Meet the Dangal kings: A ground report from the mud pits of north India
Wrestling is the inspiration for two big Hindi films this year. A ringside view of the carnival of akhada culture.brunch Updated: Jan 29, 2016 14:30 IST
Ask for directions to the dangal and the buzurg sprawled on a cot tells us to follow the thump of the drumbeat. Walking in the bylanes, past women washing clothes and stray dogs jousting in the sun, you hear a shrill announcement on a loudspeaker: Today’s jhandi kushti (title bout) is between ‘Himachal Kesri’ Gaurav Una and ‘Patiala ka Sher’ Binder Samana.
As we move closer to a circular pit dug next to a shamiana in Punjab’s Kaimbwala hamlet, on the outskirts of Chandigrah, we see what’s keeping the more than 3,000 raucous villagers animated. In a sweaty mess of limbs and muscle, Una, 24, weighing close to a quintal at 97 kgs, has 22-year-old Samana locked in his armpit. The two shift places and Una dives like a supple fish to topple the taller wrestler.
A cheer erupts, the tempo of the dhol quickens and the noise at the akhada (wrestling pit) becomes deafening: “Kushti ho gayi! Gaurav has shown Binder the aasman and won the `51,000 Makar Sakranti Dangal! Una Akhada ko lakh, lakh badhai!” declares the commentator.
“He should’ve seen the Machli Gota coming,” rues Samana’s father and coach Lakha Pahalwan. “After all, it is Gaurav’s signature daav! How will we explain this to the panchayat?” asks Lakha, his face contorted in anger.
It isn’t an Olympic medal bout or a televised multimillion-rupee wrestling league. But at stake is something valued immensely in rural India: the respect that a village earns once its wrestler wins a dangal (competition).
Drawing crowds in thousands, wrestlers travel great distances to compete in dangals for rewards as little as `100. Even the adolescent wrestlers are hungry to flaunt their grappling prowess. “I won `300 today to make my ustaad proud,” boasts 12-year-old wrestler Sanjay Singh, a disciple of Raja Pahalwan. “Now I can return to my village and tell my friends I won a bout,” says the muscular, slender boy whose voice is yet to break but he regularly beats wrestlers in their teens.
On the silver screen, with Aamir Khan playing celebrated wrestling coach Mahavir Phogat in Dangal and Salman Khan essaying a wrestler’s role in Sultan, Bollywood is paying a tribute to India’s long-standing affair with pahalwans. Off it, in the sporting arena, the exploits of double Olympic medallist Kumar and Commonwealth champions Yogeshwar Dutt and Amit Dahiya have kindled a boom in mat wrestling. But the rock star of mitti kushti in the country is Paraminder Singh Doomcheri.
Doomcheri, 43, an inspector with the Punjab Police, is a legend of the sport. Winning the Rustam-E-Hind title more than 15 years ago in 1998, the son of farmer Nirmal Singh is often described as the Sachin Tendulkar of mud wrestling and for good reason. “The comparison with Sachin is natural,” says former wrestling champion Jagdish Kalliraman, son of renowned wrestling guru Master Chandgi Ram. “Even after a 25-year-long career, Paraminder is the greatest draw in mud competitions across north India. Thousands of people turn up at a dangal just because he is competing in the jhandi kushti,” says Kalliraman, who was Doomcheri’s contemporary in the 1990s.
Into the lion’s lair
The morning after Makar Sankranti, the foothills of Punjab are enveloped in fog. The undisputed monarch of mitti wrestling stays 30 kilometres off Mohali, in the village of Doomcheri. We pass a cowshed, a hen pen and the wrestlers’ quarters before we get to the sanctum sanctorum: a raised mud platform near an ageing Acacia tree, the venue for the zor session.
For the uninitiated, zor is the session where pahalwans indulge in vigorous exercise at the akhada. We see three pairs of wrestlers holding each other’s shoulders, or trying to topple their opponents. At one corner of the platform, an imperious Doomcheri, wizened in features yet ripped in physique, keeps a hawk’s eye: “Patakh, kheench. Zor laga mundya!” he hollers. Even in the eight degrees chill, with the celebrated wrestler taking them through the paces, the rookies are perspiring.
Life at the akhada is an arduous routine that begins at 4 am. The first set of exercises includes warming up, running, push-ups and fine-tuning the daav pech.
The boys drink ground badam milk right after morning practice followed by breakfast abundant in ghee, meat and porridge at about 10 am. The period between 10 am and 1 pm is set aside for recovery.
