At first glance, there is little that can bind 18-year-old Abhishek Turkeywadkar, a student of Rizvi College, Bandra, Mumbai, and Ravinda Kumar, a train ticket collector (TTC) with the Railways in New Delhi.

But anyone present in Mulund, a suburb in Mumbai, for the Mayor’s Cup All India Wrestling Competition on Tuesday would have quickly told you that the two are bound by their love for kushti or pehelwani (Indian-style wrestling) and an Olympic dream.

Sand ’n sweat: Indian-style wrestling matches are still crowd-pullers in some urban areas. Kedar Bhat / Mint

Dattatray Turkeywadkar, an amateur wrestler himself, explains his son’s passion: “In our village (in Kolhapur, Maharashtra), everyone wrestles. I grew up watching some great wrestlers and that’s when I realized you can gift your child education, but not good health. So I encouraged my son to take to wrestling."

In Maharashtra, wrestling used to be popular with mill workers, but nowadays the game is beginning to meet the same fate as the mills. Some of the more celebrated rinks in Parel, Worli and Elphinstone Road in Mumbai have closed. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the city had around 300 active rinks called talims, or akharas. Only 20-25 remain today; just around eight of these are active.

The old-fashioned mud surface, despite its appearance, requires a scientific and sometimes unconventional approach for maintainance. The mud has to be dug up regularly. Besides milk and ghee, medicinal herbs and camphor are added to the mud to purify the area. Says Krishna Raskar, a coach in Mumbai: “We have taken great care to nurture a rink in the space we were given but there is no shed. So the rain washes away the mud rink and we are left with no place to practise." The few that exist are also being converted into mat rinks in accordance with the Olympic rules, he adds.

It’s also an expensive sport—a good pehelwan (wrestler) has a rich diet comprising 2-4 litres of milk, 250g almonds, 500g ghee, thandai (a drink) and wheat chapattis (rice is prohibited) plus eggs and meat.

“After many rigorous hours of exercise, we need all this. Also, milk and ghee do not give us any heart or cholesterol problems," says Kumar, who gets ghee delivered from his village in Haryana to his home in Delhi.

Most wrestlers put in around 6 hours of exercise daily, starting as early as 4am. This is followed by a good massage as it “calms the body and relaxes the muscles". Dattatray, who doubles up as his son’s masseur, says: “A wrestler’s body has tremendous energy and consequently generates a lot of heat. I need at least half a litre of oil to massage his body properly, at the end of which my hands burn due to the friction."

Even today, Patiala in Punjab and Kolhapur remain the strongholds for wrestlers. In such towns, traditional mud wrestling has a better chance of survival. As Kolhapur’s Sangram Patil, who was in Mumbai for the championship, says: “Wrestling is an everyday activity at home—not a one-day event like here. The atmosphere there is different because everyone has an emotional attachment to the fight."