A dying traditional game, given a fresh lease of life at the ongoing Karbi Youth Festival (KYF) in central Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, has fuelled a drive for conserving a creeper with an African connection.
A slew of development projects, including a four-lane highway, has impacted the flora in the 10,434 sq. km district like most other parts of Assam and the Northeast beyond. Some villagers, however, have been passionately protecting the Entada rheedii, a creeper commonly known as the African dream herb.
This creeper yields a dark brown and spherical seed, almost the size of a human patella or kneecap, used to play ‘Hambi Kepathu’. Associated with the origin of the Karbi community, it was revived a few years ago to now become the ‘national game’ of the Karbi people.
‘Hambi Kepathu’ has been one of the major attractions of the 50th KYF organised by the Karbi Cultural Society (KCS) at Taralangso, a 672-acre cultural complex on the outskirts of Diphu, the headquarters of central Assam’s Karbi Anglong district situated about 250 km east of Guwahati.
The eight-day festival began on January 12. President Droupadi Murmu is scheduled to attend the festival on January 17, a first for any ethnicity-based festival in the Northeast.
“We had dozens of traditional games but only a few of them are known today. These are played in villages on certain occasions and at modernised community festivals such as the KYF,” KCS president Chandra Sing Kro said.
The KCS has been organising the festival since 1977, three years after a movement for using the Roman script for the Karbi language led to the birth of the “culture-preserving” festival.
‘Hambi Kepathu’, also known as Simrit in some parts of Karbi Anglong, is played on three rectangular courts by two teams comprising three members each. Each member of a team has to place a ‘hambi’, or the glazed creeper seed, vertically on the midpoint of the boundary line of his court for a player of the rival team to hit with his ‘hambi’.
In 25 steps, a striker has to hit an erect ‘hambi’ by either flicking it with the finger as in a game of marbles, rolling, throwing, leaping with a ‘hambi’ wedged between the thighs, or kicking in various styles.
“The creeper used in the game has a special place in Karbi culture. The Entada rheedii was believed to have tethered the sky to the earth very close until our forefathers severed the vines, thus freeing the sky to take its present position,” Dilip Kathar, the tribal culture research officer of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC), said.
The KAAC, which governs Karbi Anglong, largely funded the KYF.
“It is said that our people gradually learned to play with the creeper’s seeds and also extract oil from the plant to produce a kind of balm for joint and muscle pain,” Mr. Kathar said, adding that the interest generated in Hambi Kepathu about a decade ago made villagers passionate about conserving the creeper.
Other species of creepers yielding seeds similar to the ‘hambi’, but not culturally significant, also benefited from the village-level conservation efforts.
Hambi Kepathu, whose name is derived from the first syllables of the names of a Karbi sister-brother duo, is a male-only game like other traditional Karbi games such as ‘Pholong’ (spinning top), ‘Thengtom Langvek’ (torch swimming), and ‘Kengdongdang’ (bamboo stilt race).
Other Karbi traditional games such as ‘Theng Angtong Pen Kekat’ (racing while carrying a bamboo basket), ‘Sekserek’ (stick game), and ‘Hon Kejeng’ (spinning) are exclusively for women. ‘Sansuri Kachivung’ (tug-of-war) and ‘Keron’ (calculation game) are among a few gender-neutral games.