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Discovering India's wrestling roots

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Tom Fordyce | 06:06 UK time, Saturday, 9 October 2010

It is just after dawn inside a walled compound in Old Delhi. To one side is a shed-sized temple to the Hindu god Hanuman, surrounded by shady jamun trees; beyond that the sandy banks of the grey-green greasy Yamuna river. In the middle, inside a squat concrete bunker, a group of stocky, sweating Indians are throwing each other around like rag dolls.

This is the Chandgi Ram wrestling club, the Delhi equivalent to the Thomas a Beckett boxing gym on London's Old Kent Road or Detroit's Kronk gym, a legendary production line that has produced some of the country's most decorated fighters.

I've left the spruced-up stadiums and endless security checkpoints behind to find the roots and reasons behind something that's been intriguing me all week: India's love of the grapple game.

Forget the hockey, or the tennis, certainly the athletics and even the shooting. The most popular sport at these Commonwealths so far has been wrestling; the most eagerly-anticipated appearance that of pugilistic pin-up boy and world champion Sushil Kumar on Sunday, seven days after he handed the Queen's baton to Prince Charles at the opening ceremony.

Tom Fordyce gets to grips with wrestling

Even with the wooden shutters pulled back, the main room is steaming. In the middle of it all, forearms like hawsers and ears as mangled as a prop-forward's, is Jagdish Kaliraman - five-time Indian champion, proud proprietor and central figure in one of India's key wrestling dynasties.

"My father was a legendary figure in the world of wrestling," he tells me, keeping an eye on his charges are they back-flip and handspring around the yellow, foam-padded floor. "He went to Olympic Games, won lots of international competitions and then founded this club. He used to say, 'God has sent me for one purpose: wrestling.'"

As the early-morning sun creeps through the open windows, a group of around 20 athletes sprint shuttle runs from wall to wall, running first, then rolling head over heels, then scampering on all fours. Chests heaving, they split into pairs and leapfrog each other across the room.

 

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"Wrestling is a traditional pastime in India, going back to ancient time - to the Ramayana and the Mahabharat, back to the Hindu gods," Jagdish tells me. "We have a great history of wrestling and a great appreciation of it."

It was a wrestler, in the shape of welterweight Rashid Anwar, who brought India its first ever Commonwealth medal, way back in 1934. Since then his country has won medals whenever wrestling has been in the programme; coming into these Games India had bagged six times as many golds as England in the sport.

The Chandgi Ram club has had a lot to do with that. In the 35 years since it was founded, the akhara has produced over 120 internationals and more than 500 national fighters.

As I watch from the doorway, the current crop are hard at work. Sweat darkens their t-shirts and old-school leotards. The sound of their pounding feet and panting breaths mixes with the honks of tuk-tuks on road outside.

"We have two types of fighters who train here - local wrestlers from Delhi, who come here at 4 o'clock in the morning, train for three hours and then go home to study or work, and then we have wrestlers from other states, who we provide accommodation for here," says Jagdish. "They live here permanently, and compete in national and international competitions.

"They come from all different parts of society, and from all different states. Some wrestlers are from Haryana, some from the Punjab, some from UP (Uttar Pradesh), some from Andhra Pradesh, some from Maharashtra. They have different languages, different cultures, different food. But here they train together, live together and accept that it is all teamwork."

Among the youngsters, throwing and grabbling with grunts of determination, are two girls. No special attention nor quarter is given or expected.

"We take up wrestling to build our self-confidence and to prove the point that they are not inferior to anyone," 17-year-old Sonika says, noting my surprise. "If I take a good heavy diet, it doesn't matter if I'm a girl or boy. I practise with both - if I practise with girls, I gain experience for my bouts, but if I fight with a boy, my power will increase."

"My family are very proud when they watch me compete and win. My mother is my pillar of strength. She supports me completely and accompanies me to all my competitions - she has learned a few techniques as well. She's scared about my injuries but is confident that I will do well and be successful.

"I want to make my parents and country proud. My dream is to compete in the Olympic Games."

I head outside for some fresh air and take a stroll around the back of the building. There, with the Yamuna river shimmering through the bushes, I am confronted by a truly remarkable sight.

