Chak de, Kovilpatti: A Tamil Nadu town’s romance with hockey

The residents of Kovilpatti watch, play, train for and breathe hockey; it's a passion handed over down the generations since British Raj days

The residents of Kovilpatti share a special bond with the sport. Representational image: iStock

Since being selected for the senior Indian men’s hockey team coaching camp, Mareeswaran Sakthivel has been working hard to become a part of the team representing India at the Commonwealth Games. He is confident. So are the residents of Kovilpatti, an industrial town in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, which sowed the seeds of hockey dreams during his childhood.

“I started playing hockey at the age of 12 and it is mainly because of my father. Even though my father could not become a professional hockey player due to financial circumstances, he used to watch all the hockey matches that took place in the town and I would accompany him. There are several instances when he stood through the match (indicating his passion). That was what motivated me to learn the sport,” said Sakthivel, who was a part of the junior Indian Men’s hockey coaching camp in 2020 and obtained a job at the office of the Accountant General in Chennai.

Along with Sakthivel, two other players – Aravind (junior) and Karthi (senior) – from Kovilpatti were also part of the camp this year, according to government hockey coach N Muthukumar. “Unlike other places, the residents of Kovilpatti share a special bond with the sport. A massive crowd that gathers every year to watch hockey matches and the number of players attending the selection trial stand witness to it,” he said.

A dozen hockey clubs

The town has six gravel grounds – one each at Pandavarmangalam, Joosalipatti, Illupaiurani, Thittankulam, KR College and VOC government higher secondary school – and a Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT’s) artificial turf in Krishna Nagar. As many as 12 hockey clubs function in the town.

The town has six gravel grounds – one each at Pandavarmangalam, Joosalipatti, Illupaiurani, Thittankulam, KR College and VOC government higher secondary school

About 190 players, most of them from Kovilpatti, had participated in the Thoothukudi district level selection trial conducted this year and the players had come in four to five vans for the trials, Muthukumar said, explaining the interest of the players. As many as 11 players from Kovilpatti had participated in the Junior Tamil Nadu camp recently.

Unlike other districts, about 25 teams from the district had participated in the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu’s (SDAT) district league and it was conducted for three days, he said, adding that from other districts, hardly five or six teams would participate and the league stage would be concluded within a day.

Even though hockey is one of the expensive sports, parents have been encouraging their wards to take up the sport and as a result of that, 46 players from Kovilpatti trained at five SDAT sports hostels in and around Thoothukudi district.

The history of the passion

Muthukumar said hockey was introduced to the city’s residents in the 1930s, during the British period. “In those days, the Defence hockey team was very strong and many from the town were in the military. The players in turn had introduced the sport to the public and it was passed on from one generation to another,” he added.

Lakshmi Mills, one of the reputed companies in the region, had offered permanent jobs to players under the sport quota, said C Guruchitra Shanmuga Bharathi, secretary of the Thoothukudi District Hockey Association. Later on, several other companies too made similar job offers.

“During those days, people used to come in bullock carts to witness the match and most of them would know the rules by heart. The enthusiasm remains unabated even today,” he said.

Training session at Kovilpatti

Every year, at least one All India Tournament would take place in the town and players from across the country would participate. Multiple state and district level tournaments would be conducted here every year.

Dhyan Chand visit

In the 1950s, Indian hockey player Dhyan Chand had visited Kovilpatti and trained players here, Muthukumar said, adding that multiple players from the town had represented the Indian team. “Hockey is a part of our lifestyle and during the weekends, a large number of people, irrespective of their age, play hockey in the available space in the town,” he added.

“We have been playing hockey for generations together and the sport is in our genes,” said N Santhanaraj, 42. He was a state-level hockey player from Kovilpatti. He has taken up farming as a profession and trains children in hockey.

Pointing out that numerous competitions were conducted between multiple teams in Kovilpatti and surrounding villages, he said that winning the game is a prestigious matter. “Hockey is a mandatory sport organised during festivals and at times, a competition between families would also be conducted. Almost everyone in the town plays the sport,” he added.

Girls joining in

Muthukumar said: “It is only now that girls too have started showing interest and taking part in hockey tournaments. Earlier, only 8 to 12 girls would participate in selection trials. Now, the number has increased several times.”

One of the reasons why girls’ participation in the sport from the town was less was parents’ hesitation, said Santhanaraj, adding that now the situation has changed and parents are encouraging their daughters to take part in the sport.

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