Two hours later, they are back at the mud pit engaging in mock bouts. This continues for close to four hours followed by more badam milk, dinner and sleep. It is now that anthropologist Joseph Alter’s description of the sport: “Wrestling is a meeting of muscles and morals,” begins to make sense. “We’ve chosen a life of brahmacharya and discipline. Our food and shelter are taken care of. So, we don’t really need to venture out,” says 18-year-old wrestler-in-the-making Rinku Gujjar, from a village near Bharatpur in Rajasthan. “Forget TV, Internet or cinema, they can’t even use a mobile phone here,” says former wrestler Kultar Singh, proprietor and manager of the Doomcheri Akhada.
Of the about 50 outstation wrestlers who stay at the akhada, the largest number (about 25) are from the mud kushti hub of Maharashtra, followed by those from Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. What they all have in common is an admiration for Bhai Ji, as Doomcheri is reverentially addressed.
But the adulation rests lightly on Doomcheri’s broad shoulders. He appears embarrassed about comparisons with Tendulkar: “Sachin is a great personality. I am not as big as him. But God has been kind. I am grateful for remaining injury-free for more than 30 years. I continue to wrestle and make others wrestle.”
Doomcheri first took to kushti as an eight-year-old. “My father used to host a dangal every year and among those invited to our village was Amritsar’s Chhinda Pahalwan. Awestruck by his charisma and fighting technique, I expressed a desire to become a wrestler and my father supported me wholeheartedly.”
Soon, young Paraminder was beating his cousins and competing in inter-village dangals. His first big victory at the state level came with the Punjab Kesri title in 1995. Three years later, he wore the coveted Rustam-E-Hind crown, beating Sonu Pahalwan. Beginning 2001, Paraminder Singh Doomcheri would go on to win the Bharat Kesri title another 15 times.
More than the records, meeting the wrestler in flesh and blood is an incredible experience. At 43, Doomcheri doesn’t break into a sweat as he pulls an enormous log of wood by a rope, with another wrestler sitting on it. The log is used to level the akhada as well as strengthen the wrestlers’ thigh muscles. What’s the secret of his ageless body and agile mind? “I’ve been working out every single day since I began serious wrestling at 13. Also, practicing with Kamal Doomcheri, Rohit Patel and Vijay Choudhary, the emerging stars of mitti kushti twice a day, keeps my reflexes sharp,” reveals Doomcheri.
Compared to wrestling greats of the past, known for their enormous appetite, Doomcheri is a frugal eater. In his heyday, legendary wrestler Gama’s diet is believed to have included six chickens, 10 litres of milk, half a litre of ghee and countless litres of crushed almond paste. “Keeping my age in mind, I can’t have as much. I limit my meat to about 750 grams every day. But I have lots of chicken soup, veggies and about 1.5 litres of milk every day. Of course, like the younger pahalwans, I drink ground badam milk after every practice session.”
During the traditional dangal season, which runs from July to December, good wrestlers make at least `1 lakh per bout, on an average. In the run-up to festivals such as Holi, Shivratri, Raksha Bandhan and Diwali, the frequency of dangal competitions goes up.
Marquee names such as Paraminder and younger crowd-pullers like Rohit Patel, nicknamed Ladoo, the new heartthrob, make as much as Rs 7 lakh per dangal. But at smaller competitions like the New Year dangal held at South Delhi’s Ghitorni, the prize money for the jhandi kushti is a modest Rs 51,000. Apart from the prize money, after winning a bout, wrestlers get spontaneous rewards from the audience. These could range from Rs 20 given by a landless farmer, to Rs 1 lakh sometimes given by affluent politicians. Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Yadav, once a wrestler himself, hosts a dangal at Etawah as a part of his Saifai Mahotsav, for instance.
Every young wrestler in India, including the celebrated mat wrestlers these days, began by playing in mud akhadas, says Deepak Ansuia Prasad, a wrestling blogger and a coach at Delhi’s Guru Jasram Akhada.
But the link between cash rewards and job security in mud wrestling has unfortunately snapped in the past few years, says Sushil Kumar, the poster boy of wrestling in the country after winning medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. “Earlier, those who did well in National Mud Wrestling Championship became eligible for jobs in the government. But that has stopped for some reason. Today, only doing well on mat in your weight category will help a wrestler become eligible for a job,” says Kumar.
Sushil Kumar gets nostalgic when you quiz him about the days before he famously made the transition from mud to mat. He recalls winning a princely Rs 2 as a reward for a bout in Jama Masjid akhada as a young boy. “It isn’t just the money. Winning a dangal is a thing of joy. I’ve been competing in mitti dangals since I was a child growing up in my village, Bapraula, on the outskirts of Delhi,” he reminisces.
