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.)