Kushti in India
Kushti is a traditional form of Indian mud wrestling, an ancient culture where wrestlers live and train together and follow strict rules on living a pure life. Drinking, smoking and even sex are off limits.
For more pictures check out the gallery "Kushti in India".
The wrestlers live, practice and sleep together in an akhara (or akhada). In Maharashtra the akharas are called talim. The akhara is a place to practice Kushti with facilities for sleeping, cooking and training. Smaller ahkaras host around 20 or 30 wrestlers, whereas big akharas form a community of up to hundred wrestlers. The age of the mud wrestlers range from seven or eight to mid-twenties. The wrestlers come from across all India. Many of them have been away from their families virtually all their life. They consider the community in the akhara as their family. Many of the boys come from poor families and Kushti is a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty.
Traditional mud wrestlers are referred as pehlwans, the teachers in an akhara are called ustad. The athletes are not required to be vegetarians and they are allowed to eat chicken and eggs. The diet is also heavily based on crushed almonds, milk and ghee, which is referred as "khurak", the holy trinity of the wrestler's diet. In addition to it the pehlwans also eat vegetables, rice, lentils and fruit.
The community life and the strict rules in an akhara resemble slightly the daily life of monks in a monastery, except for the missing praying and meditation. Although traditional mud wrestlers follow strict rules to live a pure life, they are athletes and fighters to compete with each other on clay pits in their akharas or on tournaments. The wrestlers have to follow a daily routine. They get up very early and the first practice in the morning starts at around six o'clock. The athletes wrestle for several hours, but the practice also includes weight lifting and hundreds of push-ups. Sleeping is also an important part of the wrestler's day and it is common for them to sleep the whole afternoon. The second practice of the day usually starts in the afternoon at around four o'clock.
The center of the akhara is the clay pit. The square pit is filled with specially prepared oil-soaked clay soil. The wrestlers spread the clay soil on their bodies before they start the practice or a fight. The soil on the bodies improves the grip during a fight. Another part of the akhara is the gym. For the daily workout the wrestlers use traditional Indian clubs like the gada and the jori. A gada is a heavy round stone attached to the end of a long bamboo stick. Rope climbing and lifting stones are also part of the training. However, more and more modern training tools like dumbbells or training benches find their way into the akharas.
The wrestlers worship the monkey god Hanuman. Hanuman helped rescue Rama's wife Sita from the demon Ravana and he flew to the Himalayas and carried back a mountain with medicinal herbs to save Laksmana, Rama's brother. Hanuman symbolizes strength and fearlessness and the wrestlers pray to him before every practice.
Kushti is over 3,000 years old and is practiced all over India, but also in Pakistan and Iran. Akharas can be found in rural areas as well as in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata. However, Kushti is under threat because many of the wrestlers abandon the traditional mud pits to wrestle on foam mats and train in modern gyms. Mumbai once had over 50 traditional akharas, only a handful survived. Kushti is still popular in Maharashtra, especially Kolhapur and Pune, and many akharas with traditional mud pits continue to exist in and around these cities.