In a mud pit roughly the size of a badminton court, two massive men in dun-coloured y-fronts are slowly circling, watched by an white-bearded coach wearing a pink wrap around his waist, slapping shoulders in an attempt to get a hold and then falling into the dirt.

This is kushti - the traditional Indian wrestling that has been a sporting staple for thousands of years. Even now it provides a schooling for its modern-day freestyle and Greco-Roman equivalents.

A diminutive chap who looks a little like a bulked-up Ossie Ardiles watches on beside me. It is Kripa Shankar, Indian wrestling superstar, winner of Commonwealth bronze in 1994 and the much-coveted Arjuna Award in 2002.

"Traditional wrestling is even more popular than the Olympic style," he says. "It's part of human nature - the instinct to fight, the desire to stay ahead."

He beckons me back inside and into the middle of the matting. It appears he expects me to join him for a grapple.

This is an unexpected and somewhat unwelcome development. He is wearing an India national vest; I am wearing board-shorts. He has been wrestling for 28 years; I haven't got stuck in since triumphantly seeing off my big sister at the age of eight.

Jagdish chuckles as the other wrestlers take advantage of the break in training to secure viewpoints leaning against the walls, leaving smears of sweat all over the plastic flooring.

"To be a great wrestler, it's a combination," he advises me. "Technique, the explosive power, the coordination of the muscles and the psychological fact of being really strong. You have to believe that no-one is better than you."

It's a nice idea, but one that is hard to take on board. I am making my wrestling debut against one of the most decorated fighters India has produced. The room for optimism seems limited.

Perhaps sensing my discomfort, Kripa acts the perfect gentleman. Putting my shaking hands at advantageous places on his muscled frame, he obliging flips himself over my shoulder and hips again and again.

We both know he could tear me limb from limb if he so chose, casually snap my fingers as if they were Twiglets. We both know it, but only my face shows it.

"The Commonwealth Games will bring about a revolution in sport," he tells me later over a glass of water in Jagdish's adjoining house. "Before, some people associated wrestling with boxing or kabaddi, with violence and roughness. Not any longer."

And what of Sushil Kumar, whose 66kg freestyle competition takes place on Sunday?

"I'm confident Sushil will win the gold. Just look at his achievements in Olympics, Asian Games and World Championships.

"His success has changed the face of Indian wrestling. Now, every parent wants their child to be like Sushil Kumar."

Jagdish joins us. In a large cabinet by the sofa are housed his many wrestling trophies - big bronze pots, silver dishes, wooden plaques - plus those of his sister, also an Indian champion. High on the walls are black and white photos of their father Chandgi Ram.

"From childhood I was determined to become an international wrestler too," says Jagdish, looking up at the old images while bouncing his one-year-old son in his arms. "My father instilled the ambition in me that I should win medals; I started training at the age of six."

Indian wrestling coach Jagmender Singh targeted 14 medals at these Commonwealths. A gold for Sushil would take the roof off the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex.

"All the media and public focus and attention is on Sushil," admits Jagdish. "I'm expecting a very good fight, but a fight that ends with Sushil holding the gold medal."

When 72-year-old Chandgi Ram passed away earlier this year, Sushil Kumar was among the mourners at his funeral.

As I leave a few hours later, I spy a life-size photo of the great legend propped against the gym wall. In it he is posing on one knee, chiselled, with a mace - the weapon of Lord Hanuman - balanced insouciantly over his shoulder.

I make a mental promise. Come Sunday, my previous plans will go out of the window. Instead, I'll be in the stands for Sushil's big bouts in front of his home crowd.

Where else could I be?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    why did not bbc cover world championship ?

  • Comment number 2.

    where's the Great Kali? Proper wrestling.

  • Comment number 3.

    If you get a chance then try to go in Indian villages and small cities (e.g. Kolhapur or Satara districts in state of Maharashtra) to see the popularity of the game. Its still massive there.

    And finally some realistic sport journalism from non-Indian media, Thank you !

  • Comment number 4.

    Nice article. Kushti is massive in rural India, and it is good to see it getting some recognition on the International stage.

  • Comment number 5.

    good article.
    welcome relief to read something about the country's sporting tradition than the farce that it is organizing

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    I would like to congratulate the journalist for a good article but i can't, your slagging off of india has left a sour tatse and i can't help but think this is a journalist in retreat trying to come away from India without to much egg on his face.

