Far from the hype that surrounds India’s wealthy professional cricketers, a group of young men learn to wrestle in mud pits, hoping their skills may one day lead to fame and glory.
Wearing only a langot, or loin cloth, the boys — some as young as 12 — pump weights before entering the pit to learn the nuances of wrestling, one of India’s traditional rural pastimes.
Enduring Spartan training and living conditions, the boys are determined to escape forever the poverty of their home villages and make it big on the world stage.
Akharas, as the mud pits are called in Hindi, are a key part of India’s efforts to succeed at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October.
Over the years the akharas have produced India’s finest wrestling talent, including Sushil Kumar, who won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
In the 1990s, the Wrestling Federation of India tried to ban akharas on the grounds that young men found it difficult to adjust from mud pits to the mats used for international competitions.
But Kumar says he owes his success to a youth spent in akharas.
“They shaped both my body and my thinking,” Kumar, 26, said. “If you want to learn wrestling, learn it the traditional Indian away. There is nothing like it.”
The most famous wrestling school in India is Guru Hanuman’s Akhara, located off a bustling by-lane in old Delhi and named after a legendary trainer who died in a car accident in 1999 at the age of 98.
A dilapidated door separating the akhara from the outside world opens onto a courtyard littered with unwashed utensils and gas stoves.
In the center is the sand and mud pit where boys train under the watchful eyes of chief coach Maha Singh Rao.
Some 125 trainees, many of whom live on the premises, follow Rao’s strict regime, which begins before dawn with a long run on roads outside the akhara, followed by exercises and weight training.
They train for three hours after breakfast before taking time off to cook their own food and rest ahead of another strenuous session in the pits in the evening.
Meals are vegetarian, cooked in ghee — rich clarified butter — with a generous helping of nuts and dried fruits, washed down with fruit juice and milk.
“The key to making a good wrestler is speed, technique, strength and stamina,” Rao said. “But it’s not all about strength. You also need to use your brains.”
Some wrestlers, like Kumar, go on to attain international glory. Others with similar talents struggle due to a lack of financial support and poor development programs.
Rao said despite their successes, wrestlers frequently don’t get the credit they deserve.
“The media and sponsors have time and money only for cricket,” he said. “Boys come to the akhara to do well in the sport, so that it can get them a career and jobs. Some are fortunate enough to make a name for themselves.”
Kumar’s bronze at Beijing was India’s first Olympic wrestling medal since Khashaba Jadhav’s third place at the 1952 Melbourne Games.
Wrestling did not feature in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, but India won three golds and three silvers in the seven events contested in Manchester four years earlier.
Many of Rao’s pupils hope to take part at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and the trainer believes India can claim the majority of the 14 gold medals on offer for men.
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