Kabaddi: The art of holding your breath


It might look like a bizarre dance, but Kabaddi is about more than being light-footed on the court.

The mains skill of this four thousand year old sport is to hold your breath (chanting “Kabaddi”) as if you are swimming but the only difference is you are very much on terra firma. Said to be born in India, today at least twenty countries play the sport including Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Japan, Canada, Sri Lanka, Russia, Nigeria, USA, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, United Kingdom and Pakistan amongst others.  There are various formats of the game but Amar, Surjeevani and Gaminee are the most popular.

How the game is played

In simple terms the sport is a quite an anomalous combination of wrestling and rugby. Two teams of seven (some forms have nine and others twelve) members occupy opposite halves of a field and then take turns sending a “raider” into the other half.  The team also has five reserve players and the idea of the game is for the teams to fight for higher scores by alternating defence and offence.

The raider’s aim is to touch any or all players on the opposite side, and return to his court under a single breath (whilst constantly repeating kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi). If the raider touches one opposite team player, then that player is declared out. Meanwhile the aim of the defenders is to hold the raider and stop him from returning to his home base, until he takes another breath. They must form a chain by linking hands and if this chain is broken, a member is sent off.

If the raider cannot return to his court until he takes another breath while repeating “kabaddi”, he will be declared out. And in this manner, each team alternates in sending a player into the opponent’s court.

A player is also sent off if he goes over a boundary line or part of his body touches the ground outside the boundary, but this rule is ignored if he is caught in a tussle with an opposite team member. Each time a player is out the opposite team wins a point and can earl a ‘lona” or two points if the entire team is declared out. At the end of the game, the team with most point wins.

Each half is played for twenty minutes with a five minute half-time break after which the teams switch sides. Like in wrestling, matches are staged on age and weight categories with six officials supervising a match – one referee, two umpires, a scorer and two assistant scorers. Also, Kabaddi can be played anywhere with no equipment, but just a small piece of ground anywhere in the world.


The supreme skill is holding your breath. But other skills required are dodging, formation, various ways of kicking, holding, flailing arms and legs, offensive skills, touching with hands, penetration, wrist catch or lock, crocodile hold, over the shoulder catch, elephant stance, charging elephant, sitting peacock, taunting and smelly cow.

Curiously enough, the game was first featured as an exhibition sport in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but is yet to receive an Olympic berth. Every year kabaddi playing nations vie for various international trophies that include the Asian Kabaddi Championships, the Asian Games, Asian Indoor Games and Asian Beach Games, apart from the South Asian Federation Games. However, it got world prominence when Canada hosted the first World Kabaddi Championship and had teams from England and USA. India has outshone the others quite remarkably in most of these tournaments and is the current World Champion. Kabaddi will be a demonstration sport in the next edition of the Commonwealth Games of 2010.

In Britain, it is played for fun by the British Army as a keep fit regime and as an attraction to recruit soldiers from the British Asian community. Channel 4 tried to popularise the sport with a show Kabaddi in 1990 but could not get the momentum going and was eventually axed two years later, but not before its presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy suffered a collapsed lung while participating.

If you want to catch a match in London, it would be best to get to East London where they are played quite vigorously between the Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians and the British. However, it is most popular in Birmingham and Southampton.