Kushti akharas on the Hooghly

Kushti, the Indian sub continent’s indigenous form of wrestling traces back three thousand years to the time of “malla-yuddha,” popular in mythological tales of The Ramayana and Mahabharata. Many styles of malla-yuddha are in fact named after warriors from these tales: Hanumanti, Bhimaseni, Jarasandhi to name a few. Modern kushti (as in modern for the last 400 years) is largely an outcome of incorporating subtle Persian and Turkish wresting influences with local malla-yuddha when Central Asia Mughals and Mongol Turks invaded India. Over the decades, Varanasi in particular and a few other cities in the Ganges belt and northern India (Mathura, Allahabad, Kashi) have retained the kushti culture, although several small pockets exist in central India as well. Post independence, many traditional pehlwans (wrestlers mostly from Uttar Pradesh) migrated to Delhi and Calcutta in search of livelihood prospects as these cities promised a brighter future in the 50s and 60s. Calcutta’s kushti akharas (wrestling pits) are concentrated on the banks of The Hooghly and across Strand Road on Cotton Street. 

Nandu Yadav moved to Calcutta in 1965 (he isn't exactly sure of when but believes it was around then) from Azamgarh, a small town 70 miles north of Varanasi and a known hub of criminal activity. "What's a pehlwan looking to make a living going to do in Azamgarh? So I moved to Calcutta to practice pehlwani and joined Jwala Kant Tiwari's akhara right here," he reminisces. Jwala Kant Tiwari is an immigrant pehlwan himself, having moved from Gorakhpur a few years earlier and established the akhara on the banks of the Hooghly. This akhara now houses three generations of pehlwans, who start their daily rituals at about 4:30am with a Hanuman (Bajrang Bali) prayer followed by a series of physical exercises - the mace (gada), weights, ropes, bars and aerobics. Nandu is the first one to perform the mace exercise. Having wrestled for over 30 years, he doesn't have the mobility of the younger generation to partake in all exercises or even wrestling at this stage. But, his experience, wisdom and keen eye serve to guide other pehlwans in the akhara who look up to him as their mentor.

Nandu Yadav moved to Calcutta in 1965 (he isn't exactly sure of when but believes it was around then) from Azamgarh, a small town 70 miles north of Varanasi and a known hub of criminal activity. "What's a pehlwan looking to make a living going to do in Azamgarh? So I moved to Calcutta to practice pehlwani and joined Jwala Kant Tiwari's akhara right here," he reminisces. Jwala Kant Tiwari is an immigrant pehlwan himself, having moved from Gorakhpur a few years earlier and established the akhara on the banks of the Hooghly. This akhara now houses three generations of pehlwans, who start their daily rituals at about 4:30am with a Hanuman (Bajrang Bali) prayer followed by a series of physical exercises - the mace (gada), weights, ropes, bars and aerobics. Nandu is the first one to perform the mace exercise. Having wrestled for over 30 years, he doesn't have the mobility of the younger generation to partake in all exercises or even wrestling at this stage. But, his experience, wisdom and keen eye serve to guide other pehlwans in the akhara who look up to him as their mentor.

20 year old Suraj Kant Tiwari (Jwala Kant's son) is an emerging wrestler. While his father is away at Gorakhpur to attend to family matters, he oversees the daily operations of the akhara. Most young athletes today, look for the means and access to modern gyms and equipment for training. The results are quicker, as more advanced training is possible. "But your body looses flexibility and agility, which are extremely important for a wrestler. This is hard work done in very basic environments but we'd rather stick to this to preserve longevity," argues Suraj Kant as he does 3 sets of 50 push ups each following his prayers. Suraj has participated in and won many local tournaments, once inches away from wrestling in the national championships until he did not make it. "Winning tournaments is good as it gives us exposure and recognition, but kushti is a way of life for us, has been in my family for many generations and we must work harder to keep its survival. In this day and age, nobody cares about kushti and pehlwans." 

20 year old Suraj Kant Tiwari (Jwala Kant's son) is an emerging wrestler. While his father is away at Gorakhpur to attend to family matters, he oversees the daily operations of the akhara. Most young athletes today, look for the means and access to modern gyms and equipment for training. The results are quicker, as more advanced training is possible. "But your body looses flexibility and agility, which are extremely important for a wrestler. This is hard work done in very basic environments but we'd rather stick to this to preserve longevity," argues Suraj Kant as he does 3 sets of 50 push ups each following his prayers. Suraj has participated in and won many local tournaments, once inches away from wrestling in the national championships until he did not make it. "Winning tournaments is good as it gives us exposure and recognition, but kushti is a way of life for us, has been in my family for many generations and we must work harder to keep its survival. In this day and age, nobody cares about kushti and pehlwans." 

