architectural legacy by Feisal Alkazi.
    Q2). What releation did the ground have with the social, cultural and political (if any) with the kashmiris other than being a place of celebrtion? Did it have day to day usecase too?

    Landmarks on the ground -
    The present day maidan is trifurcated into a Park , Play ground and a prayer ground. Q3). What were the reasons considered for such division?

    I had looked into the historical imagery of the ground from 2000 to 2020, i.e. before and after its trifurcation.
    Q1) There was a structure on the opposite end of the Martyr's Graveyard on its eastern side, which was removed ( after its trifurcation). What was the structure used as and why was it removed?
    Q2) There is a structure which had been built after its trifurcation on the northern side of the martyrs graveyard ( on the north- western tip of play ground) why was it built and what is its usecase.

    If theres any other information that you feel would help me with my research do share the same.

    Abu bakar


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