  • Comment number 8.

    LegendaryRedorDead wrote [7]:

    "I would like to congratulate the journalist for a good article but i can't"

    ----------------

    Hmmm. Would it be unfair to speculate that your particular blinkers leave you as incapable of appreciating a positive story as they do of facing up to the truth of a negative one?

    Getting back to the Games: is anyone else as struck as I am by the vast haul of silver medals accrued by England? All the other top teams seem - as you might expect of a top team, I suppose - to have markedly more golds than silvers. But England's silver haul, by contrast, entirely dwarfs their gold.

    Could it be that there is some inbuilt feature of national character which compels them - out of courtesy of course - to let someone else finish first?

  • Comment number 9.

    At Last some thing about real sport.Very good

    Thank god there is some discussion about sport itself rather than about a controversy

  • Comment number 10.

    Great read Tom.

    Will the coaches be able to distract the referee long enough for the English wrestler to get a chair shot in?

  • Comment number 11.

    wrestling is not popular in south africa

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    Nice Tom, I appreciate your efforts mate. It is a story that I know and congratulate you on covering it beautifully. Hope after the games, you cover the game of hockey in Punjab. I can assure you that you will be left amazed by how much people love it and how they feel about hockey there.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi Tom,
    Happy to see you in the same color as of ongoing games.Bravo Bro keep up the spirits.

    Cheers

  • Comment number 16.

    I want to see womans wrestling. Is it included in this 2010 games.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi Tom,

    Very good article. When i was a kid i was taught that there are 4 traditional indian sports (mainly learnt by a warrior) which were archery, spear throwing, sword fighting and the best of them all was to be wrestling.

    Though as a kid i didnt leanr any of these!! I only hope this games (however farcical the organisation be) brings about a revolution in the mindset of the people in India and teach us to give the respect sports and sportsmen deserve in a society.

  • Comment number 18.

    the comments above reveal that yellow journalism can succeed only to a certain extent,before the journalist becomes a laughing stock.
    tom has lost all credibility with his previous articles , time to leave .

  • Comment number 19.

    There has not been a lot of wrestling on the BBC, my opinion it is because they do not have the people who know about the sport to be able to comment during live broadcast. They would not just want to show the wrestling without giving a commentary! thats why we just get the highlights!

    But English Wrestlers have been doing well, and you can read more about wrestling if you visit the Herculean sport blog:
    http://herculeansport.wordpress.com

    hopefully there will be more coverage on British Wrestling come London 2012!

  • Comment number 20.

    Nice turn of phrase, Tom. You make it sound like an Agatha Christie intrigue story. Yes, wrestling is very popular in these Northern parts of India.

    Traveling by train once from Ambala to Delhi I stood close the doorway to absorb some landscape and fresh air. I was among 4-5 strapping, young Haryanavi youths who were discussing wrestling (only). Believe me I was so absorbed and engrossed in their Pehalwani anecdotes and narratives that I forgot to go back to the A/C comfort of my cabin and nearly 3 hours that it took the train to reach Delhi went by in a jiffy. I noticed no 'landscape'.

    Today when I hear Kirpashankar commentate on the CG bouts I am constantly reminded of my train journey; same accent, same enthusiasm and expertise.

    Sushil Kumar's gold medal fight is the crowning event for the Indians. They do not contemplate anything less than a win. And a win it will be that brings total catharsis, a Nirvana for the now charged up Indian psyche.

    Yes, where else could you be?

  • Comment number 21.

    Very well written and investigated. Hats off to you Tom. Living in India I knew about our strong wrestling heritage and ancient roots, but reading about it from the point of view of an outsider is really great.

  • Comment number 22.

    Nice piece Tom. Crying out for some pix or a bit of video though...

  • Comment number 23.

    Hello gang - glad you enjoyed the tale. Just to let you know there's some video on its way - just being edited as I type, should be on the site and in this blog in an hour or two. Some nice footage of the kushti that should hopefully show you what it's like.

  • Comment number 24.

    Nice bit of "off the beaten track" sports journalism.

    Now can we expect something on kho-kho, kabaddi and gulli-danda as well please?!

  • Comment number 25.

