Back in the 1970s, the most popular star in the old city of Hyderabad was not Amitabh Bachchan or even Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the Indian cricket captain, but Dara Singh, the wrestler. Dangals staged by Dara’s repertory company used to be sellout events, resembling in their theatrics something like today’s WWE or RAW.
It was the norm for the local pehalwans to challenge Dara or his brother Randhawa in mid-bout, just like Brock Lesnar might challenge Jinder Mahal on WWE Superstars. Boys would respectfully call the local hunks pahelwan and the akhara master ustad. Both descriptors have alas passed to hoodlums nowadays.
AS OLD SCHOOL AS IT GETS: The average akhara is not your regulation gym with modern gadgetry. It's spartan appointments are part of the cult-like aura around akharas.
There used to be several akharas in the gallis of the city’s older quarter, the most famous of them being Hanuman Vyayam Shala. The HVS continues to this day, but has left its mud-pit past behind having graduated to expensive matting. Only a few mud-wrestling akharas remain, run by ageing pehalwans.
CONNECTING WITH THE SAND: A student dusts his hands with the red earth of the akhara before he begins his weight training.
Much like the akharas of Delhi, Haryana, UP and Punjab, the few surviving akharas here adhere to their enduring mythology: names like Chandgi Ram are taken in awe; the success of Sushil Kumar, Narsingh Yadav and Yogeshwar Dutt is recounted as having begun in the many hours of zor they did every day, and the daavs they learnt from their mud-pit masterji. Details of the diet and the cult practices unique to each akhara are spoken of as if revealing a secret, even if they all set much store by the tumblerful of cow’s milk drunk raw, a precise number of almonds and pista eaten at precise hours of the day, etc.
The regimen is rigorous — 4 am reveille, respects paid to Masterji, warmup exercises, deference to seniors and watching and learning hold by hold, a premium on desi food, and an abstinence from sex or sensuous thoughts. The rigour of the akhara student is not unlike the IIT-JEE aspirant who goes to his tutorial class in the 4 am chill, or the tapasya rishis are reputed to have done in mythical times.