Tulsi Akhara: Fight Club of Varanasi

The wrestling rink at Tulsi Akhara 
The sun rises gently over the horizon and casts its deep reflections on the river Ganga a few minutes past seven. For many, it is the rise of yet another day in the ancient city of Varanasi. This morning, I am curious to explore the Tulsi Akhara in Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi to observe the morning routine of pehelwans (wrestlers). Nervous and excited, I walk in to the Swaminath Akhara in Tulsi Ghat and I greet Pehelwan Siyaramji with a namaste. He lights an incense stick and places it near the feet of the ochre-coloured idol of Bajrangbali (Hanuman, an ardent devotee of Lord Rama and one of the central characters in the Ramayana).

Akharas (wrestling clubs) are the original gymnasiums of India, often to show their wrestling prowess. “A regular day in the akhara begins at six am with dand baithaks (sit-ups) or jori phirna (turning around a pair of wooden cylinders tapering at one end, filled usually with iron or concrete). This is followed by yoga routines such as the suryanamaskar (obeisance to the sun and yoga warm up routine) and push-ups,” says Pehelwan Siyaramji, as he introduces me to the yoga instructor Subhashji. By now, there are about 20 men, of all ages, in the akhara wearing just a red loincloth.
Two wrestlers enter the muddy rink and prostrate at the mud. The fight among them begins with a loud roar of “Jai Bajrangbali” (Victory to Hanuman). While the game is in progress, Siyaramji urges his men to keep their calm and instead, concentrate on the heat produced in the body. 

A young wrestler has lost his balance and Siyaramji brings him under the shade of the peepal tree and applies mud on his body. He then asks him to wait until it dries on his body. Reacting to the surprise on my face, he smiles and says, “The mitti (mud) here resembles the bhasma (ash) on Baba Vishwanathji’s (Lord Shiva) body. In every akhara, the mitti is smooth and soft, having been brought specially from the river below. The mitti is a natural remedy for sprains and wounds. Sometimes, we add haldi (turmeric), kachchi ghani tel (mustard oil), salt and lemon juice, with camphor thrown in for fragrance.” The mud in the wrestling rink is often sourced from the Ganga or brought from nearby villages. It is then mixed with curd, mustard oil, turmeric and neem leaves to infuse it with therapeutic properties so that wrestlers are not vulnerable to infections or cold.

Sensing my discomfort of sitting on the floor, yoga instructor Acharya Subhashji asks me to stand on one foot with my hands joined in a namaste pose above my head. This, he says, will lead to an improvement in posture. He further urges me to sit on the floor often to minimise knee and joint pains. Sitting on the floor, he says, leads to the straightening of the back and the spinal chord.

 In Hindu traditions, Ahiravana (Ravana’s brother) abducted Rama and Lakshmana and took them to the subterranean realms of the universe. Hanuman, the son of wind promptly followed to rescue them. At the entrance, Hanuman was stopped by a child named Makardhwaja who bore the face of a part monkey and a part reptile. The young Makardhwaja challenges Hanuman to a fight in which Hanuman emerges victorious. Rescuing Rama and Lakshmana, Hanuman wanted to meet Makardhwaja’s parents. Makardhwaja reveals his father’s name as Hanuman. A shocked Hanuman said that he is celibate. Makardhwaja recounts Hanuman’s journey when he was flying back from Lanka after setting the city ablaze, a drop of his sweat fell in the ocean. A crocodile swallowed it, leading to Makardhwaja’s birth. In Hindu iconography, Makardhwaja is represented as a part monkey and a part reptile. The wrestling match between Makardhwaja and Hanuman is one of the main reasons why every akhara sports either a photograph or an idol of Hanuman and all wrestlers identify with the devotee of Lord Rama, who being the son of wind, is also associated with immense strength.

Wrestling, as a sport, has been found in the Ramayana and Mahabharata through characters like Vali, Angad, Hanuman, Jarasandha, Bhima and Kamsa. It is only around the 14th century, there is a book titled “Malla Purana” which is often considered as the manual for every wrestler. The text outlines the composition of a wrestler, the diet of a wrestler and ways to keep him fit among others. Around the same time, India also came in contact with the Mughals. Babur brought with him central Asian styles of wrestling. However, it is during the reign of Akbar that central Asian styles merged with the Indian ones, thereby evolving into a new form of wrestling called kushti, from the Persian word “kusht”, to wrestle.

Visiting the akhara was a very humbling experience as it allowed me to revisit traditional Indian systems of knowledge and fitness. As the sun rays get stronger, the wrestlers come back to rest under the shade of the peepal tree. Adjusting their red langots (loincloths) and gamchhas (scarves), they sip water while Pehelwan Siyaramji crushes neem leaves with a sculpted stone and mixes it with spices to prepare bhang. Bhang is prepared from the cannabis plant and is a special favourite in Varanasi. When consumed, it results in a spirit of mauj (carefree attitude). It can be had in many forms, the most common being thandai (an Indian cold drink prepared with almonds, fennel seeds, rose petals, pepper, cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar). Pehelwan Siyaramji offers me some in a big glass made of brass, which I politely refuse.

It is now nearing 10 am and the wrestlers chant “Jai Bajrangbali”, the last for the day, as they disband and disappear into the crowds of the city to return to their daily grind of life.


Vinitha said…
Lovely writeup. Very visual and written well
Nicely worded and very informative...
Nicely worded and very informative...

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