6. Nag Panchami: Snakes, Sex, and Semen
Nag Panchami (Snake’s [Cobra’s] Fifth) is a minor festival celebrated throughout North India in the latter half of July on the fifth day of the light half of the Hindu month Shravan. As the name implies, Nag Panchami is a festival in honor of snakes. In Banaras and many parts of northwestern India, Nag Panchami is also a time when akharas hold special functions to celebrate wrestling as a way of life. Akharas are cleaned and repainted. Priests are called in to give special blessings. Gurus are honored, patrons are recognized, and wrestlers demonstrate their skill and strength before crowds of people. It is said that even people who are not usually interested in wrestling take this opportunity to get involved. Although most people get involved only as spectators, at many akharas the pit is turned into a public arena where anyone may challenge anyone else regardless of whether they know how to wrestle or not. As one man put it, on Nag Panchami everyone is a wrestler.
Why is Nag Panchami associated with wrestling? What does a festival in honor of snakes have to do with a wrestler’s public presentation of self? By addressing this question I will offer an interpretation of the symbolic structure of wrestling as a way of life.
As has been pointed out, wrestlers are seriously preoccupied with their sexuality. Every effort is made to control erotic emotion and sensual desire. A wrestler must not only abstain from sex, he must also build up his stock of semen and ensure that once built up it is as potent and strong as it can possibly be. The basis for this preoccupation is a belief that physical, personal, and intellectual strength emanates from semen. Semen is the locus of a person’s moral character and physical prowess. Given this emphasis, it is logical to assume that the symbolic cosmology of wrestling is structured around a theme of contained sexuality. Nag, the king cobra, is a key symbol in this scheme of coded virility.
Before beginning this analysis of coded and embodied virility, it is necessary to outline the events which make up the ceremony of Nag Panchami.
On Nag Panchami, snake charmers line the streets of towns and cities displaying an array of snakes. Pythons, rat snakes, and cobras mingle in deep baskets and are brought out, each in turn, to dance to the tune of their charmer’s flute. Alternatively they hang, listlessly limp, around his neck as crowds of people gather to witness the drama. At temples dedicated to Nag Raja (the King of Snakes), offerings are made to sacred “pet” cobras who represent the deity. Even at temples not directly associated with Nag, cobras are often brought in by snake charmers in order to enhance the spirit of the festival. These common snakes—which otherwise languish in their charmer’s basket—are also made the object of ritual worship (cf. Kitts 1885).
The main ritual event of Nag Panchami is to offer milk and crystallized sugar to a cobra. As Premlata Vatsyayan writes, “On Nag Panchami one fasts and feeds milk or khir [rice pudding] to snakes. A white lotus flower is placed in a silver bowl. One then takes a brush made either of clay, wood, silver or gold, and using either turmeric or sandalwood paste draws the image of a five hooded snake on the floor. People then pray to this image” (1985: 66).
In rural areas people often go to anthills or other places where snakes are thought to live. They make their offerings by lighting incense in front of the snake’s hole. Milk is placed in a bowl to entice the snake out and is later poured down the hole as a libation (cf. Fuller 1944). As a number of authors have noted, feeding milk to snakes is a common motif in myth and folklore (La Barre 1962: 94; Thompson 1955–1958: B391.1.3, B718.104.22.168, B765.4.1, Q452; Vogel 1926: 174–175).
Nag Panchami is a day to pray to snakes so as to avoid being bitten. Pandit Rakesh (1986: 61), referencing the Garuda Purana, points out that praying to snakes is an auspicious act which can make wishes come true. He also says that after having made an offering to a snake one must follow the common ritual injunction of feeding a Brahman (ibid). Having done these things, Rakesh concludes, one will encounter no major difficulties in life.
On a commonsense level snakes are regarded as dangerous. Nag Panchami is a festival which functions on a symbolic plane to subvert any possible danger of being poisoned. Taking ritual action to avoid being poisoned is translated into a general condition which insures auspicious health and longevity.
In addition to the salient points outlined by Rakesh, many people I spoke with in Banaras said that plowing or digging is forbidden on Nag Panchami because one might inadvertently kill a snake. Vatsyayan writes that one should not dig or plow for the whole month of Shravan. But she adds that this is somewhat extreme and may not be followed strictly (1985: 66).
On Nag Panchami many people decorate their doorways and walls with pictures of snakes (cf. Fuller 1944; Vogel 1926: 277–280). They either draw these themselves, or purchase them from vendors who sell posters at streetside stalls. A typical poster shows a coiled snake surrounded by other snakes in wriggling configuration. Auspicious mantras caption these posters which, in addition to being decorative, are designed to ward off dangerous snakes.
An important dimension of Nag Panchami has to do with the telling of folktales and myths about snakes. One of the most common is recorded by Vatsyayan:
Many other tales are also told. Vogel’s collection (1926), though dated, is the most complete and includes most of those catalogued by Thompson and Balys (1951). Though none of these folktales make an explicit reference to wrestling, they do express symbolic themes of continence and contained sexuality, themes of general importance to wrestling. “The Maiden Who Wedded a Snake” (Vogel 1926: 174–175), offers a clear example of the snake as a symbol of erotic sexuality. “The Story of the Jealous Nag” (ibid: 177) illustrates the danger of a woman’s insatiable passion. In this tale the female snake and her human lover are burnt to death by the jealous snake husband. In another tale (Vatsyayan 1985: 67), a man and his wife are made to promise their firstborn daughter to a snake. When they do not fulfill their promise the snake kidnaps the daughter by enticing her into a lake and pulling her down into the depths.
In a kingdom lived a farmer and his family. The farmer had two sons and a daughter. One day while plowing, the farmer accidentally killed three young snakes. At first the mother of the three dead snakes raged in anger but then vowed to avenge her children’s murder. That night the snake entered the farmer’s house and bit the farmer, his wife and their two sons. They all died. Early the next day, having seen what happened, the farmer’s daughter offered a bowl of milk to the mother snake and folded her hands asking forgiveness for what her father had done. She asked that the snake restore her parents and brothers to life. Pleased with the milk offering the snake did as the farmer’s daughter asked (1985: 67).
While most of the stories told on Nag Panchami are folktales, passing reference is made to snake myths in the epics. Krishna’s defeat of the Nag King, Kaliya (Harivamsa, chap. 68), is the most popular. In this story Krishna falls into a part of the Yamuna river where Kaliya lives. After being overcome by poison, Krishna rallies and ends up beating the snake king into submission, thereby purifying the waters of the holy river. Kaliya is relegated to live in the ocean, and the Yamuna river—likened in the text to the beautiful body of a maiden—is made safe for the cowherds among whom Krishna lives. One wrestler told a version of this story in which Krishna dives into the still waters of the Yamuna and defeats Kaliya by sticking his flute through the snake king’s nose. As H. Zimmer points out (1946: 87), it is significant that Krishna does not kill Kaliya. In the myth, passion is symbolically controlled but not neutralized. Nag’s power to ravish—which he does to the river maiden Yamuna—is harnessed by the cooling agency of the ocean. The energy of sexuality is not smothered; it is simply put in its proper place. This, as we shall see, is an important theme in the akhara celebration of Nag Panchami.
The folktales and myths about snakes that are told on Nag Panchami generally reinforce a notion that snakes represent sex as dangerous. The ritual of Nag Panchami, as will be seen, is designed to address the problem of sexual danger.
Nag Panchami is celebrated in various ways throughout India (cf. Banerjea 1956; Crooke 1926: 381–399; Fuller 1944; Mandlik 1868; Panda 1986: 105–113; Vogel 1926; Wadley 1975). However, the basic practice of propitiating snakes by offering them milk is almost certainly a universal aspect of the festival throughout India.
Nag Panchami at the Akhara
Although I have never seen wrestlers offer milk to snakes, the general motif is nevertheless common in the wrestling milieu. Akharas are often decorated with figures of snakes, many of which are depicted drinking from bowls of milk. I was told that if a snake were to appear in an akhara on Nag Panchami or any other day, it would be offered milk. At Narsingh Akhara there is a special shrine dedicated to Nag Raja. A bowl is suspended in the middle of this shrine as a permanent symbol of the annual milk offerings made on Nag Panchami.
