In August last year, passers-by on Shantipath, the main thoroughfare in Delhi's diplomatic enclave, watched as five people played a curious game on the grass verge by the roadside. They kicked and punched a ball and jostled against the other for possession. The crowd was witnessing history in the making --- the birth of Gaelic football in India.
The five people playing on Shantipath were all from Ireland, just like their game. A combination of football and rugby, Gaelic football is played across Ireland like cricket in India. "Gaelic football has a lot of history. It is the central pillar of Irish cultural life," says Peter Frisby, an Irish diplomat in India and one of the five players on Shantipath last year.
India Wolfhounds' men's and women's teams are taking part in the ongoing Asia Gaelic Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Frisby and his colleagues have been instrumental in forming India's first Gaelic football club, called India Wolfhounds. From only five in August last year, the number of players of the club has risen to 30 today. Several of them are Indians who have embraced the game as their own. "I like Gaelic football. It is a very fast field game," says Rajveer Chowdhary, a sports science consultant with Team Tennis India and a member of India Wolfhounds.
A Gaelic football team has 15 players taking a field that is approximately 140 metres long and 90 metres wide, compared to football's 110 X 75. The goal is shaped like a rugby post, but with nets, guarded by a goalkeeper. The aim is to outscore your opponent --- one point if the ball goes over the crossbar and between the two tall posts, and three points if the ball goes into the net. Unlike rugby where the ball is passed sideways or behind, Gaelic football players can kick and throw the ball in any direction. The ball is round and smaller than football.
India's first Gaelic football club, the India Wolfhounds, was formed last year.
"What attracted me to Gaelic football was that it is a combination of rugby, football and basketball and the fact that it is a full-contact sport," says Zhovi Yhome, a Delhi-based legal consultant and a player of India Wolfhounds. Yhome, a defender who started playing from March this year, practices twice a week with her fellow India Wolfhounds players. Compared to the senior Gaelic football teams played by a 15-member side, India Wolfhound plays the 9-member side. The 9-member sides play the game in two halves of 20 minutes each as against 35 minute-halves played by the senior 15-player sides.
India Wolfhounds -- the name derived from the Irish wolfhound, one of the tallest dog breeds in the world -- has already played their first international match, against Qatar, last year. "It was the first international Gaelic football match ever played in India," says Mairtin Cronin, an Irish diplomat, who plays for India Wolfhounds. The match against Qatar also marked the Indian Gaelic team's foray into the international arena. The team also went to the Asian Gaelic Games in Bangkok, Thailand, last year, reaching the shield level semi-finals in their first major outing.
Since August this year, the team has been preparing for their second appearance at the Asian Gaelic Games, hosted by Malaysia this year. India Wolfhounds has both men's and women's teams in the Kuala Lumpur Asian Gaelic Games, taking place during November 9-10. The women's team, which is making its first appearance at the Asian Gaelic Games, has combined with players from Malaysia and South Korea to make up the numbers.
The Asian Gaelic Games is held under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association(GAA), considered the largest amateur sporting and cultural association in the world. Founded in 1884 in Ireland, GAA promotes indigenous Irish games like Gaelic football and Hurling. Touted as the world's fastest field game played on grass, Hurling is one of the oldest field sports in the world. The game is played with a ball and a stick, but the similarity to hockey ends there. Last year, Hurling was added to the list of UNESCO's protected cultural activities as an intangible heritage.
There is a growing interest among Indians in Gaelic football, an indigenous sport originated in Ireland.
Gaelic games have spread to the far end of the world as Irish migrants have left their country's shores for work. An estimated 400 GAA clubs exist across the world, sustaining a deep-rooted culture and sharing it with others. The India Wolfhound, which began only with Irish nationals in Delhi, today has --- local players. "It is also an opportunity for connecting with like-minded people," says Dinesh Bhasin, an advertising guru and the first Indian member of India Wolfhounds.
At the Kuala Lumpur Asian Gaelic Games, 23 teams from countries like Thailand, hosts Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea will be fielding their teams. The Games will witness the participation of over 1,000 players and officials from the continent. The Asian Gaelic Games will coincide with the Ireland-Asia Pacific Business Forum meet in Kuala Lumpur.
With India Wolfhounds spreading its wings, there is a growing interest in Gaelic football in India. "The club is looking for more players and always happy to welcome more people," says Cronin. Some people in Mumbai have also shown interest in setting up a Gaelic football club in the city. "Our club has members from countries like France, the US and Portugal," says Arnab Das, the India Wolfhounds goalkeeper and a sports management specialist with the Sports Authority of India.
Among those attending a function at the Irish Ambassador's residence on the eve of India Wolfhounds' departure for the Kuala Lumpur Asian Gaelic Games were teachers from the St. Columbas and Presentation Convent schools in Delhi. "We are looking at the possibility of introducing Gaelic football to our students," says Steve Rocha, who teaches at Delhi's St. Columbas, an institution founded by the Irish Congregation of Christian Brothers.
The Gaelic football appeals to India, which shares a common colonial history with Ireland. The India Wolfhounds began playing on the centenary of Gaelic Sunday -- on August 4 -- last year. The Gaelic Sunday is observed every year to remember the defying of the ban on Gaelic Games in Ireland by the BritishÂ Empire 100 years ago. On August 4, 1918, the GAA defied the crackdown on Gaelic Games by holding a match in every parish in Ireland at precisely the same time. Over 54,000 players took part in the games with another 100,000 watching them. "The sport is linked to the culture of nationalism in Ireland in the 19th century," says Cronin.