Any sport, be it man to man or team to team, has the incredible power to unite. It unites a country, religion, shunning caste and creed - in grief or in triumph. While today there are umpteen number of sports which have this effect, there are certain sports which have travelled the course of time, witnessing many upheavals, but still managing to stagger.
Indian wrestling or Kushti is one sport whose grandeur is gone, but subtle glory and Elysian illusion perdures. Its vainglorious scars are evident in many parts of Bangalore city while struggling to keep pace with time. But as soon as one witnesses the embrace of muscles, the ancient lock and grappling techniques, procumbent bodies, the virgin red mud splattering around, oiled bodies moving their wooden gadhas in a synchronised fashion...truly temerarious men, one is mesmerised at the way they have kept the tradition alive. These are indeed tough men who have a passion for a sport that has seen its vibrant period during the times of Kempe Gowda and Hyder Ali (1721-1782) and his son Tipu(1750-1799.
Right from those days, till today, the sport has created a unique sense of oneness. "The sport has struggled over the years, but one factor that it has managed to cling on is the sense of creating unity. Both Hindus and Muslims, with big names of pehalwans, have always been united during and after their bouts. For some reason, it has an emotional touch among communities," says 80-year-old discursive Illyas saheb, who was a pehalwan himself and in his heydays, used to run the Zumre Illah Physical Instruction, hidden in the interior bylanes of Shivaji Nagar.
Above the Gym
More than 60 years old, the chief trainer of Zumre Illah, Syed Mohammed Pehelwan laments on the condition of the sport now. "During our time, there were about 20-25 pehalwans who used to train here, but now the number has reduced and hovers between 10-15. Now college students are showing interest because they have realised that the muscle that they build in hi-tech gymnasium lasts only for about six months. But the body that you develop and the physical strength that you gain from the Akhadas last for 4-5 years. Of course, in an Akhada, the body strength develops with due course of time, unlike in a gymnasium, but then a body made late, goes late. The power of a pehalwan is much more because of the traditional exercises."
Having different names as one moves from area to area, the akhadas, taleems, vyayamshalas, and garadis are being 'kept' alive. "Probably because tough men have a heart of gold," grins Illyas Saab.
One among the oldest and the most spacious and well kept garadi is Dodda Garadi Mane.
Again hidden in the bylanes of Cottonpet, this garadi is probably 300 years old. In the midst of concrete structures, heavy traffic and vendors, this garadi is a dot of green within the entire landscape. Equipped with a well, toilets, a small tub for bathing, it is stated that the garadi also witnessed Hyder Ali training in the premises.
"Wrestling was a highly popular sport and there is enough evidence of Hyder having trained at the Garadi Mane. When Tipu fell on May 4, 1799 and Bangalore was captured by the British, the city had more than 50 Garadi Mane. Once the British set up Cantonment in 1806, they discouraged all Indian sport and tried to get many sporting events banned. Thus, Kushti went into a tail spin. Today, a little more than a dozen Garadi Manes exist in old Bangalore," says Samyuktha Harshitha, an avid researcher, who has a comprehensive post on Garadi Manes in Bangalore (http://ramubangalore.blogspot.in).
But the enthusiasm of yester year has slowly been deteriorating, with not many takers for the sport and not many events being organised in the city.
"It is only during the Mysore Dasara that the main Kushti happens. 25 years back, a lot of events used to happen in the city, but now nobody is interested."
During 1985-86, there were a few state level wrestling associations and people at the helm were very enthusiastic. But now, due to the cost involved in organising such events, organisers get demoralised. "In Karnataka, events do happen in Hubli, Gadag, Davangere, Mysore, Belgaum, etc.," said K Purushottam, who is now taking Dodda Garadi, forward. The garadi has about 20-30 people coming in the morning, but according to Purushottam, they regularly visit for about a week and then take a break for 15 days. "For some reason, there is a magnetic effect, because once people get the feel of the mud and the exercise, they keep coming back," he said.
And there is also an understanding among those who come in as they develop a sense of discipline, especially with strict worship of the lares and penates. "Since olden days, it is a tradition that has been followed with respect. It used to be called malayudha and even now involves Guru bhakti or worship, bhaya or fear, and Shraddha or devotion. It is a sadhana or inner quest, and we consider it a symbol of purity. It is like worshipping god," said Purushottam. And surprisingly, women are not allowed inside the garadi.
And to join the garadi, how much do they charge? "To join, one has to wear a langot and perform a puja. Life membership costs Rs11," said Purushottam, and it seems to be the same across all garadis, though Purushottam is a little skeptical about it.
While most garadis or akhadas are still existing in a small manner, there are some, who are actively pursuing the sport. One among them is M R Sharma who founded Karnataka Vyayamshala, Vasanth Nagar in 1986 after quitting the army. "With the mat coming in at the international level, we have the provision at Koramangala Indoor stadium where we take our pehalwans for training. At our vyayamshala, we have a mud pit, and once you train in it, the power lasts longer," he said.
The new age pehalwans are also trying their bit to provide an active platform. Pehalwan Madhu, the new generation pehalwan who is taking forward the tradition of the 100-year old Kunjanna Garadi in Tiglarpete states that there are monthly competitions being held especially during festivals. But not being captious, he says, "We cannot undertake the garadi as a full time focus; what we can do is keep it alive and promote it in a small way."
Bangalore's Akhadas and garadis
The old petes of Bangalore, particularly, Ranasinghpet, Cubbonpet, Sultanpet were the hub of Garadi manes during the times of Kempe Gowda and Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. Both Hyder and Tipu were fond of physical exercises and they were both expert horsemen and swordsmen. Hyder inherited his love for wrestling from the Wodeyar Kings. The Wodeyars encouraged Kushti, Vajra Kalaga and Musti Kalaga. All soldiers were to be drilled in these techniques. Hyder too started as an ordinary solider in the Wodeyar Army and rose from the ranks to become a Commander during the reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the second. It was at Srirangapatna that he was fine tuned in the art of wrestling. Kushti began to take formal shape under the Nadaprabhus or Kempegowdas. It then continued under Shahaji, the father of Shivaji, who was given Bangalore as a Jagir by the Adil Shahi Sultan of Bijapur.
Many soldiers in the armies of the Marathas of Shahaji, Kempe Gowda and Wodeyars were excellent wrestlers.
The word Garadi comes from Garuda, who is the vehicle of Vishnu. Garuda had enormous physical strength and wrestling as a sport traces its roots to the Vedic age and Bheema, in particular.
The Garadis started declining in popularity from 1940 onwards. The call of the freedom movement, the change in the social and economic outlook, stress on modern education all left the garadis far behind in priority. The new rules of physical fitness in police, para military and armed forces also saw the focus shifting away from wrestling. Today, the Gardai Manes are struggling for survival and it seems to be a cruel irony that wrestling is now sought to be dropped from Olympics as a sport.
by Samyuktha Harshitha, researcher and blogger