It took me less than a day to vi­o­late most of the health and safety ad­vice given to vis­i­tors to In­dia.


In "Kushti Wrestling in In­dia, Part 1,” con­tribut­ing edi­tor An­to­nio Grac­effo re­calls the first few days he spent ful­fill­ing a dream that en­tailed learn­ing the an­cient In­dian art of grap­pling — on the sub­con­ti­nent!

Islept and ate in a pri­vate home. I brushed my teeth with tap wa­ter and bathed with well wa­ter. I spent the night in a mosquito-in­fested area with­out a mosquito net. And to top it off, I vis­ited a tightly en­closed, over­crowded room where they butchered chick­ens.

All of it was fan­tas­tic. And why wouldn’t it be? I was in In­dia, ful­fill­ing a dream to train in kushti wrestling.

KUSHTI IS a tra­di­tional form of In­dian grap­pling. Lo­cals re­fer to it as “mud wrestling” to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from mat wrestling, which de­notes mod­ern Olympic-style wrestling. Kushti is prac­ticed in tra­di­tional schools called akhara. The wrestlers are called pa­hal­wan. The matches take place in a mud pit that varies from 14 feet by 14 feet to 20 feet by 20 feet.

Un­like Olympic wrestling, kushti uses rules that are quite sim­ple. If you throw your op­po­nent down or wres­tle him to the ground in such a fash­ion that his shoul­der blades touch — if even for a sec­ond — he’s con­sid­ered pinned and the match is over. That means sac­ri­fice throws, roll­backs and other tech­niques that put you on your back are of lit­tle use.

There are a few other unique as­pects to the kushti rule set. First, two-on-one wrist con­trols on the ground are not al­lowed. Nei­ther is dou­ble boot rid­ing, which means you’ve laced both legs un­der your op­po­nent. (But do­ing that with one leg is OK.) All things con­sid­ered, how­ever, kushti is ex­tremely straight­for­ward.

Hin­dus, Mus­lims and Sikhs train to­gether twice daily in the typ­i­cal akhara. The diet the wrestlers fol­low is heavy in nuts, clar­i­fied but­ter, boiled milk, eggs and cha­p­ati bread. Even though Hin­dus and Sikhs are

In the big­gest matches, top ath­letes can earn $1,500 in prize money, the equiv­a­lent of a year’s salary for a la­borer.

tra­di­tion­ally veg­e­tar­ian, many of the wrestlers eat meat as a source of pro­tein and en­ergy for their sport.

KUSHTI WRESTLING plays a sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural role in In­dian so­ci­ety, en­com­pass­ing a long his­tory that be­gins with some of the old­est scripts of Hin­duism. Wrestlers of all reli­gions pay homage to Hanu­man, the mon­key god, when they en­ter and leave the akhara. Hanu­man is the orig­i­na­tor and pa­tron saint of wrestling. Ac­cord­ing to mythol­ogy, men orig­i­nally learned to fight one an­other uti­liz­ing the im­ple­ments they used to till their fields. When dis­agree­ments be­tween men turned vi­o­lent, peo­ple of­ten died. Later, Hanu­man gave mankind wrestling as a way of set­tling dif­fer­ences with­out caus­ing fa­tal in­juries. Over time, wrestling be­came the sport of kings, with each monarch send­ing his best wrestler to rep­re­sent him in com­bat. Royal pa­tron­age sup­ported the akhara net­work, and a wrestler’s vic­to­ries brought honor to his king.

Dur­ing the time of Bri­tish colo­nial rule, how­ever, In­di­ans were dis­cour­aged from prac­tic­ing mar­tial arts. In fact, a wrestling mas­ter named Deepak An­suia Prasad Bhard­waj Hi said he be­lieves the Bri­tish in­ten­tion­ally pro­moted cricket as a way of mak­ing In­di­ans for­get their in­dige­nous mar­tial arts. The strat­egy ap­par­ently worked — The Econo

mist has re­ported that 400 mil­lion In­di­ans watch cricket on tele­vi­sion while very few tune in to wrestling con­tests.

