Modernity sweeps India’s old tradition of wrestling also known as Kushti or Pehlwani

Modernity sweeps India’s old tradition of wrestling also known as Kushti or Pehlwani

kusti wrestling training in Varanasi India 2

Practiced in the regions of Varanasi, Rajasthan and many cities of Uttar Pradesh, India mud wrestling, also known as ‘Kushti or Pehlwani,’ is gradually camouflaging itself in the shadow of what we called ‘gymnasium.’ With modernization this traditional sport is gradually going bleak in Indian subcontinent.


History of Indian wrestling

This sport is ancient. It is so ancient that even ‘Mahabharata’ the great Hindu epic book has its mention. The ancient times with Mughals as their rulers witnessed the true and real forms of wrestling. Around 3,000 years ago, in the courts of Mughal rulers ‘Kushti’ was introduced. It had some of emergence and characteristics of Persian game known as ‘Koshti Pahlevani.’ The name generally meant ‘heroic wrestling.’

Life of a Celibacy (Pehlwan)

kusti wrestling training in Varanasi India

The wrestlers are also known as ‘Pehalvans’ in Hindi. They are trained under the guidance of a guru known as ‘Ustad.’ They live together and practice every morning by getting up at 3:30 am. They have one blanket and only a handful of clothes with them in their training. Their clothing is Kowepeenam or loincloth.


They follow a hard routine and live life of discipline and celibacy. ‘Akhara’ (mud arena) is the place where they practice. The mud is mixed with oil, ghee and many other ingredients. The Akhara soil is ploughed and worshiped by the wrestlers in the morning each day.


Nagpanchami festival started at historical 500 year old, Gosw Tulsi Das Akhada, Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi 1

Nagpanchami festival started at historical 500 year old, Gosw Tulsi Das Akhada, Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi










Every Akhara has Lord Hanuman’s temple as he is considered as patron deity of Hindu wrestlers. For the practice session they have a room built in Akhara where they have all the heavy clubs and equipment for strengthening their bodies, for example; dumbbells, nal, garnal (neck weight), gada (mace). Many of the Akhara rooms have now simple and effective new equipments which can be found in many of the gyming institute now-a-days. Each Akhara has a caretaker too who remains in the Akhara in night also and guards the valuable equipments of wrestlers’ lives.


This traditional sport is usually considered as a rural sport and usually the peasants or semi-urban lower class people choose their career as wrestlers. Each wrestler comes for training voluntarily and takes serious wrestling training where he strictly ordered what to take in diet and what to do in spare times. They aren’t allowed to be sexually active. Thus, they only practice from morning to evening for honing their skills. 


Wrestlers, competitions and “Great Gama”

kusti mud wrestling training in India

The wrestlers take part in dangals (Wrestling Championship tournament) and many other competitions mainly on the 2nd day of Sukla Pakshha of Ashadh month of Hindu calendar. Many wrestlers take competitions seriously and go for international levels for fulfilling their dreams. They celebrate their victory by returning to their place dancing and consuming bhang prepared by them only with some extra pepper.


The Great Gama was a great wrestler and he won the ‘World Wrestling Championship (WWC)’ organized by John Bull society of London in 1910.  


In 1994, a book on wrestling was published by the Pushpak Printing Press titled ‘Bharatiya Kushti- Ek Parampara’ (a tradition). It had articles in Devanagri script and pictures of ‘Great Gama’ and ‘Mahadev.’ The book valorized the hardships of the two and praised their achievements. They were the greatest wrestlers of that time and the book had their photos with different weapons. By that book many wrestlers were inspired and considered the two legends as their inspiration.

Women Wrestlers of India

women wrestler in vARNASI AKHADA TULSI GHAT

Indian Akhadas used to be providing training to only aspiring men who wishes to become a wrestler for several centuries. Following the tradition of the sport culture in India, the kushti always remains a game for men. However, there is one Akhada in Varanasi which has broken all the myths that women or girl too can become a good wrestler.


This has only happened after the release of Amir Khan film ‘Dangal’. Swaminath Akhada at Tulsi Ghat has proved that the women are no more exception for wrestling in India and finally has welcomed women wrestlers at its Akhada for training after 478 years. This film has opened huge edges for young and budding girls who are aspiring to be wrestler and represent their nation on International platforms.


Current Scenario of Wrestling in India

kusti mud wrestling training in India 2

‘Wrestling’ synonymous of ‘mud wrestling’ and ‘Kushti’ is slowly losing its popularity as more and more western sports are being adopted. The modernization, globalization, and the influence of the west have lowered the importance of many traditional sports and practices. Almost all the mud akharas have disappeared and the ancient subculture of the beautiful sport has been limited to mat or turf in Olympics or Commonwealth.


Akharas have gone down in numbers maybe from 100 to just 40 in a state, which is too less for the traditional sport for being alive in the hearts of people. The new name is being adopted by every remaining akharas which is ‘Vyayam Shala’ (Hindi word for gymnasium). There are still rural areas and villages who are trying their best to live this old tradition of wrestling, like Nathdwara and Mewar regions of Rajasthan. As a result, akharas can only be found in nooks and corners of the country now.


It is a sport which still gives higher regards to masculine pursuit, even after female players like “Gita” and “Babita” have proven their worth in this field. Sadly, the physical culture in mud cannot become the mass culture even after Bollywood blockbuster hit movies like ‘Sultan.’



Author: Anjali Lavania





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