2. The Akhara: Where Earth Is Turned Into Gold
What is an akhara? It is a place of recreation for youth. It is a shrine of strengrh where earth is turned into gold. It is a sign of masculinity and the assembly hall of invigorated youth. Strength is measured against strength and moves and counter moves are born and develop. An akhara should be in an open area where fresh air and sunshine mingle. It should be away from dirt and filth and in a place where the earth is soft. It should be set off by a boundary of some sort and surrounded by thick foliated trees. There should be water nearby.
One should enter the akhara after paying obeisance and offering up incense to the Lord. An akhara is where one prays and where offerings are given and distributed. Its earth is saluted and taken up to anoint one’s shoulders and head. And then one wrestles and the sound of slapping thighs and pounding chests fills the air. Grunts and groans of exertion echo ominously. One trounces and in turn is trounced. Exercise is done. Laziness and procrastination are drowned in sweat. The earth is mixed and finally one salutes the pit and leaves.
The spatial layout of an akhara is important insofar as it produces a geomantic aura of invigorating peace and tranquility. The ideal location for an akhara is a cool, clean, quiet area where one can get away from both an atmosphere of domestic obligation and an environment of work. One can well imagine the importance of such a place in the crowded environment of urban India. However, the aesthetic ideals apply equally to rural as well as urban akharas. On entering the compound of a number of different akharas, I was asked if I could sense an aura of shant (peace and tranquility). Indicating the shade of a tree, the aroma of freshly moistened earth and the coolness of a refreshing breeze, wrestling friends would abandon themselves to a revery of cathartic relaxation. Indeed, it seemed that many who came to Akhara Ram Singh and the other akharas I visited regularly did so in much the same way that one might visit a health spa. Older men came to relax before going to work and younger boys would rest on their way to school. People with minor ailments—constipation, arthritis, backaches, skin infections, bruises, and sprains—came to the akhara hoping to effect a cure. Wrestling-pit earth and akhara well water are both regarded as tonics which help to cure a host of common ailments. In many ways the earth pit functions much like a mineral bath that has a reputation for healing. Many wrestlers I spoke with claimed that they had at one time or another suffered some debilitating illness—rheumatisum, consumption, heart weakness, high blood pressure, kidney stones—and that after visiting an akhara and lying in the earth had been restored to perfect health.
Akharas have a definite aesthetic appeal. Their visual tone is picturesque. Consider, for example, Akhara Bara Ganesh in the Lohatia bazaar of Banaras. The akhara is not visible from the main street, but its location is marked by the bright green leaves of a tall pipal tree and the thicker darker mass of a young nim (see plate 1).
As the name implies, Lohatia bazaar is a metal market and the main cobblestone road which runs through the market is lined with encroaching shops that sell thick-slatted parrot cages, buffalo tethering spikes, drum-sized cauldrons for boiling milk, and ladles whose size would match the cutlery of Ravana’s kitchen. Anvils, arc-welders, and rivet wrenches spark, flash, and grind as contractors turn out dozens of bathtub-size feeding troughs, evaporative air-coolers, and meter upon meter of chain link.
Heading towards Maidagin and the old central post office, one turns left off the main road down a gali (narrow lane) which leads toward Bara Ganesh temple. A high river-rock retaining wall parallels the left side of the gali which leads directly up to a niche-shrine dedicated to lord Hanuman. Seated in the niche, a man reads verses from Tulasi Das’s epic poem Ramacaritamanasa and dispenses Ganga river water and prasad (ritually blessed food offerings) to men on scooters on their way to work and to women returning home with bottles of milk, who stop to pay homage to the Lord. Hawkers of marigold garlands, incense, jasmine flowers, and other ritual paraphernalia line the small path that turns left at the niche shrine and winds its way to the gates of Ganesh’s temple. Beggars mirror the hawkers on the opposite side of the path and benevolently accept alms from those in search of grace. The path continues a short way beyond the temple gates until a short flight of stairs leads one up to the left, through an arch, and into the akhara grounds.
Bara Ganesh Akhara is situated on a flat bluff twelve meters above the main Lohatia bazaar and some six meters above Ganesh’s temple. The retaining wall demarcates two edges of the compound, and buildings set off the other two sides, making a rough rectangle some forty meters long and seventeen meters wide. Although the akhara is raised above the street and the temple gate, buildings, spires, and crenellations frame the grounds and shade the pit from all but the midday sun.
Walking up the stairs and through the arch, one directly faces the main Hanuman temple of the akhara complex. The temple building itself is new: a modern, square, flat-roofed brick and concrete construction, lime-washed yellow. The image of Hanuman—who is serviced by a semiresident priest—dates back to antiquity; I was told, “There is not another one like it in Banaras.” The grounds of the akhara are ample, and since the guru of Akhara Bara Ganesh is both a dairy farmer and a purveyor of sheet metal, the area in front of the temple is used as a buffalo corral and a storage area for tin tubs, water tanks, buckets, roofing material, and sundry other items. Lallu Pahalwan, the guru of the akhara, can be found every morning sitting on his cot among his buffalos dispensing fresh milk from two polished tin buckets.
Just beyond the buffalos and tin tubs is a brick water drain, which marks an important spatial boundary. On the temple side of the drain the ground is covered with stubbly grass, bits of old metal, buffalo dung, sleeping dogs, and playing children. In sharp contrast, the opposite side of the drain is smooth, flat, hard-packed earth from which playing children and wandering dogs are unceremoniously chased. This is where the akhara precinct begins.
The akhara precinct is almost completely shaded by two large trees: a thick, broad nim that hangs low over the pit and a tall pipal that rises above the well. Under the shade of these trees, in the shadow of bazaar buildings, set against the temple skyline, stands the pit. It is the focal point of the akhara complex. Seven by seven meters square and a quarter-meter high, the soft red earth forms a large raised arena. Six cement columns stand at the four corners and at the center of two sides, supporting a tin roof which creates a canopy under the heavy branches of the nim. The columns are thickset, made of poured concrete and painted yellow. Each one is decorated with a mural drawing: a thickset wrestler lifting a nal (stone weight) over his head; another wrestler swinging a pair of joris; two wrestlers locked together measuring each other’s strength; Lord Hanuman flying through the air carrying a mountain in one hand and a mace in the other; Shiva bedecked in peacock feathers holding a flaming jori in either hand. Vases of flowers supported on the backs of jumping monkeys decorate the inner face of the four corner columns. Intertwined blue cobras drinking from bowls of milk are juxtaposed on the center posts.
On the temple side of the akhara, overlooking the lane where mendicants and lepers beg for alms and under the thickest branches of the nim, stands a short, thick, stone dais. Lallu Pahalwan can often be found reclining on the cool, hard stone holding audience with merchants, mendicants, and members of his family while casting a benevolent yet critical eye on his practicing disciples. As Lallu reclines and his wards grapple, rhesus monkeys, in their haste to get a share of prasad at the temple, occasionally abandon the branches of the nim and race thunderously across the tin roof of the pit beating a tattoo matched only by the laborers in the gali below, who pound sheet metal into popsicle molds, leaf springs, and saw blades. The sound of monkeys on the roof, the gali, horns and bicycle bells on the road, prayer gongs in the temple, and ubiquitous loudspeakers broadcasting popular film songs and praises to the gods all blend into a distant cacophonous refrain that both envelopes and sets the akhara apart, if only by contrast and juxtaposition.
Across the pit from the guru’s dais is a larger, wide stone bench used by the elder members of the akhara, who come to relax and watch the younger members practice. Behind this, and raised up half a meter, is a one-room cement building used to store exercise equipment, house visiting wrestlers, and change clothes, and to exercise and massage when the monsoon rains turn the hard-packed earth to mud.
Rooted at the opposite corner of the pit from the nim, the pipal tree is set in tiered, concentric circles of poured concrete. Built onto this in the lee of the trunk is a small, brightly painted shrine dedicated to the memory of a neighborhood saint. As the story goes, even after the saint’s death his form could be seen wandering around after dark. Once a curious neighbor followed the form and saw it disappear into the trunk of the pipal. A shrine was erected in propitiation, and a few devotees come regularly to make offerings and ask for boons. The figure of the saint, who stands behind the iron gate of the shrine in a pose of contemplative prayer, is blessed, on occasions, by the akhara priest.
