FIGHT! Magazine’s T.R. Foley traveled to India to investigate the semi-monastic life of the Indian Pahalwans and experience their unique mixture of spirituality and aggression.
You would be surprised how many armed soldiers show up to a wrestling match in India. Standing atop guard towers, sitting in vehicles, and monitoring exits, Indian soldiers don’t have the bulk or fine tailoring of their American counterparts, but they do carry Belgian-made AK-47s.
The wrestling match is hosted by a local committee of ascending politicians who want to earn the favor—and votes—of the unemployed population in this area of north Delhi. There is a large bandstand at one end of the field, with cream and orange couches for the committee and their invited dignitaries. Many of the highest-ranking officials wear long white gowns. Orange flags are posted on 20-foot poles around the large, circular competition space. On the left hand side of the festival grounds are 300-feet of gold-dyed linens meant to block the view of the parking lot of a Radisson Blu. On the right side, there’s a drainage pond the size of a football field being used largely as a bathroom.
My new friend Deepak Prasad has brought me here. An accountant with an absolute, all-consuming passion for India’s traditional wrestling style called “kushti,” Deepak has arranged for me to compete in a dangal (a traditional Indian wrestling festival). I agree, and though I expected a few dozen bored spectators to be in attendance, there are more than 3,000 fans crowding rope lines, smoking clove cigarettes, and chatting in Hindi.
The committee members hosting the event once belonged to a social caste formerly referred to as the “untouchables”—a fact Deepak refuses to discuss because of the stiff penalties that mentioning caste can bring someone in India (as many as seven years in jail). However, only a few decades ago, these organizers were street-level workers with little wealth outside generational, family-held property. Now, thanks to the hottest real estate market in the world, their formerly humble dwellings in desirable parts of Delhi are fetching tens of millions in sales and hundreds of thousands in rent. To pay for some of the area’s top wrestlers, committee members have to be wealthy. Dangals consistently pay out more than $10,000 in prizes to winning wrestlers of all ages, with the champion of the headlining bout typically earning more than $2,000.
Deepak ushers me past the growing circle of fans, and asks me to take off my shoes. He tugs on my wrist and brings me to an official in the middle of the wrestling area. The announcer takes my left hand, a customary gesture in India, and begins his Bruce Buffer-like introduction in Hindi.
I hear three words: “Tim! Chicago! Pahalwan!”
In an instant, a parade of challengers duck rope lines and sprint toward me with their hands extended. They’re kicking off their shoes and grappling with each other to increase their position and reach me first. I shake hands with the first wrestler to break into my personal space, a gesture I’d hoped would disperse the crowd, but actually means I’ve agreed to wrestle. Deepak would later tell me that the committee had offered 6,000 rupees ($120) to anyone who could beat the American. Apparently I looked like an easy mark.
Quarter, a successful international freestyle wrestler with a face that resembles the frying pan-to-the-nose look of all wrestlers, has won the race to shake my hand. He is 30 pounds lighter than me but immensely confident, a combination that leaves me concerned about what else I don’t know about the rules and techniques of kushti.
As the wrestlers disperse, the referee helps me out of the circle. The crowd suddenly begins pushing the rope line, hollering semi-English cordialities my direction: “American! Hey! You wrestle! Okay. Good luck.”
The armed guards, who moments before were content to sit and watch, now stand with guns placed firmly against their chests.
I’d be wrestling in 20 minutes.
Two days earlier, I was in a wrestling pit with Jitu Pahalwan, the 17-year-old son of Deepak’s best friend, Rajinder. Jitu is proportioned like an action figure and is one of India’s most promising freestyle wrestlers. Like a Hindu Popeye, the dark-skinned bruiser has 18-inch biceps, eight pack abs, and concrete pillars for thighs. Adding to the young, agile, brutal aesthetic of his body, the high school junior also has a 10-inch scar across the right side of his face and jaw, the consequence of a childhood accident involving a bike and a piece of sheet metal.
Deepak, Rajinder, and I met Jitu at the Guru Badri akhara, deep in the vegetable market of Old Delhi. The akhara was hidden from street view by a row of stalls selling picked cabbages, mustard leaves, spices, and hemp sacks stiffened with cashews and almonds. Akharas house local youths—some who live in slums and others who were orphaned by their parents and have nowhere else to turn. Like the organizers of the dangal, some of the boys in the akhara would’ve once been considered “untouchable.”
