For a glorious half century, India dominated international field hockey and Sansarpur was its secret weapon. The village of just 4,061 people has nurtured 300 national hockey players and produced more Olympic medalists per capita than any other place in the world.
During its golden era, the Indian field hockey team won 11 medals, including six successive gold, in the 12 Olympics between 1928 and 1980, a record unequalled by any country.
Another record of sorts was made within the team itself. Except on four occasions, every Indian hockey team to play at these Olympics had at least one player from Sansarpur. Incredibly, this small nondescript village, settled 300 years ago by five Kullar sikh jat families near Jalandhar, in Punjab, has produced the largest number of Olympians in the world Ñ all in field hockey Ñ a feat unparalleled in any sport in any place anywhere.
At the 1968 Mexico Olympics the Indian squad fielded five Sansarpur players. Another two players from the village represented Kenya at the games. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics' gold-winning Indian team fielded four players from Sansarpur.
Notes Popinder Singh Kullar, a hockey player turned academician from Sansarpur: "The Indian team lost its winning habits after 1980 and since then our team has brought nothing. You may call it a coincidence, but after 1980, none of the teams had a player from Sansarpur. The writing is clear on the wall."
Popinder Singh, professor of education at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, published his PhD dissertation on the "Social cultural and educational ethos of sports: A case study of Sansarpur village in Punjab" and has published extensively on the relationship between hockey and his native village. His research has documented: "Sansarpur has given 14 Olympians, 19 internationals who represented India and other countries, 110 national-level players who turned out for 20 states, and another 132 who represented various military teams."
I visited the nursery of Indian hockey for Little India recently. As I entered Sansarpur, on the outskirts of Jalandhar, the hamlet, with a population of 4,061, according to the 2001 Census, appeared little different from other villages in Punjab. The one striking difference was that a hockey ground welcomes visitors even before they enter the village. But that was kind of expected.
Kullar has documented more than 300 national and international hockey players from Sansarpur, the vast majority of who represented India, but some others have also played for Canada, England and Kenya. For a village with just 1,000 homes, nearly a third of households boast a hockey star. Even more remarkably, of the 300 national and international hockey players, nearly 200, and every Olympian, shared the same family name - you guessed it - Kullar (or Kular).
Ring it up in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But wait, there is more.
All the 14 Olympians from the village come from a single street.
Here I was, standing on something of a promised land, a blessed and Ñ in the character of most village streets Ñ nameless street.
Imagine that. India, which has the lowest number of Olympic medals per capita in the world, is home also to the only street in which virtually every second home is adorned with the nameplate of an Olympic medalist.
An unnamed Olympic gully in a village so appropriately called Sansarpur(world).
The nameplates prominently identify the residents with national awards ÑArjuna, Padmashri, etc. I drank the proffered water in every home I visited, inhaled deep breaths and voluntarily rubbed my shoulders against the walls and doors of the homes lining the street. Maybe, just maybe, some of the glory might rub off on me too.
The success of the hockey players from Sansarpur has transformed the village, most especially this street, which is dotted with mini mansions, which one rarely encounters in a village anywhere in India.
I rang the doorbell of one bungalow and was warmly welcomed by an elderly Sikh gentlemen, who invited me to tea. Only in the course of the conversation did I discover that I was sitting beside Padamshri and Arjuna awardee Balbir Singh Kullar Jr., who is among the oldest surviving Sansarpur Olympians.
Proud to share the story of Sansarpur's association with Indian hockey, he explained that the journey started at the very dawn of the game in India. The first Indian hockey team to go on a foreign tour in 1926 fielded Thakur Singh from Sansarpur.
Balbir Singh, the man I had observed watering plants in his garden, had played on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics' gold winning team and also on the Indian squad that won the bronze at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Balbir Singh explained Sansarpur's love affair with hockey: "It was love at first sight. The cantonment (nearby) was established by the British and they used the ground facing Sansarpur for their sports activity. That's when the villagers first saw the game of hockey. On kids' requests, their mothers made balls out of waste cloth and threads. Men brought down club shaped branches, shaved to make sticks out of them and the children of Sansarpur unknowingly laid the foundation of a phenomenon, which later made unparalleled history."
Revealing the secret behind the success of the natives of Sansarpur in hockey, Balbir Singh explained: "The constraint of playing with branches and homemade balls acted as a blessing in disguise. Playing barefoot with the bladeless branches led us to develop an indigenous style that was unique to Sansarpur in all senses. The professionally trained foreign teams failed to beat that never-before-seen style of Sansarpur players and totally surrendered."
