A corpse burner’s wrestling pit
Bariyr Chaudhary, 70, is consumed by nostalgia when he recalls the time he used to practise wrestling, or kushti, at the Dom akhada. “When I was 16, I began practising kushti for the first time. It was the era of the pehelwans, and it was glorious,” he says in Hindi.
It’s a cold winter morning at Varanasi’s Meer ghat, and we are sitting on a cot covered by a thin, lumpy mattress in a narrow, 4ft-wide corridor leading to the interiors of Bariyr’s three-room house. Bariyr sleeps on the cot, right near the entrance; the three rooms are occupied by his three sons. The entrance, with the door ajar, is the only source of light in the corridor.
“In our time, the Doms’ akhada would overflow with pehelwans from different castes. Untouchability was predominant, but when it came to wrestling, caste boundaries blurred. If you were a pehelwan, and I was a pehelwan, no matter what your jaat (caste), we were equal on the playing field. All we cared about was kala—the art of wrestling. It was the skill that was important. In our time, untouchability and caste discrimination existed and were quite prevalent, but not in the akhada.”
The yellow mud (a mixture of mud, mustard oil, turmeric powder, and sometimes, ghee and yogurt) that fills a traditional akhada is symbolic of this belief —that all men come from the same mitti. They are, therefore, equal in the wrestling space.
In fact, a number of wrestlers, irrespective of their caste, drop their surnames for the title of “pehelwan”, indicating that their art, rather than their birth, defines them.
Some of the Doms, who burn corpses for a living, live in Meer ghat, a stone’s throw from Manikarnika ghat, a cremation site that holds great significance for Hindus. Their belief system dictates that if an upper caste touches a corpse, he will be contaminated. Therefore, the job of cremating the dead is given to the “untouchables”—and in Varanasi, it falls to the Doms.
Tucked within the fortress of the Dom Raja family (the wealthiest of the Doms, and the owners of Manikarnika ghat) lies an akhada that is more than 100 years old. At the entrance, across the akhada’s blue walls, the auspicious word Shubh has been painted in Hindi. Silence covers the ground like a shroud. There is no hustle of footsteps, and no sound of kushti. Broken pebbles cover the uneven ground instead of soft, levelled yellow earth. The akhada is hemmed in by overgrown plants on one side, a grilled railing, and a motley crew of abandoned wooden doors, a broken toilet sink, and shattered glass.
Also Read: A day in the life of a corpse-burner
Next to the open wrestling pit, a small, dimly lit room houses two rows of dust-laden traditional exercise tools. These include 12 pairs of jodi (elongated wooden weights that look like rounder, heavier versions of baseball bats), 10 gadas (large boulders attached to long wooden sticks with which they are lifted) and a set of six naals (beautifully chiselled, circular stone boulders that weigh over 100kg each). In a corner, a spider knits its web. The room also has a small, orange-painted shrine of Hanuman, the god who symbolizes strength, vigour and fearlessness for wrestlers.
Bariyr, who belongs to the Dom Raja’s extended family, is one of the few Dom men who had the luxury of adopting wrestling as a profession, rather than working at the ghats and cremating the dead. Today, he lives as a retired pehelwan, not too far from the Dom Raja’s sprawling, semi-dilapidating home.
There was a time when the akhada welcomed Muslim wrestlers as well, Bariyr points out. Within the premises of the akhada, the monoliths of caste and religion were razed to the ground, because it was a sacred space where the art of traditional wrestling superseded social distinctions. It was outside the akhada, however, that social anomalies would resurface.
“While different castes (Thakurs, Yadavs and Khatris, to name a few) and Muslims practised together in the akhada, when it came to competing in the dangal publicly, the Doms could only tackle Muslim opponents,” explains Bariyr. “You ask about untouchability? It was in the dangal that the upper castes refused to fight us. They would say, ‘Arre, if a Dom pins us down, then people would say that an achhut (untouchable) has won the match.’ It would be a blot on the upper castes and would cause a lot of embarrassment among them,” he says, laughing.
Dom Raja’s nephew Bibek Chaudhary, 22, who occasionally practises in the akhada, enters the room. It’s noon and he has just woken up. Dressed in a blue Polo T-shirt and black track pants, Bibek stands with his arms crossed, shoulders hunched, eyes glued to the floor. For the first few minutes, he appears reticent, refusing to look me in the eye. Slowly, however, after I express an interest in the akhada, he takes a deep breath and begins to narrate his experience. “There was a time when this place was overflowing with pehelwans,” he recalls. “When I was growing up in the late 1990s, I remember, there used to be rows of people waiting outside who would want to come here to train and practise—morning and evening,” he claims. “They would come from neighbouring ghats—Harishchandra ghat, Dashashwamedh ghat, everywhere. But today, a lot of gyms have come up, and the young men from our community prefer going there. Till 2003, this akhada had life. Now look at it,” he says, running a finger across a dusty windowsill. “It’s absolutely empty.”
A few decades ago, the room used to be populated by a vast collection of heavier body-building equipment as well. “Each jodi in our akhada used to be at least 4-5ft tall, weighing over 45kg. The pehelwans were mostly 6ft-tall back then, and could effortlessly swirl a pair of jodis over their heads,” explains Bibek. The Dom pehelwans (many of whom belonged to the Dom Raja’s family) used to be taller, healthier and fitter, because they could afford kilos of cashews, almonds, chanas (chickpea) and walnuts along with milk from the cows they owned. Bibek’s great-great-grandfather Devi Chaudhary was a 6ft, 3 inches tall pehelwan who could pick up a 100kg naal with one hand.
