Poona: Where Badminton was Invented

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    India is quite a late bloomer in the game of badminton, so who would have thought that the modern version of the sport originated in ‘Poona’, or present-day Pune in Maharashtra? The game – originally named ‘Poona’ after the city of its origin – was invented in the mid-19th century by British army officers to amuse themselves.

    But badminton in its earliest form goes back 2,000 years. The British Museum in London had sketches that show Chinese peasants playing with a shuttle-like object, which they smacked with their feet. The racquet was still a long way from being invented.

    In Europe too, a version of the game called jeu de volant (hitting the shuttle) was played in Greece, but it was mainly a pastime for children. The game was played by two children, one each on either side of a court, hitting a shuttle with battledores, a wooden bat or paddle with a shaft that served as a handle.

    Several centuries later, British army officers in Poona gave the sport a radical twist. They introduced a net to divide the court, and hit a shuttlecock made of plastic or leather with wooden racquets strung with animal gut. This modern version of the game was first played in 1867, in the backyards of the sprawling bungalows of army officers, near Ammunition Factory (present-day Indian Ordnance Factories) on Caldle Cot Road, Khadaki. For all their inventiveness, they called the game simply ‘Poona’. But they also invented a set of rules for the sport.

    Sometimes, the game was played indoors, in church halls meant for community gatherings. Since the doors of the hall opened inwards (they were kept open to let the air in, which helped increase shuttle speed and flight), the shape of the court resembled an hourglass!

    So how and when did ‘Poona’ become ‘badminton’?

    Well, like with so many things Indian, the British took the game of ‘Poona’ too to England. This is attributed to Army officer Henry St Clair Wilkins, and the sport remained popular among army officers in Britain.

    The game attracted the attention of the ninth Duke of Beaufort, Henry Adelbert Wellington Fitzroy Somerset. Intrigued by the sport, in 1873, he introduced it to his guests at a lawn party held at his estate.

    The Duke called it ‘badminton’ after his country estate, Badminton House, in Gloucestershire. And, thus, its Indian connection was erased and soon forgotten. From there on, badminton grew in popularity across Europe.

    Badminton of the South

    Mind you, even before British officers invented ‘Poona’, ‘ball badminton’ was already being played in South India. Played with the same kind of wooden racquet as ‘shuttle badminton’ is, ball badminton uses a soft and lightweight woollen ball instead of a shuttlecock. The game was first played in 1856 by the royal family of Tanjore, in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.

    Although invented in Tamil Nadu, ball badminton became popular in other southern states, including Karnataka and Hyderabad State. It was so popular that it was preferred over ‘shuttle badminton’.

    Even in the late 1970s, when legendry shuttler Prakash Padukone was prepping for the All-England Open Badminton Championship, and had already won plenty of international laurels, he was not very well-known in his home state. It is said that when Padukone used to go jogging, people barely recognised him, thanks to ball badminton scoring over the shuttle version of the sport! In the same measure, ball badminton was not known in North India.

    Earliest Badminton Sporting Bodies

    - The first dedicated badminton club – the Bath Badminton Club – was established in England in 1877. A decade later, the club drew up a formal set of rules based on the ones that had originated in India.

    - The oldest world badminton body – the Badminton Association of England (BAE) – was set up in 1893.

    - The Badminton Association of India (BAI), the governing body of badminton in India, was established in 1934. It is the first-ever badminton body in the country.

    - The world governing body of the sport – the International Badminton Federation (IBF) – was established in 1934 in Cheltenham, UK.

    Fast-forward to 1980. After Prakash Padukone's All-England Open feat, then considered the ultimate achievement in badminton, ‘shuttle badminton’ became popular across India. The Bengaluru shuttler, once virtually anonymous in his home state despite his sporting achievements, had succeeded in imprinting the sport into the national consciousness.

    Cover Image: A game of badminton in progress at a badminton court in a garden in Poona, India in 1912

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