A game that is traditional alright so much so that it does not even command recognition beyond the local boundaries but is still peculiarly global in being perhaps the precursor to a much popular global sport, the Indian state of Manipur bears within itself such expressions of identity that are befitting indeed of its uniqueness while at the same time being alluding also to a prominence that emerges as more wholesome in nature. Played out through the curious catches of the coconut game, or more appropriately the coconut snatching game is what asserts as the game of Yubi Lakpi that is but indeed in some way the native Indian version of the more cosmopolitan rugby.
It isn’t just tradition though that marks this particular arena of the sports as being a catch in uniqueness. Also on more than immense commencing of play is the run of the religious that dominates this specifically ‘Hindu’ game, in that its origins find drawing upon a certain distinctive account of Hinduism. Associated with the much popularised and popularly explored event of the Samundra Manthan is this occurring of the Yubi Lakpi sporting rivalry that has been an integral component of the traditional Manipuri way of life.
Rather intricately tied to the cultural existence of the state is this game that comes across as a combination of football and rugby, but is in fact quite different a wonder in itself. Officially played during the spring festival of Yaoshang upon the palace grounds of the Shri Shri Bijoy Govindajee temple, and occurring as a rather important event, esteemed enough to be graced in attendance by the erstwhile royals of the state, Yubi Lakpi has for long been defining the festive fervor of the state during the conducive days of many a comfortable springs.
Much like the tale out of which it takes form, believed to have started as a ceremonial re-enactment of the celestial episode in snatching of the pots of nectar, the game itself is one of much fascination. Throughout the entire duration of what happens to be an individual sport and yet played out between two sides of Team God and Team Evil, much like the churning of the ocean saw the Devas team up against the Asuras as outlined in the Vishnu Purana, the players battle it out with a coconut as the ceremonial ‘trophy’ to treasure.
The presentation of the coconut to the King or the royal head is in fact what is the ultimate goal of the game that sees seven players of each side display their prowess and strength in what formed a demonstration of their martial abilities at least in ancient times. No wonder back in the days when the era of the Kings and the Queens did rule supreme, Yubi Lakpi found also more practical significance as a game played to select the army’s best man. Such requirements and intentions ingrained in the traditional play of the game mandated it to be an all male bastion, with even the very rules of play further establishing this exclusivity of it.
A great test of fitness and agility, Yubi lakpi needs to be played bare footed and bare bodied with only a pair of shorts or specifically its traditional form of the langot being the only visible signs of costume. Both the subjects and the object of play- the players and the coconut respectively needs to be sufficiently and thoroughly oiled before play begins so as to make them all slippery to handle. And this element of defining is also what substantially ups the level of difficulty through which the game finds chasing along the medium of what appears to be a mere coconut but is actually quite ‘distinguished’ in both its purpose and the process of its attaining.
It also is the coconut that serves as the toss setting the stage for the game to begin to be played out across a 45m by 18m expanse of bare field. The rules of Yubi lakpi tend to be intriguing as well, with the coconut barred to be held by hands or even against the chest and finding place under the arms instead. Obviously, the coconut is not allowed to be kicked by any player and while that might be a very natural drawing upon the context of the game that asserts rather clearly its identity in the yubi or coconut needing to only be obtained through snatching as referred to be lukpi, the terms of kicking- or rather the ‘protocols’ in not kicking are rather strictly established for the players as well.
It is necessary for all players of the game of Yubi Lakpi to remain aware and alert to not kick or tackle or punch even the players who do not possess the coconut. And while that makes the game even more challenging, it also is what makes it all the more thrilling a sport to follow. And that is what builds upon as well upon the other attributes and abilities that a play of Yubi Lakpi calls for in not just the physical endurance of speed and fitness but also the more cognitive responses in great reflexes and sharpness of mind. This explains why this religion derived form of sport happens to be one of the more popular such indigenous scouting out in and only in the Manipuri context. And yet somewhat ironically as well, Yubi lakpi resides also in the unwanted distinction of being one of those traditional games or rather one of those long held fores of the cultural staring at a future of diminishing chances.
The irony extends further as well, with the game asserting as being an individual shot at winning despite being a team event. But even in its largely individual stance, it still is the game’s outcome in terms of team performance that hold significance during its most coveted annual play as part of the Yaoshang celebrations. A win for Team God signifies an abundance of food and prosperity and peace and happiness for the state, even as the individual winner claims for himself the monetary token and associated such tokens of recognition, most generally in the form of some symbolic representation of the Manipuri identity. What’s more, he is also entitled to as curious a lap of honour of sorts, carried by his teammates along with the coconut all the way up to the royal temple for a holy dip in the temple waters.
Beyond the continuing lineage of this venture in coconut chasing marking the buoyant spring time festivities of the state, Yubi Lakpi also finds representation along the annals of its annual cultural festival. In the Manipur Tourism Department’s initiative of the Sangai Festival, yubi lakpu finds place of pride as a native sport representing in turn the very identity of the place where it is exclusively played. Equally commanding of space in popular culture has been this contact sport of oriental origins, be it in its regional presentation in the namesake 1999 documentary by eminent filmmaker Bobby Wahengbam or its slated Bollywood depiction by director Omung Kumar as a sports drama film.
Even in case of greater recognition in the Indian context and not explored only by the informative medium in entertainment but finding ‘validation’ as being one of the 75 ‘Bharatiya sports’ set to be introduced in schools as part of the Central Government’s education ministry initiative of the Indian Knowledge Systems has been Yubi lakpi that resides indeed in a place of such characterising that makes it significant even more than being one of the many traditional games of India. In being in fact one of the oldest of sports to be discovered in the country as well as in its links to the autochthonous forms of Hinduism and of course not to miss its assertion in bearing the actual origins of the international play of rugby, this Manipuri rugby of the coconut snatching manifestation is one much piquing indeed of the common curiosity.