The akhara is their home, wrestling their way of life. Veenu Sandhu enters the wrestlers’ world.
Eighty-five-year-old Guru Jasram is angry. And his students, brawny young wrestlers-in-the-making, know it. As he raises his stick to give them one whack after another, the men, all of them wearing loincloths, cringe and move back to save themselves. The octogenarian’s stick catches the unlucky few on their bare arms, legs and backs. It’s a startling sight but not an unusual one in this world of akharas where the guru is next only to God.
Guru Jasram Akhara — most akharas (traditional wrestling schools) are named after the wrestler who set them up — is located near Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in upscale South Delhi. It is a universe to itself, guarded by a high wall and iron gate — neither of which shields it from the din of traffic and the deafening sound of the Delhi Metro trains that run past every few minutes. The wrestlers at this akhara, which was set up in 1970 and currently has about 100 students, don’t seem to be bothered by the noise. They practise their moves in the mud pit under the watchful eye of their teacher, who sits under a tree with the stick in his hand.
“There are over 200 akharas in Delhi,” says Deepak Ansuia Prasad, a wrestling coach at Jasram Akhara. There is Hanuman Akhara in Old Delhi which has given India wrestlers like Satpal Singh, who won the gold in the 1982 Asiad, Arjuna awardee Sujit Mann and Dara Singh. It was set up in 1925, when the Birlas gave land to wrestling coach Hanuman. Called Birla Vyayamshala then, it wasn’t long before the name changed to Hanuman Akhara. Since Hanuman’s death in 1999 in a road accident (he was 98 and fighting fit) the akhara is run by his disciple, Dronacharya awardee Maha Singh Rao. There is also Amichand Akhara in South Delhi, Sanjay Akhara, run by Arjuna awardee Sanjay ‘Pehelwan’, Northern Railway Akhara, Shyam Lal Akhara, Chandgi Ram ka Akhara (the only one where women wrestlers are trained) and many, many more.
“But only a handful of the akharas in Delhi meet national standards,” says 40-year-old Prasad, a former pehelwan. He is a chartered accountant and is appearing for his MBA exams. He also wants to do a PhD in wrestling. Not every young wrestler or aspiring wrestler is as educated as he is. “Most of the boys belong to farmer families and are uneducated,” says coach Jasram who retired from the Air Force as a sergeant. He’d entered the armed forces on his merit as a wrestler. The young men who train at Jasram Akhara come from Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and even Madhya Pradesh. About 40 live at the akhara where their routine and diet are fixed and strictly followed. The living quarters are sparsely furnished, though they do have a TV set and a cooler for when the Delhi heat gets unbearable.
The day begins before dawn, at 5 am, when they go for a run. Exercise includes weight training with nals (stone weights), rope-climbing and practising with gadas (maces).
Akhara rules call for celibacy and a diet without meat, fish or eggs. “Even spices and too much salt are harmful for the wrestler,” says Jasram. Instead, the focus is on milk, almonds, ghee, eggs, fruit and simple meals of daal, roti and vegetables. In most akharas, the students not only train, they also prepare the meal, clean the place and do chores. But the ones like Jasram Akhara and Chandgi Ram ka Akhara have in-house cooks and coaches, provided by the Sports Authority of India (SAI), so that the wrestlers can focus on wrestling.
Around 3 pm — the time varies from akhara to akhara — the wrestlers hit the mud pit. The mud is carefully chosen, sieved and sprinkled with oil and turmeric, even flowers. Before bouts, the wrestlers dig it up to make it soft. When they wrestle, the mud flies everywhere — some even makes its way into bystanders’ tea. Before the mud runs out, it is replaced.
“Mud wrestling isn’t recognised internationally. SAI, too, acknowledges only mat wrestling,” says Deepika Kaliraman, daughter of Chandgi Ram, who revolutionalised Indian wrestling by bringing women into the sport. Kaliraman, her sister Sonalika and some of their friends were the first women to hit the mud, in late 1998. “A lot of people objected. Some would throw stones at us when we went for dangals [competitions] in the villages,” recalls Kaliraman. But some others were totally bowled over. Kamlesh, 27, is one of them. “I saw them wrestle and told my husband that I too wanted to be a wrestler,” she says. Kamlesh belongs to a village near Panipat and had then been married for two years. Six years later, Kamlesh has won the Bharat Kumari title in wrestling four times over and participated in several international events. Her husband has joined her in Delhi as she chases her dream.
Chandgi Ram died of a heart attack last year. But at the akhara he set up, his legacy lives on. About 10 girls are currently training here. “Others have gone home because of the exams,” says Kaliraman. Chandgi Ram’s son, Jagdish Kaliraman, an inspector in the UP Police, now runs the place. Efforts are being made to modernise the akhara. It now has a gym and mess, and students can enjoy a steam bath. Women and men train on the mat, though there is also a mud pit. The akhara is located on the banks of the Yamuna, off Ring Road. “The impression that kushti (Indian wrestling) is a rustic sport needs to change,” says Kaliraman. She is president of the All India Women Wrestling Association. “That will happen if wrestlers are groomed better.”
A big question is: what after wrestling? “While wrestlers [men and women] do get jobs in the police, there seems to be a bias in the government against employing women wrestling coaches,” says Kaliraman. “Most of the men are uneducated and from poor families. Jobs don’t come easily to them,” adds Prasad. That can be frustrating.
Which is why, when some companies go looking for recovery agents, bouncers and personal security guards, pehalwans are easy recruits. “Their gurus try to stop them, but there is only so much they can do,” reveals a wrestler. In 2008, during the Delhi Assembly elections, the Haryana administration directed wrestlers to remain in their akharas to prevent them from acting as musclemen for politicians.
It’s not a happy state of affairs. But while they are training at the akharas and life is still innocent, even the youngest student doesn’t seem to mind the hardships. A chubby Vipin Yadav, 13, who has been at the akhara for only six days, says he is getting used to its ways and quite liking it. Neeraj Singh, 14, with whom he’s been wrestling, has been there for six months and is losing the childhood fat which Yadav is yet to shed. Sitting on a bench next to the mud pit, an elderly man watches his grandson locked in a tangle with another wrestler. The boy’s father, wrestler Ved Pal, was shot dead some years ago. But the old man would like to see his grandson also become a wrestler. For him and others like him, it’s a way of life that is to be lived from generation to generation.