But kushti is far from dead. In fact, it still has a large fol­low­ing. Deepak es­ti­mates that In­dia is home to as many as 50 mil­lion wrestlers and for­mer wrestlers, with the largest com­pe­ti­tions draw­ing crowds of up to 100,000. It seems that in mod­ern In­dia, how­ever, tra­di­tional views still dom­i­nate, and wrestling is seen as a low sport, prac­ticed and watched by poorer peo­ple, which ex­plains why it at­tracts min­i­mal me­dia at­ten­tion.

BE­ING DRAWN to “poor” sports that have been marginal­ized by main­stream so­ci­ety, I set out for In­dia, where I would live in Deepak’s home and train in kushti with him and his 14-year-old son Anuj.

On my trip, I learned a lot about kushti. The cul­ture doesn’t per­mit a teacher to charge stu­dents for train­ing or an akhara to charge for mem­ber­ship. Fur­ther­more, com­pe­ti­tions are free to at­tend. Yet for some In­di­ans, kushti wrestling is a pro­fes­sional sport. In the big­gest matches, top ath­letes can earn $1,500 in prize money, the equiv­a­lent of a year’s salary for a la­borer. With at least 40 com­pe­ti­tions per year along with cash tips from pa­trons and fans, a few pros make a de­cent liv­ing. Most, how­ever, only scrape by, fight­ing a lot for low pay.

On the kushti cir­cuit, the heavy­weights are the fa­vorites, and as such, they earn more money and tips. While those in the lower weight classes earn less, many do well by liv­ing wisely and us­ing their win­nings to buy rental prop­erty and farm­land. If they avoid in­jury, they can en­joy a long ca­reer, but the norm is to re­tire when they reach their early 30s.

“I WAS A GOOD KUSHTI wrestler un­til my 20s,” Deepak ex­plained. “At that time, kushti was a de­clin­ing sport. The sport needs to­tal ded­i­ca­tion, and I was at a cross­roads. I was mar­ried and had a fam­ily to sup­port, so the bur­den grew heav­ier.”

He re­al­ized that ded­i­cat­ing his life to kushti would mean com­mit­ting to a life of poverty. So, with a heavy heart, he de­cided to leave wrestling and be­come an ac­coun­tant. He worked in an in­ter­na­tional firm for the next 18 years. While he was happy to earn money, he missed wrestling, so he re­mained in­volved as a jour­nal­ist and a coach. Even­tu­ally, he quit his job and de­cided to be­come In­dia’s only full-time wrestling jour­nal­ist.

“Most wrestlers are like me,” Deepak said. “They have to leave for a liveli­hood — ex­cept a few pro­fes­sional wrestlers who have made [it to] the top and now are rich.”

At 45, Deepak’s com­pe­ti­tion days are far be­hind him, but dur­ing his two decades of con­tests, he par­tic­i­pated in nearly 1,000 matches, and now he wants to pass that ex­pe­ri­ence on to his sons.

His older son Harsh tried wrestling for a few months when he was young, but he was un­will­ing to ded­i­cate his life to the sport. As a re­sult, Deepak de­cided that the youth should in­stead be­come an ac­coun­tant. Anuj, on the other hand, took to wrestling straight away, so his fa­ther be­came de­ter­mined to forge him into a cham­pion. I asked Deepak if the boy goes to school. “Yes,” he an­swered, “but the teacher is my friend, so he doesn’t need to go that of­ten.”

EV­ERY MORN­ING of my stay in In­dia, we prac­ticed wrestling in the lo­cal park, where Deepak taught tech­niques and drills to Anuj and me. I con­cluded that most tech­niques that are le­gal in freestyle or Gre­coRo­man wrestling are also le­gal in kushti. Many of them were fa­mil­iar to me: the arm drag, the sin­gle-leg and dou­ble-leg take­down, seon­age, drop seon­age and so on.

The main rule dif­fer­ence be­tween kushti and other forms of grap­pling is you can’t al­low your back to touch the ground. That prompted Deepak to show me a vari­a­tion of a Rus­sian arm drag in which you hit the ground on your side while your op­po­nent lands on his back. Other kushti tech­niques will seem al­most coun­ter­in­tu­itive for some­one who’s used to Western wrestling and MMA be­cause you land on top of your op­po­nent with your back to him. In MMA, that would give your op­po­nent the op­por­tu­nity to take your back and choke you out. In kushti, how­ever, the match would be over in­stantly be­cause one wrestler landed on his back.

(To be con­tin­ued.)

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