It’s a sultry Saturday in Virajpet, and the stands around the college grounds are packed with spectators. The teams in action, Chendanda and Palanganda, in orange and yellow respectively, pass, block, and swing their way to a tie, followed by a tense penalty shootout. After four failed attempts on either side, Palanganda’s Muthanna scores. The crowd erupts with wild cheering. It’s official: the Palanganda family has reclaimed victory at the 2015 Kodava Hockey Festival.

At a time when cricket monopolises our sporting imagination, the Kodava community commits itself to India’s national game with renewed vigour every summer. The annual Kodava Hockey Festival in Kodagu (also called Coorg) is now touted as the world’s largest field hockey tournament, with about 250 family-clans (okkas) participating every year.

Pandanda Kuttappa was inspired to start this tournament in his hometown after attending the 1982 Asian Games. The Indian hockey team then had many Kodava players and had already won eight Olympic gold medals, but the people in Kodagu could only hear about their players’ skill, techniques and wins over radio. “I wanted to create a hockey festival that would bring the Olympians to Kodagu. So people from all over Coorg or anyone interested could come, watch and observe their skills,” he says.

The festival started off in the 1990s in the village of Karada, with 60 family-clans competing. Over the next decade, at least 10 more teams would join in each year. “Often, the organisers would cook for the teams and dine with them, helping them rediscover lost family connections,” says Sandhya Kumar, who has made a documentary, Hockey in my Blood , on this unique tournament.

Now in its 19th year, the tournament is seeing a drop in turnout, particularly for the initial matches, says Kumar. “The stands are usually only around 30 per cent full until the quarterfinals, when things really start to heat up. After that it is packed with close to 10,000 people. It seems the tradition of families cooking and sharing food has died down over the years, but the competition seems to be getting fiercer,” she says.

Why do the Kodavas love hockey so much? Over the years, more than 50 Kodavas have represented India in international hockey, earning their district the title ‘Cradle of Indian hockey.’ The festival is clearly an extension of this love. “It isn’t clear why the love for hockey is so ingrained in Kodavas,” confesses Kumar. “When I explored the subject for the film, I realised it could be anything from colonial influences to the fact that the Kodavas are a very active and physically-fit clan.” Shot over two years in Kodagu and screened at this year’s hockey festival, the documentary chronicles the history of the tournament and the popular contenders.

The Palanganda family, which features prominently in the film, has won the cup five times and been runner-up twice. Spoiler alert: the winner in Hockey in my Blood is Anjaparavanda, which is a rare team with a woman player, Vishma Appaiah. Another woman player, Amulya Akkamma captained her Kongetira family team to reach the quarterfinals this year. “When the game is on, there is no question of special treatment because I am a girl. I push, shove, get pushed and shoved just like anyone else,” she says. “One of my biggest supporters is our goalkeeper, Harish Appanna. People like him are the reason young players like me are getting interested in hockey again. I hope a lot more young people play for their families in the future.”

It seems to be more than just love for hockey that draws these families to compete. Every year, different family-clans submit detailed proposals to the Kodava Hockey Academy to host the tournament.

Over time, it has become a matter of pride and honour to be the host. “I was on my toes all of last year,” says Rajiv Cariappa, convenor and treasurer at this year’s tournament. “With the contributions from the members of the Kuppanda clan, including women who married into other families, we raised a sizeable amount. We were able to put up LED TV walls for the matches and even played the ads of our sponsors, adding a new dimension of professionalism to the festival. With the leftover money, we are making contributions towards hockey training camps to encourage young players. Over the past three years, I have seen a surge in interest among the younger audience, which is great. This year, I heard, vehicles were parked up to a kilometre radius around the grounds. The stands and food stalls were packed, there was so much excitement in the air,” he adds.

In a lifetime, a Kodava will only get to see his or her family host the cup once — there are 800-odd family-clans in Kodagu — and this seems reason enough for family members to drop jobs, request extended leave at IT companies and even arrive from overseas to organise and participate in the games. The winning team gets a cash prize of ₹2 lakh, while the runners-up get one lakh.

The tournament is also ideal for talent spotting. Scouts from Sports Authority of India arrive here to select men and women players, some of whom can barely afford jerseys and equipment, and provide them training. Quite a few of them have gone on to become state and national players.

So is the festival finally about serious hockey or a family reunion? “It is primarily a reunion,” says BP Govinda, chief selector, Indian hockey team and former Olympian and Asian Games player. “The teams consist of people aged 12 to 40. Some are professional players, some are old-timers, and some are just playing their first competition. In my opinion, there may not be much serious hockey there, but it’s a lot of good fun.”

The documentary declares, “It is said that if a Kodava is not working on a coffee plantation, he is likely to be either in the Indian army, or playing field hockey.” Hockey’s popularity may be fading in much of India, but in the coffee-growing cradle of Kodagu, the sport is nurtured and loved.

Hockey in my Blood (a documentary in English and Koda-thak) will be screened in Bengaluru next month.

Tara Rachel Thomas is a Bengaluru-based writer