Most of what occurs in the Banaras akharas on Nag Panchami does not relate to snakes explicitly. To the best of my knowledge no snake charmers are called, no posters of snakes put up, and no folktales or myths recounted. The akhara festivities simply do not make reference to what is generally regarded as the most common and popular dimension of the Nag Panchami celebration. At first this appeared paradoxical. It soon became clear, however, that while snakes are not formally manifest in akhara celebrations, the symbolic meanings associated with snakes are, nevertheless, invoked in various other ways. There are clear symbolic parallels between wrestling as it is ritualized in akharas on Nag Panchami and the more general significance of the festival as it relates to snakes. Much of the sexual meanings encoded in Nag Panchami ritual are also found encoded in the symbolic life of the wrestler. The wrestler embodies the cosmic structure of Nag Panchami ritual and folklore.
On Nag Panchami akharas are cleaned, repaired, and repainted. Temples are refurbished and colored flags and mango leaves are hung on strings around the pit. Special earth is brought in from rural areas, usually from the bottom of dried-out ponds, river banks, or other places where the soil is fine-grained and soft. Oil and turmeric, and occasionally perfumes and nim leaves, are mixed with the earth as it is added to the pit. Chairs are set up and rugs laid out for guests who are invited to watch the day’s events. Everyone tries to wear new or clean clothes. Devotional hymns and popular film tunes are played over rented public-address systems.
Priests are hired to perform a special puja at the akhara. The ritual puja is not directed at any deity in particular but at the pit. The names of Hanuman, Ram, and Shiva (but not Nag) are invoked, but the object of devotion is not these deities but the earth. There are two primary parts to the pujas I have seen. First, the priest and his assistant prepare a large brass plate of soaked chickpea chana and batasa (crystallized sugar). Water is sprinkled on this prasad offering. The priest chants a prayer over the plate as it is placed in front of Hanuman. A fire is lit in front of Hanuman’s image and he is anointed with sandalwood or turmeric paste.
The second part of the ritual begins when the priest lights a bunch of incense sticks and walks with these around the periphery of the pit. As he walks in a clockwise direction, the priest takes handfuls of earth and allows the smoke from the incense to mingle with the new soil. This stage of the ritual is identical with the blessing/invocation done every morning before practice. The smoke from the incense transfers Hanuman’s blessing into the pit. The incense is planted in the middle of the pit and everyone gathers around and chants some version of the following common invocation: “Speak the praises of King Ram Chandar! Praise be to Ram’s devout disciple Hanuman! Praise be to the great God Shiva!” The priest then takes the incense around to each member, who cups the smoke in his hand and draws it to his chest or face in an act of communion with the pit.
The priest carries the plate of prasad around the akhara and offers a handful to each member. As the wrestlers eat the prasad the priest puts a tika of vermilion paste on each person’s forehead.
While the priest and his assistant prepare the prasad and incense, the members of the akhara undress and put on their langots. By the time the invocation is chanted, the pit is encircled by a large number of wrestlers clad only in their g-strings. Those who are not wrestlers and have come only to watch stand out distinctly as a crowd of clothed people on the periphery of the akhara. Attention is clearly drawn to the wrestlers’ bodies. While wrestlers feel comfortable in their langots and there is usually no self-consciousness about one’s body in the akhara, Nag Panchami tends to force the wrestler’s subjective awareness of his physique into an objective projection of what it means to be a wrestler. The wrestler is always aware of his body as a meaningful and significant part of his identity. On Nag Panchami, however, his body takes on special significance by becoming an objective and somewhat depersonalized representation of a whole way of life. During the ritual the wrestler is on stage and his body becomes emblematic of what he does.
Once the puja is completed, wrestlers pair up and put on brief demonstration bouts. At some point during the festivities each wrestler makes a cash offering to the guru of the akhara. In 1987 Jaddu Singh, the acting guru, sat on a chair in the corner of the pit holding a framed portrait of his elder brother Ram Singh. The members came by and placed garlands on the portrait as they touched Jaddu’s feet.
While the blessing of the pit and the formal recognition of the guru are important parts of the festivities, Nag Panchami is primarily an occasion for many akharas to sponsor dangals (wrestling tournaments). Nag Panchami dangals are unique and must be distinguished from more common, “secular” tournaments. Nag Panchami dangals take place within akhara precincts, while most other dangals are held in larger, secular public arenas. As distinct from regular wrestling bouts, Nag Panchami dangals should be seen as the extension of more general religious themes of propitiation. On Nag Panchami wrestling is an act of obeisance to Ram, Hanuman, Shiva, and the earth of the pit. Just as the body of the wrestler becomes an emblematic object of celibacy, moral virtue, and strength, so are the religious and symbolic aspects of wrestling writ large on the occasion of Nag Panchami. While all dangals are dramatic, Nag Panchami dangals dramatize a particular code of symbolic meaning associated with the power and danger of sexual energy as it relates to physical strength.
Nag Panchami is an occasion for everyone to see how much a wrestler has developed and improved over the previous year. As one person put it, a wrestler eats, exercises, and practices for a full year and then puts himself on display to bear witness to the virtue of his endeavor. One wrestler compared the public presentation of self on Nag Panchami to a farmer’s proud perusal of his carefully nurtured crops. Like a well-rooted and irrigated plant, a wrestler grows and develops out of the akhara earth. On Nag Panchami the wrestler’s body takes on the symbolic properties of nurtured growth which is associated with fertility and the agricultural cycle.
The significance of contained sexuality will be analyzed through an examination of eight motifs: rain and water, snakes, milk, ghi, almonds, earth, trees, and exercise. On Nag Panchami the wrestler’s body—situated, significantly, at the locus of these eight motifs—represents a powerful scheme of contained sexuality manifest as growth and increasing physical prowess.
Rain and Water
Nag Panchami is celebrated during the early weeks of the monsoon season. After the long, hot months of summer the rains, which move up the Gangetic Plain from the Bay of Bengal, bring much-needed relief. The rains mark a distinct seasonal change that is of greatest importance to farmers who must plow and plant their fields. Wrestlers also recognize the significance of the rains. For them they mark the beginning of the wrestling season. They also bring them out of torpid dormancy. Cooler weather enables wrestlers to exercise with renewed vigor. The meaning of rain in the context of wrestling is parallel to the significance rain has to the agricultural cycle. Moreover, Dundes has noted that throughout the Indo-European world, water and moisture in general are regarded as life-giving (1980: 109). Rain in particular helps wrestlers grow, and so, too, does the regimen of daily bathing. Water falls on the fertile ground of the wrestler’s body and brings forth dormant strength and skill. Nag Panchami is a time when wrestlers bloom.
The Vedic term for season, retu—most often associated with vrsa retu, the rainy season—is etymologically very close to the vedic term for semen, retas(O’Flaherty 1980: 20). With regard to rain and semen there is another theme which points up an interesting parallel between rain and wrestling. Vrsti (rain) and vrsan (a powerful, virile, lustful man or a bull) are both derived from vrs (to rain or pour forth; ibid.). There is a clear parallel between rain and semen, particularly if one bears in mind the obvious role of the monsoon rains in agricultural growth and generation. The theme of virility as symbolically linked to rain and strength provides a strong case for why wrestlers celebrate their identity at the beginning of the monsoon season.
In Hindu mythology and folklore snakes represent rain (Maity 1963: 124–125; Rig Veda: 1.22.2; Vogel 1926: 34). In a more general sense they are often regarded as the deities of ponds and rivers (Crooke 1926: 390; Harivamsa chap. 68; Maity 1963: 154). H. Zimmer writes: “Like a river winding its way, the serpent creeps along the ground: it dwells in the earth and starts forth like a fountain from its hole. It is an embodiment of the water of life issuing from the deep body of mother earth” (1946: 74–75).
In this respect snakes represent two aspects of water: masculine rain as semen and feminine water as nurturing essence. The snake both falls from the sky and gushes from the earth. Snakes must not, therefore, be strictly associated with either feminine or masculine attributes. Significantly, snakes represent both male and female sexual energy. They are not purely phallic (Kakar 1990: 57); neither is the dominant motif one of impregnation. Snakes symbolize a powerful form of androgynous sexuality which is clearly apparent in the reconciliation of male rain with female water.
