Photo Essay

Muscle Men of Mysore

Wrestling Match

Muscle Men of Mysore

now wrestling to survive

War, Conflict. Some say it all began since the rise of the state, about 5000 years ago. But I know otherwise. Maybe that's the good thing about being Indian. Indian bedtime stories came filled with pure action, all the way from an era a million years ago. Just like everything else in Indian tradition.

In a way, war is instinctive behavior that confers survival benefits. The key word being instinctive. So I believe the concept of a fight was alive since the day man became aware of his need to survive. And anything that brings human instinct to the forefront compulsively becomes an art of sorts. A sport soon after.

Mystical Gods employed dhanurveda (archery) to vanquish the evil. Several years later we see bows and arrows as an exotic art. A sport with machismo. Kalarippayattu , Malla yuddha or Kushti (wrestling combat), vajra mushti (lightning fist) and many more were passed down several generations. The sport has been around in India since the days of antiquity when it was employed as a form of combat. The classic epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have many mentions about the sport. The other disciplines of wrestling which were derived out of this classic martial art are Greco Roman style, Freestyle Wrestling, Grappling, Beach wrestling and Sambo. The Greco Roman style and the freestyle forms of wrestling are more prevalent now and have been inducted into various competitions and Olympics. There are also some lesser known traditional styles of wrestling unique to certain regions of the world, largely popular in the regions from where they originate. Backhold Wrestling (Europe), Catch-as-catch-can (England), Kurash from Uzbekistan, Gushteengiri from Tajikistan, Khuresh from Siberia, Lotta Campidanese from Italy, Pahlavani from Iran, Pehlwani from India, Penjang Gulat from Indonesia, Schwingen from Switzerland, Shuai jiao from China, Ssireum from Korea, and Yagli güres (Turkish oil wrestling). The traditional Indian Kushti is different from the formal Greco Roman style which forbids the wrestler from gripping the opponent under the belt in an effort to trip him down.

Long ago in Mysore, when the trendy gyms never existed, the royal kings were the key patrons of this form of sport. Wrestling or kusthi was thoroughly enjoyed by the people and the pahelwans were even recruited in the army.

In my quest to learn more about kusthi, I happened to visit Mysore and ask a few people about wrestling schools or akhadas where wrestling was taught. Jayaram who sells tea beside Mysore Zoo, spoke at length to me about the city's passion for the art of Kushti. I found, it was more his than the city's. Proud about once being an enthusiastic part of the kushti culture, yet only reluctantly willing to tell me his stories, I saw he felt deeply for the nearing death of the art. So did I. I had spoken to a direct victim in the city of Mysore which now wears a glamorous tag having forgotten one of its majestic arts.

Mysore was once a city that housed over 100 wrestling schools, but there are only about 40 remaining now in which a handful are actively involved in wrestling, Most of these crumble down to give way to modern gyms. Pahelwaan Lokesh Jaisimha gave me a great insight about the value of garadis and the wrestler's life. He has been involved with Besthar Kalanna Wrestling school ever since he was a little boy and now he is one of the renowned wrestlers in Mysore. Aged 29, he has been a winner of the following wrestling bouts – Dasara Kanteerava, Dasara Kesari, Bharath Kumar, and Mysore Arjun. Over 25 wrestlers train at this school.

Garadis or akhadas all boast of mud pits, healthy old trees and a deep well. A shady pipal tree, a small portico for practice and a well are the signature features of any wrestling school. Most of them have bright paintings on the walls with depictions of Lord Hanuman, Garuda and other dramatic scenes portraying physical power from Hindu Mythology, turning the garadi into a tribute to the God of Courage Himself, Anjaneya.

Across the portico, there is a dias where vetern wrestlers relax and watch the ongoings at the garadi. The guru or ustaad sits here and keeps an eye on the daily practice. I was led into the room, which had the mud pit. It was in this pit where wrestlers grappled each other and practiced. The mud used is red soil and it is ploughed before every practice to obtain a soft texture. The ritual begins with warm up exercises and a luxurious massage, with butter. Some even dab some red mud on themselves to help the body stay warm. They finally seek to be blessed by the Lord and their Guru. The kushti session begins and ends with worship.

Now, the actual match begins. The fight for the glorious victory. They shake hands as a friendly gesture and begin to prepare their stance against each other. Arms tackle each other, bodies rub against each other. Each person attempts to make the opponent lose his balance and hurl him down on the pit. The sweat and oil on the bodies makes it difficult to hold a grip. Sounds of struggle echo the room. The regime ends with some aerobic exercises and the lifting of stone weights. Wrestling schools are mainly used for practice purposes and actual competitions are held in an open public space.

Interested kushti patrons are from various professions like fruit sellers, timber merchants and more coming together only for the passion for the sport. This passion took 'Tiger Balaji' as far as the silver screen where he shared the stage with the most popular actor Dr. Rajkumar. Now at 53 he reminisces about his pahelwan days when he was literally feared.

Marketed very less, the sport of Kushti remains a passion for localites alone, without a chance for people to know about the sport. If more people know about it, there could be more patrons, making it easier to get sponsors as the number of people involved will get bigger. Be it in schools or at health clubs, all the enthusiasts ask for is to be recognized and give more people a chance to taste this sport. Sushil Kumar from India won a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and ever since, there has been a lot of interest generated towards the sport.

Karnataka is home to great wrestling schools, Mysore being the city hosting most of them. One can get to witness wrestling bouts there, during the annual Dasara Festival (September/October), or in Hampi (Hoskote District) during the Hampi Utsav (November). These are the two major events which attract audience from all over the world. Apart from these large scale events, wrestling bouts are also held in Mysore during the Kannada Rajyotsava Festival. Wrestling bouts are generally conducted in an open ground and audience sit all around the mud pit to witness the sport. Local wrestlers are quite popular amongst the crowd and they shout out slogans and cheer them during the match.

This is my attempt in reviving the original sport of India, Kushti.

4 responses

  • Joseph

    Joseph (Deleted) gave props (29 May 2009):


  • Rey mos

    Rey mos gave props (29 May 2009):

    very informative story. I dont know about this Indian sport. Quite similar to our native fight in the Philippines which was featured in Last Man Standing tv series.

  • Epin Hervin

    Epin Hervin gave props (23 Nov 2010):

    I read this story and I'm happy you mentioned "gulat" from my country. For your information, maybe what you wrote "penjang" it's "benjang"(with b not p). Benjang it's a traditional "gulat(wrestling)" originally from Ujung Berung, Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, South East Asia.

  • raghuram ashhok

    raghuram ashhok said (24 Nov 2010):

    Thanks a lot folks.

    Sorry about the typo with 'benjang'. Was a little confused about its pronunciation.

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