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The Discipline of the Wrestler’s Body
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My purpose here is to analyze the underlying structure of a wrestling diet as a regimen of health. I will show how wrestling dietetics is not only structured in terms of nutrition as a biochemical function but how it is also conceptualized in terms of moral values. In keeping with the general purpose of this chapter I will show how the disciplinary regimen of diet structures the wrestler’s identity as a dimension of his overall health.

Wrestlers are distinguished not so much by what they eat as how much they eat. They are reputed to drink buckets of milk, eat kilograms of almonds, and devour large quantities of ghi per day. However, wrestlers eat many other things as well. Milk, ghi, and almonds only comprise the wrestler’s specialized diet referred to as khurak. Like everyone else, wrestlers also eat vegetables, lentils, grains, fruit, nuts, and other items. With regard to the wrestler’s dietary regimen what is significant is how each type of food is conceptualized within the larger matrix of diet, and how these concepts are applied to the discipline of wrestling.

According to Hindu philosophy, people are divided into three categories based on their overall spiritual cum moral disposition: sattva (calm/good), rajas (passionate/active), and tamas (dull/lethargic). In Ayurvedic theory all food categories are similarly classified ( Khare 1976; Beck 1969). The basic logic of this scheme is that a sattva person will tend to eat sattva food. However, a person can, through design or by accident, change his or her disposition through eating food of a different category.) Khare (1976: 84) and others (Daniel 1984: 184–186; Kakar 1982: 268–270) have cautioned against a too-rigid application of this paradigm of food types to personality disposition. Although both derive from a common base, Ayurvedic healing theory finds application in the manipulation of diet, whereas the philosophical typology of physiology is largely a classificatory scheme. As Daniel has pointed out, the Ayurvedic paradigm is a flexible continuum of tendencies—more or less sattva, more or less tamas—rather than a strict scheme of absolute rules.

For the wrestler the Ayurvedic paradigm provides the basic logic for a very simple rule. Because wrestlers exercise vigorously and therefore heat up their bodies they must eat cool sattva foods in order to foster a calm, peaceful, relaxed disposition. Wrestlers do not always agree on the relative properties of specific foods. Although most will agree on whether something is hot or cold they will often disagree on which of two closely related food types is cooler or hotter than the other. For instance, butter is thought by some to be cooler than ghi. Chicken is thought to be cooler than mutton, but, like all meat, extremely hot as a general rule. The nature of milk is somewhat problematic; cow’s milk tends to be regarded as cooler than buffalo milk, but both are regarded as very sattva on the whole. In order to see how wrestlers conceptualize their diet—which is to say how they work through the particular implications of both nutrition and moral disposition—it is necessary to look at some foods in detail.

Milk and Ghi

In every sense, milk and ghi are the two most important ingredients in a wrestler’s diet. Although he cannot live on ghi and milk alone, a wrestler constructs his diet around them. Generally speaking, they are regarded as the most sattva of sattva foods. Ghi in particular imparts long life, wisdom, strength, health, happiness, and love (Atreya 1984: 21). Because of its eminently unctuous quality, ghi draws out the juices from other foods. It is in this capacity that ghi is able to produce resilient semen. As Atreya points out, eggs produce semen as well, but because eggs are not unctuous in the same way as ghi, their semen and strength flow out of the body as fast as they are produced (ibid: 23). Eggs are also tamas. One of the main virtues of ghi is that while it mixes with and draws out the properties of other foods, it does not lose its own properties through the process of digestion. Its sattva nature remains dominant and resilient.

Ghi is good for nearly everything (Ramsanehi Dixit 1967b). It serves as a perfect, natural health tonic. It may be consumed in any number of ways. Atreya outlines the ways in which it is most beneficial for wrestlers:

  1. After exercise, place as much ghi as you are accustomed to drinking in a pan. Cover this pan with a fine cloth and sprinkle ground-sugar candy on it. Then take some milk and pour it through the cloth into the pan with the ghi. Drink this mixture.