This point may be taken a step further if we consider the oppostion of fire and water in relation to snake symbolism (O’Flaherty 1980: 214–215). While snakes are associated with water, they also represent lightning (Vogel 1926: 3–4). As such snakes represent the fire of passion and the danger of unbridled lust (Kakar 1990: 52–63). A common theme in Indian folklore is the belief that an erotic woman’s vagina contains a poisonous snake (O’Flaherty 1980: 292). On the male side of the erotic equation the snake represents instinctual passion which must be controlled and channeled. As O’Flaherty has shown, the theme of serpent passion-fire is clearly manifest in the mythic metaphor of the submarine fire. Herein the cooling properties of the ocean contain the fire of sexual energy (ibid: 214, 215). Kaliya, as one may remember, is banished to the ocean where his poisonous passion is cooled. Without going into this in detail, one may see that just as the ocean controls passion, so does the rain aspect of Nag balance his or her fiery passionate dimension.
Significantly, rain, water, and fire comprise a balanced symbol of sexual energy. The power of sexuality, both male and female, is recognized through the metaphor of rain and water, and the danger of sexuality as lust and passion is recognized in the metaphor of lightning. Passion is always cooled through the agency of rain and water. Sexuality thus remains a potent symbol of power while the dangerous aspect of sex is held in check.
In wrestling, where contained sexuality is so important, the rain of Shravan represents both the engendering strength of semen and the cooling of fiery passion. The rainy season evokes the symbolic significance of contained sexuality, and the wrestler’s body reflects the dynamic reconciliation of passion with strength. As we shall see, the wrestler must never lose semen. He must turn it back into physical and moral strength. As a result, he must translate the fiery energy of passion into the physical energy of strength. He is thus like the huge rain clouds that roll up the Gangetic Plain, swollen with rain and sparkling with lightning.
An alternative of this same motif would be that cooling rain symbolizes the liquid female aspect of sexuality while the snake represents the fiery passionate side (cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 55; 1973: 286–289). However, in such an interpretation passion is cooled only through the release of semen—as the rain falls from the swollen clouds onto the earth—which is antithetical to building strength through containment. The more appropriate interpretation with regard to Nag Panchami ritual is that rain represents the nascent energy of semen for which the snake is, in either a male or female guise, the potent agency of passion. By thus relating but isolating agency from element, snake from rain, passion from sexuality, the wrestler is able to focus on his sexual energy without falling prey to passion.
In his analysis of snakehandling cults in the United States, Weston La Barre presents a convincing argument for the phallic symbolism and sexual significance of snakes (La Barre 1962; also, cf. Dundes 1985; Mundkar 1983). Without entering into the debate over the universality of this motif, I think it can be shown that in India in general and certainly in the world of the wrestler, snakes represent sexuality in many forms.
Lingams—phallic-shaped rock images of Shiva—are often depicted with a snake coiled around the base of the stone or etched onto the yoni (vagina/source/base) on which the phallic rock is seated. Along with this graphic and very common motif is the idea that the serpent goddess Kundalini is coiled around a person’s spine. The practice of yoga is designed to give one control over the energy of Kundalini. In the imagery of Kundalini Yoga the seed of shakti is activated at the base of one’s spine and shot upward through the serpent to the top of one’s head (O’Flaherty 1980: 45). This metaphor of ejaculation (which, not incidentally, is completely self-contained) provides a symbolic graph of self-realization and metaphysical release in Hindu spiritualism.
Although snakes have a clearly male phallic dimension there is also the common motif of the dangerous poisonous female snake. The myth of Putana, who poisoned her breasts in order to destroy Krishna, symbolically reflects the dangerous side of female power in this regard. Folklore clearly supports this image of dangerous female sexuality in the form of snakes. In the story of the jealous Nag (Vogel 1926: 176) a female snake entices travelers to her bed and is ultimately killed by her husband because of her uncontrollable passion. As Kakar has noted, it would be a mistake to jump too quickly to general conclusions regarding the nature of female seductive power. At the very least one must take into account, on both a social as well as psychological level, the question of who is being seduced, under what circumstances, and by whom: father/daughter, mother/son, sister/brother or stranger/stranger. While themes of seduction and passion abound, what is most intriguing is the mix of particular sociopsychological roles with the expression of erotic emotions. How, for instance, is eroticism reconciled with the opposed roles of mother/lover or father/husband? While this is largely a psychological question, I think it is possible to draw general cultural conclusions from the symbolic logic—coded in myth, enacted in ritual, and embodied through exercise—by which means sense is made of anathema.
Thompson (1955–1958: D1837.4) and Crooke (1926: 394) give instances where the shadow of a pregnant woman can render a snake powerless (or blind). Enthovan indicates that a snake-bite healer loses his power over poison if he leads an immoral life, and particularly if he is in contact with a woman who has just given birth (1924: 138). Here the power of fertility overcomes the power of sexuality in either its male or female guise. The pregnant woman poses a threat to snakes (or to snake power transposed onto the healer) because, on a symbolic level, fertility is the inverse of erotic sexuality. Milk, then, becomes the dominant symbol, and energy is redirected away from sex to nurturing growth. The symmetry of poison and milk is intriguing, for as Enthovan shows, milk (representative of a pregnant or fertile woman) can ritually neutralize poison (1924: 135). Women are not categorically dangerous, only contigently so as either strangers or wives. It is only their erotic qualities which are snakelike; and in fact what is far more important than generic sexuality is the precise agency of eroticism reflected in fantasy and ritual. Maternity neutralizes passion, and it is in this respect, as we shall see, that milk plays an important symbolic role in a wrestler’s diet.
On a conscious level, at least, wrestlers regard snakes as the symbolic equivalent of lustful women. One wrestler told me that the glance of a woman is as dangerous as the bite of a snake. Many of the young wrestlers with whom I spoke expressed an abject fear of eroticism in any form. In this aspect snakes are associated with rabid female sexual energy which, in the view of many Indian men, is both physically and psychologically debilitating (cf. Carstairs 1958; Kakar 1981). That women are not allowed to enter the akhara precinct is witness to the threat they pose.
The most powerful symbolic imagery employed in this regard is not only of poisonous fluid injected, but also of precious fluid sucked out. Here the image of the suckling snake is significant (La Barre 1962: 94–98; Thompson 1955–1958: B765.4.1; for a comparative perspective see Brandes 1981: 222–227; 1985: 80–84). From a wrestler’s perspective, having sex with a women is like being sucked dry by a snake (cf. Jones 1951; Legman 1975). In this imagery the more common roles are reversed. The breast becomes the phallus from which semen rather than milk is sucked out. There is, then, an apparent ambiguity in the motif of the suckling snake. On one level the snake sucks out the mother’s nurturing milk, but on a parallel symbolic plane it sucks out vital male energy. In the Indian scheme these confusing themes are, in fact, complementary. As Kakar (1981) and Carstairs (1958) have argued, the image of the sexually aggressive debilitating woman is in part structured in complementary opposition to that of the domineering authoritarian mother (cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 108). A mother who refuses to give up her milk becomes a sexually aggressive woman who saps men of their vital fluids (ibid). The bad mother is a dangerous woman on two fronts: she does not give up her fluid while she also takes fluid away. As the snake drinks milk it is associated with both the good mother’s flowing milk and the bad mother’s passion. On one plane the suckling snake is a potent symbol of erotic fantasy, but it is also, on another plane, emblematic of the non-erotic, symbiotic relationship between mother and child. The motif of the suckling snake raises the issue of sexuality in the same instance that it resolves it. As we shall see below, this same parallelism carries over into the ritual context of Nag Panchami in the akhara.
The sexual aspect of snakes is the most dominant motif in folklore and ritual. It is intriguing that another common motif is that of the snake guarding treasures buried in the earth (cf. Crooke 1926: 390; Enthovan 1924: 130–131; Jacobs 1899: 140–142). In many of the tales recounted by these authors, the treasure guarded by snakes is not only hidden and hoarded, but also very valuable. Given that snakes are associated with sexual energy, it is clear that the snakes’ wealth is a symbol of semen. This is further evidenced by motifs of snakes spitting out lumps of gold (Thompson 1955–1958: B22.214.171.124; Jacobs 1899: 140–142). In the context of wrestling this motif is significant given the dominant theme of contained sexuality. The wrestler must guard his store of precious seminal fluid just as a snake keeps watch over the “life-energy that is stored in the earthly waters of springs, wells, and ponds” (H. Zimmer 1946: 63). As a common folktale has it (Jacobs 1899: 140–142), snakes give up their jewels in exchange for milk; that is, they give up semen/jewels for semen/milk, thus taking in essentially what they put out. Milk is changed into poison in this and other tales (cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 54) but it is, significantly, poison directed at someone who either does not offer milk or who tries to steal the treasure. In any case, the dominant motif here, as in the case of the suckling snake, is one of protected vital male fluids.