The akhara well is sunk behind the pipal. Being on high ground, the well is deep and the water cool. A large bucket suspended from a cantilevered pully is used to draw water. Set into the edge of the well and along the base of the pipal is a large, green, moss-lined cement trough used to hold water drawn from the well. A spigot at the base of the trough allows the water to drain into the bathing area, and from there out through the drain that marks the boundary of the akhara precinct and into the toilet at the far edge of the compound.
To appreciate the aesthetics of the space I have described above, it is necessary to take the perspective of an akhara member. Consider, for example, Amru Dada, who owns an extensive gold and silver business with a shop in the heart of the crowded Chauk Bazaar area of old Banaras. The shop is set in a narrow, busy gali off the main road. Though large as such shops go, it is cramped and confined. It is hot, and the air is redolent with incense, smoke, raw sewage, and dust. Amru Dada tends the shop from ten in the morning until eight or nine at night. The clean, cool air, soft earth, shaded light, and cold, fresh well water of the akhara stand in sharp contrast with the thick, dense smells and harsh sounds of urban life that waft and resonate in the back galis. For Amru Dada the akhara is a retreat. It is also a much-needed escape for other wrestlers who labor as dairy farmers, clerks in government offices, cooks and waiters in hotels and sweet shops, dry-goods merchants, policemen, railway personnel, hotel managers, military recruits, and pan hawkers. The akhara is, as many were fond of telling me, eagerly in animated tones and pointed gestures and, at other times, in hushed, dreamy, relaxed voices, “a world unto itself,” a place set apart from the world of work and family, a peaceful place from which to draw strength. Atreya describes the aura of his akhara at Kuthal Gate, Dehra Dun district: “Upon arriving at this place one will feel a mood of self-reflection. Thoughts will turn from instinct and mundane concerns to more philosophical questions. The place is charged with an atmosphere of metaphysical reflection” (1981: 64).
Earth, air, water, and trees are the essential features which give an akhara its aesthetic appeal. The ambiance of an akhara, however, is greater than the sum of these individual parts. Although there are no rules that govern the spatial layout and geomantic ordering of trees relative to earth, air, and water, there is a sense that together they must comprise a picturesque integrated whole: a tableau of mutually dependent elements. The roots of the trees mingle with the water of the well; the air is cooled by the shade of the trees and is scented by their leaves. The earth is bound by the roots of the trees and, like the water, it draws on the ineffable essence of the trees and imparts to them the resources of growth. The water dampens and cools the earth, and the earth keeps the water fresh. The interdependence of natural elements reinforces a notion of the akhara as self-contained, an aesthetic world unto itself.
Chapter 6 of the Malla Purana(Sandesara and Mehta 1964) describes in some detail the exact dimensions of various types of wrestling pits—square, rectangular and round. This text also elaborates upon the quality of the pit earth, emphasizing that color and texture are important and that it must be “pleasing to see and as soft as that required for seed laying” (ibid: 21). Sandesara and Mehta note that the mallas (wrestlers) of contemporary Gujarat mix various substances—buttermilk, oil, red ochre—into the earth to enhance its quality and texture (ibid: 26). At various akharas I have heard wrestlers talk of times when baskets full of rose petals and bottles of fragrant perfume would be added to the pit. Turmeric is often mixed into the earth to enhance its healing properties (Vaishya 1975). The earth of the pit is the nexus of the akhara complex as a whole: it is the distillate of the compound’s physical elements and of its cultural meaning as well. The earth is the essence of strength.
The balance of earth, wind, water, and trees is best exemplified by Akhara Bari Gaivi. Bari Gaivi is as much a “therapeutic” akhara as it is an active wrestling gymnasium. Most people who come to the akhara do so to drink the tonic water of the central well, which has a national reputation for curing gastrointestinal maladies. In addition to a wrestling pit and exercise area, Bari Gaivi has a well-established temple complex.
The akhara used to be outside the city limits in a thick forested area. Now the city has encroached on the akhara, drawing it into a more urban environment. Nevertheless, the akhara grounds are clearly demarcated from the surrounding area. On the periphery of the grounds is a broad, sandy plain dotted with low scrub bushes. This plain serves a very important function in defining the akhara space, for it is the disha maidan (open area) where people go to defecate before exercising or drinking the well water. Defecation has a very positive aesthetic appeal in the routine of akhara attendance. It puts one in the mood to exercise or relax, I was told, by marking off both time and space. In effect, defecation is a form of sociosomatic punctuation that indicates a transitional pause between the world of work and the world of the akhara. On a number of occasions when I visited akharas I was asked whether I would like to defecate. Such inquiries were made in a very matter-of-fact manner, much as one might expect to be asked if a cup of tea would be in order at 4:30 in the afternoon. The sandy band of ground around Akhara Bari Gaivi thus serves as a topographical boundary and as a place to move from one state of body/mind to another.
Moving in concentrically from the band of sand, one finds five or six small ponds of swampy water that encircle the akhara precinct. The water in these marshy ponds is used by those who defecate to clean themselves before coming into the akhara proper. These swampy ponds serve as an important classificatory boundary, for they mark off the clean from the unclean in terms both of a personal physical condition and geographical space.
Inside the ring of pond water, up on a bluff, is a grove of trees which shade a small dharmashala (pilgrim rest-house), a large marble Hanuman temple, a new cement temple dedicated to Shiva, numerous small shrines honoring saints and lesser local godlings, the tin-roofed pit, exercise area, and large cement platform used for resting, dressing, and discussion. The focal point of the akhara is a deep well from which only the presiding guru is allowed to draw water. This well water is said to be very powerful. Its draws its strength from the geomancy of the area, particularly the unique soil, the specific configuration of trees, and its proximity to the Ganga. No one may use this water for bathing. It is only for drinking, and one must drink it in litre draughts rather than by the glass. (This is said to be part of the prescription even for those who drink the water as a tonic rather than as a cure.) I was asked numerous times how I felt after drinking the water: “Has it settled your stomach?” “Do you feel different?” “Isn’t it fresh and cooling?” In effect, ingestion of the well water, which is the nexus of the akhara, is an internalization of the essence of the akhara, a kind of geomantic sacrament. In this respect it provides a harmonic symmetry to the defecation in the sandy field. It further puts one in touch with the ineffable aura of the akhara space. Evacuation on the periphery of the space is balanced and reflected—in inversion—by internalization at its hub. The body of the wrestler, or of any other akhara visitor, mirrors through its action the spatial layout of the akhara.
Next to the drinking well at Bari Gaivi is a large sunken tank from which water is drawn to dampen the ground and settle the compound dust. There is also a separate well used exclusively for washing clothes and bathing. This system of hydraulic classification—swampy water to clean one’s anus, water to dampen the ground, water to wash one’s self and one’s clothes, and water to drink—serves to structure akhara space and one’s movement through this space.
After work many men come to the akhara from all over the city of Banaras simply to defecate, drink some water, bathe, change clothes, and talk with friends. In this social context of camaraderie, the atmosphere and mood of the akhara space is everything, for it charges these “simple pleasures” with therapeutic significance. The mood and aesthetic appeal of the akhara environment is captured in the term anand (satisfaction) which is used to summarize the feeling that one comes to the akhara to experience (cf. Kumar 1986, 1988).
Parallel to the picturesque aesthetic of the akhara is its sanctity and purity. The akhara is not only clean and pure in a physical sense, but it is also a holy place. The soil of the akhara is most pure, as it represents the essence of Mother Earth. Water is naturally pure in Hindu cosmology, but the water of an akhara well is considered purer than most. Similarly, pipal, banyan, and nim trees have general religious and ritual importance (R. Dixit 1967; R. Sharma n.d.), but those on akhara grounds are charged with extra significance.
Every akhara has at least one shrine dedicated to Lord Hanuman. This shrine is the focus of akhara religious activity. The image of Hanuman is cleaned at least twice a week and is anointed with sindur (vermilion paste). His “clothes” are cleaned regularly, offerings are made to him twice a week, he is prayed to every morning when his blessing is invoked, and he is saluted whenever someone enters or leaves the akhara. Most akharas have numerous shrines and temples dedicated to a host of gods, goddesses, godlings, and saints. Lingams are often found either in shrines by themselves, at the base of trees, or in conjunction with small images of Hanuman.
