Hockey village which produced India's finest cries out for attention
Saunamara, a village of roughly 1000 people, has produced several hockey internationals like HI president Dilip Tirkey and India vice-captain Amit Rohidas. Locals, however, think the village has not got its due yet.
Sundergarh: At first glance, Saunamara is a village like any other – open fields, narrow roads, few houses, sparse population and a serene atmosphere. The only exception is the noise from an earthmover engaged in a construction site at the entry of the village.
A closer look shows a synthetic blue turf, which seems to have been laid down recently. Labourers are working around it, giving it a shape of what appears to be a mini stadium. Closer to it, a signboard confirms the location - Saunamara, the legendary 'hockey village'.
"Recently, some people had come with drones and big cameras to shoot visuals and interview people," Chulu Barla, the sarpanch of the village, introduces himself.
For a place which has produced several hockey internationals, including the likes of the present Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey, vice-captain Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey and former player Subhadra Pradhan, modesty and simplicity remains the essence – qualities which the players from the area also seem to have imbibed.
The village would have remained nondescript, but for the hockey laurels it has brought since the late 1990s. No wonder then that Saunamara, this tiny village of a little more than a thousand people, in Balishankar block of Sundargarh district in western Odisha, often hosts visitors - mostly from the media fraternity - every now and then.
The need for development
The newly laid turf is the first synthetic hockey turf in this village. While this has brought a lot of joy to the locals ahead of the Hockey World Cup starting in January 2023, there is some confusion whether Saunamara has received its due.
"Wouldn't it have been nice if there was a gate or a banner at the entry point proudly announcing that this is the village of the hockey greats? Our assets are our players who have brought laurels to the country and we are proud of them. This should be developed like a pilgrimage site for hockey lovers," says Kunjalata Bhitiria, block chairman of Balisankara.
The other officials and locals surrounding her nod in agreement, but in a hushed tone.
"We don't want to sound negative when a tournament like the World Cup is being organised in Rourkela, but there is no doubt we had hoped for more development of our village," one of them says on condition of anonymity.
The roads in the village are more or less pucca, but there are patches that have not been constructed yet.
"When we say development, the people here want this place to become a model village. Are our achievements not enough to make this demand? We have basic facilities like roads and drinking water, but it has not reached all households," claims Bhitiria.
"However, the newly constructed turf is adding to our identity. That is some sort of consolation for us," she adds.
Carrying forward the legacy
Saunamara and the villages in this tribal belt have had a hockey connection for decades now. It is believed to have been introduced by the Christian missionaries and has become a way of life.
Here, youngsters have been known to make their own hockey sticks by bending a kendu branch, binding one end to create a curve and heating it over fire. Weddings are known to be solemnised with hockey matches between families.
"Every house has a hockey stick in this region. It is a part of our culture and identity now. So, even if not professionally, at least one member in every house plays hockey in our village," says Barla.
The craze is so much that it often prompts young kids to switch from studies to sports. In fact, Dipsan Tirkey, who was part of the gold winning team at the Junior World Cup, entered hockey like this.
"Dipsan was a good student. My plan was to encourage him to pursue higher studies and take up a job. But the hockey craze in the village prompted him to pick up a hockey stick. He followed his brother's footsteps and decided to join the Sports hostel. Hockey was always a part of our culture, and Dilip Tirkey's rise gave hope to the younger lot like Dipsan," says his father, a farmer by profession.
But Saunamara's backwardness is not just in social development. Hockey, which gives Saunamara its identity, is also in need of a push.
In the village high school located next to the Panchayat office, hockey is still played more as a passion rather than with proper coaching and technique.
Also, girls still struggle to find backing from their parents.
The popular village tournament 'Khasi tournament' - where the winning prize is usually a goat - also doesn't have a girls' team from Saunamara.
"There is a general lack of awareness. The girls can play with their siblings at home but we don't look at the sport with a professional lens," says Mary Florita Ekka, the physical education teacher of the high school.
Meanwhile, the new synthetic turf has ushered in a new hope for the locals. Many kids here do pick up a makeshift hockey stick early on in their lives, but the hope is that they get early exposure to state-of-art facilities, it would encourage more young ones to follow the sport professionally.
"We hope this turf changes the fortune of Saunamara for the better. We have a good hockey history and we hope to have a great future in hockey as well," Barla concludes.