"The fever of hockey kept spreading like a virus amongst natives. Every successful player from the village formed to be a role model for others and the chain kept growing bigger and stronger. We just started playing, rest all followed. I was absorbed by Railways as a senior official and was later offered a post in the Punjab Police Department. So was the case with others too and so the hockey fever too went raging higher and higher," added Balbir Singh, who retired as Deputy Inspector General of Police. The associated career opportunities and success glow in the fancy homes on the street, which stand sharply in contrast against the villages around.
His Olympian namesake from Sansarpur, Col. Balbir Singh Kullar, who has settled in Jalandhar, the metro adjacent to Sansarpur, is actively involved in reviving the glorious past of Sansarpur hockey. He guided me through a mini gallery of fame, showcasing his collection of hockey and Sansarpur related mementoes and photographs. He exuded confidence that a bright future of the game will rise again from the same land: "The young ones are really very bright and talented. With the amount of efforts we are putting in them and the recently added facilities to the village, they are sure to make a mark."
It is a sentiment shared by Mohan Singh, the coach appointed by the Punjab Sports Ministry for Sansarpur: "Nikkey are superb player material. Under expert supervision, their limits are beyond skies."
The game remains a rage with village children to this day. Early morning, young kids can be seen practicing rigorously with their sticks. Late afternoon, they are back on the grounds. In-between school happens and there is time to grab a quick lunch. The training and games go late into evenings, as long as the sun permits. Asked why he preferred to play hockey instead of other sports, a young player, sidelined because of a foot injury, retorted, "Isme bahut maza aata hai..." (this is very enjoyable).
I wanted to ask him how come in a country where cricket is religion and Sachin Tendulkar god, a whole village could be so devoted to just hockey? But I thought the wiser of referring to cricket as a religion in Sansarpur.
The facade of many homes, which are usually reserved for religious icons and symbols, feature prominent embossing of hockey sticks and balls instead. At one home, the interiors were not quite finished, but the facade pompously adorned hockey symbols. Its owner George Paul explained: "Whatever we are, it's all because of hockey. It's the game that has given us the livelihood and life. Nothing comes before it. I got a job in Railways because of the game, our family survives because of it and my son's working hard to make it bigger. We can't do anything but the game and it repays generously.
The injured boy I had encountered on the hockey field was none other than his son, John.
India has been shut out of hockey Olympic medals for three decades now. If it ever makes a comeback, Sansarpur's kids, like John Paul, Jr., will no doubt be leading the charge.
Popinder Singh Kullar
Popinder Singh Kullar, professor at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University, whose PhD dissertation on hockey in Sansarpur has been published as a book titled Hockey da Ghar -- Sansarpur (Hockey's Home -- Sansarpur). He unravels the mystery behind the nursery of Indian hockey.
What factors led to the exceptional rise of Sansarpur's hockey players?
There were several reasons behind Sansarpur's successful hockey story. One was the community that founded Sansarpur the village, and that was the Kullar. They belonged to a fighter race and were given the village in particular to occupy and settle. Their built was obviously most suitable for the game. Then they learnt in early childhood, by seeing the British play on the ground facing Sansarpur. Learned it quick, and as they started with bladeless sticks made out of branches, they developed an indigenous style of their own. The professional and financial success that followed the playing ability further motivated the natives to adopt the game.
What contributed to its decline?
The community again. As the Kullars succeeded in attaining a level of prosperity they moved out of the base and spread across the globe. In spite of living far from the hockey land some tried clinging to the game and secured place in the teams of the countries they settled in, but as the ambience was missing, the later generations resorted to other professions.
How do villagers feel about the lost glory of the village?
Men from Sansarpur, including me, are not at all happy with the current status of hockey in India and the status of Sansarpur in Indian hockey. I call it a directly proportional equation. Until Sansarpurians gain a seat in the national team, I don't expect wonders. Sadly there are not many Kullars left on that land who could carry the legacy further. The community is all spread and has adopted passions and professions different from hockey.
Is there any aspiration among villagers to reclaim that glory in a systemic manner?
Yes of course. The veterans from the village are hell bent on reviving and regaining the lost glory of Sansarpur's hockey, which lead to a brightly shining Indian hockey. Our persistent efforts have started reaping sweet fruits too. Recently the village has got an international standard practice turf. It may not offer the standard size practice ground, but at least the budding talent shall have an idea what they'll face when they land on the grounds of international stature. The indications from government may have been too late but are positive and have started dripping-in. State government has even appointed a hockey coach in Sansarpur and the kids are being trained professionally in the game.
Have other career options closed this chapter?
You may say that, but we expect a comeback. Sansarpur's chapter may appear closed but it's not for good. It's a mystic land. Its powers are not all lost and the same piece of land will give Olympians to the nation again. I hope to see that day in my life and the signs are again positive. The village which has given more than 306 national and international level hockey players to the country, of which almost 200 belonged to the same family, can certainly produce more stars.