Many akharas also have a shrine dedicated to the founding guru. For instance, the images of Munni Pahalwan in Delhi and Sant Ram in Banaras are life-size figures accorded a central position in their respective akhara pantheons (see plate 13). The founders of many akharas are reputed to have been superhuman, saintly men who possessed great spiritual and physical strength by virtue of their strict adherence to a wrestling regimen of diet, exercise, and religious faith.
Akhara temples and shrines are serviced by informal functionaries who serve as semiresident priests. Even predicated with the qualifiers “informal” and “semiresident” the term priest denotes a much too well-defined and structured role for what is, in fact, a purely ad hoc situation. A few examples will illustrate the point.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the two days sacred to Hanuman, two men come to the Akhara Ram Singh temple and offer prasad of crystallized sugar and soaked chana to the image of the Lord. This prasad is distributed among the wrestlers (who often demand a second handful) and the two men then return to their respective jobs, one as cloth merchant and the other as coal trader. The two men are “religiously disposed” to the extent that they spend a great deal of their time reading scriptures and listening to the teachings of itinerant sannyasis who hold forth in a nearby public park. That they service the akhara temple is, however, purely coincidental and is neither mandated nor expected.
Baba Bhole Das, a sannyasi, has taken up residence and responsibility for the two large and elaborately decorated images of Lord Hanuman at Gaya Seth Akhara. He goes about his task of washing and bathing the images while chanting softly to himself. Devotees who are not wrestlers come and sing with Babaji on occasion, but for the most part he goes about his business with little regard for the wrestling routine that structures akhara life. Because Babaji is a mendicant it is his prerogative to service the akhara temple, but it is also his prerogative to go on indefinite pilgrimage or to simply move on to some other place.
Sonu Maharaj of Ram Kund Akhara is a dry-goods merchant. At sixty-two he has shifted his orientation away from his small business and toward devotion and a routine of contemplative prayer. He comes to the akhara every morning with a bundle of jasmine and marigold flowers and lights a lamp and stick of incense in front of the figures of Hanuman, Shiva and Parvati, Ganesh, and Surnath. Having blessed and garlanded each image he bows to the rock bench, which symbolizes the founding guru. He then digs the pit and calls on some of the younger members to wrestle with him. Sonu affects the long hair of a mendicant, and his social orientation is clearly otherworldly.
There are many other examples of men who have taken it on themselves to serve as the guardians of akhara shrines. Many of these men, like the wrestlers themselves, have oriented their lives away from everyday concerns of wealth and property and towards spiritual contemplation. Baba Shyam Lal of Bara Ganesh donates his annual earnings as a metal merchant to the poor. Such men bring a sense of religious purpose to the akharas they serve.
To some extent it may be said that akhara temple functionaries shoulder the burden of religious duty for all akhara members. This is particularly the case at Dharmsangh, Aghornath Takiya, Bari Gaivi, and other akharas affiliated with large institutionalized religious centers. Despite the religiosity of these akharas the role of temple “priest” is surprisingly marginal to the wrestling activities. When I spoke to the mahant (abbot, head priest) of the Aghornath Takiya complex it was apparent that he did not pay much attention to what went on in the akhara itself. He was actively involved in philosophical contemplation and metaphysical research and came into contact with the members of the akhara only when arti puja was performed every evening at eight. Beyond this he was not interested in the regimen the wrestlers followed.
An akhara as a whole may be considered to be a religious environment where exercise and wrestling are acts of devotion to a way of life. This is not meant in some abstract sense, for a literal parallel is drawn between the rote recitation of prayer and the repetitive exercise routines performed every morning by wrestlers. Both require the same mindset and concentration. The very act of wrestling is charged with religious significance. As the institutionalized icons of formal religion, temples and shrines on akhara grounds serve to enhance a general feeling of commitment to an idealized way of life. All wrestlers are responsible for the akhara’s environment of religiosity, and they affect this as much through exercise as through washing the temple steps or lighting a votive lamp in the niche of a shrine.
An akhara pantheon is eclectic and extensive, and there is a regular regime of obeisance and ritualized prayer. However, there is not a rich or textured mystical appreciation for “things religious.” Hanuman, for instance, is a real part of the akhara complex, and as such his role is set and established. He marks certain attitudes and reaffirms precedents. For all his importance, however, he does not evoke an attitude of mystery or esoteric and problematic questions of theological faith. In a religious sense, Hanuman is a practical and pragmatic figure. Wrestlers do not discuss in any great detail or trouble themselves unduly over Hanuman’s metaphysical significance. What is important about him is self-evident and is regarded by wrestlers as comfortably mundane. When I asked about the significance of sindur, for instance, I was told that it was put on Hanuman in the same way that wrestlers put on oil: as an invigorating tonic and a mark of beauty. Similarly, prayers, offerings, and salutes to Hanuman are all interpreted in a generic sense as various forms of showing respect. Such acts are neither complex nor esoteric. As such they provide a deeply felt multidimensional psychological rootedness. A wrestler’s general attitude is antimystical, where devotion is a holistic, pragmatic, and unambiguous way of life.
The religious life of the akhara complex is an important part of wrestling culture; yet prayer, obeisance, and other ritual events, while emotive, are not ecstatic. Nor are acts of propitiation, in and of themselves, charged with complex significance. However much temples, shrines, lamps, garlands, and incense create an atmosphere of sanctity, these things do not indicate that formal religion subsumes akhara life. It does not define the boundaries of wrestling life, but it does, as will be shown, provide a strong baseline for the construction of personal identity. While pervasive, religion is supplementary, and so one is more often than not religious as a wrestler rather than a wrestler who happens to be religious.
The details of daily routine vary somewhat from one akhara to another. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern some general patterns. Though not followed to the letter, important rules define wrestling as a comprehensive discipline. A wrestler’s quotidian schedule is not strictly or dogmatically defined. Rules read more like a lexicon than a litany in the sense that what is ordered and given structure is not an outline per se but a scheme of elaboration. One is not solely enjoined to do something; how it is to be done, why it is efficacious, and where it fits, etiologically, in the larger scheme of things is equally important.
A wrestler is enjoined to wake at three in the morning, when the air is pure and cool. After drinking a glass of water with lime juice, he is to go out into a forest area or scrub jungle and relieve himself. As Ratan Patodi writes, although a wrestler is not a doctor, he should inspect his feces in order to evaluate his health. If it “is coiled like a snake about to strike” then his digestion is in good order. However, if it is loose, then he should consult his guru about a dietary change (1973a: 24–25). Daily and regular evacuation of the bowels is also prescribed by Mujumdar (1950), for “if the bowels are not clean, blood becomes impure and easily leads to disease” (ibid: 675).
Following evacuation, and before the sun rises, a wrestler should brush his teeth. This must be done before dawn because the warmth of the sun turns the food particles in the mouth into poison which can cause illness and indigestion. Moreover, the strong ultraviolet light of the sun can cause a wrestler’s vision to blur while he squats down to brush his teeth. Generally speaking, the cleaner one’s teeth, the sharper one’s vision (Patodi 1973a: 25). Patodi further details rules for dental hygiene:
Of course, these prescriptions are not exclusively devised for wrestlers. Much of what wrestlers do as concerns personal hygiene and diet derives from Ayurvedic principals and other traditions of health and healing. Here, however, I am only concerned with the mechanical aesthetic of the acts that structure a wrestler’s day, and not with the “natural economy” of health per se. For a wrestler, brushing is an important part of an integrated daily regime. Mujumdar is no less specific than Patodi in prescribing a regime of dental hygiene for wrestlers. The following passage illustrates the fine detail and mechanical exactness of what is a very small part of a larger intricate system.
One should only brush for five or six minutes otherwise the gums will be severely damaged. God has placed two glands beneath the tongue which produce saliva and aid considerably in mastication and digestion. Excessive brushing can cause a reduction in the amount of saliva produced, and this will adversely affect digestion. One can use either babul or nim twigs for brushing, but one should not always use nim. It is astringent and can burn one’s mouth. The toasted skin of almonds is also a good tooth powder. I have seen that some people use burnt tobacco and snuff but these tend to tarnish the natural brightness of one’s teeth. It should also be remembered that after brushing one side of the mouth, one should rinse before brushing the other side. This prevents the germs of decay on one side from spreading to the teeth on the other side (ibid: 25–26).