    There are a number of variations on this basic prescription. All entail the use of various specific, medicinal, tonic digestive powders referred to generically as churan. In all such prescriptions, churan, ground pepper, milk, ghi, and honey are mixed together in various proportions. Milk is always the final ingredient and is mixed in with the other items (Atreya 1984: 28).

  2. After exercise, take powdered black pepper and mix it in with as much ghi as you are accustomed to drinking. Heat the ghi to a point where it is compatible with your strength (the “heat” referred to here is not only the temperature of the ghi but its latent energy as well). Drink the ghi in its melted form.

    There are a number of variations on this prescription as well. Many of the same churan digestives are employed. The main distinguishing feature of this prescription is that milk is not mixed with the ghi.

  3. In its melted form ghi is also consumed with food. It may be drunk before the regular meal or mixed in with lentils and vegetables or poured on bread and rice.
  4. One of the best ways to take ghi in your diet is to mix it with dried, powdered nuts and grains. Basically anything which is dry in nature—dry in the sense of being non-unctuous—can be mixed with ghiin this way. Take whatever it is that you wish to mix—almonds, chana, dried peas, pistachios—and grind them into a fine powder. Put this powder into an iron skillet and brown it over a fire. Add some water and continue cooking the mixture until about 150 grams of water remains. Take the iron skillet off the fire and heat up as much ghi as you are accustomed to drinking. Once this is hot, remove it from the fire, take the powdered mixture and add it to the ghi so that it is lightly and quickly browned. Drink/eat this mixture after you have finished your exercise regimen.
  5. In the evening, take your usual quantity of milk and warm it. Add to this as much ghi as you are accustomed to drinking. Allow this mixture to form into yogurt through the addition of the correct culture. Drink this yogurt after your morning exercises. Be sure not to add any water.
  6. Grind almonds and black pepper together with some water. Heat up as much ghi as you wish to drink and then add the almond paste to the ghi. Add some sugar and drink this mixture.
  7. Mix together equal parts ghi, gur (hard molasses), and besan (chickpea) flour. Eat this mixture as a snack after exercise.
  8. Mix as much ghi as you wish to drink with as much warm milk as you are able to drink. Consume this after exercise. This is different from the other prescriptions in that no digestive tonics are mixed with the milk and ghi (Atreya 1984: 30–33).

In addition to having ghi mixed into it, milk is drunk on its own. Some wrestlers argue that raw milk is best, but others claim that milk must first be boiled. Milk can be processed in various ways in order to make it more or less unctuous. In this way a wrestler can manipulate his diet in order to accommodate the variability of his digestive health. For instance, he may extract much of the butter and drink a low-fat form of milk to which might be added sugar, molasses, or salt. Alternatively, he might add yogurt to the milk and make a kind of high-fat milkshake, lassi, to which might be added fruit, nuts, or cream. Vedi, who has written on the various beneficial properties of lassi, buttermilk, and yogurt, observes, “Cool, fresh drinks play an invaluable role in keeping down the heat which is generated by the active body. Cool liquids [such as milk and lassi] penetrate to the innermost parts of the body and draw out heat in the form of sweat and urine. Of all liquids, milk and lassi are two in which Indians place a great deal of faith” (1973: 17).


Whereas ghi produces generalized physical strength, almonds are regarded by wrestlers as a primary source of dam kasi (stamina) and speed (Ramsanehi Dixit n.d.). Almonds are prepared by mashing them into a paste and mixing this paste with milk or ghi. One wrestler explained that almonds impart stamina and strength because they produce energy but are not filling.


While dried peas, chickpeas, and lentils are commonplace items in Indian cooking, they are also accorded a special place in the dietetics of Indian wrestling. Because almonds are so expensive (75 rupees per kilogram in 1987), chana is regarded by many wrestlers as the poor man’s almond substitute. One of the most common tonic snacks taken by wrestlers is made of sprouted chickpeas.

