Sports and Games in Kerala

Individuals and Achievements

Some of the great athletes who have excelled at the national and international level belong to Kerala. Suresh Babu, T.C.Yohannan, Valsamma, P.T.Usha.,Anju Geoge.. the list goes on and on.

Early Games of Local Nature

Certain games and sports which were popular in the villages of the State till a decade ago have almost disappeared from the scene. When the society got transferred itself from one inhabited by common folk to that of a middle class society, these games and sports got relegated to mere 'local' games and sports. Games such as 'Kilithattukali', 'Kallukali', 'Kallanum Policeum', 'Thalappandukali', Kootakkalukali', 'Golikali', 'Kuttiyumkolum' 'Koladikkali' today evoke only nostalgic memories. While 'Kilithattukali' gives ample exercise to the muscles, 'Kuttiyum Kolum Kali' is our own version of cricket. You can term it as poor man's cricket.

There are other 'local' games which are on the Wane, but are quite interesting. When we consider that all these old games and sports have not adversely affected the studies of children those days, than only we realize the magnitude of the loss to the new generation of children and young people.

Padayani' which is exclusive to Central Travancore, 'Parichamuttukali' which is considered as a social entertainment, "Margamkali' an exclusive dance form prevalent among Christian women, 'Thiruvathirakali' a Kerala style of dance form among women, 'Velakali' the martial art form - all these are among the cultural entertainment which have their roots in Kerala. 'Onathallu' and 'Thalappandukali' are games which lay emphasis on the flexibility of the body and physical prowess. These games are still in vogue and are played during 'Onam' holidays in the Central Travancore and northern regions like Kunnamkulam, Kavassery and Palakkad with great fervor and competitive spirit.

Another form of entertainment which has been recognized by the State Government is Kalarippayattu'. This gives considerable importance to both brain and brawn. Development of physique and great concentration are essential to excel in this sport which has become part of Kerala's history through the exploits of Thacholi Udayanan and Unniyarcha, the prominent characters of 'Vadakkan Pattu'. In the olden days the Nair Community alone had the right to engage in 'Kalarippayattu'. With the assumption of British rule, the feuds between local kings and chieftains got reduced. Then the Kalari Asans and performers turned to occupations such as agriculture and administrative jobs. The Kalaris had to be closed down. Yet even now in certain centres, 'Kalarippayattu' is performed with great fervour and enthusiasm. This martial art is not fully dead even though its importance has waned considerably.

Boat Races, Water Sports

The full potential of water sports has not been exploited in Kerala. When we think of water sports in this part of the world the innumerable boat races stand out prominently.

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race started in 1952 was the first boat race conducted in an organized manner in the State. Another such race is the Aranmula Boat Race which has to past history and tradition. Other major boat races include Champakulam, Pulinkunu, Karuvatta and Payippad. Besides these about 120 minor boat races are being held all round the year. Of these, special importance is assigned to Rajiv Gandhi Boat Race and Indira Gandhi Boat Race (Kochi). However, it took several years to recognize these boat races as items under water sports. These boat races have great potential in tourism development in the State.

In 1967 Alappuzha was included under the Special Area Scheme and a rowing instruction centre of SAI(Sports Authority of India) was set up. It was after this that Kerala could turn to fiberglass boats and modern items such as 'Kayaking' and 'Canoeing' and adopt new technology in boat racing. Kerala completed in the above items in the 1950 Asian Championships and in 1997, the State won a gold and Silver medal - that too in the ladies section in which Jessymol and Minimol excelled. India fervently hopes to get a gold medal in Olympics in this category in the near future.

Football and Cricket - the Most Popular Games

Both Football and Cricket were brought to India by the British as games to be played at military camps. As the Malabar Province was under the British rule those days, naturally these games became popular in Malabar also. History records that when Arthur Wellesly (who later became famous as Duke of Wellington) was residing at Tellicherry, he took great interest in training youngsters in the game of cricket. It was cricket that first reached Kerala as a foreign sport. The harbinger of cricket clubs in Kerala was the Tellicherry Town Cricket Club set up in 1850.

It was only after four decades that the popular game of football reached Kerala. The initial efforts were made in 1890 by Bishop Boyle, a Chemistry Professor of the Maharaja's College, Thiruvananthapuram He imparted the first lessons in football to the youngsters playing the country ball game at the Puthenkacheri Maidan (the present Central Stadium). Football (soccer) became more popular and struck deeper roots in Kerala than cricket owing to some of its special characteristics like easily understandable rules and less costly nature.

