Kho Kho, a kabaddi-like sport linked with Indian epic Mahabharata - know all about it

Kho Kho, once played in combative situations, marries speed, precision, intelligence and agility. Know the rules.

By Utathya Nag
Picture by Khelo India

Similar to the children’s playground game of tag, Kho Kho is a traditional Indian sport which has existed in some form or the other for thousands of years.

While the exact origin of Kho Kho is hard to determine, it is believed that certain aspects of the game have been mentioned in the ancient Indian epic of Mahabharata, in the iconic Chakravyuha incident to be precise.

Kho Kho history

For the uninitiated, the Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic which chronicles the conflict between two sets of royal cousins – the Pandavas being the protagonists and the Kauravas being the antagonists. The central plot revolves around an 18-day long war.

On the 13th day of the war, Guru Dronacharya, who was the combat teacher to both the Pandavas and Kauravas but was fighting the war for the latter, devised the Chakravyuha, a deadly almost impenetrable war formation, which unless broken would result in the Pandavas losing.

The Dronacharya Award, India’s highest award for sports coaches, incidentally, is named after the same Guru Dronacharya.

With none from the original five Pandavas managing to breach the deadly Chakravyuha, Abhimanyu, the young son of Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, stepped up and broke through the Chakravyuha formation.

The endeavour cost Abhimanyu his life after being outnumbered in combat at the centre of the Chakravyuha but gave the Pandavas the opening they needed to eventually win the war.

The style of fighting Abhimanyu adopted to breach the Chakravyuha is said to have closely resembled the concept of ring play, which is a defensive tactic applied in the game of Kho Kho.

Experts believe that Kho Kho originated in the Maharashtra region of India and in the ancient times was played on chariots and was called Rathera. Rath is the Hindi translation for a chariot.

The present version of Kho Kho, played by individuals on foot, originated in 1914 at the time of the first World War.

Pune’s Deccan Gymkhana club first came out with formalised rules and regulations for Kho Kho. These gave the sport a structured look. 

Kho Kho, along with other indigenous Indian sports like kabaddi and mallakhamb, was demonstrated on the sidelines of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The first ever All India Kho Kho Championship was held at Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh in 1959-60 while the national championship for women was played in Kolhapur, Maharashtra in 1960-61.

Kho Kho was also demonstrated during the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi and the first-ever Asian Championship was held in Kolkata in 1996. It was also a medal sport at the South Asian Games 2016 in Guwahati.

Currently, almost 25 countries have their national Kho Kho teams.

How to play Kho Kho

Like tag, the objective of Kho Kho is to tag or hunt down an opponent and score points. However, it is bound by a strict set of rules rather than being a free-for-all playground game.

A senior international Kho Kho match has two innings separated by a brief break. Each innings has two turns, lasting nine minutes each, where teams alternate between chasing and defending. The team with the most points at the end of the two innings wins the match.

If the teams are tied at the end of the match, an additional innings is played to decide the winner. If there's still no definite winner, both teams take a turn each and the side to win one point in the least amount of time is the winner.

Kho Kho playing field and dimensions

A competitive Kho Kho playing field is rectangular in shape, measuring 27mx16m. The two 27m lines are called side lines while the two 16m lines are the end lines.

At a distance of 1.5m parallel to the two end lines, two lines are drawn to demarcate two small rectangular areas at both ends of the field called the free zones.

Midway through the inner edge of the two free zones, two poles (120-125 cm in length and 9-10cm in diameter) are planted vertically on the ground.

A small lane, 30cm in width, parallel to the side lines joins the foot of two poles and is called the central lane. The area between the two free zones is then further subdivided by eight more lanes, called cross lanes, equidistant from each other and drawn parallel to the end lines. The cross lanes are 35cm wide.

Kho Kho rules

A Kho Kho match starts with a coin toss. The winning captain puts his hands up and points their index finger towards either the central line, signalling a chase, or the side lines, signalling a defence.

The chasing team, consisting of nine players, takes the field for the chase. Eight players take a sitting position, crouched in the eight small rectangles formed by the intersection of the central and cross lanes.

Consecutive chasers cannot face in the same direction and have to take their positions facing opposite side lines. The ninth chaser, called the attacker or active chaser, starts the match from one of the free zones. There are 12 players in each Kho Kho team, the remaining three can be brought on as substitutes.

The defending team, meanwhile, sends in a group of three defenders for the start of the match.

The match starts with the active chaser trying to tag (or touch) one of the three defenders.

However, a chaser's movement is restricted during a chase. A chaser can only run in the direction in which they take their first step in, also called taking direction. The active chaser can also not cross over the central lane while chasing the defenders.

If the chaser wants to change direction or cross to the other half of the central line, they will need to enter the free zone, touch the pole and change direction or halves, which makes the chase challenging.

However, they can tag one of their fellow inactive chasers while uttering the word ‘Kho’ to hand over the chase to them. The instant a ‘Kho’ is made, the tagged chaser becomes the active chaser and the one who gives the ‘Kho’ becomes inactive and has to sit down in the now active chaser’s position.

Generally, Khos are given when a defender crosses over to the other end of the central lane, so tagging in a chaser facing that direction of the court is always the norm. Tags or Khos to chasing team-mates are generally made on the back, between the shoulder and waist. If a teammate extends his arm or feet for a Kho, it is deemed illegal.

Once a defender is touched by a chaser, the chasing team wins a point and the tagged defender leaves the field of play. Once all three defenders are out, the defending team sends in the next batch of three defenders.

The batch of three for each group of defenders and the sequence in which each batch enters needs to remain the same during a turn.

Also, an attacker who tags the last remaining defender of a batch cannot continue the chase. They need to ‘Kho’ or tag in a team-mate to initiate the chase on the new batch of defenders.

Traditionally teams send in their best three defenders first to eat up as much of the designated time as possible. Once the nine minutes are up, the chasing team becomes the defending team and the second turn of the innings is played out.

The sequence repeats for another innings and the team with the most points wins.

The captain of the chasing team, however, can end the first innings turn before the regulation time, much like declarations in cricket, as long as they have scored more than nine points. In the second innings, a captain can end the turn at any time.

Also, like cricket’s follow on, the team which chases first in Kho Kho has the option of enforcing a ‘follow on’ on their opposition if they have a lead of over six or eight points in the first innings.

If a follow-on is enforced, the trailing team chases first in the second innings and the team which enforced the follow-on can take their chasing turn last if the opposition manages to erase the deficit.

Like football, the concepts of yellow and red cards exist in Kho Kho. Cards are given out for violations like disorderly behaviour, overly aggressive tackles or for a variety of other technical fouls.

The yellow card is the first caution and two yellow cards in a match means the player will need to sit out the remainder of the match and the next match of a particular tournament.

Two yellow cards accumulated in different matches of a tournament will force the player to miss the next match. A direct red card, meanwhile, results in suspension from the ongoing match and the next match of the tournament.

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