A regular feature of the morning activities at Akhara Ram Singh would be for a junior wrestler to climb up the large nim tree and carefully select a number of twigs for the senior wrestlers to use. Senior wrestlers who no longer engage in wrestling practice would come to the akhara and brush their teeth with careful, if somewhat distracted, precision as they watched the younger wards grapple.
The toothbrush (Dantakashtha) should be made of a fresh twig of a tree or a bush grown on a commendable tract and it should be straight, not worm-eaten, devoid of any knots, or utmost with one knot only and should be the width of twelve fingers in length and like the small finger in girth. The potency and strength of the twig [toothbrush] should be determined by or varying according to the season of the year and the preponderance of any particular Dosha in the physical temperament of its user. The twig of a plant possessed of any of the four tastes—sweet, bitter, astringent, and pungent—should be the only kind collected and used. Nimb is the best of all bitter trees, Khadira of the astringent ones, Madhuk of the sweet, and Karanja of the pungent ones. The teeth should be daily cleaned with [a compound consisting of] honey, powdered tri-katu, tri-varga, tejovati, Saindhava and oil. Each tooth should be separately cleansed with the cleansing paste applied on [the top of the twig bitten into the form of] a soft brush and care should be taken not to hurt the gums anyways during rubbing. . . .
The use of a thin, smooth and flexible foil of gold, silver or wood, ten fingers in length is commended for the purpose of cleansing the tongue by scraping. This gives relief and removes bad taste, foetor, swelling, and numbness of the mouth (1950: 675).
After a wrestler has brushed his teeth, he must bathe before entering the akhara. As one person put it, “One can and should bathe at any time of day, but the morning bath is the most purifying.” Not only does the morning bath make a person pure enough to enter the akhara precinct, but it also “[r]emoves somnolence, body heat and fatigue. It allays thirst and checks itching and perspiration, brings on a fresh relish for food, removes all bodily impurities, clears the sense organs, gladdens the mind, purifies the blood, increases the appetising power, destroys drowsiness and sinful thoughts, and increases semen. The sight of a man is invigorated by applying cold water to the head at the time of bathing, while the pouring of warm water on the head tends to injure the eyesight” (ibid: 679). Bathing in cold water invigorates the body in winter and cools it in the summer. One should not bathe in very cold water when the air temperature is cold, or hot water when it is hot. This upsets the balance of the bodily humors. After bathing a wrestler should rub his body lightly with oil before starting his morning regime of physical exercise and practice.
Bathing, of course, has important ritual implications as well. The akhara compound is pure, and one must wash away the impurities accrued to the body through secular everyday life—sleeping, eating, urinating, defecating—before entering the precinct. When visiting akharas I was often asked whether or not I had bathed. An answer in the affirmative ensured admittance. In the wrestler’s mind there is only a very vague line, if any, between the health and ritual dimension of the morning bath. Religious qualities are somatically coded, and if one is impure, one is also unhealthy.
Physical training is the focal point of a wrestler’s daily routine and will be considered in detail in a later chapter. In outline, however, a wrestler starts his regime by running a few kilometers. He then digs the pit and wrestles with a number of partners. The routine concludes with a series of gymnastic and aerobic exercises. The whole schedule takes some two and a half hours.
After exercising, a wrestler rubs his body with the earth of the akhara to dry his perspiration. This prevents his body from cooling too rapidly, and thus guards against illness. While resting, he is rubbed down. As the earth dries on his skin it is scraped off by other wrestlers. By the time the earth is scraped, the body is cool enough for the wrestler to bathe. It is vitally important that a person not bathe while still hot, for this will inevitably enrage the body and cause serious illness. A wrestler must urinate before bathing in order to relieve the body’s inner heat. I was often caught out on this fine point of keeping fit as wrestlers at Akhara Ram Singh kept a more watchful eye on my movements than I was apt to do myself. On a few occasions I witnessed other wrestlers who, on the verge of bathing, suddenly realized that they had not yet urinated. They would quickly retire to a nearby wall, set things right, and thereby ensure better health.
The whole body is anointed with mustard oil after bathing. This gives the skin a glossy radiance and a soft, uniform texture. It prevents it from drying out and scaling. It also combines with the natural odors of the body to produce a pleasant, clean fragrance. The application of oil to the body is an important part of massage, an integral part of the exercise regime, and will be given due consideration in a later chapter. Some of the efficacious qualities of oil should be mentioned here, however, since anointing the body—as distinct from a full massage—is an important part of the daily routine.
Wrestlers are enjoined to shave and cut their nails regularly. As Mujumdar notes, this leads to the “expiation of one’s sins, makes a man cheerful, and tends to appease his fate, increase his energy and impart a lightness to his frame” (ibid: 678). Clearly here there is a dramatic intersection of somatic practices, personality traits, auspiciousness, and karmic balance. In Banaras the English term “personality” was often used to denote such an intersection of physical health, beauty, and reputable character.
Anointing the head with oil is a good cure for the affections of the head. It makes the hair grow luxuriantly and imparts thickness, softness, and a dark gloss to them. It soothes and invigorates the head and sense organs and removes the wrinkles of the face. Combing the hair improves its growth, removes dandruff and dirt and destroys the parasites of the scalp. Pouring oil [Karna-purana] into the cavities of the ears is highly efficacious in pains of the jaw, and acts as a good cure for headache and earache. Anointing the feet with oil etc. brings on sleep. It is refreshing and invigorating to the body and sight, removes all drowsiness and sense of fatigue and softens the skin of the soles of the feet. Anointing the body imparts a glossy softness to the skin, guards against the aggravation of the Vayu [wind] and the kapha [phlegm], improves the colour and strength and gives a tone to the root-principles [dhatus] of the body. The use of oil at a bath causes the oil to penetrate into the system through the mouths of the arteries, veins of the body, as [sic] also the roots of the hair, and thus soothes and invigorates the body with its own essence (ibid: 676).
Having bathed, wrestlers offer prayers to Lord Hanuman. After dressing they show their respect to the guru by touching his feet. Asking his blessing, they leave the akhara.
A person must not eat or drink for two full hours after exercising. A wrestler’s diet is an integral part of his regime. From roughly nine o’clock, when the morning practice session ends, until four o’clock, when the evening exercise routine begins, a wrestler must rest, eat, and sleep. Although this is a “passive” part of the wrestler’s regime, it is important for his recuperation and physical development.
As everyone is quick to point out, to relax all day long is an unrealistic prescription given modern priorities and work schedules. It is nevertheless an ideal that is taken very seriously. After morning practice most wrestlers go to work or to school. Many complain that there is not enough time for proper training and that they are too tired to study or work. Anand, a wrestler at Akhara Ram Singh, bicycles almost fifteen miles a day to attend the morning practice session. He then goes directly to school and then back to his village south of the city, where he must help out on the family farm. I would often be walking through downtown Banaras and be greeted by a wrestler working in his father’s sweet shop, selling general merchandise, stacking gunnysack material, weighing coal, or checking goods at the railway station. Even national-level champion wrestlers hold jobs: Naresh Kumar is head clerk at the Delhi railway office (Asiaweek 1989); Chandagi Ram, the national champion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is well known as “master ji” because of his training as a schoolteacher (Link 1969: 35; S. Sharma 1985). Regardless of the incompatibility of a wrestling lifestyle with the requirements and duties of working life, most who come to the akharas have adapted to accommodate the rigors of work with a modified daily schedule of exercise, diet, and sleep. Many wrestlers now argue that formal education and wrestling are somewhat compatible (Areya 1978). While the wrestler rests his body he can develop his intellect; but this is something of a forced rationalization based on an artificial dichotomy of mind and body. Even when not achieved, the ideal of a purely akhara-oriented schedule sets the tone for a wrestler’s perception of his day. As such, it structures his attitude if not his time.
Having eaten, rested, defecated, and bathed, wrestlers return to the akhara at about four in the afternoon. Although the pit is dug for exercise, no wrestling is practiced in the afternoon. The workout consists of a number of exercises and lasts about three hours. After a second bath the wrestler leaves the akhara. Before going to sleep at sunset he eats and rests some more.