Cricket got its foothold at Kannur and arrived at Kochi via Kozhikkod and Palakkad It was only after its arrival at Kochi did it received greater attention. Some of the youngsters of the Kochi Royal family put together a cricket team in the forties (the Princes Team) and began to compete with other teams such as United Club, Maharajas Team and Kammath's team. With the integration of Cochin and Travancore, zonal matches were arranged and in the Ranji Trophy Matches at the national level. Karala's first match was against Mysore at Bangalore. Though the team captained by Mampally Raghavan (P.M.Raghavan) of Tellicherry lost that match, the first victory was recorded when its T.C.Team under the captaincy of his brother P.M.Ananthan won the match held at Trivandrum in 1953. Later, after the birth of Kerala, the team under the captaincy of Balan Pandit defeated Andhra by an innings and five runs, thus recording the first Ranji Trophy victory for united Kerala. In the eighties Kerala had reached a stage when it could win more matches and record a few draws. Still Kerala could not attain the standard of most other state teams and hence could not present any player to the national team.

Football in Kerala has an entirely different tradition. It turned out to be the most popular game in the State by the thirties when several football clubs were formed in Travancore and Malabar areas. 'Sevens' football was also popular those days. The most prominent football teams in Trivandrum were the Pattah young Challengers, St.Joseph etc. Players like Pappachan, Thankachan, Balakrishnan, Benjamin and Vincent stood out in enthralling generations of spectators.

The changes which began during the fifties shown results in the seventies when Kerala emerged as a power to be reckoned with in the national football scene. Since 1957 the State team is playing as Kerala team. Even though Kerala then had stalwarts like Ravindran (Pettah Young Challengers Club), Balakrishnan, Indrapalan, Sundararajan, Declasse and Vincent, the State had to wait for 16 more years to win the national tournament for the Santosh Trophy. It was under the captaincy of Mani that Kerala was able to win the cup in 1973.

There were several institution - sponsored teams in the football scene of Kerala. The KSRTC team was one of the strongest teams. There were also other soccer teams like Kundara Alind, Premier Tyres, Kannur Keltron, FACT, Titanium etc. which could boast of very good players. The majority of the players included in the 1973 Santosh Trophy winning team belonged to the Premier Tyres. The tournaments like the G.V.Raja Trophy, Sait Nagjee Trophy and Chakola Trophy encouraged the emergence of good players. Kerala had to wait for another two decades for winning the National Trophy which it won in 1992 and 1993. The Kerala Police Team which was given shape to after 1985 contributed substantially to the strength Kerala could achieve during the 1990's. This change was quite evident after Mr.M.K.Joseph assumed office as DGP of Kerala Police. Several good players like Satyan, Sharaf Ali, Pappachan and Vijayan playing in the Kerala Police Team was a major factor in contributing to this positive development. Arjuna Award was bestowed to I.M. Vijayan in 2003.


Tennis, being a costly game, was mainly confined to the aristocracy in the earlier years. Mr.T.K.Gopalan Nair, the Physical Director of Science College, Thiruvananthapuram, was a good tennis player. He started coaching the members of the royal family and certain others belonging to the higher rungs of the society in the manses of the game. Col.G.V.Raja (Godavarma Raja), who was to play a vital role in Kerala Sports later, was also there to study tennis. A number of tennis courts were opened in the State then. Trivandrum could boast of tennis courts at the National Club and the University College. Later, a tennis club was started by G.V.Raja himself at the 'Rathapura Hills' at Sasthamangalam (Now it has been converted into a basketball court). At that time it was considered as one of the best clay courts in India. In 1936, Col.G.V.Raja invited the Wimbledon Champian Bill Tilden of England and the world doubles champions Koshaye and Ravalis (Germany) and made them play in tennis court in the sole intention of propagating tennis in the State.


Volleyball is quite a popular game in the State owing to its less costly nature. While other games like football and cricket require huge stadium for playing, volleyball can be played in much smaller courts. Kerala had some of the best volleyball players in the past. When we think of volleyball in the name of Jimmy George comes first in our minds. The achievements of this great sportsman are incredible. Other stars like Pappan, Varkey, Pappachan, Achutha Kurup, Syril Velloor and Udayakumar have also brought laurels to the State and Country. Among women the list of good volleyball players includes names such as Elamma, Eliamma and Mary Chacko.

Role of Pioneers of Sports and Institutions

In 1835, after implementation of educational reforms, the administrative reforms of William Bentick also enabled to build, a strong base for English education in India. In this education programme considerable importance was given to physical education also. This was implements through the European schools and Missionaries schools existing at that time. The winds of change reached Kerala where the Britishers laid much emphasis on physical education and sports activities.