Milk is the central ingredient of a wrestler’s diet. A wrestler is stereotyped as a thickset man who can consume buckets and buckets of milk. K. P. Singh writes of the properties of milk:
Wrestlers clearly associate milk with both physical strength and sexual virility. Milk, however, develops virility without igniting the fires of sexual passion. As Singh points out, surplus energy is channeled away from “other forms of satisfaction.” Sensual feelings are redirected into physical exercise, and milk contributes to this transformation. Milk is the essence of condensed energy: “Wanting to develop his strength, Lord Krishna went about the following procedure. He fed the milk of ten thousand cows to one thousand cows. He then milked these one thousand cows and fed their milk to one hundred other cows. He milked these one hundred and fed their milk to ten cows and finally fed the milk of these ten to one cow. Krishna then drank this cow’s milk whereby he in fact ingested the combined energy of 11,111 cows” (Atreya 1972a: 33). On this plane there is an obvious parallel between wrestlers and snakes: both are characterized as extraordinary drinkers of milk. In order to understand what it means to feed milk to both snakes and to wrestlers it is necessary to first analyze the symbolic properties of milk.
In order to reinvigorate oneself after exercise one should drink milk. . . . The strong substance of milk products imparts strength and valor. The mind becomes healthy and refurbished. Discipline is established and one becomes attentive. After a few days of exercise all other forms of satisfaction are channeled into strength. Surplus energy is sublimated and given a productive and beautiful outlet. Milk is like the anchor of a ship which allows the vessel to bob on the waves but prevents it from sinking (1973: 31).
In Hindu myth and ritual, milk—particularly cow’s milk—is one of the purest fluids. In its symbolic character it is purely female (O’Flaherty 1980: 36). Significantly, milk is linked to more general themes of female fertility and creative energy. In the Vedas milk is referred to as vrsnyam payas, or virile “seed-like” milk (ibid: 21). The implication here is that women’s milk is female seed (the idea of a female seed being quite common in Indian mythology) and that therefore it is clearly the symbolic opposite of male semen. In Vedic literature, semen is sometimes referred to as sukram payas, bright milk (ibid: 23). In general, O’Flaherty argues that milk and semen are linked on the level of “secondary metaphorical applications” wherein they refer to “rain, water, Soma (ritual elixir), oblation and child” (ibid: 24). Zimmermann has also pointed out that “the thick fluidity and whiteness of milk resembles phlegm, semen and ojas, the vital fluid. It shares their properties, heavy, sweet, cold, unctuous” (1988: 204). Milk, however, is not just semen; it is a special kind of semen. According to the Satapatha Brahmana, milk is the semen of Agni, the god of fire (ibid: 205). Thus, again, there is a sharp distinction made between the fire of passion and the nature of semen as a sexual, though non-erotic, fluid; a dissociation of agency from substance. It is on this level in particular that the symbolic link is made between semen and milk in the everyday world of the wrestler’s life. Milk is consumed by men to enhance virility (O’Flaherty 1980: 51–52). To wrestlers, for whom virility is linked to the development of physical prowess and personal character, milk contributes to one’s growing reserve of semen.
While milk has important symbolic properties, the act of milking is no less significant. As O’Flaherty has pointed out, milking is likened to intercourse where semen is milked out of the male and mixed with the female seed to create life (ibid: 21, 24). This idea fits with the notion that men can be “milked” of their strength through contact with the wrong sort of passionate women. In this regard the dual properties of milk as symbolizing both male and female essence becomes important. If a man is milked of his semen/milk it is symmetrical for him to milk and consume the female milk/seed to restore the balance of his own supply. In this symbolic chemistry it is important to note that blood is the common denominator of both milk and semen. Although blood is regarded as a generative fluid associated with many aspects of the body, it is most directly linked to semen and milk. Many young wrestlers who live in fear of involuntary semen loss express the common belief that one drop of semen is equal to sixty drops of blood (cf. Carstairs 1958; Obeyesekere 1976: 213; O’Flaherty 1980: 36).
As pointed out above, the snake represents two aspects of sexuality: the phallic male and dangerous female. In this capacity, given what has been said about milk and milking, the image of feeding milk to snakes on Nag Panchami can be interpreted in two significant ways. On one level the act of milking is reversed. The phallic snake reingests, as it were, the symbolic semen that it has been milked of. As the phallus gives up semen/milk it takes it back in the form of milk/semen, just as the breast which gives up milk/semen takes in semen/milk (see Klein 1948 for a discussion of the “breast that feeds itself” [O’Flaherty 1980: 44]). Here the image of Shesha Nag or Ananta, the ouroboros serpent who holds up the world, provides a clear motif of this sexuality turned in upon itself. Ananta—the “endless one”—is depicted as a snake eating or sucking on its own tail: as the male and female dimensions of the snake collapse, milk becomes semen and energy moves in a perpetual circle. It is perfectly symmetrical in this respect that in the Mahabharata version of this myth (Adi-parvan, chap. 36), Ananta is depicted as a sannyasi who wants nothing more than to “delight in righteousness, tranquillity and asceticism” (Vogel 1926: 57). The self-contained, enlightening energy of yogic kundalini power, likened by some to internal ejaculation, is equivalent, on a symbolic plane, to the alchemical recycling of milk/semen/milk. As O’Flaherty has pointed out, the ouroboros snake is a symbol of the paradoxical Mobius universe which is infinite but self-contained (1984: 242–243).
On another level, it must not be forgotten that snakes often represent dangerous female sexuality, and in this capacity poison is one manifestation of female passion. One may argue, I think, that poison is the symbolic opposite of milk: it takes life where milk gives forth life in a number of different ways. As pointed out above, milk is the symbolic opposite of erotic passion and in this formulation it is possible to argue that feeding milk to snakes functions as a neutralizing agency. Dangerous female passion is cooled and rendered less threatening by the symbolic juxtaposition of milk and poison. The poison/milk opposition is here a restatement of the suckling snake motif mentioned above. Sexuality is invoked so as to be controlled.
In this regard it is interesting that sannyasis or yogis, by virtue of their complete control over the flow of their seed, are said to have power over snakes (O’Flaherty 1973: 279; 1980: 54). They are immune to poison by virtue of the overwhelming store of semen they have accumulated through their devout celibacy. Moreover, yogis are said to be able to turn poison into seed: to make that which is destructive into a creative force (1980: 54).
Wrestlers identify with yogis on many counts, but particularly as regards their ability to control and channel the flow of semen. In this capacity the image of the milk-drinking snake serves as a motif, albeit reversed, of the alchemy which yogis and wrestlers are meant to effect. Although wrestlers do not necessarily feed milk to snakes, the celebration of wrestling as a way of life on Nag Panchami is the symbolic transformation of destructive poisonous power into creative physical energy.
As has been noted, wrestlers drink enormous quantities of milk as part of their diet. Milk is not consumed in a ritualized way as it is by snakes on Nag Panchami, but nevertheless the parallels are clear. Milk builds up a wrestler’s semen reserve, but it also cools his passion, just as milk neutralizes poison. Having built up his supply of semen, however, a wrestler is not only able to neutralize the poison of passion; like the sannyasi, he can turn poison back into semen. He is supervirile but sexually passive and controlled. Milk contributes directly to this powerful conundrum.
Having already noted the central place of ghi in the wrestler’s dietary regimen, we may now consider ghi within the symbolic context of Nag Panchami ritual. In the conceptual framework of wrestling, ghi is related to semen in a specific way. Atreya makes the following point: “There are many things which are as rich and oily as ghi but they do not have resilience. The semen and strength which is produced from these things is not stable. Ghi is the only thing which can keep your strength up and produce oj [the aura of virility]. The strength that ghi fosters is resilient. It is not like other things which produce semen only to let it flow to destruction” (1984: 23). To a wrestler ghi represents the essence of semen which is held inside the body. This is not the semen of virile passion, it is the semen of physical, moral and spiritual strength.