Although sleeping is a period of inactivity, it is an important part of the wrestler’s day. As Atreya writes in an article entitled “The Place of Sleep and Rest in the Wrestling Regimen,” sleep is just as important as food, air, and water (1978: 19). Sleep is particularly important because it gives strained muscles and tendons a chance to recuperate. Sleep transforms the fatigue of exertion into the vigor of stamina. It also promotes digestion and thus helps a person put on weight and gain strength. Going to sleep at a regular time and getting enough sleep establishes a psychosomatic rhythm which produces a proper chemical and mineral balance in the body. In turn, this conditions the various body mechanisms responsible for producing semen. A lack of sleep produces illness, emaciation, weakness, impotence, and the risk of premature death. In general, wrestlers sleep better than other people because they exert themselves more. Wrestlers get more rest in a shorter period of time because their sleep is deeper and less agitated with dreams and restlessness. The exact amount of sleep one needs is something one’s guru must determine, but the following points apply:
Although a wrestler’s bed should be comfortable, it should be hard rather than soft; a board is better than a rope cot. “Sleep is the natural dharma of the body,” writes Atreya (ibid: 20), and so, for the wrestler and for all who aspire to health and long life, it is crucial that they not merely sleep, but sleep properly. When wrestlers talk of trips they have taken to tournaments away from home they often comment on the nature and quality of the accomodations provided. The senior wrestlers of Akhara Bara Ganesh told me many times how they hosted wrestlers from the Punjab and made them very comfortable in a guest house/exercise room constructed so that, among other things, it affords a healthy place to sleep. At a tournament in Gaziabad I was told by some of my Banaras acquaintances that they had performed badly on account of having had to sleep on the floor in a stuffy, crowded room. In my very first encounter with a wrestler he showed me his sleeping accommodations and described the comfort and qualities of bed, mattress, and pillow as an indication of how complete and well appointed were the facilities at his disposal.
A fundamental principle of wrestling is to go to sleep at sunset and wake three hours before dawn. One must sleep with an open window near one’s head and never sleep with your head covered. Never sleep in the dew or on the damp ground. Sleeping on a comfortable cot or bed produces an efficacious rest and promotes endurance. When fatigue and flatulence are expunged, then semen is produced. Sleeping on an uncomfortable bed produces bad effects. This point needs to be emphasized. One should turn over repeatedly while sleeping and never sleep flat on one’s back. Also, the body will suffer if one goes to sleep on an empty stomach (ibid: 23–24).
The daily life of a wrestler is a regime of integrated health and fitness drawn out, on, through, and in his body. In this regard the guru is both taskmaster and sculptor. As I was told by many wrestlers, a person must not so much as urinate or drink without first asking his guru’s permission. A disciple’s role is not to think, but to be molded and shaped, to allow himself to be cut in the pattern of perfection. Subscription to this kind of discipline requires extreme self-sacrifice—as a common aphorism has it, a willingness to “chew iron chana” or to “drink a bitter cup.” Total commitment to the espoused ideals is rarely if ever realized. Nevertheless, there is a strong feeling of obligation and responsibility to live by the spirit if not the letter of one’s guru’s prescripts.
I have described in some detail the routine of a wrestler’s daily life. Considerable license is given for idiosyncratic interpretation, and rationalizations abound for “imperfect” conduct. Some wrestlers advocate massage before practice as well as after. Others disagree on whether or not to bathe in well water during the winter. Although most agree that it is proper to get up at three in the morning, the more usual practice is to wake at four-thirty or five. Similarly, most wrestlers wait only half an hour rather than the prescribed two hours after practice before drinking water or eating food. Very few go to bed at sunset. In spite of the inexact nature and outright contradiction of some alternative practices, most wrestlers agree with the basic tenets outlined above. If there is disagreement on the sequence of a particular part of the regime, more importance is placed on the rigor of whatever one chooses to do rather than on protocol. One can do virtually anything—within the tacitly agreed-on range of interpretations that make sense—as long as it is logically rationalized and is not just a random whim. Moreover, an idiosyncratic interpretation is more likely to be regarded as generally valid if it is articulated in great detail. For instance, diet is often a topic on which there is a degree of disagreement. Some wrestlers advocate a vegetarian diet, while others do not. The minority of Hindu wrestlers who eat meat are likely to give fairly detailed reasons for why their body in particular either requires the beneficial properties which meat provides or is relatively immune to the adverse effects meat has on the body. I am almost certain that no one would explain eating meat purely in terms of taste. When a wrestler from the warm dry plains visited in the cool damp hills he explained his request for chicken in terms of the warming effect it would have on his body.
A wrestler’s routine follows the pattern of a logical sequence of events built one upon the other. Sleep complements diet and exercise; bathing, dental hygiene, defecation, and sleep are all directly linked to health and strength. Themes of physical purity, strength, semen production, and aesthetic beauty run through and give continuity and texture to the day’s events. As such, the regime of day-to-day life does not read so much like a catalogue with separately articulated parts in cumulative sequence as it does a recipe where each step is important and unique in its own right and the sum is a complement of interdependent parts. For this reason the spirit of the “law” is more significant than a literal interpretation. It is not so important to figure out exactly what is best in any particular situation. What is important is that the whole routine be rhythmically structured and consistent with reference to itself. Lived properly, the whole day produces a whole, healthy, and harmonically balanced body.
A wrestler’s daily routine extends the world of wrestling out of the strictly defined precinct of exercise and competition. It makes the practice of wrestling a significant factor in both the domestic sphere of family life and the world of work and labor. Concepts of health and strength are necessarily projected into the home, the field, the shop, the office. Although the akhara provides a pivotal point around which the wrestler’s day is organized, a wrestler must also work and raise a family. It is therefore important briefly to consider the social composition of the Banaras wrestling community.
Akhara Membership and Affiliation
Akhara membership is nearly impossible to determine in any objective empirical sense. Most akhara elders with whom I spoke claimed that their “irregular membership”—those who come when they have time but do not follow a strict regime of exercise—numbered in the hundreds. Some elders generalized to the point of saying that everyone in their proximal neighborhood was in theory an akhara member. Moreover, a number of people claimed membership in one akhara or another on the basis of very casual and circuitous association: friends of friends, neighbors, or hyperextended kinship.
The larger akharas—Ram Singh, Bara Ganesh, Swaminath, and Gaya Seth—estimate that their regular membership is between sixty and seventy. However, on any one day there are between twenty-five and thirty wrestlers who attend morning practice (see plate 12). At the smaller akharas—Ram Kund, Ishvarigangi, Ram Sevak, Sant Ram, and Ragunath Maharaj—regular membership is between forty and fifty, with fifteen to twenty wrestlers attending on any one day. My use of the term “member” refers to anyone who comes to an akhara regularly, however “regularly” may be defined. It is a purposefully vague formulation and is in keeping with the attitude of most wrestlers. An example will help illustrate this point.
The akhara with which I affiliated is formally known by the title Antrashtriya, Sarwajanik Akhara Ram Singh (The International, Public Akhara Ram Singh) which appears in bold blue letters on the pavilion’s entablature. One year when the akhara was repainted there was serious disagreement as to whether the word “public” (sarwajanik) ought to be part of the official name. Most members say that an akhara is eminently public and that this should be made explicit. Many members are proud of the fact that anyone can come to their akhara. Exercise, they argue, is something that ought not to be restricted through exclusive membership. However, even those who aspire to such high ideals of egalitarian inclusiveness recognize that in some Hindu akharas Muslims and untouchables are either overtly excluded or covertly discriminated against. One can say that the problematic meaning of the term “public” is derived from the juxtaposition of a general ethic of equality set over and against social exclusiveness and caste chauvinism. The reason a number of akhara members were against including the word “public” in the title was that it would reify a comfortably ambiguous situation. Those in favor wanted to preempt that ambiguity by formalizing an ideal of total inclusiveness. In the end the word “public” was painted on the entablature, which played no small role in the trials and tribulations of a not-quite-postpositivist ethnographer’s search for demographic statistics. “Just how many wards do you have, Guru ji?” I asked. And he replied, “Who knows, my son, it is a public place.”
