Commonwealth Games Blogs

Pole dancing, Indian style

MUMBAI, INDIA - I have rope burn between my toes.

It wasn't planned, not at all. I was in Mumbai's Shivaji Park for a game of kho kho (Indian tag) when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a strange multi-limbed goddess beckoning me forward.

"That's mallakhamb," a passerby told me, noticing my hypnotic fixation on the horizon. I had never heard the word. "Indian traditional pole gymnastics," he explained.

As I made my way forward, I made out that the "multi" limbs were those of several young men and women contorting their bodies into an extravagant pyramid.

When they dispersed back to normal practice, it was just as magical. The young men took turns flipping their bodies around a large vertical wooden pole and the young ladies wrapped a cotton rope around their bodies with graceful ease.

With this much strength and flexibility in a local tradition, I couldn't help wonder why India barely made a mark in the contemporary gymnastics competitions in the Commonwealth Games this week. Nineteen-year-old Ashish Kumar was the only medalist - he actually won India's first gymnastics medals in the Games' history.

The ancient form of gymnastics, Mallakhamb is believed to date back thousands of years to the time of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Hanuman, the Hindu forest-dwelling god of strength, is said to have started training centres across the region.

Although the tradition has lost steam in India during recent years, it's becoming an export staple. The sport has been incorporated into a variety of different things - from circuses in New Mexico to yoga workshops in Europe and East Asia.

"Malla" actually means wrestler, and "khamb" translates as pole. The tradition was started as a kind of complementary exercise for male wrestlers. Now the sport stands more or less on its own - and is practiced by both men and women, young and old - from the supple squirts I saw, to an 81-year old former-garment worker who came across the sport in this park and signed up.

"My family tends to be apprehensive about the activities I indulge in, but is there an age limit when you want to learn something new?" the man was quoted as saying.

(To view Anjali's photo gallery of her experience with the ancient sport of Mallakhamb, click here.)

See by doing

After several minutes of watching the young gymnasts in the park, Uday Deshpande, the centre's guru, asked me if I'd like to just "see" the ancient tradition or "see by doing."

"I don't know if I can do that," I said, pointing to the young, limber woman in front of me. She was smiling as she wrapped her leg around the back of her head, all the while dangling from a rope.

"That's my responsibility, not yours," he responded optimistically.

And so, worried I'd rip my shorts (and body) in two, I stepped forward and, as directed, wedged the thick cotton rope between my toes and climbed it in three big strides.

Pain. Pain. Pain. That's what it feels like to climb a cotton rope using the muscles in your toes, if you were wondering.

Deshpande whipped the rope around my body and, with great effort, flipped my legs over my head. I was the inverted snail I never quite imagined or wanted to be.

"Good, see, you are relaxing, no pain, no, nothing at all," said Deshpande.

Not quite. My body spun in circles. On demand, I curled backwards into a donut, hanging from the noose around my waist. Deshpande folded my hands in a neat namaste.

"Looking straight and smile," said Deshpande, " Classic...lovely smile."

I didn't feel so classic.  I left a couple hours later, with a new appreciation for gymnasts, a slew of new yogic poses in my back pocket... and a slight limp.

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