Chickpeas are soaked overnight in warm water and are then hung in a loose cloth in a warm place. Once these peas sprout, wrestlers eat them with salt, pepper, and lemon. In addition to being a source of energy, strength and stamina, chana is also sattva by nature. Not incidentally, chickpeas prepared in this way are used as the basic prasad food offered to Hanuman and other gods on special days of worship.

The water in which the prasad is soaked is also regarded as saturated with the energy of the sprouted peas. When drunk, this water purifies the blood and also increases one’s strength and store of semen (Saksena 1972: 17).

Many wrestlers feel that chana is saturated with all kinds of beneficial attributes. Western nutritional information has served to substantiate the overall value of chana as a source of vitamins. It is regarded as a source of energy and strength in part because it is so common and cheap. The idea is that everyone can afford chana and therefore everyone can be strong and healthy. Saksena writes:

In this modern age it is difficult for the common man to receive the requisite daily allowance of vitamins. On account of this, the common man has become weak and a victim of disease. It is sad that we have turned away from chana, a cheap but nevertheless very healthy food. We have turned to Western tonics and medicines which are packaged in attractive containers and advertized everywhere. Who will advertise the properties of chana when the rich feel that it is a food fit only for animals!? (1972: 18)

Many wrestlers with whom I spoke said that when they were young and poor—and most of them emphasized that they were poor, and that being poor and strong was a virtue—they could afford to eat only a handful of chana to supplement their regular meals. On this handful of chana, however, they were able to build their bodies and generally develop their health and vitality. Even though ghi, milk, and almonds are regarded as essential to a wrestler’s overall development, chana is accorded high rank. It is the food of the people and for the people, a food that potentially gives everyone access to the wrestler’s health and strength.

Fruits and Juices

All kinds of fruit and fruit juices are regarded as efficacious by wrestlers. The general rule is to eat whatever fruit is in season, and these are most beneficial when taken after regular meals. One should not drink fruit juice for at least two hours after exercising. One can, however, drink orange or lemon juice before one’s morning regimen. Not all fruits possess the same qualities, nor is it clear exactly which properties of a fruit are regarded as particularly efficacious by wrestlers. Generally, however, fruits contain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients which can benefit a wrestler’s health. Moreover, fruit is eminently sattva.

In the journal Bharatiya Kushti the following fruits are recommended for having particularly valuable attributes: wood-apples (Kamal 1971), bananas Vishwakarma 1974; A. K. Jain 1987), figs (Rajani 1974), pomegranates (Anonymous 1978), gooseberries Rajesh Dixit n.d.; Jaini 1979; d the body are intrinsically linked to one another ( Tripathi 1981), lemons (Lal 1985), watermelons (Sundaracharya 1986a), and apples (Yogi 1986). The wood-apple, for instance, is regarded as a cure for stomach ailments and digestive problems and a remedy for sore throat and tired eyes. Mixed with honey, its juice is used to treat hepatitis. Most significantly, wood-apple is very cooling. During the summer months it is used by wrestlers as a refreshment. Similarly, orange juice is regarded as a potent tonic during the summer season. Wrestlers tend to become listless on account of exercising in the oppressive heat. Although there is not a direct correlation between air temperature, personal characteristic traits, and food classification, wrestlers tend to associate hot weather with a “hot” rajas disposition. Cooling sattva orange juice is just the thing for a hot day.

Speaking specifically about rose-apples, but implicitly about all fruit, H. Jain writes, “One will find that this fruit is very delicious. It makes the body feel light, fresh and calm. Sherbet made from the rose-apple is very cooling and it has many other attributes, one of which is that it imparts strength” (1973: 17).

Regular or Common Food

Wrestlers are enjoined to eat various green vegetables not only because they contain vitamins and minerals but also because they are sattva in nature (Sundaracharya 1984: 45–51). Along with green vegetables, wrestlers may eat almost anything else that constitutes the average North Indian meal: lentils of various types; breads made of whole wheat, barley, and millet flour; rice (though in moderate proportions, for it is thought to have little nutritional value); potatoes; and other vegetables, such as cauliflower, squash, and turnips. Although these items are essential to a wrestler’s health, wrestlers do not emphasize the importance of these foods when discussing their diet. Such foods—with the notable exception of chana—are mundane by virtue of their common, everyday usage and are therefore not elaborated upon in the conceptual framework of wrestling dietetics.

