The fact that one is on the way to or from the Melbourne Cricket Ground recedes to the background when one watches dozens of rowers demonstrate their power in their boats on the muddy Yarra river. It is very easy to slip into a reverie as one walks, unhurriedly, along the river in the bustling Australian city.
Is this not possible in India, which has many rivers and canals coursing through different terrains? It would be a wonderful day indeed when one drives along the Yamuna in Delhi and watches rowers in Olympic class boats ply their trade. There are two reasons – not enough boats are available for young athletes across the country and the river is polluted.
Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that it is because there is no legacy of water sport in India. Legend has it that Ravana had a swimming pool in his Ashoka Vatika while the Pandavas and their cousins indulged in some water games in the Ganges. There is greater evidence of a Great Bath in Mohenjodaro while Nalanda University is said to have included swimming in its curriculum.
Come to think of it, swimming is one of the oldest forms of human activity – Plato has been attributed as saying that a man who does not know how to swim and dive is uneducated – but documented history shows that India discovered it as a recreation and competitive sport only about a 100 years ago when the National Swimming Association was established in Calcutta.
With its countless rivers and their tributaries, swimming is a vital ability that many Indian develop naturally. India’s first experience of international swimming competition came in 1934 when it hosted the Western Asiatic Games in Delhi. The swimming events were held in the Maharaja of Patiala’s private pool since Delhi did not have a pool back then.
India has been home to the longest open water swimming competition in the Hoogly river that courses through West Bengal. The 81km race, set in Murshidabad district, starts in Ahiron and ends at Gorabazar in Berhampore city. It draws competitors from overseas and offers them interesting challenges.
The Nehru Boat Race, one of India’s iconic competitions that has run for 66 years, takes place around the Onam festival each year in the Punnamada Lake, part of the vast network of Pamba river and canals that form the Alleppey backwaters. It inspired the Sports Authority of India to set up a regional centre for rowing in Alapuzha.
But long before the Boat Race in Kerala caught the fancy of the nation, a British missionary and educationist Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe had instituted an inter-school rowing regatta in Kashmir in 1909. It was Lord Lansdowne, Viceroy in India, who suggested that the water of the Jhelum River could actually rival that of the Thames.
Tyndale-Biscoe was also responsible for making swimming across the famous Dal Lake popular. He found a simple way to encourage youngsters to learn swimming – he enhanced the school fee for those who were 13 years old and did not know how to swim. More than a century later the Tyndale-Biscoe School conducts swimming competitions across the Dal Lake.
They may not have produced champions but they are reputed to have become life-savers, over a number of years students dived in to haul home at least 400 people who faced the grim prospect of drowning. It is this quality that occurs as a recurring theme along India’s river banks where swimming is not as much a sport as it is a natural physical activity.
There was a time fishing was considered sport as was crocodile hunting on the Ganges (as River Ganga was then known). Angling or fishing is still encouraged in several States but it is just as well that the gory sport of crocodile hunting as a sport is a thing of the past, confined to the sepia-toned pages in books and periodicals.
It would be wrong to associate rivers only with water sport. Many a river bank has helped athletes develop strong legs by training on sand. The legendary middle-distance runner Sriram Singh, who finished seventh in the 800m in the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976, was among those whose training included sessions on the dunes along the Yamuna River in south Delhi.
Then again, it is not always about what the river can do to sport. It can also be about what sport can do to a river. An article in the reputed Economic and Political Weekly in September 2017 suggested that international rowing league be hosted in India’s rivers to get an impetus for cleaning and maintaining the rivers, something that despite millions of dollars have not been able to achieve.
Surely, it is time that everyone considers this suggestion seriously and ensures that rivers across the country become the home of some memorable swimming, rowing or rafting events. It is our water bodies that have spawned champions and medalists. It is only fair that sport returns some of what it has gained back to the rivers and other water bodies.
Indeed, wherever possible, Indian sport can make better use of the vast network of rivers in this wonderful land not only to get better as athletes but also spread awareness about the need to keep them clean. Yes, one dreams of being able to walk along an Indian river and watch sinewy rowers power their boat ahead in their quest of an Asian Games medal, if not an Olympic medal itself.
This piece first appeared in a school magazine, Orbit.