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.