Why you should care
Because this is the gym before there were gyms.
Early morning, dirt, skin, sweat and muscle. So much muscle. This is what comprises dawn for the gentlemen of the Ram Singh Akhara, an organization devoted to teaching north India’s age-old, Persian-influenced grappling-style wrestling to the next generation. Here in the holy city of Varanasi, at least a hundred or so wrestlers at Ram Singh are continuing a tradition — known as kushti — that threatens to be forgotten as modern gym workouts encroach.
Baghu Yadav, 55, is the venerable ustaad, or teacher, at the akhara, and he’s been fighting for 20 years. A hefty paunch bulges out over his attire, which is almost like a Speedo … only covering a lot less. According to tradition, my photographer, Smita, and I are not supposed to be here — it is, giggle, indecent for young ladies to witness so much male flesh. But the gents are unperturbed by our presence; one remarks that a girl wrestles with them on occasion, though she’s not very good. From his position by the arena, a square covered area with a coughing dirt floor, Yadav gestures to a small altar as he explains the game. He’s pointing to the monkey god Hanuman, Lord Rama’s intrepid accomplice in the epic the Ramayana, and the patron of kushti wrestlers. Each boy I speak with this afternoon is keen to endorse Hanuman. “Bahut, bahut maanta hoon,” many say — “I very, very much believe.”
Those who prefer the gym to the ring are those who “just want to look like the film-y guys.”
Yadav teaches at Ram Singh seven days a week, from 6 to 10 in the morning, and 6 to 11:30 at night. “You come even when you are tired,” he says. Turnout this morning is low; floods from the overspilling Ganges are keeping some men away. Those who have made it are warming up and performing the exercises that occur concomitantly with fighting: clambering up a rope that hangs from a tree, doing pullups, bicep curls and shoulder presses and staring at themselves in the mirror a good bit.
Baghu’s top fighter is Rahul Yadav (no relation). The 26-year-old holds the gold medal in the state of Uttar Pradesh in his weight class (around 165 pounds). Though Rahul has been sidelined by a fracture, he’s hungry to get back into it. He found himself at the akhara 12 years ago thanks to his dad, a longtime fighter who wrestled seriously while running a cycle stand during the day. It’s a similar story for 28-year-old Raj Pandey, who’s studying commerce and hopes to become a police officer — he figured the wrestling would whip him into shape.
Many young men can’t make the time to train, though, precisely because of an increasing culture of professionalization. And already, the historical version of kushti seems far away. In the olden days, men lived together to train, and followed strict rules: no drinking, no smoking and no ladies. Like many other Indian fighting systems, it was a fully prescribed way of life, offering training for the mind and body alike. Today, some men still follow careful diets and regimens beyond their morning training, drinking one or two liters of milk a day. Like Sanjay Kumar Gupta, 43, who also runs. But Gupta has got himself quite a belly, which doesn’t appear to trouble him. Kushti, he says, is about strength. Those who prefer the gym to the ring are those who “just want to look like the film-y guys.” For his part, he just wants to throw down.