Volume: Ghi, Milk, and Almonds

All wrestling foods are sattva. But these foods also have other properties. Milk, for instance, helps clean out the stomach. Chana also cleans the stomach and the bowels. Vegetables provide roughage. Fruit is cooling and refreshing. Ghi, chana, milk, fruits, and vegetables all have particular healing properties which do not relate specifically to the wrestling regimen but nevertheless support more general correlations of diet with health. Thus, milk in any quantity is both sattva and a mild laxative. Ghi is sattva and can also help cure coughs, colds, and other ailments. All of these features add up to a generalized notion of good health.

Healing properties aside, wrestlers drink and eat huge volumes of ghi, milk, and almonds. It is on this level of quantity that food becomes more than just healthy: it becomes associated with physical mass and brute strength. On one level a wrestler may eat a small amount of ghi in order to maintain his sattva disposition. On this level ghi is taken as a tonic. However, by eating a large volume of ghi, say half to one liter, a wrestler can take advantage of the ghi’s high fat content and increase his size and weight. Wrestlers tend to increase the volume of consumption in proportion to the number of exercises they do in their vyayam regimen. There is no simple equation for this but wrestlers who do 1,500 dands and 3,000 bethaks consume about half a liter of ghi and two liters of milk per day. Since the amount of milk, ghi, and almonds one can eat is a direct reflection of one’s strength, wrestlers tend to eat increasingly larger quantities of these items. In many respects being able to eat and digest half a liter of ghi per day is regarded as a kind of exercise in its own right. One must work up to this volume gradually. It is said that Sadhiki Pahalwan, a great wrestler of the late nineteenth century, consumed a canister (five kilograms) of ghi per day.

Wrestlers realize that eating milk, ghi, and almonds makes them big and strong. However, the relationship between diet and size is not one of simple cause and effect. Therefore, when a wrestler talks about being able to eat large volumes of ghi, milk, and almonds it is primarily because he is big and strong and not because he seeks to become big and strong.

Diet is only one factor in a wrestler’s overall development. As I was often told, some people can eat huge amounts of food and remain thin and weak while others eat very little and get fat. In order to become big and strong enough to eat large volumes of food one must exercise properly, be devoted to one’s guru, pray to god, and, most significantly, have a calm, peaceful, and spiritual disposition.

Seasonal Variation

Mujumdar suggests that one’s diet must change according to the season (1950: 684–688). In my experience, few wrestlers actually change their diet in any dramatic way. There is some tendency to eat rajas and tamas foods in winter, and extra-sattva foods in the summer. For instance, urad, a lentil which is regarded to be quite hot, is thought of as a winter food. The same holds true for meat. Wrestlers who eat meat tend to eat less or abstain altogether in the summer.

In an article entitled “How to Stay Healthy During the Rainy Season,” Pathak (1980) advocates the use of lemons, bananas, and leafy vegetables. He also suggests that during the rains digestion tends to weaken and that consequently people should eat less. It is interesting to note that the Malla Purana provides a fairly precise catalog of which foods to eat in each season of the year (Sandesara and Mehta 1964: 10). In general “heavy” foods are eaten in the winter and “lighter” foods in the summer, but it seems that most foods can be taken in either season, only in larger or smaller quantities.

For the most part, however, only the fringe items—fruits, lentils, vegetables—of a wrestler’s diet change from one season to the next. The staples remain constant although the amount of milk and ghi may be reduced during the rains and increased in the winter months.

Dietary Prohibitions

There are very few foods that wrestlers are prohibited from eating. Many Hindu wrestlers advocate a vegetarian diet. In the journal Bharatiya Kushti and in other popular literature there are numerous articles which claim that a non-meat diet can produce a strong physique ( M. R. Gupta 1973; Guru Hanuman 1984; R. K. Jain 1987; Kumawath 1987; Munna 1983Sundaracharya 1984). An article in the Hindustan Times characterized Chandagi Ram, the national champion, as being “ninety kilograms of vegetarian muscle” (1969: 2). The argument of those who advocate a purely vegetarian diet is that a combination of grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables not only produces a solid, big physique, but also keeps that physique cool and unagitated.