In the above discussion of milk and snakes, milk was seen to have certain ambiguous qualities: purely female yet symbolic of semen. This ambiguity translates into various powerful motifs when related to the symbolic themes of consumption and control. When ghi is taken into account this motif is developed further. Even though ghi is not fed to snakes, the logic of how ghi relates to milk and semen is relevant here.
Just as ghi is the distillate of milk, its essence, so semen is thought to be the distilled essence of food and blood (O’Flaherty 1980: 49). The guru of Akhara Ram Singh drew a telling analogy. “Semen is like ghi,” he said. “Just like ghi fuels the dias (lamps) of religious worship, so does semen fuel the fire of one’s own body.” Even more so than milk, ghi is consumed to enhance virility by contributing to one’s store of semen (cf. Carstairs 1958: 166; O’Flaherty 1980: 52).
Although ghi is expressly seminal as it relates to the male body, it is androgynous as a gender symbol: it is the essence of masculine potency but, as the distillate of milk, ultimately female (O’Flaherty 1980: 23, 25). The agency associated with the symbolism of milk/semen is the act of milking. In the symbolism of ghi, the agency is also milking (as ghi is drawn out of milk [cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 29]), but, more significantly, also churning, wherein milk is made into butter (O’Flaherty 1976: 334–335; 1980: 28). Churning symbolism is crucial to an understanding of what ghi means as an androgynous symbol. Whereas to a certain extent milking refers to sexual union and the drawing out of essence, churning, more often than not, refers to unilateral creation wherein a male or female brings forth life by churning their own fluids (O’Flaherty 1976: 333–334). Even in instances where churning is taken as a metaphor for coitus, the image employed is of mixing together, not milking out or taking essence away. Significantly, the metaphor of milking implies only a transfer of substance, whereas churning clearly demands a change of substance, but without addition or subtraction. In this respect, then, milk symbolizes either male or female seed, whereas ghi represents a kind of mutated androgynous fluid that is potent but asexual in the sense of already having been churned.
In the Mahabharata it is significant that churning is associated with creation. More to the point, however, the ocean of milk, which is churned to bring forth life, is the substance of unilateral creation which flows endlessly from the udder of the earth-cow (O’Flaherty 1980: 43). To churn the ocean the gods use a parallel symbol of contained sexuality—Ananta, the endless snake.
In a number of the mythic references to unilateral procreation the child is born through the agency of thigh rubbing or thigh churning. For instance, Aurva is born from Urva’s thigh (O’Flaherty 1980: 227). O’Flaherty also points out that the symbolism of thigh churning is related, etymologically, to churning butter from milk (ibid: 28). What is significant about thigh churning is that it alludes to the power of sexual potency without calling into play any form of overt sexual agency. Intercourse is preempted. Thus, with regard to wrestlers and ascetics, for whom asexuality is a physicomoral virtue, the power of sexuality is clearly recognized while chastity itself is never threatened.
Mythic reference to thigh churning suggests an intriguing parallel with wrestling. While wrestlers are concerned with the size of their body as a whole, they place a great deal of importance on the size of their thighs. This is particularly significant since wrestlers place absolutely no positive value on the size of their genitalia. In fact, wrestlers who have larger genitalia than others are considered somewhat deviant and are suspected of promiscuity and unchecked passion.
In expressing a wrestler’s stature a person gestures the girth of the wrestler’s thigh with his outstretched hands. More significantly, wrestlers slap their thighs as an aggressive gesture presaging a bout. They rub their thighs while exercising. (In two akharas I visited thigh slapping is prohibited, ostensibly because it aggressively challenges the founding guru to a wrestling bout, but also, on a symbolic level, because it brings sexuality too close to the akhara precinct.) One might interpret this thigh slapping/rubbing/measuring as penis fixation except for the fact that the manipulation of one’s thigh is an act of androgynous agency while the manipulation of one’s penis is, even in the instance of masturbation, a directed act of sexuality which is, by definition, only half of a whole: either heterosexual or homosexual but never androgynous.
As representing androgynous sexual energy, ghi serves as a neutral source of energy. It contains the vital shakti of sexuality—both male and female—without posing any real threat of erotic destruction. Milk, associated clearly with women, is implicated in contrasted sexuality: either male or female. As a distillate of milk, ghi collapses the contrast of sexual opposition. Metaphorically, a wrestler can rub his thighs all he wants, for churning represents self-contained energy, not energy spent. The case of the two akharas which prohibit thigh slapping serves as an exception which seems to support the rule.
While milk and milk products are generally regarded as “cool” in the hot/cold paradigm of food classification, ghi is regarded by many wrestlers as the essence of “coolness.” I was told that a person suffering from intoxication, sunstroke, or “madness” ought to be fed ghi as this would counteract the heat causing the particular malady. I asked if milk or cream also had the same effect and was told, emphatically, no. Cream in particular aggravates intoxication by enraging one’s passion. It is interesting that snakes are not fed ghi. The reason, I think, is that ghi would, in a symbolic sense, neutralize the dual sexuality of snakes. In contrast to ghi, milk can be either male semen or female seed, but never both at once. Thus a snake drinking milk symbolizes the resolution of opposites. Ghi by itself, having been churned from milk also represents this same opposition but without reference to the poisonous, dangerous aspect of sexuality. Ghi is in essence symbolically equivalent to Ananta, the endless ascetic snake. For a snake to drink ghi, therefore, would be to mix metaphors and render the act redundant at best and at worst meaningless. Ghi would, in effect, cool the snakes passion but with an end result of impotence rather than contained virility. In the instances where ghi is associated with snakes one is more likely to find that it is juxtaposed to venom spent (unleashed passion) rather than to the latent sexuality symbolized by the poison inside the snake. The poison of latent sexuality is, more often than not, juxtaposed against milk. Poison spent must be rendered harmless, while passion held in check must be contained and regenerated.
Wrestlers drink milk, but this does not mean that they are snakelike in their character. The motif of the milk-drinking snake in effect represents the logic of the wrestler’s own body of contained sexuality. The snake is a sign of the wrestler’s latent passion while the milk the snake drinks is the wrestler’s semen. Turned in itself, passion becomes power and virtue rather than lust and greed. As has been argued, ghi duplicates this imagery without reference to the snake agency. Unlike a snake a wrestler can drink ghi without cooling his passion to the point of impotence. This is because he drinks ghi to enrich his semen, an act which symbolically preempts the whole issue of sexuality since ghi is never sucked up or milked out. It is only mixed in with or churned out from milk. As the guru of Akhara Ram Singh explained, ghi fuels the internal fire of the wrestler’s body. Milk can be consumed and retained to build semen, but it can just as easily flow and be sucked out. Ghi is more resilient and therefore a more apt symbol of asexual, non-erotic virility.
Along with buckets of milk and large volumes of ghi, wrestlers eat enormous quantities of almonds. Almonds are clearly masculine, for they are to the male seed as milk is to female creativity.
Almonds are used in making pharmaceutical cures for the “night emission” of semen (Ramsanehi Dixit n.d.: 13). However, most references to the almond’s curing agency focus on mental disorders rather than on illnesses with an overtly somatic sexual manifestation: impotency, premature ejaculation, and the like (ibid: 11–20). In this regard there is an interesting parallel suggested between almonds and semen. Semen is said to be located in a reservoir in the head (Carstairs 1958: 86; O’Flaherty 1980: 46; Spratt 1966: 91, 95–96). I am not qualified to speak on the medical dimension of this correlation, but the symbolism is suggestive on an overt level. In many instances a person who engages in too much illicit sex is regarded as mentally unstable, and the telltale symptoms are, among other things, sunken eyes and a pallid complexion. I think it is clear that the eyes are sunken and the complexion pallid because the head has been drained of semen. The almonds play some role in restoring mental stability by revitalizing the reservoir.