“First you will wrestle Jitu, and then you will wrestle Akash,” said Deepak from the side of the wrestling pit. “You are good wrestler, so I give you the two best to compete with.”
I was a D-1 All-American wrestler in college, but as I’ve found with wrestling in China, Mongolia, and Vietnam, traditional styles have new and often quirky rules that prevent immediate success. Kushti is simple ground wrestling, but with no points. The only way to win is by placing your opponent’s back flat on the dirt. Wrestling is the skill, but Kushti is the “game,” and that means takedowns that once worked on a slick surfaced wrestling mat are slowed in the dirt. Super-ducks don’t play, and rolling across your own back to put your opponent in danger (Google: “Funky Ben Askren”) results in a loss.
Rules differ, but Kushti wrestling is about more than techniques—the heart of the sport lies in a wrestler’s observation of a chaste lifestyle and in the celebration and respect of the Hindu god Hanuman. No meat, alcohol, movies, or sex. Many wrestlers only eat a diet of almonds and milk, which in India is considered “pure veg,” while others like Jitu will supplement that diet with as many as a dozen eggs per day. Meat, sex, and booze are a trio of powerful temptations for a 16-year-old to ignore, but when asked about their draw, Jitu just flexes his cartoonish biceps and says, “No. Stay strong!”
Before we wrestled, Jitu sanctified the wrestling pit—a 20-by-20-foot pile of brown dirt mounded two-feet high—by burning incense and tossing loose dirt over the smoke as he walks in circles. For wrestlers, once the dirt is sanctified, it becomes “mitti,” the Hindi word for mud. The wrestlers before him mixed in ghee, marigolds, and a scented oil to ensure the dirt maintains a pleasant fragrance. While you and I think of dirt as dirty, the Indian wrestler considers it a blessed surface.
Deepak found a langot for me to wear—a Speedo-like cotton cloth that wraps through the crotch like a diaper and ties off below the belly button. Having never wrapped and tightened one, I needed Deepak’s assistance, a humbling experience since it required being mostly naked in front of two-dozen Indian wrestlers I’d met only 10 minutes prior. The langot felt too small, too revealing, so Deepak also handed me a jonghai, a tough cotton overall in the shape of a Speedo that had been made popular in recent years by self-conscious Indian boys.
Jitu headed to the end of the pit and bowed to a statue of Lord Hanuman, the chosen Hindu deity of wrestlers enclosed behind a steel cage and adorned with candles, wreaths, and burning incense. Hanuman is an ape-faced human who was originally celebrated by wrestlers for his celibacy, but who is now charged with delivering them strength before their matches. One translation of the name “hanuman” is “broken jaw,” a coincidence that wasn’t lost on me as I prepared myself to wrestle Jitu.
As he entered the pit to wrestle, Jitu touched the sanctified dirt and then his chest in recognition of the gods and in respect to the akhara’s guru, or coach (Jitu belongs to the Shyam Lal Akhara, named after his grandfather). Deepak gave me some final pre-match coaching as I stepped into the cold, soft dirt of the pit. “You have to shake hands and apply your strengths,” he added, “maybe immediately,” and descended into a childish chuckle.
Jitu pulled my head down with his right arm and dug in his left for a controlling underhook. I tried to pressure down, but Jitu used that pressure to help him snap my face down into the mitti. It was an aggressive start that ignited an exchange of takedowns and ill-intentioned cross-faces. Near the end of our first go, Jitu grabbed my jonghai to help him earn a fall and what would have been a victory if we’d been in real competition. Like any maneuver in combat sports, it takes feeling a new technique to understand the pressure, and I’d just felt part of what made Kushti a unique wrestling game.
After 15 minutes of non-stop wrestling, Deepak pulled me aside and asked for me to “rest for some time,” before he sent out Akash, a much meaner but less talented version of Jitu. Another 15 minutes of hi-crotches, spin behinds, and failed cradle attempts left my lungs burning. I was mouth breathing, but the tenderfoot duo of Jitu and Akash headed to the side and began a 30-minute calisthenics routine. I debated lying flat on my back in the mitti, but felt confident it was disrespectful and would have made me seem weak.
