IntersectionalityGender Khomlainai Wrestling Is Helping Girls In Assam Find Strength And Fortune

Khomlainai Wrestling Is Helping Girls In Assam Find Strength And Fortune

The traditional khomlainai wrestling helps girls from remote corners of Assam put food on the table by beating rivals at competitions.

By Sayantani Deb

Indira Daimary pedals for an hour to attend khomlainai classes at the Dao Hari Coaching Centre in Udalguri every morning. A traditional form of Bodo wrestling, khomlainai is not simply a sport or passion for Daimary, but a way to put food on the table. Thanks to the sport, several girls in Assam’s Bodoland are now leading a decent life. 

Born and brought up in a lower-middle-class family in Sarubhengra village of Udalguri, Daimary’s only wish since childhood was to support her parents. “Being the eldest daughter of daily wage labourers, I have experienced poverty all my life. Managing everything, from food to clothing and education, has been difficult for my parents,” says Daimary, now in her 20s.

Daimary learnt about khomlainai during a social gathering in late 2016, and entered the professional arena the very next year. There has been no looking back since then. The game not only helps her maintain physical fitness but also brings in money through championship wins.

I could not complete my studies due to financial constraints, but I want to at least fulfil the aspirations of my three sisters. One of them wishes to pursue nursing and work in a reputed hospital, so I plan to send her to Hyderabad for further studies,” says Daimary, the sole breadwinner of the family. With her earnings, she also renovated her house. 

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For teenager Sangita Kisko of Garubhasha village in Chirang, khomlainai surprised her when she least expected it. Narrating her story, Kisko shares, “I started learning Khomlainai around the age of 10. Everything was going well until my father, a government servant, decided to live separately. My mother could not make ends meet with her meagre salary as an ASHA worker.”

I was then studying in a private English medium school that charged a good amount for admission. For Class 10, which requires a re-admission process, I decided against going there as my mother could not afford the fee.”

The photo, sourced by Mijing Narzary, shows two female players participating in a local khomlainai competition.

That was when she got the opportunity to participate in a khomlainai competition quite unexpectedly and register a win, earning Rs 5,000 as prize money. “It helped me to take admission in the same school,” she says.

For me, khomlainai is everything. It has shown the path, giving me the confidence to continue with both the sport and studies braving all adversities.”

An age-old practice

Khomlainai showcases the rich culture and tradition of the Bodo people, who lived in jungles until a few centuries ago. During that time, it evolved as a self-defence mechanism to protect themselves from wild animals.

Similar to kushti, khomlainai participants are identified on the basis of their aranai (traditional Bodo scarf tied around the waist), which is either in red or green colour. The red player is called agor, while green player is matha. All the words used in the game are in the Bodo language, such as khulum sewa (salute), juri (start), aobha (stop), sangrang (ready), su-bijitgiri (referee), bijitgiri (judge), khomlaigra (wrestler/player) and derhasa (winner).

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During the Bhaokhungri festival held in Kokrajhar every April, a grand khomlainai competition is organised by the Government of Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), with a mission to take the traditional sport to the world and to bridge the gap between communities in the Bodoland region.

Not only Bodos and Adivasis of the BTR, even Nepali, Gorkhali, Rajbonshi Bengali, Bihari and Assamese people have taken to the game, a sure-shot way to promote harmony.   

Finances play a key role

All Assam Khomlainai Association general secretary Guno Shankar Wary informs that money is still a cause for concern in promoting the game. 

The Sports and Youth Welfare Department of the Government of BTR grants Rs 10 lakh annually to popularise khomlainai, along with other indigenous games. Presently, the association organises an open khomlainai championship (where everyone can participate, irrespective of age). However, it is necessary to organise sub-junior, junior and senior (both men and women) championships on a large scale. For that, we need more financial support,” he asserts.

He says organising seminars and training for coaches, judges and referees have become a problem, “A substantial increase in grants is the need of the hour. Assam Government should support us financially.”

Fortunately, we have a handful of well-wishers from every stratum of society (businesspersons, local leaders, intellectuals, sports lovers and NGOs), who sponsor the uniforms of players or bear the cost of refreshments, accommodation and transportation. The villagers who cannot support us financially, donate rice, vegetables, fruits and eggs from their farms.”

Indira Daimary (left) and Sangita Kisku have both seen their lives change drastically since they started taking part in khomlainai competitions (Photos – Mijing Narzary)

According to Mijing Narzary, a khomlainai coach at Kokrajhar centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), the three winners at an inter-district khomlainai championship will get Rs 20,000, Rs 10,000, and Rs 5,000, respectively. On the other hand, an open contest will earn them Rs 70,000, Rs 60,000, and Rs 50,000, respectively. Match judges earn Rs 2,000 to 3,000 per day. 

Pointing to the increasing popularity of the game, Narzary says new coaching centres have sprung up across Assam. Besides, Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) khomlainai training centres are mushrooming in other districts such as Goalpara, Sonitpur and Karbi-Anglong. “In residential centres, food is provided by the authority. However, in normal centres, trainees either bring their own food or they cook.”

According to him, there are around 20 registered training centres, of which three are residential. Girls and boys in the seven to 25 years age group get trained here.

Road to recognition

The big breakthrough for the game came in 2013 when Khomlainai was included in the Indigenous Games and Martial Arts (IGMA) Scheme under the Sports Authority of India. Archery, kabaddi, kalaripayattu, mukna, thang-ta, silambam, malkhamb and gatka were also part of the scheme.

The recognition changed the way people perceived khomlainai. At first, the SAI selected 10 boys and 10 girls below the age of 14, and provided them with coaching, shoes, uniforms and an annual scholarship of Rs 6,000. This got more and more children interested,” explains Narzary.

If the Government of India organised khomlainai competitions at the national level, a day will come when these players can join paramilitary forces, police and Army,” Narzary says, adding that all women, irrespective of their age, should learn the sport as it is great for self-defence.

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Everyone associated with the game wants a dedicated khomlainai stadium to come up in Assam. Despite feeling empowered, female players think there is room for improvement. “We need better accommodation. During tournaments, we are put up mostly in schools with untidy floors and washrooms. In addition, we need an official female coach to attract more girls into the sport,” says Nigita Narzary, a veteran khomlainai player and coach.

Winding up her conversation, Indira Daimary says, “I am trying in every possible way to create awareness about the game among the youth.” Meanwhile, Guno Shankar Wary dreams of a day when khomlainai is recognised by the Indian Olympic Association and will be played by people across the world.

Sayantani Deb is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots journalists.

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