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How football came to Srinagar


Football at the turn of the millennium is incontestably the most popular game in the world. The history book shows how it was spread across the globe by British traders, soldiers, teachers and missionaries – also in Srinagar.

The teachers and missionaries took the game with them with a profound purpose – moral training. Football was to teach “fair play” in the Empire and beyond. As part of this sincere and serious endeavour, in 1891 an English missionary named Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe took a football and a wife to his Church Missionary Society School in Srinagar, Kashmir. His wife excited interest; the ball stimulated irritation. Tyndale-Biscoe later recorded the hostile reception. The whole school was assembled and the ball presented to them:

Tyndale-Biscoe: This is a football.

Boys:   What is the use of it?

Tyndale-Biscoe: For playing a game.

Boys:   Shall we receive any money if we play that game?

Tyndale-Biscoe: No!

Boys:   Then we shall not play that game.

Boys:   What is it made of?

Tyndale-Biscoe: Leather.

Boys:   Take it away! Take it away!

Tyndale-Biscoe: Why should I take it away?

Boys:   Because it is jutha (unholy) we may not touch it, it is leather.

Tyndale-Biscoe: I do not wish you to handle it. I want you to kick it … and today you are going to learn how to kick it, boys.

Boys: We will not play that jutha game.

Tyndale-Biscoe was unimpressed. He was used to getting his own way. A year earlier, from his classroom window, he had observed a fire close to the school and had ordered his pupils to provide help to put it out. As high-caste members of society they had preferred to continue their lessons rather than indulge in demeaning manual activities. It was a point of view that failed to win his sympathy. In his own words, “I then took action and drove them out of the classroom … At the double I herded them with my stick to the fire. Arrived there, we found that scores of citizens had already taken their seats at every available place in order to enjoy themselves at an entertainment for which they would have nothing to pay. As the flames spread from one house to another they seemed highly delighted, shouting out ‘Hurrah!'”

The English missionary Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe not only supported football but also the region’s swimmers and rowers.

Tyndale-Biscoe was appalled. He commandeered pots from reluctant boatmen, armed the larger boys with sticks to prevent the police from stealing valuables from the burning houses and organized the rest of his pupils as a fire-fighting force. The school fire-service which later fought many fires in Srinagar had been created.

Shortly afterwards, when his pupils refused to take up swimming as also beneath their dignity, Tyndale-Biscoe employed Machiavellian cunning in persuading boys to swim by the age of 13 by the simple expedient of increasing the school fees every 12 months for non-swimmers beyond that age. Eventually four- or five-mile swims across the local lakes became a regular annual event for the stronger school swimmers, and one of the proudest achievements of his years in Kashmir was to establish a life-saving corps which over the years rescued more than 400 people from drowning.

A little later, when Lord Lansdown, Viceroy of India, visited the school and nostalgically yearned for rowing competition, it was Tyndale-Biscoe who enthusiastically took up the challenge. He built a boat which he forcibly persuaded two reluctant young teachers to inspect by firmly pushing them into it, and soon they were floating swiftly downstream to a four-spanned bridge with little choice but row themselves to safety. Rowing was on its way to becoming part of school life.

Thus the challenge presented by football held no terrors for Tyndale-Biscoe. He ignored the pupils’ demands, he rode roughshod over their protests and proceeded to give them instructions about the pitch, positions and rules. Their sullen response was not encouraging. He wrote later: “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 3 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.”

He added, “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 butchers … All were clothed in the long nightgown sort of garment I have described before, each boy carrying a fire-pot (pugari) 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.”

Tyndale-Biscoe had a difficult job getting the Srinagar boys interested in football. Swimming, rowing and boxing events – and football came later.

Then followed an unforgotten moment in the modern history of Kashmir: “The ground was reached, the sides were picked, the ball put in position, the whistle blown, and blown again. The boys were adamant. They had absolutely no intention of kicking ‘an unholy ball’.

Tyndale-Biscoe, for his part, had every intention that they should. The teachers were lined up with their sticks menacingly along each goal line; the boys were given five minutes to reflect on their decision. Five minutes passed. The masters charged, sticks and voices raised. The game began.

“All was confusion … as [pupils] tried to kick the ball but generally missed it, their clogs flew in the air and their pugaris were knocked off while their nightgowns flapped in one another’s faces; a real grand mix-up of clothes and humanity… Suddenly there were squeals of agony and horror and the game came to a halt. One unfortunate had stopped the ball with his face. He was polluted by the leather ball. His horror-stricken friends took him sobbing to Tyndale-Biscoe. A wash in the canal was brusquely prescribed. The game, or rather the rough and tumble, proceeded until time was called and the first game of football in Kashmir played by Brahmins was over.”

There were immediate repercussions. Some enterprising pupils carried pins hidden in their sleeves and over fifty balls were punctured before Tyndale-Biscoe hit on the idea of charging those responsible for the burst bladder and the practice ceased.

Despite the unpromising start, football prospered and the Christian gentleman’s code of behaviour was partially if not wholly assimilated. In 1922, Tyndale-Biscoe wrote that he had recently 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.”

As with so many others the length and breadth of the Empire, Tyndale-Biscoe had the best of motives in his determination to take football to Kashmir. It was a training in social service. It was his profound desire as a Christian “to introduce his pupils to him who taught all men to love one another and show it by practice … talking would not accomplish this … bundles could not do this, therefore bundles must be turned into boys by athletic exercises and athletic boys turned into manly citizens by continued acts of kindness.”

In Tyndale-Biscoe’s undeniably ethnocentric view, games created the muscle and grit to fight evil and to promote good. Bodies were to be strengthened for the benefit of the people, especially the weak and oppressed. This was his concept of ‘fair play’ and football played its part in its inculcation.

Football is now a hugely popular game in Kashmir. At his old school, renamed the Tyndale-Biscoe School, pupils re-enact the coming of football to Srinagar for visiting celebrities with great enjoyment and hilarity. And in a recent All-India school football tournament in Delhi, the Tyndale-Biscoe school won the tournament handsomely with an average of five goals a match — an abiding tribute to Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe, Football Sahib!

(The author is Director of the International Research Centre for Sport, Sozialization and Society at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. Courtesy: