Kolhapur Taleem: The story of the Great Indian Wrestling
Article and Images by Tania Chatterjee
My curiosity about the Great Indian Wrestling brings me to Kolhapur, Maharashtra. The Kolhapur Taleem is the best place to experience great Indian wrestling and customs associated with it. Wrestling involves rigorous preparation and the process is worth documenting.
After photographing wrestlers (pehelwans) of Mallikghat aakhara in Kolkata and Tulsi Ghat aakhara in Varanasi; my curiosity towards this traditional Indian sport increased. I looked for various places where mud-wrestling or sand-wrestling is practiced. My quest for documenting mud-wrestling brings me to Kolhapur, Maharashtra. In this photo documentation, I have tried to capture the various moods and moments of wrestlers while practicing this traditional sport.
Popularity of Indian Wrestling
The success story of international wrestlers like Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sakshi Malik has brought limelight to wrestling in India. The prizes in Olympic, Commonwealth and Asian Game have ensured people to watch and think about wrestling as a serious sport. Amir Khan’s blockbuster movie Dangal based on Phogat sisters has reached the concept of traditional wrestling to the masses.
History of Wrestling in India
Wrestling was common in ancient India. It was popularly known as Malla-Yuddha. There are reference of wrestling and wrestlers in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Bhima was considered a great wrestler. Similarly there are reference of Jarasandha and Balarama as great wrestlers.
The present form of wrestling came in India during the Mughal period. The present form of Indian mud- wrestling is similar to what is still practiced in Persia. This form of submissive grappling sport is still called koshti pahlavni. The words pehlwani and kushti derive from the Persian terms pahlavani (heroic) and koshti (wrestling, lit. killing) respectively, meaning Heroic wrestling. The wrestlers in India were known as Pehelwans. They are highly regarded in society.
History of Wrestling in Kolhapur
In Maharashtra wrestling began 300 years ago under the Maratha rule. Maratha rulers supported wrestling by offering large sums of prize money for wrestling champions. It was said that every Maratha boy at the time could wrestle and even women took up the sport.
Chattrapati Shahu Maharaj (ruled 1894–1922) at the end of 19th century brought wrestling (kusthi) into fame at Kolhapur. Shahu Maharaj helped to built akharas all over Kolhapur and organized wrestling tournaments. He inviting legendary wrestlers from across undivided India. While in rest of the India wrestling arena known as Aakhara, but in Kolhapur it is known as Taleem . In Urdu Taleem literally means education. In Kolhapur wrestling has transformed in to life skill education from mere sports.
The Wrestlers of Kolhapur
Most of the wrestlers in the Kolhapur Taleem belong to agrarian families. Most of the wrestlers who come to train here have a tradition of wrestling in their family. Training for wrestlers begins at an early age. The training at the Taleem is based on high morale, fair play and ethical living. The wrestlers have to follow strict diet and personal discipline. In Kolhapur a wrestler and the Guru has high regard in society.
As the wrestlers belong from agrarian families, funding the training and diet of the wrestlers are difficult. During a poor harvest year many wrestlers leave their Taleem and again join back when finances are secured. But wrestling has become popular these days. Wrestling competitions are regularly held in the region. Wrestlers who perform well are also offered government and private jobs through the sports quota. Many wrestlers are also getting job offers as fitness trainers and bouncers. Few are not so lucky and end up as guards.
The diet of a Pehelwan (Wrestler)
The diet of a Wrestler (Pehelwan) is a curiosity of common masses. It is a strong belief that wrestlers eat a lot of food but actually wrestlers maintain a highly selective regimental diet. Fried and processed foods are big NO. A typical day of taleem starts at 5 am in the morning. The monthly expenditure on food and dietary supplements of a wrestler costs between 10 to 25 thousand rupees. The cost and the quantity vary with the age and weight of the wrestler.
Everyday diet of a typical wrestler includes almonds, pistachios and cashew nuts and eggs apart from a sizeable quantity of milk, fruit, desi ghee etc. Wrestlers also eat vegetables, lentils, grains, and other items. The diet of the wrestler is conceptualized with their exercise pattern and wrestling discipline.
The Taleems in Kolhapur
There are few well known taleems in Kolhapur that are still surviving the golden days of Wrestling in Kolhapur. Famous among them are Gangavesh Taleem, Shahupuri Taleem, Motibag Taleem and New Motibag Taleem. Shahu Maharaj built hundreds of Taleems across the city along with Khasbag Stadium. It is said that the stadium was inspired by the great roman Colosseum. It still remains one of the biggest wrestling stadiums in India.
All the surviving taleems in Kolhapur undertake mud-wrestling. In mud wrestling a wrestler grabs the langots and tries to pin down the opponent; it doesn’t have a time limit. In pro mat-wrestling the wrestler has to score points via takedown, throws and pin without grabbing the langot. There is a popular saying that mud-wrestling is slower than mat-wrestling although many wrestlers differ with this point.
Preparing the mud for wrestling
Traditional mud arenas are for wrestling is a highly pious process. Every day the mud arena is ploughed to make the sand smooth and clean. The unwanted objects are handpicked and separated out. The soil is then processed with turmeric powder, ghee, buttermilk, water, neem power and few other antiseptic elements. The entire process is done before the start of practice. Wrestler starts their practice session with a puja to Load Hanuman, the famous Hindu Load of strength and devotion. Every teleem has a small temple of Load Hanuman. Wrestlers wear a small red colour piece of cloth known a langot while practicing.
The wrestling mud is a pious thing for the wrestlers. They love to oil their body and smear it with the mud from the arena. There is a strong belief that Lord Hanuman has blessed the mud in the arena. Smearing of mud also serves another purpose of reducing friction caused due to oil and sweat. Once inside the Taleem caste, creed and religion are no more an issue. The pursuit is all about the divine brute force and energy.
The National and International wrestling tournaments are played on wrestling mats. The wrestling mats are special and very expensive, apart from the mat the set-up also needs to be improved. The wrestlers coming from these taleems have to do lot of un-learning to get a grip on mat wrestling. A single 40 square feet mat can cost upto Rs. 6 lakh and a majority of taleems can ill-afford to make such a huge investment.
Most of the district level local professional wrestling events happening in Maharastra, U.P, Punjab and Haryana involve mud-wrestling. Unlike a decade back these days the local events are very popular with more than 1 lakh spectators. These wrestling matches have huge prize money and sponsorship. They also have participation money which is not there in any national events. This is one of the reason why mat-wrestling is not so popular amongst the players and the masses. The wrestling matches are played with high betting money involved. Imagine the high that a wrestler gets through participating in such mud wrestling events. It is for this reason that the mud-wrestling is likely to go away anytime soon.
Tania Chatterjee is an avid portrait, travel and dpcumentary photographer. Her story on Kolhapur Taleem speaks about the grind and sweat of the wrestlers.
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