Wrestling stands apart from all other combat sports as it shuns violence but is still the manliest of sporting events, says a new book which is a journey through the 'kushti' landscape of India, both past and present.
"Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling Landscape" by Rudraneil Sengupta explores wrestling as it is practised now in India; the men, women and events that have shaped its history from Gama to Sushil Kumar, whose two Olympic medals yanked the sport out of rural obscurity and on to TV screens.
"The author says the focus of his book is to tease out the lived experience of Indian wrestlers now, to share their daily life, their struggles and beliefs and their oral tradition.
"The historical references are used as a storytelling tool, to give context and depth - when needed - to the stories and beliefs that are an integral part of the wrestling philosophy," he says, adding his work is neither a book of history nor a scholarly investigation.
"Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling Landscape", published by HarperCollins India, goes behind the scenes to the akhadas that quietly defy urbanisation.
It also travels to villages and small towns to meet the intrepid women who dared to break the barriers in this 'manly' sport.
Wrestling, according to Sengupta, is a demanding sport and it demands the kind of biomechanical mastery that can only come from years of training, beginning from early childhood.
"It calls for exquisite coordination between every moving part of the body. It needs quickness, brute strength, explosive power, preternatural balance, gymnastic agility and endurance. A single move can open itself to a hundred different possible permutations and combinations of counteraction."
He also says that wrestling stands apart from all other combat sports as it is a fighting form that shuns violence allows no hitting or no punches, kicks, knees and elbows.
"You do not batter your opponent into submission, like you would in boxing or mixed martial arts. You don't break ribs, pound heads, harm the kidney, dislocate the nose, or cut open the eyes. The surface you fight on is soft, so a fall doesn't hurt.
"If you pick your opponent up, you are responsible for his 'safe return' back to the ground. Yet it is the manliest of sports, the very definition of masculinity, and has been used to judge the 'alpha male' from time immemorial," he writes.
Since wrestling in India now is dominated by the northern states - Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra - the book too stays largely within these geographical boundaries. The author quotes the popular wrestler Kallu pahalwan, "Kushti is not about fighting at all. It is about spreading love. That's the main reason why akhadas exist.
To spread love. Some people call it bhaichara (brotherliness). "When we put mitti on ourselves, we are saying many things. We are saying that we come from mitti, it sustains us, and then we go back to mitti. What that means is that we are all the same. Hindus, Musalmans, high caste, low caste, Brahmin, Chamar, brown skin, white skin, black skin, ugly, beautiful-you know what happens to them when they enter the akhada and wrestle?" The book also says wrestling is not an anti-caste movement, and its ideals stay inside the akhada. "Pahalwans who forget caste distinctions at the akhada remember them when they go back home. There are not that many wrestlers from the 'lowest' caste groups, the Dalits and Balmikis, at akhadas. This, many gurus say, is because people from these groups are poor, and sending a boy to an akhada is a serious investment with no guarantee of any returns." The word 'Pahalwan' itself is thought to be derived from the name of the Pahlava or Parthian tribe in Iran, and its Arcaside dynasty, dating back to 250 BCE. Like akhadas in India, zurkhanas still thrive in Iran, and they are the foundation on which Iran's exceptional record in wrestling at the modern Olympics is based. In India, these traditions have left an indelible mark. Until the late 1990s, the winner of the most prestigious traditional kushti tournament was given the title Rustom-e-Hind. Sushil Kumar's coach Satpal Singh was one, the book says. The origin of the word kushti is even older: it is derived from the Persian "kushti-gir" - belt-grabber - which in turn is derived from "koshti", the sacred girdle wrapped around the Zoroastrian initiate.