Although membership is free and easy, an initiation ceremony formally inducts a novice wrestler into an akhara. The ritual of initiation varies from one akhara to another but is generally as follows. After attending an akhara for some time the guru will tell a wrestler that it is time for his initiation. On the appointed day the young wrestler brings with him a new langot, a sapha (head cloth/turban), prasad (usually in the form of laddus made of besan [chickpea flour] and sugar), paraffin or oil, cotton to make a wick for the prayer lamp, and a garland of flowers to place around the image of Hanuman. After practice the sapha and langot are offered to the guru along with cash. The sum is usually eleven rupees but any multiple of ten plus one is acceptable. The guru then takes the garland and lights the lamp after placing the prasad in front of the figure of Hanuman. The initiate is asked to honor Lord Hanuman and to swear allegiance to the akhara and the founding guru. The prasad is then taken and distributed among the other members of the akhara. The conclusion and most important part of the ceremony is when five laddus are taken and buried in the four corners and center of the pit. There is no drama associated with this rite. The whole event is rather low-key and does not seem to mark a dramatic change of status. The initiate still comes to the akhara as before and there are no privileges attached to initiated membership. Indeed, the distinction between one who has and one who has not been initiated is rarely made. Initiation does establish a bond between guru and chela. Although a guru will instruct an uninitiated member, it is said that a person can only really understand what a guru is telling him after having been initiated. Initiation is not a marker of membership in any empirical sense, but it effects a bond of respect and obligation between teacher and disciple.
A survey of eight akharas supports the general observation that there is little variation in the demographic profile of Banaras akharas. There does not seem to be any variation in the caste, class, or status makeup of different akharas.
Every akhara I visited had a majority of Yadavs as regular members. Yadavs are a low-caste (technically Shudra) group with considerable political, economic, and demographic strength in the Banaras area. Their social mobility and group identity is linked to a longstanding traditional association with the military (Rao 1964) and with wrestling. Although many Yadavs are lawyers, doctors, businessmen, teachers, and writers, many follow their traditional caste vocation of herding and dairy farming. Of the 118 wrestlers interviewed, thirty-five reported that they were involved in some form of dairying or milk business. While most dairy farmers are Yadavs, not all Yadavs who wrestle are dairy farmers. I would estimate that some 50 percent of all wrestlers in Banaras are Yadavs. Thakurs, including Bhumihar Rais, comprise the second-largest caste group involved in wrestling, roughly 20 percent. Brahmans make up about 15 percent of the wrestling population, with the remaining 15 percent coming from a wide range of caste groups including Dhobis, Chandals, Chamars, Nais, and others.
The clear majority of dairy farmers is explained not only by caste identity. Dairy farmers have direct access to two of the most important and otherwise expensive ingredients in a wrestler’s diet: milk and ghi. In fact, the association between wrestling and dairy farming in Banaras is so great that men who deal in milk or milk products are called pahalwan irrespective of whether or not they take part in the regimen of practice and exercise.
In general, many wrestlers are in business for themselves or in government service. Apart from seven weavers, very few wrestlers with whom I spoke were employed as factory workers or simple wage laborers. This may be a function of sample error; however, it is important to note that the nature of work in a factory or commercial handicraft industry would mitigate against a rigorous and exacting extracurricular “leisure” activity such as wrestling. Workers who are paid a low daily or weekly wage may well frequent akharas in order to bathe and relax, but in my casual as well as programmatic surveys of akhara life I encountered relatively few “serious wrestlers” who would fall in this class bracket. Similarly, although most wrestlers come from a comparatively low economic class bracket, irregularly employed wage laborers—rickshaw pullers, street hawkers, and others whose income is low—tend not to be involved in wrestling. A few brief portraits help fill out the occupational profile of the wrestling community:
- Kanta Pahalwan is a railway porter who works at the Dehra Dun station. His family is from a village in northwestern Bihar to which he returns every year to help with the harvest and planting. Although porters have a fairly secure position with the railway and are government-licensed, there are few perquisites. Income is low. Kanta shares room and board with other porters and sends money back to his family in Bihar.
- Sita Ram Yadav came to Banaras as a young boy and found work with a well-known and respected wrestling patron, Ram Narian Sarien, who owns an umbrella shop in the city. Ram Narian Sarien supported Sita Ram Yadav and saw to his training as a young wrestler. After considerable success as a wrestler Sita Ram was given a job with the Banaras Diesel Locomotive Works, where he works as an office clerk.
- Dr. Shanti Prakash Atreya, one-time state wrestling champion of Uttar Pradesh, earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Banaras Hindu University, where he has taught both yoga and philosophy. Atreya is currently affiliated as a teacher with a school in Saharanpur. He also runs an institute for the study of yoga and psychology at Kuthal Gate in Dehra Dun District. His family lives in Bandarjuddha, a large, wealthy village near Deoband in Uttar Pradesh.
- Nathu Lal Yadav, the guru of Karanghanta Akhara, is a well-known purveyor of pan. In his small shop, an extension of a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva, there is room for one person only to sit. By his own admission Nathu Lal is more concerned with philosophical questions than he is with making money. As he points out, he enjoys what he does and it is enough to support him and his immediate family.
- Ram ji, a member of Jhalani Akhara, comes from a very well-to-do Yadav family who own a number of hotels, sweet shops, and other business interests in Banaras. Ram ji works under his brother as the junior manager of one of the family hotels in Chaitganj.
- Kaniya, a B.A. candidate at Banaras Hindu University, works at his father’s small tea and sweet shop. He regrets not having been able to take his degree sooner, but as the eldest son he is responsible for the day-to-day management of the family business.
Age and Education
Of 123 wrestlers interviewed from eight akharas, fifteen were under age fifteen, fifty-five were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three, twenty-eight were between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-five, and twenty-five were over thirty-five years old. This indicates not only the obvious—that most wrestlers are teenagers or young men in their early twenties—but also that men in their mid- to late twenties and early thirties are not very involved in akhara activities. Once men marry and take on the responsibility of raising a family they tend to come to the akhara less frequently. When they have established an occupation of some sort and have children of their own, these men return to the akhara as senior members. On account of this there is a sharp generational break in the membership of most akharas. Senior members are to junior members as fathers are to sons or uncles to nephews. Respect, however, is tempered with a good deal of joking and informality. True respect is reserved for the guru.
It is also important to note that wrestlers who are between twenty-three and thirty-five years old are usually the ones who have made a name for themselves. Though numerically in the minority, as individuals they represent an ideal and have great prestige. These members are regarded as quintessential wrestlers and virtually define the quality of the akhara by their presence. Shamu Pahalwan of Akhara Ram Singh is one such wrestler, and Ashok Kumar, who has taken part in national and international competitions, is another. Krishna Kumar Singh of Bara Ganesh has won national recognition as a wrestler for the northern railway team, and Ram ji, of Jhalani Akhara, has won titles in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh state tournaments.
Educational experience corresponds to the generational split in akhara membership. Older members are not educated to the same level as younger members. Of those over thirty-five, only two had the equivalent of a high-school degree. Most were educated up to a sixth-grade level. All were literate but four had gone to school for less than two years.
In sharp contrast are the data on the educational background of the ninety-nine wrestlers interviewed who were under the age of thirty-five: as of 1987, two had M.A. degrees, fourteen had B.A. degrees, thirty had the equivalent of a high-school diploma, and one had left school in tenth grade, thirteen in the ninth, eighteen in the eighth, four in the seventh, and nineteen in the fifth. Even though these data are biased by the fact that Banaras is a cultural and intellectual center, the fact remains that a significant percentage of young wrestlers are well educated compared to their senior fellows.
Having said this, it must be pointed out that education, like wealth, is not a very significant factor in the scheme of akhara activities. Education is valuable in its own right but does not figure in the wrestling rubric as a particularly important virtue. Learning and wisdom are of great importance in the construction of a wrestler’s identity, but education is not regarded as the source of these skills. Where it is seen as valuable is as a prerequisite for modern life and as a vehicle for gaining employment, but this is more by default than by design. As it is institutionalized in modern India, formal education is regarded by cynical wrestlers as a somewhat benign manifestation of modern moral decay. It does not inspire; it creates an irreverent attitude and a general lack of respect. The value of education is not in its innate virtue but in its practical utility. For instance, while generally decrying modern materialist preoccupations with status and upward mobility, one wrestler spent a hot summer day networking so that his nephew and niece would gain admission into a well-regarded elementary school.
By way of contrast, Atma Ram’s father places no stock in a formal education. Instead he sent his son to the akhara, saying that there he will learn all that he needs to know. Atma Ram is illiterate, but at age twenty-two he is known in Banaras as a good wrestler. Friends have been networking to get him employment with the railway.