Much encouragement to sports was given by the YMCA's spread throughout Kerala. A physical education training centre was started at Madras by the YMCA. Many of the Keralites who got education in the centre brought in several reforms in physical education. The drill masters who had knowledge of some military exercises only were substituted by physical education instructors and directors in charge of physical education at there school, college and university levels. YMCA's gave special emphasis to games like basket ball, volleyball and badminton and these games quickly caught up at the school and college levels.

It was in 1945 that the Olympic Association was started at Trivandrum under the leadership of Mr.Raghavan Nair. It was in the same year that he started the Travancore Athletic Association, Travancore Basketball Association and the Travancore Volleyball Association. These three Associations were brought under the fold of Olympic Association. In 1947 swimming as a competitive sport was started through the efforts of Capt. Nagappan Nair.

Sports in Kerala is closely associated with the multi-faceted personality of Col.Godavarma Raja. It was he who organized Travancore Tennis Association, Travancore Cricket Association and Travancore Aquatic Association. In 1952, owing to some misunderstanding between Mr.Raghavan Nair of the Olympic Association and the royal family, G.V.Raja decided to create an organization for sports. Thus in 1954 the Travancore Cochin Sports Council was set up for the all round development of sports. This council, after the State Reorganization of 1956, was redesignated as Kerala Sports Council with its headquarters at Trivandrum.


Athletics in Kerala has a fairly long history. Kerala has won more laurels in athletics than in any other form of sport, thanks the women athletics like P.T.Usha.

The thirties witnessed certain competitions in athletics which were held in the capital city of Trivandrum. The main athletic event at that time was the Sree Moolum Athletics organized by T.K.Kunjuraman Nair and T.K.Gopalakrishnan Nair. Later, Sree Chitra Athletic meet was held. The top athletics of the day included Champion Bhaskaran, Raghavan Nair and V.Madhavan Nair (later known as 'Mali' who excelled in Children's Literature). The first athletes who have jumped more than 6 ft. in high jump were Madhavan Nair and Govindan adopting the Western rollover method and the Eastern rollover method respectively. Madhavan Nair was also the Travancore Tennis Champion for 5 to 6 years. It was Kunjuraman Nair who initiated the Olympic Movement in Kerala. Around that time (in the forties) the first sports organization came into existence in the State and the Olympic movement in India began under the leadership of Sandhu. At the State level, State Olympic meets were held. In 1942, Kerala also participated in the Madras Olympics. Since then athletics was given great encouragement in the State.

The National Athletic Championship held in Kerala in 1967 was a real shot in the arm for Kerala athletics. The well known athletes of the period included Dasappan Pillai and Mile Kumaran. Kerala attracted the attention of the whole nation when Suresh Babu, a 19 year old BSc. student of Quilon Fatima College, participated in the 1972 Manich Olympic Games in the high jumps event and performed quite well. However, he could not reach the final of the event. In the Montreal Olympics of 1976 it was sheer ill luck that denied our medal hope in the long jump event; T.C.Yohannan, the medal prospect, could not achieve the required norm for the event owing to injury. In the Tehran Asiad he was able to come up with a record jump of 8.07 metres, but in the Olympic event he was illuminated in the qualifying round itself. With that India's medal hopes and Yohannan's life ambition were dashed.

The entry of women athletes from Kerala argued well for India in general and Kerala in particular. The first Kerala woman athlete to enter the international arena was Angel Mary who participated in the 1978 Bangkok Asian Games. She was able to win silver medals in the pentathlons and long jump events. P.T.Usha, who was to become a super athlete later on, first entered the international scene by 1980. Usha's debut was in the Moscow Olympics of 1980. The Kerala woman who underwent the rigours of the sports school actually lifted the standard several votches higher. With the culmination of the 1982 Delhi Asiad, the trinity of Usha, Shyni and Valsamma became all in all in Indian athletes. Since then there was a continuous flow of medals towards Kerala. In 1982 the gold medal win of Valsamma in the 400 metres hurdles surprised one and all. She became the first Kerala woman athlete to win an Asiad gold medal. If it was Valsamma in 1982, it was the turn of Usha in 1984. She was a real medal prospect at the 1984 Olympic Games, but she lost a medal by a whisker - ie. by one hundredth of a second - in the 400 metres. That the Payyoli Express is still running is a wonder for every sports lover. She was the first Malayali athlete to have reached the final of an Olympic event. However, before Usha, Shiny had reached the semi-final stage in the 800 metres in the Olympics. The next few years belonged to Usha and Shiny as they won innumerable national and international athletic events. In 2003, Anju Bobby George brought home a bronze medal from the World Athletic Championships held at Paris, pushing down the mental barriers pointed to that Indians won't win one from the international athletic meets.