When Amit Kumar Dahiya, 22, the youngest Indian wrestler to compete in the Olympics (at London, 2012), first left his village Nahri, in Haryana to begin training at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium as a nine-year-old, he had never seen a wrestling mat.
Brought up on mud akhadas, Dahiya, the son of a milkman, found the going awkward for the first few days. “Mere pair nahin jamte thay mat par. It took me a few days before I could hold my ground on the mat,” he recalls. But once he found his feet, literally, Dahiya went from strength to strength. Rated as the great Indian medal hope at the Rio Olympics 2016 along with Bajrang Punia, Dahiya won a silver at the World Wrestling Championships in 2013, in the 57-kg-class.
To ensure that his weight doesn’t rise beyond his category, Dahiya has always been cautious about his diet. For the last 13 years, his father or brother have been getting him his daily khuraq of milk and ghee to the Chhatrasal Stadium, travelling 40 kilometres every day from their village near Sonepat. “I haven’t had fried food for years. It is just ghee, roti, veggies and lots of milk.”
A question of speed
According to Deepak Ansuia Prasad, thanks to the emergence of champions from Haryana such as Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Amit Dahiya, many akhadas, particularly in Haryana, are incorporating Olympic-style rules in mud wrestling. “They are setting limits on the timing. To make kushti more exciting, like on mat, they are disengaging wrestlers who stay locked in excruciatingly long daavs.”
Unlike Olympic-style wrestling that comprises three two-minute rounds with one-minute breaks, contests in mud dangals have traditionally been aar-paar ki ladai, which continues till one wrestler has been shown the aasman by his opponent. Or, in simpler words, his shoulders have touched the ground. You can twist your opponent’s legs, sit on his chest, even pull him by his loincloth. Also, there is scope to tire your opponent out. This changes the tempo of the sport. “Mud kushti is slower than mat,” explains Sushil. “It can go on for more than an hour. You have to possess enormous endurance to emerge victorious on mitti,” he adds.
Flavours of the earth
For the throng of villagers assembled around akhadas in north India, the allure of kushti doesn’t lie only in the technicalities. They are here to soak in the atmosphere. Jinder Singh, 55, a farmer, sat pillion behind his friend on a bike for 55 kilometres to watch the chinj in Chandigarh, as dangals are called in Punjabi, on the festival of Makar Sankranti. “I gave `21 to Gaurav Una as a shagun,” says Singh. “Usne dil khush kar diya!”
But the passion for kushti in north India isn’t just fuelled by entertainment. It is also a matter of upholding traditions that go back to the malla-yudh contests in the Mahabharat. “We also impart mat lessons at our akhada. But we’ll never give up wrestling in mitti, a tradition that began with Guru Angad Dev Ji, the second of the 10 gurus of Sikhism. He encouraged all sections of the society to engage in wrestling at the akhadas,” says Doomcheri.
Are you ready for the rumble in the dangal?
Paraminder Singh Doomcheri, 43
Weight category: 95 kg
Titles won on mud: Rustam-E-Hind, Bharat Kesri
Favourite Daav: Dhobi Paat (shoulder throw) and making his opponent fall by placing his knee on his neck
Dangal Lore: Beginning with Rs 11,000 in the early 1990s, he earns about Rs 7 lakh at every dangal that he wins these days
Amit Kumar Dahiya, 22
Weight category: 57 kg
Titles won on mat: Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow, 2014 and silver in the World Championships at Budapest, 2013. Was the youngest Indian wrestler to compete in the Olympics at London, 2012
Favourite Daav: Nikaal, where he foxes his opponent by moving through the armpit to topple him
Dangal Lore: At one dangal in Halalpur Village, Dahiya won 11 bouts on one day for a reward of Rs 10 in all. Since then, Dahiya has made a transition to mat wrestling and doesn’t usually fight at dangals.
Sushil Kumar, 32
Weight category: 74 kg
Titles won on mat: Olympic bronze in 2008 followed by a silver at London, 2012. World championship in 2010
Favourite Daav: Iraani, in which he bends his leg and applies pressure on the opponent’s knee and grips his neck with his free hand
Dangal Lore: He has won dangals for anything ranging from Rs 2 at the Jama Masjid Dangal and Rs 5 lakh at wrestling hubs in Maharashtra, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh
(Photos by Gurinder Osan)
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From HT Brunch, January 24, 2016
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First Published: Jan 23, 2016 16:45 IST