Anand Rai’s father, a schoolteacher in Kotdwar and well-to-do land owner in Banaras district, appreciates the value of a good education but recognizes the virtue of akhara training. Anand bicycles the fifteen kilometers to Akhara Ram Singh every morning and then goes from the akhara to school. When Anand was about twenty-three, after three failed attempts, he finally passed his matriculation exams and his father invited members of the akhara and village neighbors to a banquet celebration. At the banquet Anand was admonished to keep up with his physical training and to develop himself as a good wrestler.
The following amalgam describes the typical Banaras wrestler with the least synoptic violence. He is a boy in his late teens who is nearing the end of his intermediate education. Some members of his family live in Banaras city proper while others live in a village not too far away. In the city he lives in a small, modestly appointed cement building. One or two of this typical wrestler’s elder brothers used to wrestle and he had an uncle who, despite hardship, “was the champion of his village district.” One of his older brothers runs a dairy enterprise and has rented space on the outskirts of the city where twelve or thirteen buffalos are tethered. The other brother works in a modest sweet shop located off a main street. The typical wrestler hopes to join the army, the police, or the railway, but his father in the village needs help managing the family’s land holdings, and so the wrestler is forced to curb his ambition in the interest of more immediate demands.
It must be emphasized, however, that within the framework of a wrestling way of life, family wealth and status are not important considerations. As a wrestler Atma, who can neither read nor write, is on the same footing as Babul, who has a B.A. from Banaras Hindu University. Similarly, Ashok, whose family owns only a few buffalos and a small tea shop, is a better wrestler than is Ram ji, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Banaras.
The claim that education and wealth are unimportant factors in the akhara would be false and acrimonious but for the fact that wrestling is not just an extracurricular leisure activity. It is, rather, a holistic integrated way of life. As a person, a wrestler must of necessity live in a world of social and economic obligation where status, class rank, and educational training play a strong hand. As a wrestler, however, a person must bracket himself out of the obligations and expectations which ensue from his involvement in this larger, divisive world. The complex and problematic nature of this important attitude will be taken up in a later chapter.
Akharas and Bodybuilding Clubs
Wrestling akharas stand in sharp contrast to bodybuilding clubs in Banaras. Bodybuilding clubs are a fairly recent phenomenon in India, dating perhaps to the early part of the twentieth century, when Ram Murti Naidu, among others, established institutes for physical training and exercise. In Banaras today bodybuilding is modeled on a Western aesthetic and on Western notions of strength and fitness. Wrestlers and bodybuilders sharply juxtapose their respective activities. Each defines himself against the negative backdrop of the other, self-definition through a “we-are-not-like-them” formulation. As with any such formulation there are enough parallels between the two activities to generate a dialectic rather than to create a situation of total rejection and disregard. In the interest of summarizing what an akhara is in terms of aesthetic appeal, health nexus, and demographic composition, it is useful to reflect the akhara, as a whole, against its more modern analog.
The Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, established in 1931 to foster ideals of physical fitness and national self-determination among mazdurs (wage laborers), is located down a small gali in Madanpura. The association is almost entirely Muslim, and most of the members come from the immediate neighborhood of Al ’lu ka Masjid. Many current members work in the area as weavers, traders, transporters, or tailors of silk and other fabrics. The gali is narrow, dark, and, as with other such galis in Banaras, littered with refuse and piles of rubble. Open doors look in on huge looms sunk into the floors of family houses, where young children sit and weave the silk saris for which Banaras is famous.
The gym is open only at night. At about 6:00 P.M. the first member to arrive picks up the key from Masoom’s pan shop just across the road from the gali entrance. A sign above the gym door announces the name of the organization in English and in Urdu and Devanagari script.
The gym is a small room, six meters square, crowded with dumbbells, weightlifting bars, weights of all sizes and shapes, a set of parallel bars, and a chin-up bar hung on old rusted chains suspended from a sagging central beam. In one corner is a broken pulley and bicycle-chain contraption used to lift a stack of iron-plate weights. Next to the parallel bars is an improvised bench-press board, and in front of that, set into the hard-packed earth floor, a set of wooden stumps on which to do push-ups. Pegs are set into the lime-washed bricks on each wall. Members hold on to these and stand on polished wooden boards while doing squats and deep knee bends. The boards keep the floor dry, for otherwise sweat would quickly turn the earth to slippery mud.
The central column, decorated with mirrors, supports a ceiling sagged under the weight of three upper floors. Other mirrors decorate three of the walls. Between the mirrors and the iron-barred windows which look out narrowly onto a small dusty garden, old black and white portraits of local champions palely reflect the technicolor aura of pin-ups from American bodybuilding magazines.
A raised area two and a half meters square is set apart in the small room and on it are four large chairs and a carpet. A small ceiling fan turns above this area, cooling the club manager and others who come to watch the regular members exercise. Between two of the chairs and one wall is a two by one-half meter area used for changing. Clothes are hung on pegs above the chairs and the parallel bars. On the wall above the platform are old photos of the founding association. A few plaques, commemorating long since forgotten functions, recall a time when the club had a larger membership. A penned poster, set on a shallow ledge above a covered bucket of tap water, states the club rules in Urdu script.
If there is one word which characterizes the Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, it is compact; there is a certain aesthetic appeal to the close-fitting, womblike character of the place. Contrary to what one might expect, the air in the gym is a quite pleasant combination of musty earth, mustard oil and sweat. Exercise is done with mechanical efficiency. A person doing push-ups makes way for a person doing squats who is just beyond the arch of another person swinging on the parallel bars. No more than thirteen people can exercise in the gym at any one time, and even with nine people working out, movement must be choreographed for efficiency and safety.
The contrast with wrestling akharas is obvious. While both are clearly bounded arenas, the bodybuilding club is closed and confined while the akhara is open. Earth, water, wind, and trees have no place in the confines of the closed, covered, mechanized space of the gym.
If there is a dramatic difference in the relative aesthetic appeal of clubs and akharas, there is an even more significant difference concerning management and organization. Wrestling akharas are the essence of informality. There are few if any set duties, offices, or responsibilities. The guru is nominally in charge of all akhara facilities and activities, but in fact an ad hoc committee of elder members often serves as a decision-making body. The English term “committee” is used by akhara members to refer to any group of two or more who come to a decision on any subject; for example, taking up a collection for a new bucket and rope for the akhara well, buying fresh lime-wash for repainting the akhara buildings, negotiating for a truckload of earth for the pit, or persuading someone to paint new designs on the akhara walls. In any akhara, as in many other social contexts, there are those who take charge of situations and are able to motivate people and implement their own ideas. There are also inevitable conflicts of interest and points of view. But there is no codified structure to this kind of management and organization.
In the akhara there is an informal pecking order which ensures that things get done. At the top of the pecking order is the guru and his cohort of senior members: a very loosely defined group at best. If the guru makes a demand of some sort it is acted on immediately and without comment. The guru’s age cohort, known as dadas, can order anyone who is a junior member to do such things as fetch incense for the morning pit benediction, get mustard oil from a nearby shop, pick up flower garlands, run various errands anywhere in town, draw water for a bath, deliver a message, sweep fallen leaves from the akhara compound, throw water on the earth to settle the dust, climb up a tree to break off a toothbrush, put equipment away, wash clothes, or chase a stray dog out of the pit.
Among the junior members beneath the dada cohort, seniority and age structure the pecking order. Older members may pass on responsibility to anyone younger and less aggressive than themselves. The ethic of respect for one’s elders is used as a moral lever. There is merit in being of service. However, the pecking order is characterized as much by acrimony as by smooth efficiency, as one dada discovered when he spent a whole morning cursing the laziness and disrespect of the younger generation while fishing with a large hook for a bucket lost at the bottom of the well.
While the pecking order is hierarchically multitiered in theory, in fact it is always the youngest members with whom the buck stops. During my stay at the akhara young Kailash was always going off to get something for someone, Airi was always called upon to perform his expert massage, and Govind was chasing stray dogs and cows; unless someone younger has come along, Rajindar may still be drawing water from the well. In any case, water gets drawn and the grounds are kept clean, but often to the tune of half-meant threats, disgruntled retorts, and a great deal of joking.
