Hanuman's Army: Kushti Wrestlers

Photographs and Text by Palani Mohan

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Lord Hanuman, the monkey god of the Ramayana, is revered in Kolhapur. It was Hanuman who helped rescue Sita, Rama’s wife, from the demon Ravana. And it was Hanuman who flew to the Himalayas and carried back a mountain with medicinal herbs to save Rama’s brother, Laksmana. He symbolizes immense strength and fearlessness and it is to him that India’s wrestlers pray for victory.

Since India’s wrestlers took home medals from the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, the spotlight has been turned on Kushti, a 3,000-year-old martial art still practiced in small pockets of India, Pakistan and Iran. Kushti is a relic of shared Aryan traditions and with a rich moral, ethical, philosophical and mystical heritage. Its ancestry is that of the warrior and it finds mention in the historical record of Parthia, which prevailed as an empire from 132BCE-226CE, a thorn in the side of Rome until vanquished in the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. But by then Kushti had spread throughout the empire; it is arguably the antecedent of the more recognized Greco-roman style.

Kushti is under threat as India’s sporting authorities, buoyed by Olympic success, the authorities seek to force its best practitioners to abandon the mud pits for the wrestling mat and train in the more recognized wrestling styles.

Kolhapur is a small city by India’s standards with a population of some 700,000 nestled in the southwest corner of the state of Maharashtra and an hour’s flying from Mumbai. It is said that the best wrestlers come from this city because of the climate and the water, which is cool and reputed to be rich in iron and other minerals, and Kolhapur is today the main center of the martial art. It is here that the best fighters, trainers and Akhadas, or wrestling schools, are to be found.

Kushti’s history in Kolhapur is relatively recent – only since the eighteenth century – but the sport flourished here during the rein of Shri Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the King of Kolhapur, who ascended the throne in 1894. During this golden age, the monarch built hundreds of Akhadas all over the city and held tournaments, inviting best wrestlers from all over India and beyond.

Little has changed in the way the sport is staged. The bouts take place in an earthen pit lined with red soil dredged from river and mixed with ghee and water. Each morning Hindu prayers, or pujas, are said in the circular pit, which has among wrestlers a revered status and is treated as if it were a temple.

There are at least six-major Akhada scattered around Kolhapur, mostly hidden down small lanes of homes and shops. There used to be hundreds of Akhadas, but their numbers have dwindled with neglect and disuse, and as the numbers of schools decline, so do the numbers of wrestlers. Old-timers complain that the younger wrestlers lack the commitment to keep the sport alive.

Kushti is a demanding sport. The wrestlers live, cook, eat and sleep together in the Akhada, forming small communities of as few as a couple of dozen to as many as one hundred, with ages ranging from as young as seven to their mid-twenties. They come from across India. Many have been away from their homes for much of their lives and consider fellow fighters to be their family.

The average day starts at 5am with a group run before a punishing regimen of weightlifting and push-ups, perhaps more than five hundred over the course of a morning. Then the trainers arrive, and the wrestlers are paired for practice bouts.

After prayers are said and the pit prepared, the wrestlers rub their faces and bodies, and those of their opponents, with red dirt, which serves both as a blessing and to improve grip during the bout. The wrestlers spar for several hours. They eat and rest and, in the evening, the routine is repeated.

The wrestlers’ diet is designed to maintain muscle bulk and is heavy on crushed almonds, milk and ghee. They cook their own chapattis over an open fire after their day’s training. They are not required to be vegetarian and eat chicken and eggs.

Most of the boys come from poor families; for many, Kushti is their one chance to break out of the cycle of poverty, to make a name for themselves and their family.

“We have to train twice a day every day – it is very hard work but we love it. My father and his father were all Palawans (champions) and this is what I want to be. The best fighter I can be.

If you win a big title like the state or even the national championships (the tournament takes place in the first or second week in November) then you are set up for life. You receive not only money but also a respected place in society even long after death. It is a great thing, which I dream about.

But it is not easy.

We cannot drink, smoke or have sex. We cannot even think of girls. Even in our dreams it’s forbidden. We are like Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and if we want to be good wrestlers we must live a pure life. Marriage and children can come afterwards.”
— Jathar Vaidbhav, 16 years old

There are 46 color images in the full edit available upon request.