The deep roots of Indian wrestling
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The two biggest revenue grossers of Bollywood in 2016 were Sultan and Dangal. The two films have one thing in common: Both revolve around the sport of wrestling. Dangal, in fact, is based on the real life story of Mahavir Singh Phogat who trained two of his daughters—Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari—to earn a bagful of medals for India. Geeta Phogat went on to become the first woman grappler from India to compete in the Olympics.
Indian wrestlers have won five medals at the Olympics, second only to hockey’s tally of 11. Four of the five have come in the last three editions and all the winners hail from the two small north Indian states of Haryana and Delhi. This late flourish notwithstanding, the wrestlers too haven’t lived up to expectations, given the long history of the sport in India.
Mint’s Rudraneil Sengupta’s book, Enter The Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape, notes: “A combat sport that resembles wrestling has been around since at least the fourth century BCE in India…”. A number of Indian mythological characters are also associated with wrestling. Among them, Hanuman is widely regarded as the patron deity of wrestlers. Krishna is another—and perhaps the most popular—wrestler-god featuring in several texts. He belonged to the Yadu clan or the Yadav caste group which is most commonly identified with the tradition of wrestling even today.
The Yadav caste has been historically associated with cattle herding and their diet naturally consisted of a rich supply of dairy products—believed to be essential for building a wrestler’s body. No single caste, however, has had a monopoly on wrestling. The sport, in contrast, became a vehicle for social and caste mobility. By the medieval centuries, a lower-caste peasant could raise his status to that of an upper-caste Kshatriya by engaging in martial activities. This was the supply side. The demand side was driven by what Dirk H.A. Kolff calls the “military labour market” or the practice of hiring mercenary troops by kings and emperors.
The transition from peasant to soldier involved the development of the body and—notes Sengupta—“there was only one way to go: kushti (wrestling).” The ones who made the transition were rewarded with affluent lives. The reason was simple: Proficient wrestlers came to be identified with the prestige of the court, the kingdom and the king himself. The tradition was followed by Muslim rulers too and their court had both Hindu as well as Muslim wrestlers of repute. The practice extended to Maratha kingdoms as well; Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao was said to be a fine wrestler himself.
Joseph S. Alter, the foremost chronicler of the wrestling tradition in India, has observed some significant differences between contemporary practices and medieval texts—most notably the Mānasollāsa and the Mallapurana. There was much less emphasis on vegetarianism in the medieval texts, for instance. The modern practice involves “straightforward exercises” and “hyper-consumption of milk, ghee (clarified butter), and almonds” whereas the medieval texts “catalog complex training regimens” and advocate “balanced consumption”. There, however, does seem to be a running thread underlining the virtues of celibacy for the sport of wrestling.
Some, if not all, of the shift from medieval practices can be traced to the freedom movement, when the Indian National Congress wanted to transform the urban akhadas, writes Alter, “to try to reproduce the ‘natural’ masculinity of peasants by transplanting the ‘natural’ environment of rural India into the modern space of rapidly expanding cities”. The nation-building exercise, after all, was thought to comprise the building of physical power at a time when Indians were charged with being weak and effeminate by the British colonizers.
The Bengali community, as Ronojoy Sen notes in his book Nation At Play: A History Of Sport In India, was blamed in particular for its perceived physical inadequacy and it shows in the numbers hired for the British Indian army. This “martial races theory” has been disputed by many, including B.R. Ambedkar. And Ambedkar was proved right by many Bengali wrestlers who made a name for themselves on the global stage. The most famous of them was Jatindracharan Guha (popularly known by his ring name Gobor Guha). Other Indian wrestlers too, in the early 20th century, were making their name internationally—the famous victory of Ghulam Muhammad (or the Great Gama) over Stanley Zbyszko in what was billed as the “World Championship” is remembered fondly even today.
While wrestling won India its first individual Olympics medal when K.D. Jadhav bagged bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games, the next medal in the sport came in 2008. The recent medals have come in part as a result of north Indian states embracing synthetic mats and modern rules. Owing to the spiritual connotations of the earthen pits, there is still some resistance to the use of mats in states such as Maharashtra, which has had a rich history in wrestling. But wrestlers from Haryana and Delhi have shown that mats and earthen pits can go together.
The potential for wrestling in India is huge. Its roots run deep and there is a rich tradition to draw upon—given more support from public and private sources, and a mindset change.
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