Herlihy Cup: A Heritage and Social Capital of Darjeeling
This time of the year, football enthusiasts, are for a treat in the region of Darjeeling hills. Everywhere some football tournament is held, to commemorate the independence of the country, and culminates with a grand scale celebration on 15th August, the independence day. In Kalimpong and Kurseong it was known as the Independence Cup. In Darjeeling, it is the Herlihy Cup, a tournament in memory of Ms Herlihy, who is buried along with her personal history, in the soil of Darjeeling. However, her memory lingers along with the celebration of independence day in a scale as evident, only in the hills of Darjeeling.
Herlihy Cup started in the year 1917, the same year, when on 8th November the Hillmen’s Association submitted a refined version of the 1907 memorandum, to the Chief Secretary of the Government of Bengal demanding a ‘separate administrative unit’ comprising of the present day Darjeeling district with the Dooars areas of Jalpaiguri district. The Cup completes 100 years and is one of the oldest tournaments in the country, and so is the demand for Gorkhaland. It serves as a constant reminder of the number of years that have passed in the pursuit of Gorkhaland.
With colonialization of the India, like in many of other places, football also arrived. With the expansion of the Empire the popularity of football increased. In particular, it was after the ‘first war of Indian independence’ in 1857 that football began to assume wider social significance in the subcontinent (Burdsey 2007). Similarly, when the British first came to Darjeeling they introduced football to the inhabitants of the place. The initial football matches were played between army teams. The involvement of the army is also evident from the list of winners of the Herlihy Cup. Football gained recognition, in Darjeeling, when St. Paul’s School was transferred to Darjeeling from Calcutta in 1864. The physique of the Gorkhas was also favourable to the game of football and provided much-needed recreation and leisure (Sundas 2014). It is presumed that the natives learnt from informal kickabouts, it was likely that they would play in a way less constrained by rules, tactics or conventions. Many have narrated playing a game of football with a 'sangkhatra' as a ball and that too barefoot. I, myself, have witnessed playing with rags rolled into a shape of a ball. Playing the game of football was an accessible social activity for the young and hardy men (now it is gaining popularity even among women). It was a way of socializing with friends and community members in a recreational way and required the minimum of economic and social capital which facilitated the growth of the game (Sundas 2013).
Historiography of the region has not been reliable, moreover, there is no social history of the region which gives lucid accounts of people as well as other social activities of the region. The absence of historiography has led to the loss of the history of Herlihy Cup. Because football is and has been second only to religion for the people of the region (now this can be contested with the rise of cricket) the history of the Cup would have been able to reflect other spheres of people's lives. Unfortunately, only the names of the winners are there as remnants of history, and it does not say much of the region and people, apart from reflecting how dominant the army teams were in the sphere of football. Were there Gorkha people as part of the winning teams? Whether there were or not is not important an issue, but the impact it had on the sporting behaviour of the people is.
The tournament socialised the people to the game of football. It made people play the game which was most appropriate for them in terms of physicality as well as the economics associated with it. Traditionally, and not till the end of the 1980s Gorkhaland agitation, North Point College ground was the venue where most of the tournaments were held. Only with the Mahakal Cup did Lebong Ground, the present venue for the tournament, became popular. The former is an idyllic venue. The Himalayas in the background, the hill stand that people enjoyed, made it a special venue. The legendary goalkeeper of India, Bhaskar Ganguly has gone on record saying that the North Point Ground was one of the most picturesque he had ever played at and wanted to come year after year to this ground for this sake alone. Shyam Thapa, another legend of the game in India has said that the atmosphere on this ground was no less than any of the top venues of world football. The colourful clothes and umbrella that was a perennial part of the hill stand in the ground would make it a lovely sight for the eyes for anyone, whether football-loving or not (Sundas 2014).
The final of Herlihy Cup was the most awaited event in the calendar for the people of the place. Herlihy Cup is an event with which many from Darjeeling and the region can associate themselves with. Many young people watching games of the Cup took up football as a pursuit and it also helped in spreading the game to other parts of the region. The beautiful game became very popular among the masses and many from the region went on to win laurels. Herlihy Cup inspired many to play and the region has produced some very talented players who have represented many big clubs of the country.