Wrestlers prepare almonds in a way which is also suggestive of this symbolic equation between semen and almonds. Along with the stereotype of the milk-drinking wrestler is the almond-grinding wrestler, who spends hours with mortar and pestle (a strong sexual symbol in its own right) mashing his almonds into a thick, rich, golden paste. He mixes this paste with honey and milk and drinks it as a postpractice tonic.
At some akharas mashing almonds is done in tandem with the preparation of bhang (hashish). Almonds and bhang are often prepared in the same way insofar as bhang has to be smashed and ground into a paste. Many non-wrestlers associate bhang and the preparation of bhang paste with akharas. In this context, bhang and almonds are often associated with one another. The two pastes are occasionally drunk together when diluted and mixed into a potion called thandai. (Thandai can also refer to any cool drink made of mixed substances, usually milk, nuts, and fruits.)
Popular stereotypes aside, wrestlers have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards bhang (Negi 1987). A number of them said that bhang is used by wrestlers for the same reason that it is used by ascetics: to control desire. While it may be true that many ascetics use bhang in order to enhance their divine passion, rather than inhibit sexuality, wrestlers do not put much credence in this interpretation. One wrestler said that bhang calms and focuses a person’s mind. The problem with bhang, however, is that it has recreational uses which can undermine self-control. As many wrestlers pointed out, bhang can be dangerous because it makes one lazy, idle, and self-absorbed. One becomes listless rather than strong. If used properly, however, bhang is a substance that subverts passion, and in this capacity it is associated with akharas. It is quite possible, as both Lynch (1990: 103, 104) and Kumar (1988: 112, 113) have pointed out, that the consumption of bhang in akharas is also an aspect of other ideals, namely the shauk (hobby or passion) of affected leisure which is part of Banarsi culture, or the passionate mastram identity of Mathura Chaubes. However, most serious wrestlers look on this as a recreational and therefore dubious use of bhang.
In any case, where almonds are associated with bhang, one has, once again, an instance of sexual power generated on the one hand while held in check on the other. A bhang and almond thandai is essentially the same thing as ghi: extremely potent but very resilient and stable. Drinking the thandai potion, a wrestler affects the same motif of the milk-drinking snake.
I have never heard a wrestler draw a parallel between almond paste and semen, but given the overarching concern wrestlers have with sexuality—the congruent symbolism of milk and ghi, the clear imagery of mortar and pestle, the implicit correlation between an almond seed/nut and the procreative male seed, and finally, the juxtaposition of bhang and almonds—it is possible to say that almond symbolism contributes to the more explicit themes of contained sexuality which structure the conceptual framework of the akhara.
While ghi and almonds are not explicitly linked to snakes and Nag Panchami ritual, the underlying symbolic parallels are very clear: sexual energy turned in upon itself in a motif of contained, recycled essence. A consideration of the symbolic properties of earth in general and akhara earth specifically returns us to the snake motif in wrestling life.
One need not stretch the imagination to appreciate the association snakes have with the earth. They live in holes in the ground and by virtue of being legless are seen as close to the earth in a literal and metaphoric sense. The monsoon rains bring the snakes out of the earth by flooding their holes. Vogel has pointed out that Kadru, the mother of the Nag race of snakes, is a personification of the earth (1926: 20). In this formulation, snakes are the “sons of the earth.” As described by Fuller (1944) and Maity (1963), people (and in particular women) worship anthills on Nag Panchami. As protrusions of earth, anthills are regarded as the homes of snakes. Moreover, given the phallic connotation of snakes, and their symbolic association with lingams, one may surmise that anthills are phallic. However, anthills may also represent breasts, since the earth is regarded as the life-giving mother. In this motif the snake represents the latent sexuality of the nourishing mother: the poison in the breast. Finally, snakes are associated with the earth through their cosmic role. At the behest of Brahma (Mahabharata, Adi-parvan, chap. 36), Ananta burrowed into the ground so as to hold up the Earth.
There seems to be clear evidence that a theme of fertility links snakes with the earth. Maity (1963), citing Barth (1932) and James (1959), suggests that snakes in general are associated with cultivation and harvest. Plowing is prohibited on Nag Panchami since a snake’s death might render one’s fields infertile.
Citing the Rig Veda (1.160.3), O’Flaherty has pointed out that the earth is often compared to a cow full of milk, while heaven is conceived of as a bull with seed (1980: 24). The earth is a cow from whom all good things come, and the milk of this cow is “female seed” (ibid: 250). As O’Flaherty points out elsewhere (ibid: 108), the earth is a dominant female. This is not surprising, given the common maternal imagery associated with the earth. As the quintessential mother, the earth is aggressively protective as well as nurturing. The earth as fertile female makes sense in the context of Nag Panchami. Monsoon rain, associated with Nag and with semen, impregnates the earth by mixing with the female seed. In this regard a passage from the Harivamsa is telling: “The smell which emitted from earth due to the season’s first rainfall stimulated in men the desire for union” (chap. 66, Bose n.d.).
As pointed out above, fresh new earth is brought into many akharas on Nag Panchami. This earth, though not special in any ritual respect is, significantly, brought to the pit either from fields or from the bottom of dried-out ponds. Thus it is eminently fertile earth. In the case of pond silt it is linked to the water aspect of Nag.
Wrestlers speak of the akhara earth in very maternal terms. It is nurturing, comforting, and protective. Wrestling in the akhara is likened to a child playing in his mother’s lap. When a wrestler is initiated into an akhara five of the prasad laddus are buried in the pit as a gesture of respect to “the nurturing mother” in whose lap the wrestlers grow. Atreya writes:
The term god (lap) has the connotation of womb. When wrestlers massage themselves with earth and let the earth draw out the toxins from their bodies they achieve a childlike state which complements the earth’s maternity. In this regard the general aura of the akhara as self-contained and peaceful contributes to the overall maternal symbolism.
Nothing can compare to the comfort of a mother’s lap, but a mother’s lap is only a fraction as comfortable as the “lap of mother earth”: the akhara. The love of “mother earth” is consistent and never changes. The more that one loves “mother earth” the happier one will be. “Mother earth” absorbs all of your troubles and leaves you in a state of bliss. One who is not close to the earth does not have the strength to fight off illness. Nothing can compare with the comfort of “mother earth’s” lap (1972b: 33).
The earth of the akhara is regarded by wrestlers as a cure-all. Based on Ayurvedic healing practices it is used to cure skin diseases, stomach ailments, headaches, and a host of other maladies. On a purely symbolic level, the idea of healing relates directly to the idea of the earth as caring mother.
One aspect of earth’s healing properties is of direct interest here. Atreya (ibid: 23) and the editor of Akhare ki Or(H. B. Singh 1972: 3) both mention that akhara earth is a sure cure for snakebite. As an aspect of the hot/cold paradigm, earth is regarded as cool and it draws out heat from the body. Poison is a very hot fluid and thus can be drawn out of the body if the person bitten by a snake (or rabid dog, wasp, caterpillar, etc.) is covered with earth.
In mythology mother earth is associated with a cow full of milk. The juxtaposition of cool earth with hot poison is a repetition of the pervasive theme of contained sexuality. On Nag Panchami, when wrestlers “play in their mother’s lap,” they are acting out, in a sense, the cooling of passion: the control of their sexual energy. If sexual energy were not controlled one could argue that the wrestlers are dramatizing a repressed sexual desire for their mothers. If this were the case, however, wrestlers would be weakened by their contact with the earth rather than rejuvenated by it. On a conscious level, at least, the image of mother earth is primarily nurturing rather than sexual. All sexual feelings are transferred out of the akhara onto women in their non-maternal, dangerous aspect. Mother earth is the supreme mother in the sense that no bad maternal qualities are attributed to her. The milk never stops flowing from her breasts. For the wrestler the akhara earth is the perfect nurturing mother in whose lap he plays as a forever virginal, non-sexual child. As Atreya writes, “He who has enjoyed the pleasure of the earth will feel that worldly sensual pleasures pale in comparison. They seem base and cheap” (1972b: 30). Since the worldly pleasures of the flesh pale in comparison to the metaphysical and maternal pleasures of the earth, it is not surprising that the wrestler is not only compared to a child but also to a sannyasi:
While the primary relationship of the wrestler’s body to the akhara earth is one of passive non-sexuality, there is, nevertheless, a concept of substance exchange. Wrestlers draw on the energy of the earth and they give back to the earth the energy which flows from their bodies. There is an exchange of substance but no idea of impregnation. Milk products are mixed into the earth of the akhara for the same reason that milk products are often fed to a pregnant woman; namely, so that she will give birth to a son (cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 28). The mother changes milk into seminal fluid which contributes to her child’s growth and development. It is significant that the nurturing fluid is semen made from milk. In this formulation semen nurtures and fosters growth. It is a potent and procreative substance but not an impregnating fluid. What a wrestler draws from the soil is the generalized energy of semen in the non-sexual symbolic form of mother’s milk/seed. Along these lines it is interesting to note that in rituals of royal coronation kings are often besmeared with mud (Inden 1978; Marglin 1982). This is variously interpreted as the king’s marriage to the earth or his impregnation of the earth. The king fertilizes the earth and thereby insures prosperity in his realm. Significantly, however, the king also draws power from the earth. Marglin has interpreted this as the king taking on the female power of the earth (1982: 171). In other words, the flow of substance is to some extent reciprocal in both kingly coronation and in the akhara.