The akhara’s wrestlers took pity on my circumstance and brought me a post-match badam, a drink made of sweet milk, almonds, sugar, and cardamom. I sat cross-legged on the edge of the wrestling pit and captured a few generous sips and moments of peace as the akharas wrestlers continued with their curious stares. After a traditional and mandatory 10-minute cool down, the akhara’s houseboys brought a large bucket of hot water. I filled a plastic drinking cup and poured it lazily over my head and gently rubbed the dirt from my hair and arms. Deepak loathed my inefficiency and used his hands on my back, shoulders, and abs like a surgeon debriding a burn victim. It took 10 cups of water and a bar of soap, but I left the akhara that day feeling as clean as when I’d entered, though substantially more tired and equally humbled.
With a quick bow of their heads the referees signal they’re ready. My opponent and I reach down, grab a few fingers full of mitti, and touch them to our hearts.
Announcements begin over the loudspeaker and the organizers grab my wrists and raise them to the sky. “Tim! Chicago! Pahalwan!”
Drums begin to beat rapidly. We both grab a handful of mitti and shake hands. With prompting from the emcee, the crowd begins an excited cheer. Some begin to chuckle.
The match lasted six minutes and gave the crowd plenty to cheer. Quarter showed courage on his feet. He set up a nice hi-crotch and defended a threatening leg cradle with ease. Three minutes into the match, he managed to reach back from bottom and hook my elbow, hitting a “fat-man’s roll,” which put me to my back for the win. However, the whistle had already been blown and the action happened off the pit. The Indian fans made sure to note this to the referees, waving their fingers in the air side-to-side. In the end, I was too big for Quarter to take down, and too flexible to bait into another risky roll. Quarter stood too tall after a tie-up, and I hit an inside trip on the edge of the wrestling surface, lock in a wrist-and-half, and placed both his shoulders flat in the dirt. The Indian fans threw their arms in the air and began shouting. The drums began beating, and an announcer immediately pulled me to my feet and raised my arms.
Pinning a smaller wrestler and in the traditional setting might seem unsporting, but it would be more injurious and insulting to not compete with all my ability. Anytime I’ve competed in a similar setting outside the United States, fans from other countries have never booed me for winning or cheered me in a loss. Just like we welcome wrestlers from Japan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Japan into our NCAA tournament, so too do the Indians in their traditional wrestling tournaments.
Fans crossed the rope line and raised my arms. They were joined by dignitaries, politicians, and police, who laid wreaths of brown-tinted marigolds and dandelions around my neck. The flowers smelled sweet, but the more tender gestures came from the crowd. Although I was aware of being used by the local committee as a piece of propaganda, the enjoyment of the fans felt genuine.
“Now, you must walk around and shake hands with all the fans,” Deepak said. “They will want to pay you money and take a photo with you.”
More than 50 fans gave me money. Some were Muslim, others Hindu. There were rich men with 1,000 rupee notes and the very poor men with 10 rupee notes. There wasn’t an option to decline the money. It was a gesture of thanks that I couldn’t refuse.
The news cameras were a bit shocking. They’d heard I’d shown up to wrestle in a small dangal hosted by what had traditionally been considered a lower class. Like good journalists, they wanted to know, “Why?”
My answers ended up being broadcast the entire night across four major news channels. It was embarrassing, but some Hindi friends I’d made in town made me watch. I asked them why there was such a strong response, as all I’d done was enter a wrestling match. “Most Americans come here to buy property, start call centers, or talk about yoga,” he said. “Indians aren’t used to people celebrating their tough side.”
Pahalwans don’t accept cash for good deeds, so to pay back my new friends for their hospitality, I take Deepak, Rajinder, and Jitu to the Taj Mahal, the center of tourism hell. We pull up in our taxi and are greeted by abused camels, juvenile pickpockets, and 15,000 tourists working their way around the entrance in the hopes someone will take a photo of them tugging on the dome of the great Mosque.
As unpleasant as it is to be hassled, it’s equally encouraging to have Jitu by my side, protecting me from pickpockets and overly assertive salesmen. Already large enough to scare me—much less a 12-year-old pickpocket—Jitu is puffing out his chest and feinting violence against those who hassle us. Only seven days before, we shared our first unfamiliar handshake. But through wrestling, we now enjoyed a type of loyalty—a realization much more beautiful than any mosque.
We stroll through the grounds for a few hours and take photos, leaving around 5 p.m. The mobs of memorabilia salesmen hawking Indiana Jones whips and buggie rides greet us on our exit. With a hint of Delhi Belly creeping through my body, a 6 a.m. flight the next morning, and a four-hour ride home staring me down, I’m turning into a cranky infant. No, I don’t want a marble elephant, I think to myself with each persistent salesman. I just want to get back to the apartment, pack my shit, and go home.
