Commonwealth Games Blogs

Down and dirty: Mud wrestling in India

DELHI, INDIA - As the brick-like Indian wrestler, Sushil Kumar, walked into the stadium for the 66-kilogram freestyle final, the crowd went wild. Families were waving body-sized flags and holding up colour prints of Kumar's rather gruff-looking headshot. The racket was so loud, the presenter all but gave up on calling out the name of Kumar's opponent.

It didn't matter, frankly. In India's eyes, Kumar is unstoppable. Earlier in the day, he squashed his opponent from Pakistan 10-0, and in a semifinal that was almost criminal, he pinned Famara Jarjou of the Gambia in less than 10 seconds.

Stepping up to South Africa's Heinrich Barnes in the final was no different. As soon as Kumar managed to catch his prey, it was over. With his python grip, Kumar held Barnes down, then, with one arm, methodically started prying apart his pretzel limbs.

Catch. Hold. Pry. Seven to nil, final score.

Wrestling with respect

When Kumar left the mat, before celebrating, before lapping in the glory of gold, he bent over and touched the feet of his coaches, a sign of respect.

Kumar, like many of India's top wrestlers, didn't start his career in the bright lights of a stadium gym. From the age of 14, Kumar lived at a traditional training centre called an akhara. He did nothing more than eat, sleep, and wrestle... in the mud.

Kushti, or Indian mud wrestling is one of the few traditional sports that has actually been maintained over the years (there are over a hundred training centres in Delhi alone, for example), largely because of the achievements of wrestlers like Sushil Kumar. And Kumar has made it no secret that he owes his success to the discipline and respect he learned during over a decade of relatively monastic living.

At akharas, drinking, smoking and even sex are banned. Most wrestlers maintain a strict vegetarian diet of milk, eggs, almonds, butter fat and chapattis.

Fresh off his bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and nearly $400,000 richer, Kumar went straight back to his akhara, covered his body in oil, and dived back into the mud.

"I could have bought a flat with the money I got from [the] winnings, but I would not have been able to discipline myself," he told Outlook India. "My childhood was spent here. I was in the sixth or seventh class when I came here. Nothing has changed for me.

Meddling in the Mud

My muddy adventure started in Amritsar, in the province of Punjab and one of the hotspots for wrestlers in the country.

I was actually there looking for something I'd heard of called the Rural Olympics. I had visions of burly Punjabi men lifting bikes with their teeth and letting tractors run over their backsides.

Of course I had no idea where people train for these types of things and after a full day of being sent from one office to the next (in a way you'll only ever really understand if you've been to India), I found myself under the wing of Mrs. S. Kaur, the district sports officer, who said: "I have just the thing for you."

A few minutes later, I was packed into the backseat of a car with former national-level wrestlers. They were a couple times my size.

To view Anjali's photo essay of mud wresling in Punjab, click here

We drove around 20 km outside Amritsar through endless brilliant green rice paddies. We passed nothing but water buffalo and cows along the way. By the time we reached our destination, a village called Kohali, the freshly greased wrestlers were already warming up. The mud pit had been blessed and spiced with turmeric and mustard oil (natural antiseptics), and was ready for play.

I soon learned that the game actually has no rules or time limit. It's just one on one, heaving, grunting and grabbing until one wrestler ends up literally in the mud. In the olden days, wrestlers could even fight until death.

I'll have to admit now that I chickened out within 10 minutes of watching the husky men go at one another. Even the warmth of the setting sun couldn't romanticize the sport enough for me to step into the pit. I also didn't think it was appropriate to suit up (or should I say - strip down), lather myself with oil, and be thrown about by mud-coated men in loincloths.

Maybe another time.

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