In traditional Indian wrestling circles, there is an old saying that comments on the pehelwan’s prowess: That the wrestler is so big, an entire person can squeeze through one leg-hole of his wrestling briefs. Look at Rohit Patel’s thighs as he enters the ring, and you realise the adage is not all wit and hyperbole. He’s got tree-trunks for thighs. Standing at six feet, weighing close to 100kg, Patel is one of the most successful pehelwans in India now. Though he has represented India in a handful of top international competitions, he shifted focus to traditional kushti, or wrestling on earthen pits, around six years back.

Patel comes from Indore, a city that was once a great wrestling centre. In 2012, he won the Hind Kesari, the biggest title for a traditional wrestler. Now Patel is fighting for the Bharat Kesari, another prestigious wrestling title. The setting is the town of Jhajjar in Haryana, a chaotic highway city—a small knot of wobbly buildings, broken roads, and bursting shops that fade out haphazardly into vast stretches of farmland.

A fight in progress at the Bharat Kesari competition in Jhajjar, Haryana.
Wrestlers change next to a stadium building.

The competition is entirely locally funded and organised, with businessmen, hotel and property owners, and former wrestlers pitching in. There’s a lot of money on offer for the wrestlers. Two lakh rupees for the heavyweight winner, who also gets the title of Bharat Kesri, a lakh for the losing finalist, 50,000 for the third place wrestler. The next weight class winner gets a lakh, and so on. From the Round of 16 onwards, each losing wrestler gets Rs1,500, which at least covers their travel and food costs. “This is how wrestlers in India make money," Mausam Khatri says. “How many can get to an international level where they will make money? Very few, maybe 3-4 wrestlers in a year? Not even that. There are thousands and thousands of wrestlers who are dependent on dangals for their earnings." A top pehelwan like Patel or himself, Khatri says, can make 30-40 lakh a year fighting dangals.

Double Olympic medallist makes an appearance.
Wrestlers from Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, MP and UP fought at the tournament.

Rohit Patel does not make it to the final. He comes up against Hitender, a massive pehelwan from Delhi, who is just below 120kg. Patel pulls out all his moves, but Hitender stands strong and calm. Patel tires, Hitender looks unfazed. When Hitender meets Mausam Khatri in the final, Khatri is cagey and cautious. He tries to stay out of Hitender’s reach, he bides for time.

A dejected wrestler after losing his bout.

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