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.