Amidst my moaning internal dialogue, Deepak begins talking up a 10-year-old snow globe salesman who claims that just over the hill is a traditional akhara. Better still, he says, the wrestlers are preparing to practice.
We follow the boy through a thicket and over a small hill. On the way, we catch a view of the Taj Mahal that makes the tourist trap suddenly feel like a Mayan temple peeking out of the forest. The sun is beginning its long descent, and the white marble tiles of the mosque are beginning to fleck orange. Only moments before, I’d been declining photos and now I was snapping away on my own camera to capture this new angle.
Snowglobe leads us on a trail past a few lounging bovine, before stepping into a small town with 10 earthen and clay structures. To our right is a large well, workout room, and a cage for Hanuman. Monkeys are running over our heads, watching us from the roof of the weight room as we make our way in for greetings.
As though they’d been expecting our arrival, gurus and wrestlers emerge from around corners and small rooms already dressed in red langots and jonghai. The periwinkle-colored akhara in the shadow of the Taj Mahal with traditional wrestlers milling about in preparation for the day’s practice makes for a stunning view. Deepak has been to the Taj three dozen times and yet never knew this akhara existed—now he’s standing by my side with an explorer’s grin, snapping photos of everyone and everything. We mill about for 10 minutes as Rajinder takes down the names and email addresses of the gurus, and I ask some of the younger wrestlers to pose for portraits and explain the history of the akhara.
Murli Baba, a Muslim who’d held influence over the area surrounding the great mosque, established the Guru Kalwa akhara in 1857 as part of a small village that supported the workings inside the great mosque. Today, just outside the walls of the akhara, there is still a tent community, set up by camel riders and their beasts of burden as a place to rest and eat between shifts pestering tourists. The entire atmosphere was reminiscent of an early 20th-century circus—if an elephant had waddled in and stood on a stool, nobody would have been alarmed.
We share cordialities, but soon exit. The sun is setting, and by the time we reach the top of the small hill, the dome of the Taj Mahal is pinkish in hue. As we stand on the hill and take in the sites, it becomes apparent that this is the most idealistic and quixotic wrestling scene I have ever see. I could make it to another dozen countries, compete in another hundred tournaments, but perhaps nothing could ever beat this—a centuries-old akhara preparing for a sunset practice in the shadow of the Taj Mahal.
“I have to wrestle,” I tell Deepak.
I turn and jog down the hill and jump over the wall of the city. Greeting me is a very large and intimidating Pahalwan named Anoop, repping pull-ups in the doorframe of the small, dark weight room.
“Humph. Humph. Hu-hu-humph!” I look to him, make eye contact with Snowglobe, and ask if this monster would like to wrestle. Like Quarter and Jitu, Anoop agrees without hesitation.
One of the boys fetches a red langot, and after a few poor attempts to tie it firmly across my lower belly, Rajinder readjusts the knot and pulls hard enough to pinch my skin. Another boy begins blessing the pit with incense, leaving the remainder to burn at the edge of the pit with the smoke blowing downwind, across the pit and toward the mosque.
Anoop and I line up in front of the wrestling pit—facing the Taj Mahal—and begin our pre-match warm-up. He spins his arms a few times and reps out some deep squats. I reach my hands over my head to stretch my lats then kick my leg across my chest to help crack and loosen my back. In front of me is the pinkish dome of the mosque through the trees. Then a camel meanders by in a huff. To my side, some boys giggle and pull out their cell phone cameras. Jitu keeps an eye on my clothes.
Anoop and I stroll to the edge of the pit, touch the dirt, and bring our hands to our hearts. Once we are in the center, I give it a last deep-knee bend and take a final look at the Taj.
I breath deep and Anoop grabs a palm full of mitti and looks me in the eyes. I grab some mitti, step forward, and like centuries of Pahalwans before us, we shake hands and begin to wrestle.
Combined with India’s rich history in the combat arts, the global phenomenon that is modern Mixed Martial Arts has made the country’s billion person population a prime target for the growth of the sport. While the UFC has plans to expand into India in the near future, one organization is already there. Founded in late 2011 by Sanjay Dutt and Raj Kundra, The Super Fight League can be seen on Indian ESPN Star Sports starting this month.
With a reality TV show, a growing fighter roster, and a recent partnership with the Women’s MMA organization Invicta FC, expect The Super Fight League to play a big part in introducing MMA to the country with the second largest population in the world.