The mud-wrestler no-one wanted to touch

Kushti wrestlers warming up Image copyright ALAMY

Wrestling is popular throughout India, but the state of Maharashtra has a particular obsession with the sport, in particular maati kushti, or mud-wrestling. Many poor farming families train at least one son as a wrestler, and for a lucky few it provides an escape route from a life of poverty and caste discrimination.

There are few places women cannot go in modern India, but a wrestling talim in rural Maharashtra is one.

"Madam, ladies not allowed," says Amol Sathe, a small-framed wrestler in his late 20s, as I try to enter the compound where young men, live, eat and train together. Women are "a distraction" he explains. But after some hurried consultations between Sathe and the owner, an exception is made for a female reporter, and I step inside.

Young men in loincloths, preparing to climb into the fighting pit, look up startled. Sathe, a local star, quickly performs his warm-up - 200 press-ups and 200 squats - then springs into the mud with the others.

Image caption Amol Sathe in the fighting pit

Their bodies all shine with coconut oil and they smack their thighs and arms making a loud cracking sound as they ponder their next move. In a few minutes all are smeared in the red mud.

It's no ordinary soil, though. It's mixed with lemon, milk, butter, camphor, turmeric and "lots of other things" says Sathe.

"When we are practising in the pit, the soil energises us and takes away the impurities in our body."

They are encouraged to be morally pure too. They must not drink or smoke, or have sex before marriage. The flaking walls are adorned with framed photos of the monkey god - Hanuman - the bachelor deity worshipped by the wrestlers.

The idea of maati kushti is to get the opponent's back on to the soil, and it does not matter how long it takes. Unlike a conventional wrestling match, divided into a limited number of three-minute rounds, a mud-wrestling bout can be over in a minute, or it may continue for hours.

As it happens, Sathe has used his success at pinning people to the ground to raise himself from the bottom rung of India's caste-bound society.

Image caption Sathe is on the right, in the dark orange loincloth

He is a Dalit, previously known as "untouchable", the most downtrodden people in India, and among the poorest. He now rents an airy modern flat in the city of Karad, but he grew up in the village of Masoli.

The family home is a one-storey house with a corrugated iron roof painted in faded green. Walking inside is like entering a furnace. There are no windows and the metal roof seems to magnify the power of the sun.

"There is no education in our village, there is nothing to look forward to," explains Sathe's father. He says he didn't want his children to get locked into a life of poverty, without any means of escape. "So I put them into wrestling."

But it wasn't easy for a Dalit to succeed, as Amol Sathe discovered. "I never thought I could become a known wrestler," he tells me, sipping tea. "Wrestlers need good food and we could hardly afford all that.

Image caption Sathe with his parents at the family home

"I remember how we were treated. When I went for bouts, I always had to sit separately to eat my lunch. I never experienced the so-called sporting spirit. People refused to play with me because I am a Dalit. Wrestling demands touching another body! How can a Dalit touch an upper-caste boy?"

Gradually, he gained his opponents' respect by wrestling harder and better than the others. He is now a local celebrity. One of the two rooms in his parents' house is filled with his gleaming wrestling awards.

In rural India, crop failure often leads to debt, and debt has led to an epidemic of suicide. Wrestling can provide a lifeline for a family that gets into trouble, which is why, Sathe says, that every family in his area sends at least one son to learn the sport.

Another of Maharashtra's estimated 50,000 young wrestlers is Ravi Gaikwad, a sturdy thick-set young man from a poor farming family and an up-and-coming star. When I reach his talim in a drought-stricken corner of the state - and once again succeed in gaining entry - a group of boys taking a shower under a hosepipe rush for cover.

About 100 students between the ages 10 and 30 live here, in a simple building with large halls that turn into dormitories at night.

The person who runs the centre is a former wrestler called Namdeo Badre, who wears his "cauliflower" ear proudly, as a souvenir of his years in the ring.

"Wrestling is an expensive sport," he says. "The food alone for one kid costs £100 per month… a 10-year-old will have pounded rice with three apples and bananas, two boiled eggs, half a litre of milk and dry fruits, and that's just for breakfast."

To pay its bills, this talim, like others, depends on the donations from wrestling enthusiasts from the village and neighbouring areas. They don't charge fees, because the students are mostly from poor families, and would not be able to pay.

Gaikwad is about to appear in a big regional championship, so I drive to Maharashtra's sugarcane belt, 200 miles (320km) south of Mumbai, to watch him in action.

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Media captionRavi Gaikwad, left in black loincloth, at the regional championship

When I get there, thousands have already gathered - all men, mostly in traditional clothes. The place is decorated with colourful flags and flowers. It's the first time I have ever seen anything like this and I'm struck by how reverential the crowd is.

There is complete silence when the bouts are on - you might almost wonder whether the spectators have dropped off to sleep.

The near-silence is only interrupted by bursts of loud music, played after every win.

The tournament starts at 10am and lasts for 11 hours. Gaikwad wins and receives a handsome cash prize. After his victory he stands resplendent in front of the crowd, bare-bodied, smeared in red soil, with an orange turban on his head and the trophy in his hand.

Still, though, the crowd remains silent. I have to start the celebration myself - "Hip hip hooray!" Some of the crowd join in, rather feebly, but it really isn't their style.

The prize money doesn't go to the talim, it goes to Gaikwad and his family, and it will make a real difference to them. This is sport, but it is also social mobility in action.

Wrestling Out of Poverty was broadcast on Assignment on BBC World Service.

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