Akhara Membership and Affiliation
Akhara membership is nearly impossible to determine in any objective empirical sense. Most akhara elders with whom I spoke claimed that their “irregular membership”—those who come when they have time but do not follow a strict regime of exercise—numbered in the hundreds. Some elders generalized to the point of saying that everyone in their proximal neighborhood was in theory an akhara member. Moreover, a number of people claimed membership in one akhara or another on the basis of very casual and circuitous association: friends of friends, neighbors, or hyperextended kinship.
The larger akharas—Ram Singh, Bara Ganesh, Swaminath, and Gaya Seth—estimate that their regular membership is between sixty and seventy. However, on any one day there are between twenty-five and thirty wrestlers who attend morning practice (see plate 12). At the smaller akharas—Ram Kund, Ishvarigangi, Ram Sevak, Sant Ram, and Ragunath Maharaj—regular membership is between forty and fifty, with fifteen to twenty wrestlers attending on any one day. My use of the term “member” refers to anyone who comes to an akhara regularly, however “regularly” may be defined. It is a purposefully vague formulation and is in keeping with the attitude of most wrestlers. An example will help illustrate this point.
The akhara with which I affiliated is formally known by the title Antrashtriya, Sarwajanik Akhara Ram Singh (The International, Public Akhara Ram Singh) which appears in bold blue letters on the pavilion’s entablature. One year when the akhara was repainted there was serious disagreement as to whether the word “public” (sarwajanik) ought to be part of the official name. Most members say that an akhara is eminently public and that this should be made explicit. Many members are proud of the fact that anyone can come to their akhara. Exercise, they argue, is something that ought not to be restricted through exclusive membership. However, even those who aspire to such high ideals of egalitarian inclusiveness recognize that in some Hindu akharas Muslims and untouchables are either overtly excluded or covertly discriminated against. One can say that the problematic meaning of the term “public” is derived from the juxtaposition of a general ethic of equality set over and against social exclusiveness and caste chauvinism. The reason a number of akhara members were against including the word “public” in the title was that it would reify a comfortably ambiguous situation. Those in favor wanted to preempt that ambiguity by formalizing an ideal of total inclusiveness. In the end the word “public” was painted on the entablature, which played no small role in the trials and tribulations of a not-quite-postpositivist ethnographer’s search for demographic statistics. “Just how many wards do you have, Guru ji?” I asked. And he replied, “Who knows, my son, it is a public place.”
Although membership is free and easy, an initiation ceremony formally inducts a novice wrestler into an akhara. The ritual of initiation varies from one akhara to another but is generally as follows. After attending an akhara for some time the guru will tell a wrestler that it is time for his initiation. On the appointed day the young wrestler brings with him a new langot, a sapha (head cloth/turban), prasad (usually in the form of laddus made of besan [chickpea flour] and sugar), paraffin or oil, cotton to make a wick for the prayer lamp, and a garland of flowers to place around the image of Hanuman. After practice the sapha and langot are offered to the guru along with cash. The sum is usually eleven rupees but any multiple of ten plus one is acceptable. The guru then takes the garland and lights the lamp after placing the prasad in front of the figure of Hanuman. The initiate is asked to honor Lord Hanuman and to swear allegiance to the akhara and the founding guru. The prasad is then taken and distributed among the other members of the akhara. The conclusion and most important part of the ceremony is when five laddus are taken and buried in the four corners and center of the pit. There is no drama associated with this rite. The whole event is rather low-key and does not seem to mark a dramatic change of status. The initiate still comes to the akhara as before and there are no privileges attached to initiated membership. Indeed, the distinction between one who has and one who has not been initiated is rarely made. Initiation does establish a bond between guru and chela. Although a guru will instruct an uninitiated member, it is said that a person can only really understand what a guru is telling him after having been initiated. Initiation is not a marker of membership in any empirical sense, but it effects a bond of respect and obligation between teacher and disciple.