Queen's Baton Relay: The ancient art of Indian wrestling

Kushti wrestling is a rigorous discipline that has produced a stalwart of athletes, the wrestlers belong to gyms or wrestling schools called akharas.
Image caption Kushti wrestling is a rigorous discipline that has produced a host of top athletes. The wrestlers belong to gyms or wrestling schools called akharas.

The Queen's Baton Relay is attempting the most ambitious travel schedule I have ever heard of. Marry that with the indescribably busy and fast life of modern India and you have the recipe for a wonderfully intense experience.

When I was last in India, I cycled into the Punjab from Pakistan, skirting New Delhi and east through Varanasi and onto Calcutta. It was India like a slideshow, under my own power. Over the last two days I have seen India from another perspective.

When you cycle through a country, you draw relatively little attention. When you arrive in party with the Queen's Baton, you attract something of a commotion. It has struck me how powerful a symbol that baton is. Its form and function are almost entirely unknown to any of the people we have met, and yet it has been a magnet for attention because of what it symbolises.

The memories of the Delhi Commonwealth Games are still fresh with everyone that I have spoken to, and after India's incredible home games tally of 101 medals they see the Glasgow 2014 games as a huge opportunity to perform well on the international stage.

After visits to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and the National Stadium alongside the baton, I was keen to meet some athletes. India has an impressive sporting pedigree to choose from, but the sport that intrigued me the most was wrestling. Cricket is the sport for the city, wrestling is the sport for the countryside, my guide Deepak Prasad describes. And its history is far greater, and far more Indian.

The wrestlers awaken at dawn, which was not the ideal way for me to shake off my jet lag, but I was keen to join them for their morning training. From as young as 10, boys leave home and live in akaras, where their life revolves around wrestling. It is a monastic, tough but very simple lifestyle, and I am amazed that it continues with modern influences. The Hindu faith, the pride of the young men's villages, and undoubtedly the large money prizes that top wrestlers earn have left this sport relatively unchanged for centuries.

I watch in awe as the wresters start by repeatedly climbing up and down thick ropes hanging from the branches overhead. The main ring is about 10m (32ft) squared and filled with earth, which is turned over and then flattened, in theory to make it as soft as possible. They warm up by throwing each other into the dirt with a resounding thud. It doesn't look particularly soft. This is intimidation at its best and it's soon my turn.

Step into the akhara

After some discussion I am grateful that Deepak allows me to wear my shorts. Small loin clothes may well be more practical in a sport that allows clothes to be held, but for the millions of people who may well watch the documentary, I couldn't muster the courage!

Less fortunately, I am partnered up with an all-Indian champion, Naveen Mor, whose idea of "showing some techniques" lasts for all of 30 seconds, before it is clear that he just wants to wrestle. We lock into a grapple and I sense that I have all the leverage of child playing with his father. Naveen is smiling at me knowingly. Quickly thinking back to the little judo I know, I drop and dive at his legs. I might as well have tried to unearth an oak tree with a rugby tackle. I am soon gasping for air as we fall to the ground and I fight to stay off my back. Inevitably short-lived.

Another wrestler steps up, with a chiselled physique, although this time a good bit lighter than me. As we fall, I get a mouthful of damp earth, disgusting and distracting, by there is no time to worry. To my amazement, and to the cheers from the other young wrestlers, I turn him over, pinning his back. But the victory was very short lived. With his pride at stake, he made very light work of returning the favour.

All this before breakfast! It had been a brilliant insight into the immense dedication that young men have to wrestling in India. I can't compare this to any other sport that I have witnessed. That afternoon I witnessed a contest where different akaras fought each other. From here, the very best will be chosen to fight on the mats in Glasgow next summer. Knowing something of their background has given me an immense respect for this unique sport.

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