‘When an Indian Kushti wrestler rolls in the earth, his hair and body become covered in the burnt-umber hue of soft clay. It’s said that he becomes “of one color.” This is meant literally of course — his black hair is matted down by the same mud that covers his body — but it also conveys a spiritual ideal. Wrestling in India, which counts Kushti as one of its indigenous disciplines, has a monastic history. Winning a wrestling match (or a Kushti-Spardha) isn’t the ultimate goal. The attainment of a kind of virtuous integrity of mind, spirit, and body is: being of one color.’
‘Higher aspirations than victory shouldn’t be mistaken for softness. Kushti fighters are strong and they live to train and fight. Kushti fighters reside in their training facilities and submit themselves to a Spartan routine. They abstain from alcohol, drugs, meat, and women. They live apart from society because theirs is not a universal pursuit. Life in the akhara, the monastery-like gyms where upwards of 60 fighters live and train, is rigorous and austere. Yes, there’s glory in victory, but it’s fleeting. To Kushti wrestlers, there’s immortality in the cultivation of the essence of strength.’
‘That strength starts with the mud. Students at akharas cart hundreds of pounds of soft earth from riverbanks and lake beds to their gyms every few weeks. That earth is mixed with oil, turmeric, rosewater, and sometimes buttermilk to create a fragrant, pleasing surface on which training exercises and bouts take place. The wrestling pit is covered, either by a thatch or concrete roof, to keep out the sun. Training is an orchestrated chaos of arched limbs and strained faces. Holds, moves, countermoves, throws are practiced in the rich darkness’.
Days are regimented. Early in the morning every fighter studies under the guru of the akhara and practices a series of moves and countermoves called Jor (literally “exerting force”). This complex vocabulary of grappling includes familiar freestyle wrestling takedowns and more exotic, and potentially dangerous, maneuvers like using your head to pivot your body out of a hold. These moves are practiced until they become rote’.
After morning practice the wrestlers eat. Their diet is highly structured as well. They’re all vegetarians and so they get their protein from a thick mixture called Khurak, made from clarified butter (ghee), milk, almond paste, or chick peas. They eat great volumes of this stuff. There are tales of fighters who would go through 50 pounds of ghee and 80 pounds of almonds a week. The better part of the afternoon is spent resting and followed by another regimen of strengthening exercises. Then more Khurak. Then sleep. When fighters compete they do so at raucous village festivals called Kushthi-spardhas that thousands in India’s north and central regions attend. These competitions tend to last all day, with featured fights unregulated by time or scoring. Pinning a man is the only way to win.
Quotes taken from Fightland here
The photographs above depict wrestlers practicing and fighting at one of the akharas in Varanasi. Found at Tulsi ghat, one of the last ghats of ancient Varanasi before the city becomes modern, it is situated in a small square of ground partially overlooked by flats just yards from the river Ganges. Not residential, it attracts members daily, opening at 5am until 8am for younger participants and again in the evening for older men. The fighting space is housed under an apexed metal roof which completely protects the soil from all weathers. Inside is a figure of Hanuman, whom the wrestlers revere. It was Hanuman who helped rescue Sita, Rama’s wife, from the demon Ravana. And it was Hanuman who flew to the Himalayas and carried back a mountain with medicinal herbs to save Rama’s brother, Laksmana. He symbolises immense strength and fearlessness and it is to him that India’s wrestlers pray for victory.
The photographs initially depict training, the third image image depicts a wrestler collecting fallen jasmine leaves which he collects before offering them as a puja to Hanuman. The final image below is of the leader of the akhara rubbing the soil into his hair, face and body becoming one with the embodiment of Hanuman.