It is important to remember that a wrestler’s strength must be passive and latent rather than aggressive. The wrestler who turns to the earth is a true ascetic, a true saint and a true yogi. In one Banaras akhara near Sankat Mochan temple I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of an 80-year-old man who said that he had achieved self-realization by exercising in the earth. He said that rolling in the earth was an act of devotion which had given him spiritual happiness (ibid: 32).
Sweat from the wrestler’s body is also mixed into the akhara earth and is regarded as an important and beneficial ingredient. As O’Flaherty has pointed out (1980: 39), in some contexts sweat is a symbolic substitute for semen. In mythology, however, sweat does not impregnate, but brings forth life unilaterally. When wrestlers sweat the interpretation they offer is that they are contributing to the general fertility of the soil. Their sweat mixes with the essence of the earth. Just as the earth gives up its milk/semen essence to build the wrestler’s body, so the wrestler returns his semen/sweat essence to mother earth. He does this, however, in an explicitly non-sexual way: as the male symbolic equivalent of mother’s milk. As the mother feeds the child so the child feeds the mother. This sets up a cyclical, non-sexual transfer of fluids which endlessly produces semen through reciprocal exchange.
Of the few instances in which akhara earth is used for anything other than wrestling or healing it is used, significantly, in a ritual where a bride is prepared for marriage. This is the only instance where women are allowed into the akhara precinct. Women come to the akhara (usually in the middle of the day when there are few wrestlers present) and take some of the earth out of the pit, mix it with water, and slap it on the bride’s back as she sits in a corner of the akhara. I was never given an interpretation of this ritual, but I think it is clear that the bride is being symbolically associated with both milk and semen: with the power of sexuality and impending motherhood. The bride is the symbolic opposite of the wrestler. She draws on the vitality and fertility of the sweat saturated earth in a ritualized context which is clearly sexual. She is not nurtured: she is symbolically impregnated. At the same time, however, she is anointed with the essence of mother earth and thereby takes on the qualities of a good mother-to-be. Regardless, it is significant that the bride takes substance out of the akhara and does not put anything back—there is no symbolic parallel here of the wrestler’s sweat. In and of itself this breaks the conundrum of contained sexuality by disassociating semen from milk, maternity from sexuality. The sexuality which the bride introduces into the akhara through her presence is tolerated by wrestlers only because of the parallel motif of maternity. Even so, on the few instances where I saw women take earth from the pit, the wrestlers moved well back and disassociated themselves from what the women were doing.
Psychologically speaking, I think that what is going on here is quite clear. In the pit the child wrestler has, to some extent, succeeded in having his cake—or ghi—and eating it too. He has managed to reconcile a deep emotional bond to the good mother (Kakar 1981, 1990) with a nondebilitating release of sexual energy. Emotionally the akhara substitutes for both mother and wife; and in the same way the wrestler is an emotional synthesis of progenitor and progeny. In fact, I think that the substitution/synthesis is further effected on another level on which the wrestler is androgynous. Wrestlers, after all, only play in their “mother’s lap”; who they play with is other wrestlers.
On an emotional level at least, the cosmology of akhara life affords a homosexual solution to a pervasive cultural ambivalence with regard to heterosexual relations in general and mother-son relations in particular, where the son is unable to cope with the powerful sexual demands made by the mother (cf. Kakar 1981: 95). In other situations a cultural solution to this psychological problem is found in symbolic and ritual self-castration in the context of mother goddess worship (Nanda 1990: 34). Nanda has found that hijras take this logic to its ultimate conclusion in a ritual of actual emasculation whereby the young man becomes “neither man nor woman,” thereby subverting his own male sexuality and appeasing his mother (ibid: 24–32). Although wrestlers are in many ways the antithesis of hijras, they too find psychological comfort in a ritualized synthesis of gender roles. Where the wrestler and the hijra part ways, however, is on the issue of emasculation; to deny male sexuality would be to undermine the source of physical strength, and so the wrestler effects a relationship of close physical contact with other men in order to circumvent the danger of female sexuality. To be sure, wrestlers do not engage in homosexual sex any more—and probably less–than they do in heterosexual sex. In this regard wrestling with another man is like rubbing thighs or feeding milk to snakes.
The trees of an akhara are in many ways associated with snakes and themes of fertility. Three trees in particular grow in akhara compounds: pipal (Ficus religiosa), banyan (Ficus indica) and nim (melia azadirachta). All of these trees have general religious significance in Hindu ritual (cf. Crooke 1926: 400–419; Enthovan 1924: 117–127; Pandey 1964; Philpot 1897; S. N. Roy 1931), but here the concern is only with their relation to two main symbols relating to Nag Panchami: milk and snakes.
Crooke (1926: 407) points out that the pipal tree is revered because it exudes a milky substance. Although snakes are said to populate many types of tree, the pipal is regarded as particularly suited for snakes to live in. They are thought to live entwined in its roots (H. Zimmer 1946: 72). Snakes are also regarded as part of the pipal because its branches are associated with Shiva, and Shiva is said to be adorned with snakes (Crooke 1926: 384, 407). Given that pipals exude a milky sap and are associated with snakes, it is not surprising that they are regarded, in some instances, as sources of fertility. Crooke reports that women circumambulate special pipal trees “in order to gain fertility” (ibid: 408). Women in Banaras wrap threads around the base of pipal trees and light lamps among the roots as an act of supplication or as fulfillment of a vow for a boon of fertility (cf. Enthovan 1924m: 119). One of the pipal trees at Akhara Ram Singh is occasionally used for this purpose.
Along with the pipal tree, the banyan is also regarded as a dwelling place of snakes (cf. Maity 1963: 128; Hastings 1979: 417). The banyan’s aerial roots which hang down and coil around each other are regarded as serpentine. Crooke points out that these roots are associated with the matted hair of sannyasis. The matted hair of sannyasis symbolizes not only snakes but also the reserve of semen which sannyasis are said to store in their heads (O’Flaherty 1980). According to Enthovan (1924: 120) the banyan tree, like the pipal, is associated with Shiva. Being of the same fig family of tree as the pipal, the banyan also exudes a milky sap. One wrestler said that the new fruit of a banyan—which is about two inches long and red with a white tip—can be broken off and eaten. Many claim it to be more nutritious than a glass of milk.
In Bombay, Crooke reports (1926: 407), women fast and pray to banyan trees on the full moon of Jyeshth (May–June) in order to preserve themselves from widowhood. This theme is echoed in the story recounted by Enthovan (1924: 120) where Satyavan died of a snakebite under a banyan tree. He was brought back to life by his wife’s entreaties to Yama, the god of death (cf. Rakesh 1986: 43–45). The banyan in this story is associated with life in general and fertility specifically. On a few occasions people would come to Akhara Ram Singh and ask to take some of the leaves of a large banyan to use as ritual ingredients.