Meanwhile, after completing his mace exercises, Nandu Yadav positions it carefully on his way to the akhara, casting his eye on the rest and voicing out instructions about correct posture and exercise technique. "Kushti is all about agility ("lachak"), strength alone is not enough," he says, watching another wrestler do sit ups and rope jumps. He can't do either as his knees have fallen prey to 30 years of wrestling in the akhara. 

Meanwhile, after completing his mace exercises, Nandu Yadav positions it carefully on his way to the akhara, casting his eye on the rest and voicing out instructions about correct posture and exercise technique. "Kushti is all about agility ("lachak"), strength alone is not enough," he says, watching another wrestler do sit ups and rope jumps. He can't do either as his knees have fallen prey to 30 years of wrestling in the akhara. 

At around 6:00 am, the first round of kushti starts. Depending on the day and how many pehlwans are present, each wrestler could have 2 to 3 rounds of 20-25 minutes each. Pehlwans exercise for close to an hour to get their bodies warmed up before setting foot in the akhara. This is sacred ground for them and nobody but wrestlers are allowed inside. The soil is sourced from the banks of the Ganges and then very carefully treated to sift out stones and pebbles. Ayurvedic oils, turmeric, Multani mitti (clay from Multan), salt and neem are then added. This is done every 2 to 3 months (about 5 times a year). Water is an important ingredient as well to ensure that the soil is soft enough on the bodies but not too soft to limit feet movements. In this first round, Suraj Kant Tiwari (left) faces off with Gaurav Tiwari, another migrant from Chapra, Bihar. 

At around 6:00 am, the first round of kushti starts. Depending on the day and how many pehlwans are present, each wrestler could have 2 to 3 rounds of 20-25 minutes each. Pehlwans exercise for close to an hour to get their bodies warmed up before setting foot in the akhara. This is sacred ground for them and nobody but wrestlers are allowed inside. The soil is sourced from the banks of the Ganges and then very carefully treated to sift out stones and pebbles. Ayurvedic oils, turmeric, Multani mitti (clay from Multan), salt and neem are then added. This is done every 2 to 3 months (about 5 times a year). Water is an important ingredient as well to ensure that the soil is soft enough on the bodies but not too soft to limit feet movements. In this first round, Suraj Kant Tiwari (left) faces off with Gaurav Tiwari, another migrant from Chapra, Bihar. 

Wrestlers immediately go after the opponent's head and neck in an effort to pin him down and gain a stranglehold. Traditional malla-yuddha emphasizes on this attack; the Moghuls introduced better footwork and ground movement techniques to the sport. No hitting, kicking, slapping is allowed in kushti. 

Wrestlers immediately go after the opponent's head and neck in an effort to pin him down and gain a stranglehold. Traditional malla-yuddha emphasizes on this attack; the Moghuls introduced better footwork and ground movement techniques to the sport. No hitting, kicking, slapping is allowed in kushti. 

While Gaurav is heavier, bigger and likely stronger, Suraj Kant is more agile and has better technique (to Nandu Yadav's very audible point). He finds gaps in his opponent's defenses very quickly and is swift to attack the head with his right hand while protecting his own with the left.

While Gaurav is heavier, bigger and likely stronger, Suraj Kant is more agile and has better technique (to Nandu Yadav's very audible point). He finds gaps in his opponent's defenses very quickly and is swift to attack the head with his right hand while protecting his own with the left.

Other wrestlers continue their warm up routines as they wait turns to the akhara. Pankaj Patel will wrestle with Suraj Kant shortly and is getting ready. Most pehlwans start at the age of 7 or 8 helping others with their exercises, cleaning up, applying oil and clay to pehlwans and doing chores. Training on the kushti way of life starts early and goes on for 5-6 years before they are allowed to engage in any serious wrestling. This, Nandu explains, is important to prepare the body for kushti. The muslces need both strength and flexibility, which one gets only after years of training. This is not an overnight sport that one can do with a few weeks or months of training. Along with it comes a strict diet, work ethic, disciplined prayer and spiritual routine. 

Other wrestlers continue their warm up routines as they wait turns to the akhara. Pankaj Patel will wrestle with Suraj Kant shortly and is getting ready. Most pehlwans start at the age of 7 or 8 helping others with their exercises, cleaning up, applying oil and clay to pehlwans and doing chores. Training on the kushti way of life starts early and goes on for 5-6 years before they are allowed to engage in any serious wrestling. This, Nandu explains, is important to prepare the body for kushti. The muslces need both strength and flexibility, which one gets only after years of training. This is not an overnight sport that one can do with a few weeks or months of training. Along with it comes a strict diet, work ethic, disciplined prayer and spiritual routine. 

After about 20 minutes, Suraj Kant is close to pinning Gaurav Tiwari down and winning his first round. The opponent's shoulders and hips must both touch the ground in order to secure victory. 

After about 20 minutes, Suraj Kant is close to pinning Gaurav Tiwari down and winning his first round. The opponent's shoulders and hips must both touch the ground in order to secure victory. 

