Discovering India's wrestling roots
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.
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.
"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?