While the banyan and the pipal are associated with snakes and fertility through their milky sap, the nim tree is juxtaposed to snakes by virtue of its power to cure venomous bites (Crooke 1926: 391, 410; Enthovan 1924: 137–140). The nim is not an antidote to poison but it is nevertheless a purifying, purgative agent. Its bitterness is regarded as symbolically parallel to poison. If a person can eat bitter nim leaves he is said to be cured. Zimmer mentions that images of snakes are often set up under pipal and nim trees and that these two trees are regarded as a married couple since they often grow on the same ground (1946: 72). Pipal milk is also used for curing snakebites (R. Sharma n.d.: 6) but in a different way from the nim; pipal milk draws poison out while the bitter nim leaves neutralize venom. In its curing capacity pipal milk acts like mother’s milk whereas the nim fights fire with fire. While alike in some respects, the milky sap of the pipal may thus also be juxtaposed to the bitterness of the nim. If the trees are regarded as a matching pair than there is a symbolic reconciliation of opposites. Through this opposition it becomes logical for snakes to be regarded as comfortably entwined in their roots.
If one considers pipal, banyan, and nim trees together, one is struck by the familiar opposition between milk/fertility and poison/danger which is but another articulation of the general theme of milk-drinking snakes. The bitter nim is juxtaposed to the life-giving sap of the pipal and banyan. In this respect the tree triad underscores the overall theme of controlled sexuality in the akhara. One may see, in this triptych scheme, the power of fertility without any real threat of unleashed erotic passion.
As a final note in this regard let us consider the healing properties of nim, pipal, and banyan trees. All three trees have important curative qualities (cf. Ramsanehi Dixit 1967a; R. Sharma n.d.) and are used as ingredients in numerous remedies (Sen 1985). All three trees, however, are used to treat sexual disorders in men and women. This is not surprising, for many herbs and minerals in India are used for treating illnesses relating to impotency, semen loss, and infertility (Gotham 1983). However, given that the trees grow on akhara grounds—and, as pointed out earlier, they mix their essence with the earth, water, and wind of the compound—one may assume that there is a tacit symbolic association between the trees’ essence and the charged sexuality of the earth, the water, and the body of the wrestler. The sap of the pipal can help cure semen loss and increase the flow of milk from a woman’s breast; the milky fruit of the banyan can reinvigorate an impotent person; and the leaves of a nim can make a man virile and bring milk to a woman’s breast. In every instance the remedies derived from these trees build up semen in men and either cause milk to flow in women or enhance fertility in general. In this regard the milk of the banyan and the pipal can be used as a substitute for cow’s milk (Atreya 1986a: 50).
Nag Panchami is not only a public display of wrestling as a particular way of life, but also a general celebration of exercise, physical fitness, and strength. In Banaras on Nag Panchami akharas sometimes put on demonstrations of strength. Wrestlers lift heavy weights and swing large joris and gadas. In the context of this discussion of snakes, milk, and fertility, one may interpret the exercises which wrestlers do in terms of contained sexuality and displaced passion.
A gada is a large round rock fixed to the end of a meter-long bamboo staff which is lifted and swung for exercise. It may weigh as little as five or as much as fifty to sixty kilograms. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata the gada is often mentioned as a weapon. In popular religious art and iconography Hanuman is almost never depicted without one. It is not only the symbol of his strength but also of his countenance. The gada he carries is highly decorated and made of gold. At championship bouts wrestlers are awarded gadas made of silver. The gada is, then, clearly the mark of a wrestler’s prowess. Given the preponderance of phallic symbols in the akhara and the gada’s general shape it is evident that swinging a gada has clear symbolic overtones of sexual potency and virility. Each time the gada is swung it is brought to a balanced position, erect from the wrestler’s waist.
The phallic aspect of the gada is also evidenced by its association with snakes. In the Harivamsa(chap. 83) Akrura dives into the serpent world where he sees Ananta asleep on top of a mace (Vogel 1926: 92). As the manifestation of Baladev, “the mace carrier,” Shesha Nag is also often depicted carrying a mace in one of his four arms (ibid: 196).
In shape a gada resembles the churning stick used to make butter and buttermilk. A parallel between churning and sexual energy has been drawn above. By swinging the gada one might say that a wrestler is churning his body to increase his store of semen.
Joris are swung like gadas but they come in pairs weighing between ten and forty kilograms each. Joris are often decorated with colorful designs, and many akharas have special pairs which are brought out only on such occasions as Nag Panchami and Guru Puja. In contrast to gadas, joris are named—the “white pair,” the “shiny ones,” the “thorny ones,” the “flowery ones,” the “mountainous ones” (many are named after a particular person who either made them, commissioned them to be made or swung them the most number of times). While gadas have clear phallic qualities, joris symbolize breasts (recognizing, of course, that breast and phallic symbols are highly mutable and multivocal to the point of being almost interchangeable). Not only do joris come in pairs, they are also swung from an inverted position with the wrestler holding firmly onto the titlike handle-grip as though he were milking a cow or buffalo. If churning is the dominant metaphor of swinging a gada, milking is associated with swinging a pair of joris.
Most of the wrestlers in Banaras are dairy farmers, and so the motifs of milking and churning are particularly appropriate. In fact, milking itself is referred to as an exercise by many young wrestlers who brag that they can milk ten or fifteen buffalos without tiring. In this instance the motif clearly refers to milk as a female substance which contributes to the development of male semen.
One of the most important exercises in a wrestler’s regime involves digging the pit. The wrestling pit is dug with a pharsa (a short, heavy hoe) in much the same way that a field would be plowed. That is, a person digs the pit into furrows. A great deal of emphasis is placed on making the pit look like a well-cared-for field. I asked a number of wrestlers if there was not a contradiction in the fact that digging is prohibited on Nag Panchami while it is an integral part of pit preparation for the akhara festivities. I was told that there was no contradiction; the implication being, I think, that plowing is an overt act of planting or putting seed into the earth so as to take substance out. Digging the pit, on the other hand, enriches the soil by mixing things in. It is true that wrestlers draw strength from the soil but they are never seen as violating the earth. On a symbolic level they never pose a threat to the snake’s potency. The wrestler is to the earth as a child, while the snake—as cloud, rain, and lightning—is emblematic of the sky father. A wrestler never challenges the virility of the snake but turns instead as a child to his mother’s lap. All feelings of sexual attraction, either towards the mother or against the father, are sublimated beneath a symbolic cloak of non-sexual virility. It is not a question of who has sexual access to (or repressed desire for) whom, but of how sex itself can be held in check. The digging of the earth, as with many of the other symbols discussed here, represents the potential of sexual power turned into nurturing growth.
Once the earth of the akhara pit is dug it is smoothed out by harnessing a wrestler to a flat log which he drags around the pit behind him. In this exercise wrestlers are compared, through association with draft oxen, to bulls (see plate 15). Bulls are ubiquitous in Banaras and although they go on rampages and can be dangerous they are generally regarded as non-aggressive. They are, however, the very embodiment of strength and brute force.
While associated with Shiva, the bull in Hindu mythology is not a symbol of phallic aggression or erotic desire. As O’Flaherty points out, the bull represents controlled, passive sexuality: the inverse of Shiva’s potent sexuality. The bull is “virility held in check” on two fronts: by Shiva’s ascetic power on one hand and on the other by the mother (cow) who “overwhelms and blocks” the impulses of the bull (1980: 253). The bull is, then, the perfect image of the wrestler whose passion, like that of the snake, is cooled by mother milk, and whose seed is never spent.
One of the most common metaphors used to describe a wrestler’s strength is to compare him to the oxen who draw huge leather buckets of water out of rural irrigation wells. These wells are sunk deep into the ground. An incline is built for the oxen to walk up and down as they pull the water up on a cantilevered pulley. Again, the motif of the impregnating bull is reversed, as it were, and instead the bull-like wrestler harnesses himself to the rope and draws out the life-giving milk/water fluids of the earth. Not coincidentally, the ox, as a castrated bull, is here associated with fertility and strength but not sexuality.
In this chapter I have sought to interpret some of the dominant symbols in the culture of wrestling in order to understand why wrestlers regard Nag Panchami as an important festival. My argument is that Nag Panchami symbolizes contained sexuality, either as the seed turned in on itself wherein the symbiotic energies of milk and semen merge, or as erotic snake passion cooled by milk. In either case non-sexual virility is the dominant motif in a wrestler’s life. On Nag Panchami when wrestlers mix buttermilk into the akhara earth, when they play “in their mother’s lap,” and when they show off their nurtured bodies, they are, in essence, dramatizing the efficacy of celibacy. In their own terms they are enacting what it means to feed milk to snakes.