The akhara is characterized by a lack of bureaucracy and by ad hoc management. By way of contrast, the following is an index of the offices of the Banaras School of Physical Culture, a bodybuilding club in Jangambari: Chief Patron, Mr. Dalip Kumar (IAS), district officer and president of the association for the advancement of physical education; Patron, Mr. N. G. Bhattacharya, regional sports officer and secretary of the association for the advancement of physical education; Physical Director, Dr. Uma Shankar Rai Chaudhuri; President, Mr. Raj Kumar; Vice-President, Mr. Ajay Sharma. The list continues with such titles as chief officer, deputy officer, secretary, chief in charge of the club, and treasurer. In addition to these permanent officers, a chief advisor was appointed to organize the club’s annual bodybuilding competition. In this capacity he was supported by seven deputy advisors, an organizer, deputy organizer, organizing committee, committee in charge of the competition, and a committee in charge of prizes.
Where akharas are ad hoc, clubs seem to be obsessive about a strict division of administrative labor. I have no idea how responsibility was distributed through the administrative hierarchy of the Jangambari club, or how decisions were made at any one level. A similar hierarchy of management appears on the letterhead of the Bhelupura Vyayamshala, another bodybuilding club, which also sponsors an annual competition.
The Bhelupura Vyayamshala also illustrates another striking contrast between akharas and clubs. Stepping into many bodybuilding clubs, the first thing that strikes the eye is a prominently posted list of rules and regulations. At Bhelupura Vyayamshala the rules are as follows:
- Non-members are not allowed in without permission.
- Members may not bring friends with them into the club.
- Every member must pay a 2 rupee membership fee by the fifteenth of each month.
- The gym will be open from 5–8 AM and from 5–11 PM.
- The gym will be closed every Sunday.
- No one is allowed to enter the “exercise temple” wearing their shoes.
- No smoking or chewing tobacco in the gym.
- No spitting anywhere in the compound.
- Everyone must be careful and watch out that others are exercising safely.
- If someone breaks any piece of equipment he is responsible for its replacement.
- Members should park their bicycles where they won’t get in the way.
While bodybuilding clubs follow the Western calendar and take Sunday off, akharas break their weekly routine on Wednesday. Unlike the clubs, akharas are not closed on their “day off.” Wednesday is a day for massage in the akhara and is thus integral to the weekly regime.
In the akhara, spitting, flatulence, and nose blowing are restricted to the border area of the compound where they do not threaten the purity of the sacred space. In the club, spitting is more an issue of generic hygiene than of moral, somatic health. In the akhara purity rather than civic-mindedness is as much if not more of an issue. In the club, spitting must be stipulated against, while in the akhara the same restraint is inspired by ideological conviction and is therefore a point of common sense.
Membership is another crucial point of difference between the club and the akhara. Every exercise club I visited charged a monthly membership fee. On the other hand, akhara members consider fees to be anathema. None of the akharas I visited charged fees of any kind. Moreover, clubs often keep careful record of who has and has not paid, thus sharply defining membership. Akhara membership, as we have seen, is eminently flexible and variable. Whereas clubs are exclusive and private, wrestlers see the akhara as an inclusive, public arena.
Because of membership dues, bodybuilding clubs are able to finance building repairs, equipment improvement, and fairly lavish annual events. There are other expenses as well. The Mazdoor Health Improvement Association must pay rent on its small room and also cover the cost of electricity. In contrast to club dues, akharas draw all of their resources from chanda, public donations collected from members, neighborhood residents, and local businesses. Taking up chanda is an ad hoc activity. If a new rope is needed, a few of the akhara dadas get together and share the expense. Expenses are minimal. I have never known of a wrestling akhara on which rent was paid. Electricity is rarely needed, but for the occasional installation of a light or fan it is most often donated by a wealthy member. When there is a large expense, such as the annual Nag Panchami festival or construction of a new building, the chanda is more formal and structured. However, the money collected is almost always designated for a specific project. Contributing to a chanda is one way in which the larger akhara neighborhood can participate in wrestling activities. A person who contributes two thousand rupees towards a new akhara pit achieves status in proportion to his contribution. For their part, the akhara members receive public acclaim and prestige in proportion to the total amount collected. While chanda is a common way for many groups—temple associations, neighborhood committees, and union fundraisers—to raise money, it is characteristic of the akhara system of organization rather than of the bodybuilding club.
Monthly dues, though nominal, restrict membership. A few clubs, such as the well-furnished Health Improvement Association, charge a very exclusive one hundred rupees per month. Some clubs have a wealthier clientele than others. This is not the pattern in akharas, where the economic and social profile of the wrestling community is fairly eclectic. Rich and poor wrestlers meet on common ground. Although I have not collected a great deal of information on bodybuilding club membership, my general impression is that specific bodybuilding clubs restrict membership to particular groups. As noted, a large number of Muslims have become avid bodybuilders. Muslims aside, bodybuilding seems to be popular among many of the more “Westernized” urban youth. The aesthetic of the bodybuilder’s sleek physique is in keeping with other Western images of fast motorcycles, high-tech sound systems, digital watches, and so forth.
Some exercise clubs, like the Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, were established to target a particular class of people such as the urban labor force. The Banaras School of Physical Culture was established in 1943 for the benefit of “lower class children.” My impression is that many bodybuilding clubs were established by paternalistic upper-class patrons who felt some kind of commitment to better the health of India’s masses. In other words, initial impetus and funding for groups like the Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, Banaras School of Physical Culture, and Bhelupura Vyayamshala seems to have come from wealthy doctors, bankers, and industrialists. I was shown around one of these clubs by a young, wealthy accountant who said that his family had a long-standing role in maintaining exercise facilities for the poorer, disadvantaged youth of the city. By contrast, one does not find any kind of exclusive recruitment strategy or class-based paternalism in the akhara. No particular group is targeted. Akhara members make a general appeal for everyone to join an akhara, but this is inclusive rather than exclusive and is, as we shall see, part of a broader nationalistic rhetoric.
A final point of contrast between the akhara and the club concerns the place of formal religion in the organizational scheme of daily activities. Temples give akharas an atmosphere of religiosity, and every wrestler is enjoined to take Hanuman into his heart. In contrast, bodybuilding clubs are for the most part secular institutions.
Small Hanuman shrines are found at Bhelupura Vyayamshala, the Banaras School of Physical Culture, and, as the name might imply, Hanuman Vyayamshala. In every instance these shrines are small and marginal. The members are more concerned with the “cut” of their muscles and the trimness of their waists than they are with contemplating Hanuman’s service to Ram. Besides, Hanuman’s physique is not that of a bodybuilder, except as portrayed in some modern calendar art, but that of a wrestler. Bodybuilders defer to Hanuman, but they draw their strength almost exclusively from “pumping iron” and not from the devotional exercise of a daily regimen.
Wrestlers in Banaras point towards bodybuilders and criticize their “balloonlike bodies,” which have form but no substance. They smirk at narrow waists that would snap in two at the slightest touch, and grimace at protruding tendons wrapped tight by the work of an iron machine. One wrestler laughed at the picture of a bodybuilder, saying that he looked like separate pieces of meat slapped together in a random manner. Another, echoing a similar aesthetic critique, said that bodybuilders look as though they come in parts, each a gross protrusion disembodied from its larger corporeal context. While the bodybuilder is seen as bits and pieces of random flesh, the wrestler’s body is a smooth, integrated whole; as they say, ek rang ka sharir, a body of one color and uniform texture (see plate 2).
Wrestlers regard bodybuilding clubs as mere pale reflections of the akhara. For their part some club members see akharas as simply anachronistic institutions following the dictates of outmoded tradition. (In general exercise-club members are far more tolerant of akharas than the other way around.)
I have made a rather sharp distinction between the akhara and the bodybuilding club. In doing so some points of overlap between the two styles of physical culture have been deemphasized. But this, too, is in keeping with the perspective of both wrestlers and bodybuilders. Somewhat like closely allied and therefore antagonistic academic disciplines, both groups prefer to define their respective paths clearly and sharply rather than blur together formal and superficial similarities. Whether motivated by strong conviction or fear that the edifice of difference will crumble once assailed, the wrestler and the bodybuilder choose to narrow their respective visions while at the same time magnifying the significance of their singular predilections. Each defines itself against a negative backdrop of the other. In the case of wrestlers, this delineation serves to make the akhara more distinct and therefore more clearly defined as the locus of a specific way of life.