But vegetarianism is by no means a strict rule. While meat is regarded as rajas in nature, wrestlers who eat meat tend to rationalize this. They argue that one can eat meat and to some extent avoid the consequences. The trick is to neutralize the rajas nature of meat by some form of counteractivity. I was not able to determine what these counteractivities were. However, many wrestlers implied that meat would only aggravate one’s passion if one were “naturally” predisposed towards excitability, anger, and hypertension. Thus anyone who ate meat could, and often did, argue that they were so sattva by nature that meat did not adversely affect them. Moreover, by virtue of their naturally aggressive “military” disposition, Rajputs are thought to thrive on meat (cf. Staal 1983–1984; Seesodia 1915; Steed 1955). Some Rajput wrestlers argue that meat is good for them because they should, in a sense, eat what they are.

For wrestlers, vegetarianism is not so much a moral issue—in the sense of being a more “sanskritized,” nonviolent way to live—as it is an issue of personal disposition and predilection. People choose to eat meat or not eat meat on the degree to which they see it affecting their state of body/mind.

As a rule wrestlers do not drink liquor or smoke tobacco. Liquor is extremely hot and is thought to enrage passion and make one dull, listless, and weak. Moreover, intoxication is a sure sign of moral depravity and lack of willpower. Even more so than meat, it is regarded as ultrahot and may be classified as the antithesis of ghi. Liquor is the essence of evil just as milk is the elixir of life, and wrestlers attribute many modern problems to the growing popularity of alcohol. In a sense, liquor serves as the black backdrop against which the virtues of a milk and ghi diet stand out in pure, sharp relief. This important point will be taken up again when the issue of moral nationalism is considered in chapter 10.

Tobacco is regarded in much the same way as liquor: it is hot. Its use is also a sure a sign of moral weakness. Moreover, it is thought to make the body vulnerable to disease. Wrestlers realize that among other things smoking reduces their lung capacity and overall performance.

Caffeine, ingested in the form of tea, is regarded by wrestlers as a mild but dangerous narcotic. As such it is juxtaposed against purer, more efficacious drinks like warm milk, sherbet, fruit juice, thandai, and pure, fresh water.

Strictly speaking, wrestlers are supposed to eat only what has been prepared for them by their family or what they have cooked with their own hands. The idea behind this, as Atreya pointed out, is that psycho-emotional disposition is thought to be mildly contagious. An erotic woman can seduce a man by feeding him food that she has prepared. Similarly, if a man who is sexually aroused cooks food, the wrestler who eats it might also become sexually excited. As a safeguard, wrestlers are enjoined not to eat any food which is prepared for public sale. In fact, however, this rule is rarely if ever observed. I have never met a wrestler, with the exception of Atreya himself, who does not eat food prepared in market stalls or restaurants.

Wrestlers are supposed to avoid sour and excessively spiced foods. Meals are best eaten lightly spiced with garlic, cumin, coriander, and haldi. Chatnis (spicy syrups), achars (pickled spices, vegetables and roots), chats (savories), and pickles in any form are thought to cause either sensual arousal or lethargy. As with meat, however, many wrestlers rationalize the occasional use of pickles by saying that they have a surplus of sattva nature and can therefore accommodate and neutralize the occasional pickle or plate of savory chat.

As a rule wrestlers do not chew tobacco or pan (a mildly intoxicating betel nut, betel leaf, and lime-paste concoction.) However, pan is so prevalent in Banaras, where chewing it is regarded almost as a criterion of Banarsi identity, that many wrestlers indulge themselves. Even those wrestlers who chew it, however, say that it is wrong because it is addicting and dulls the senses. However, it is so common as to be almost regarded as a necessary evil of social life.

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