Darjeeling has always lacked the infrastructure for football but this did not become a deterrent in developing skills. There was always the scarcity of a proper playing field and players had to hone their skills on their own. (The grounds belonging to missionary schools were most of the time out of bounds for the locals). The culture of coaching the youngsters on the finer points of the art was perennially absent. However, as the adage goes ‘where there is a will, there is a way’ many from this region have been able to play the game at the highest level and carve a name for themselves. The greatest name that comes to mind when thinking of the superstars of Darjeeling football is none other than the legendary Chandan Singh Rawat. Though he was not born in Darjeeling and did not come till late in his life, contributed immensely to developing the game. He represented the country in numerous occasions and the highlight of his career was being part of the Asian Games Gold Winning team. He was the backbone of the national team of the 1950s and 60s. He was part of the formidable North Point Team, coaching and playing, which won almost everything, including the Herlihy Cup. His forays and deeds on the football field are still talked about among the football-loving common people of his generation.
The other notable star of football in Darjeeling is Benu Subba. He was a feared striker. At the very tender age of 15, he went on to represent his battalion and later played for East Bengal as well. Another prominent name that comes to my mind while writing about the football legends of the hills is Suren Pakhrin of Ghoom. He represented Ghoom Jorbangla Sporting Club in the local tournaments and was a prolific scorer. He was good with both his legs and with his head. His feats in the local tournaments spread like wildfire and were soon called by Rajasthan Club of Calcutta. He was highly skilled and would make accurate passes with his outsteps and insteps which were at that time not seen in the football circuits of India. Many others like Dinesh Thapa, from Kurseong, dynamite in himself but only 4 feet 6 inches, Tarun Mukhia, a stopper back, went on to play in Calcutta. Many other prominent names who have done tremendously well in the sport hailing from the hills of Darjeeling are Raju Rai, a stocky goalkeeper from Kalimpong. He was invited by the Bhutanese government to represent the Bhutan Football Association. Keshav Pradhan from Gurbathan received the same prestige from the Bhutan Football Association. Among the host of players who were offered this prestige was Urgen Lama, popularly known as ‘Mini’ for his height. He was a highly versatile player. He represented Bhutan in numerous tournaments and has played the Santosh trophy for Sikkim a number of times.
Many others like Mahendra Subba, Rajen Golay, Suman Tamang Ladup Lama, Subash (Pittaley ), Thendup Bhutia (a fine goalkeeper from Kalimpong) Ajay Tamang, Uday Subba, Uday Lama, Ugen Lama (from Kurseong), and many others could have played for the big clubs in the country but due to the lack of opportunities pushed them to oblivion.
In recent times many players from the hills of Darjeeling have done well. Crispen Chettri and Jiten Rai from Kurseong have represented the country at the under-19 level and represented numerous big clubs in the country. Dinker Chettri has represented East Bengal and humbly yours represented Eastern Railways in the Calcutta Super Division Football League.
The political situation of the hills in the 1980s led to the discontinuation of many tournaments and the Mahakal Cup initiated under the aegis of DGHC led to the lowering of the stature of Herlihy Cup and many other popular tournaments. This rendered many other popular tournaments like the RBGM tournament in Kurseong to disappear. However, Mahakal Cup did not survive though it received tremendous patronage from DGHC and favour from the cash-starved clubs of the region for the 2 lakh cash prize it offered to the winners. It only led to the diminishing of the sporting culture in general and football in particular. The local culture of sports is at present facing a lot of challenges being posed, not by intrinsic forces but rather extrinsic for its survival, sustainability and revival. Herlihy Cup has survived all the adverse environments and sustained itself. It is therefore very significant for us to save our heritage and social capital like the Herlihy Cup for restoring the sporting glory of the region. The winners of this year's competition will have a special place in the history of the Cup and I hope UKFC comes up triumphant in this hundredth edition.