“He used to eat rotis drenched in desi ghee and would consume at least 3 litres of cow’s milk every day,” Bibek says, pointing to a painting on the wall: “That’s him.” It shows a fairly large, muscular man with a thick beard, possibly in his mid-60s, on the ground, his left elbow supporting him. In his right hand is a giant naal that he pushes into the air with remarkable ease.
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In comparison to Devi Pehelwan, Bibek, 5ft, 5 inches tall, appears scrawny, though he claims that he exercises in the akhada for at least 20 minutes every day to keep the family tradition alive. “Today, the men can’t pick up jodis that are taller than 3ft because they are shorter and not as strong physically. There is a lot of urea in the food we consume, and many children in our community are brought up on powdered milk. Women, most of whom are undernourished, give birth to too many children. So breastfeeding each child becomes difficult.The children’s immunity is low and many fall sick more often,” Bibek offers as an explanation.
“Men are not interested in pehelwani,” remarks Bariyr. “The young men don’t eat or drink right. They smoke ganja (marijuana) and drink alcohol. Their lifestyle is undisciplined as well. They prefer enjoying themselves in their spare time, instead of exercising. Being a pehelwan involves a lot of hard work.”
One reason the young men smoke up is because a majority of them burn bodies for a living.
When Bariyr was practising to become a pehelwan, he was given strict dietary and exercise instructions. “If you’re a wrestler, you have to eat less rice. Even today, I eat less rice. I would consume 2.5 litres of milk every day and eat pulses, roti, mutton, fish—everything.”
He would wake up at 3 in the morning and rub mustard oil on his body. Then he would take off for a 21km sprint to Mughalsarai. “Over there, I would visit the Kali ma temple and return in time to practise in the akhada by 6am. I would wrestle with my seniors and then I would take on the younger ones,” he explains, using a flat, leaf-shaped copper pendant (called khodini) to remove leftover paan from his teeth. By 8am, Bariyr would finish exercising and return home, eat breakfast and head to a local government school to study.
As pehelwans, they would get financial support through dangal competitions. “We would get paid quite a bit. At that time, we would get paid anywhere from Rs200-500,” he claims. “We would also get a ganji (vest) and gamchha (cloth to tie over the head) along with the money.”
Bariyr belongs to an era when pehelwans, irrespective of their caste, were respected for their build and disciplined lifestyle. The tradition of pehelwani within the community could well fade into oblivion with Bariyr.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Dom Raja Jagdish (Natey) Chaudhary is training his son, Hari Om, to embrace the family tradition.
Within the derelict akhada, 11-year-old Hari Om scoops a handful of dirt from the ground and rubs it on to his palms. Wearing a chequered orange dhoti, rolled up at the waist, he places his small feet on a flat boulder and lifts his 4ft-tall body on to it. He does this to gain height, so that he can pick up a jodi pair that is almost as tall as him. Bibek walks up to Hari Om and hands him a jodi set (each weighs 10kg). Running his palms over the jodis, Hari Om bows his head in reverence, whispering an inaudible prayer. He then picks up the pair and begins to swing them over his head as he steps down from the boulder, his eyes still glued to the weights.
Natey Chaudhary sits in the corner, observing his son. He is a large, overweight man, approximately 5ft, 10 inches tall. When Natey speaks, he is almost inaudible. Betel-leaf juice stains the side of his mouth. “Hari Om is not interested in studying,” Natey admits later with a smile. “Most of the time you’ll find him practising with the weights in our akhada. Nowadays, no one is interested though. In my family, only Hari Om does it with dedication.” Natey has three daughters (aged 17, 19 and 21, respectively) who do not practise pehelwani. Centuries-old tradition dictates that pehelwani is a man’s sport—Natey’s grandmother, Dulari Devi, was the only woman in the community to have been trained in lifting jodis.
The arrival of gyms and modern equipment has changed the cultural landscape of body-building in Varanasi. “The younger generation thinks that spending a month or two at the gym is a quicker way of building a body,” he says, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Unlike gyms, however, Indian akhadas (including the one belonging to the Doms) have traditionally survived with the help of well-meaning donations. They are learning institutions, free for those who train there.
It was sometime around 2003 that the Dom akhada began losing its popularity. “We couldn’t maintain it because we were going through a rough patch,” Natey says. His eldest brother Ranjit Chaudhary, the Dom Raja before him, lost his 22-year-son Jamanth, who was abducted, in 2001. Depressed, he died two years later of cardiac arrest. The number of visitors to the akhada came down to a trickle. “Eventually, people stopped donating for the maintenance of the akahada as well,” says Natey.
Bariyr is disappointed that pehelwani among the Doms seems to be on the brink of extinction. “It’s still a part of my identity,” he says. “But it’s an art that requires hard work. You need to be obsessed and passionate about it. Today, no one likes to work hard. When we were young, we didn’t have time to wander about. We had a fixed schedule and we stuck to it. Discipline was of prime importance. We would also be very conscious of what we ate. You have to worship your body. It is your temple. You cannot be a pehelwan if you can’t respect your body.”
He is happy, though, that Hari Om, his grandnephew, is learning the art. “I train him, you know? How to pick the jodi, what posture to have and all. He will become a good pehelwan one day. I always scold him and keep telling him that he should do nothing outside wrestling. Anything outside it is bad. The tradition will die,” he says.
Hari Om’s father, however, imagines a different future for his son. “It’s good that he is practising, but I want him to focus on his studies and get a government job when he grows up,” says Natey. “If he doesn’t, he’ll have to join our family business of running the masaan (cremation ground).”
This is the last in a three-part series on the Dom community in Varanasi. The writer is a Sanskriti Prabha Dutt fellow 2017 and this piece was produced as part of the fellowship.
The writer tweets at radhika_iy