Kushti: Dedication fuels premier Akhara

Delhi’s Shree Hanuman Akhara is sending four pehelwans to the Kushti World Cup in the US in September

Tarun Pratap Delhi 

This september, the Indian-style wrestling or Kushti World Cup will be held in the US. Trials for selection have been held for over a year across the country. The Indian team is now finalised and it has as many as four wrestlers or pehelwans from the Shree Hanuman Akhara, one of the country’s oldest traditional wrestling
training centres.

Tucked behind the bustling streets around Delhi University’s North Campus, the Shree Hanuman Akhara has steadfastly provided tutelage and training for many pehelwans for almost a century.

Kushti does not enjoy the same glamour now as in the days of the renowned Gama Pehelwan, Dara Singh or even Chandgi Ram. The strength of men like Gama was legendary and became part of folklore at a time when the country was under colonial rule. Villages and towns of the country rejoiced in the strength, power and success of Gama Pehelwan in the wrestling ring and his victories over white wrestlers.

Academic Joseph S Alter, in his study of the physique  of the pehelwan, identifies the almost sacred and ritualistic aspect of the sport. The pehelwan’s body is similar to that of a sadhu, which is put through severe punishment. Wrestlers have to control their diet and devote their lives to maintaining their bodies. They also observe celibacy.

The sport is popular in rural India. Western Maharashtra is a nursery of wrestling. Here mitti (mud) tournaments take place to which pehelwans from all over the world travel. Many of them also travel from the Shree Hanuman Akhara.

As I entered the akhara complex for the second time in a month, it was quieter as most of the men had gone to a training camp in Bengaluru. I was greeted by Roshan, a 17-year-old pehelwan from Manipur. After his siesta, he had lumbered out of the large hall, the only building in the complex. I peeked inside, and was greeted by the sight of a floor lined with practice mats, gym equipment, and a dozen sleeping pehelwans. As we walked towards where his coach was, he told me that the hall doubled as both a training and recreational room.

I looked around the akhara. Outside was a mitti wrestling pit, a small open area that on one side was flanked by a row of three rooms and the large training/sleeping hall. Roshan became my guide for the day. Just about five feet, he had a physique that would be the envy of any Gap model. While he might have been a formidable opponent on the mat, he seemed shy and almost reluctant to make any conversation. This, however, changed when his coach, Maha Singh Rao, came in.

Guru Rao has devoted himself to the sport, and this akhara. He was trained by the legendary Guru Hanuman himself, whose photographs and trophies line the trophy room (one of the row of three). The mud pit, Rao said, was started by his teacher in 1919. Now the akhara  is maintained by him and attracts students from different parts of the country. Roshan came when he was 12, and has been training under him since.

We sipped tea that Roshan brought and the coach told me that talent is everything. It can only be supported by work ethic, drive and determination. Roshan, he pointed out, was extremely agile. “That is his strength, and he is willing to learn more techniques, and is well-versed in taekwondo,” he said.

He admitted the nature of the sport is changing; the shift from mitti to mat is almost complete. Mats are the dominant surface at both national and international tournaments. There has been a series of format changes, timing included. While matches on mitti had no time limit, the advent of the mat has brought about a shortening. “Kushti has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Now there are eight weight categories, and only six in the Olympics. Seniors’ matches have two three-minute rounds and the juniors have two two-minute rounds,” he said.

I ask Roshan his favourite moves, and fighting styles. He mumbles some  incomprehensible terms. I look at the coach and he explains: “Dhobi, Dhak, Kalajang, Multani or Bharamwaj.”

The coach is aware of the changing nature of the sport, and to keep up with international standards the training regime in the akhara is extremely rigorous. In his 31 years at the akhara, he has been a mentor, coach and father figure to these wrestlers, and their future and accomplishments seem to be tied to his own.

The day starts at 4 am, and the wrestlers train through the day. Intriguingly, the preparation of food is a part of their training regime – the crushing and churning of dry fruits, an essential component of their milk drink, is a strenuous activity. The Shree Hanuman Akhara is vegetarian, and the wrestlers have to consume over 5,000 calories a day.

Finance is the biggest hurdle for the sport. The government does not provide any support. This akhara survives on its own. The land was given to it by the industrialist Birla family, who still pay the electricity, water and other bills. Despite all kinds of problems, the coach is positive about the future, declaring, “We don’t lack one thing that is needed the most. It is called passion.”

Roshan goes home once a year. The coach, who lives with the pehelwans here, has little time for his family in Rajasthan. It is this dedication of the coach and the wrestlers that is the most impressive aspect of the Shree Hanuman Akhara. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2015