    Sushil wins gold without losing a point .............

  • Comment number 26.

    Real-time update for you: GOLD for Sushil Kumar! Never in doubt...

  • Comment number 27.

    Hi Tom, I wonder if the Chandgi Ram wrestling club is justified in wasting their time wrestling and promoting this sport. That time and energy could be diverted at better causes like helping the poor people.

    Tom, seems like you are working up to please the readers who were highly disgruntled at one of your previous articles. Very bad journalism - cowing to pressure.

    ;-)

  • Comment number 28.

    @hari
    because the effort is not charity, its a club and it provides a service to people who want it and the people who want it pay for it so its self sufficient and does not need or provide charity. You make a lousy point.

    Seriously though, Sushil Kumar simply looks stronger, more confident and infinitely more intimidating than anyone he is in the ring with. Which, really is pretty amazing.

  • Comment number 29.

    @tenseiga
    I guess I didn't make the context of my comment clear. My comment about helping the poor people was just a taunt on one of Tom's previous article which contrasted the lavish spending on the opening ceremony with the dire poverty in which many Indians live (especially the poor that were displaced due to the CWG games). Like many readers, I think everything that India does should not be looked in the context of poverty. Yes, do criticize about policies for the uplift-ment of the poor, education, the inefficiency of the government (bribery, corruption, and especially in organizing CWG), etc. So, again, my comment was jut a taunt on Toms previous article.

  • Comment number 30.

    Nice one Tom. It is a breath of fresh air for most of us too to read something about sports. Keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 31.

    typical journalist,thinks he is clever and knows very well how to handil the people in India, I dont know what he is still doing in delhi,is he thinks people forgoten his last week blunder

  • Comment number 32.

    People take praise wonderfully well but not criticism. Its not always that the one pointing out your flaws is spouting hatred; the one flattering you may be taking you for a ride too. Aphorisms, but I do feel the journalist under the microscope has keen observational faculty and some courage of conviction to go with its sharing.

    Let us make up our mind what we'd rather have.

    Sushil Kumar's gold medal was no less pleasing than India routing Pakistan in hockey. The manner of the two wins were aesthetically remarkable. Both made me feel proud to be an Indian.

  • Comment number 33.

    How come they did not show any of the wrestling on BBC highlights programmes? Is there a way to catch wrestling round-up from the these commonwealth games?

    Unbelievable!! Just because India are very good at wrestling, they were planning to strip the games from Glasgow in four years time so they can deny India some medals. I am sure it was for this reason.

  • Comment number 34.

    #1, #18, #31, #33
    Why are none of you able to make a positive comment about anything? I can't understand why you want to look for implied bias or racism in everything on the BBC website. If you hate it so much, why bother visiting it? There must be coverage on a national Indian website of the Games?

    #33 I bet you love conspiracy theories. Again, you think your country is being given a poor deal, but fail to think about anything other than your India-centric point of view. For the 2012 Olympics, many of the cycling events which Great Britain has been excelling in have been stripped out meaning that several of our athletes will be unable to defend their titles. Now, you don't hear Great Britain complaining about racism do you? As for not showing wrestling, I have no idea not being rooted in front of the television for all the coverage, but they can only show so much. Are you sure its not been on the red button coverage?

  • Comment number 35.

    I can't do anything than shake my head at my fellow Indian's. Here is a positive blog about India, and you still want to drag it down to accusations of racism/bias/bad journalism instead of celebrating part of our culture! I wish that more reasonable minded Indian's would come on here to show that we're not all racist bigots. You accuse our English friends (and other Western/white countries) of it, but then display a particularly nasty kind of racist bilge.

    Hari, did your parents not teach you that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

    #7 and #18 you should just be ashamed. I would be very grateful if you could make it clear you are speaking just for yourself. I don't want people like you making it look like you speak for me. I wouldn't want to be associated with your horrible words in a million years.

  • Comment number 36.

    excellent article..a bright future for wrestling..

  • Comment number 37.

    Tom, nice of you to visit and write about an authentic Akhada(Gym). Good Article. I hope you visit many more such places and write about them as well.
    Only thing I am not sure is, why are there tuk-tuk's in India? I thought tuk-tuk's were in Bangkok. India has RICKSHAW's.

 

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