Gaurav Tiwari having lost his first round, watches from behind the fence. Suraj Kant's second round with Pankaj Patel starts off with the latter gaining early ground. Elder wrestlers like Nandu Yadav and others are inside the akhara (pit) giving tips and instructions to both, while youngsters watch, listen and learn. 

Gaurav Tiwari having lost his first round, watches from behind the fence. Suraj Kant's second round with Pankaj Patel starts off with the latter gaining early ground. Elder wrestlers like Nandu Yadav and others are inside the akhara (pit) giving tips and instructions to both, while youngsters watch, listen and learn. 

It takes Suraj Kant a few minutes to regain his position as he tosses Pankaj Patel down in a typical move called the "dhobi pachad." Once down on the ground, with the opponent's face in the clay, Suraj is quick to enforce the head and neck strangle (next three images) and end the bout. 

It takes Suraj Kant a few minutes to regain his position as he tosses Pankaj Patel down in a typical move called the "dhobi pachad." Once down on the ground, with the opponent's face in the clay, Suraj is quick to enforce the head and neck strangle (next three images) and end the bout. 

After his two rounds of wrestling, Suraj Kant gets back to his post kushti workout routine - more weights, sit ups, push up and stretches. By my very rough estimate, during the course of one morning, he had done about 500 push ups, 300 sit ups, 3 types of weight exercises, rope and parallel bars, a couple of asanas to stretch himself and two intense rounds (25 mins each) of wrestling. Other pehlwans were on close count.  

After his two rounds of wrestling, Suraj Kant gets back to his post kushti workout routine - more weights, sit ups, push up and stretches. By my very rough estimate, during the course of one morning, he had done about 500 push ups, 300 sit ups, 3 types of weight exercises, rope and parallel bars, a couple of asanas to stretch himself and two intense rounds (25 mins each) of wrestling. Other pehlwans were on close count.  

In between workouts, Suraj Kant takes a breather and talks to me about the akhara and its future. "There is diminishing interest in kushti and resources are scarce. We each have to consume 200 grams of almonds, half a pound of ghee (clarified butter), two to three types of vegetables and 3 litres of milk, a day. Without that fuel, our bodies cannot sustain pehlwani. We go to local schools and we also work to afford this akhara and its related expenses. There is no meaningful support from the government either. We have a few individuals who have come and joined the akhara and that helps a little, but I worry how sustainable this is. My father has run this however he could for the last 50 years, soon it will be on me. Let's see."  

In between workouts, Suraj Kant takes a breather and talks to me about the akhara and its future. "There is diminishing interest in kushti and resources are scarce. We each have to consume 200 grams of almonds, half a pound of ghee (clarified butter), two to three types of vegetables and 3 litres of milk, a day. Without that fuel, our bodies cannot sustain pehlwani. We go to local schools and we also work to afford this akhara and its related expenses. There is no meaningful support from the government either. We have a few individuals who have come and joined the akhara and that helps a little, but I worry how sustainable this is. My father has run this however he could for the last 50 years, soon it will be on me. Let's see."  

This is the best part of a pehlwan's life. After the morning's kushti and workouts are done, pehlwans lay flat on the treated akhara clay to cool down and get a massage from junior folks. This both nourishes and heals the body. It is also a time of friendly banter, catching up and shifting gears to the rest of the day. The akhara clay is considered to be pure with therapeutic properties. Pehlwans worship the pit and continuously douse themselves with clay while wrestling.

This is the best part of a pehlwan's life. After the morning's kushti and workouts are done, pehlwans lay flat on the treated akhara clay to cool down and get a massage from junior folks. This both nourishes and heals the body. It is also a time of friendly banter, catching up and shifting gears to the rest of the day. The akhara clay is considered to be pure with therapeutic properties. Pehlwans worship the pit and continuously douse themselves with clay while wrestling.

At around 8:30am, Suraj Kant takes a bath in the Hooghly to get rid of all the clay and sweat. 4 hours of a daily morning ritual finally over, he will now get ready and leave for his day job, at a nearby parking lot on Strand Road. The children will go to a local school, the elders will hang around the temple and kill time in the summer heat. Suraj Kant Tiwari, Gaurav Tiwari, Pankaj Patel and others in that age group will work, buy groceries, cook and clean. All in a days work while trying their best to preserve pehlwani and a way of life they are accustomed to - "Kushti."

At around 8:30am, Suraj Kant takes a bath in the Hooghly to get rid of all the clay and sweat. 4 hours of a daily morning ritual finally over, he will now get ready and leave for his day job, at a nearby parking lot on Strand Road. The children will go to a local school, the elders will hang around the temple and kill time in the summer heat. Suraj Kant Tiwari, Gaurav Tiwari, Pankaj Patel and others in that age group will work, buy groceries, cook and clean. All in a days work while trying their best to preserve pehlwani and a way of life they are accustomed to - "Kushti."