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Jan 5, 2010

An akhara of aspirations

Young wrestlers in the invisible margins, ignored by the sports establishment, prepare for another year of reckoning and recognition

Akash Bisht Delhi


It is one of the coldest days of the season and the icy winds following fresh snowfall in Himachal and Kashmir enter the bone marrow as people shiver in Delhi. In these hostile weather conditions, a young man dressed only in langot (a piece of cloth tied like an underwear), tries hard to light a diya at a Hanuman temple in Guru Hanuman Akhara near Roshanara Park in Old Delhi. Several others dressed in langots roam around the courtyard of the akhara busy with their daily chores, unperturbed and completely unselfconscious of their bodies.
Born in 1925, the akhara (wrestling pit) was a gift from industrialist KK Birla to Guru Hanuman, a legendary wrestler and trainer, who used it to groom young wrestlers as world-class competitors. It was earlier known as Birla Vyayamshala and later renamed after Guru Hanuman.
Guru Hanuman was an icon in the wrestling spectrum in India, a media celebrity those days when sports did not only mean big bucks cricket, a familiar face around sports journalists at newspaper offices during the 1980s. His old akhara is considered as the epicentre of wrestling in India. It has produced some of the finest wrestling talents of the country.
Indeed, time stands still here, despite the hype around the wrestling Olympic bronze won by Sushil Kumar. (Indeed, before his Olympic feat, Sushil Kumar himself trained in a huge ramshackle dormitory in Delhi with abysmal facilities, sharing living space with other youngsters, completely ignored by our sports establishment.) Nothing much has changed in this akhara too since 1925.
The door that leads to the akhara bears the testimony of time. The small door looks like the typical entrance to an archaic temple tucked under a tree in the backwaters of a small town. One wonders how these 6 feet plus wrestlers manage to wriggle in and out of this miniscule structure with such ease.
The door leads to a small courtyard that has several gas stoves strewn all over. On some of these stoves, empty utensils used for boiling milk are yet to be cleaned. Some drops of milk and coarse almonds stuck at the bottom give a clue of the ingredients. Few steps further you can get a glimpse of a small pit filled with sand that has young boys trying hard to pin down their counterparts in a wrestling bout.
Senior wrestlers dressed in langots watch carefully while a vocal instructor keeps the young boys on their toes. The instructor in a blue jacket with 'India' written on it keeps patting the heads of boys and men who bow down to touch his feet, reaffirming the old guru-shishya parampara.
He is Maha Singh Rao who has for the past 26 years dedicated his life to the cause of wrestling, "ignoring his family life", as the folklore goes among young wrestlers. It's like 'tapasya' and 'sanyas' for him, says one of his disciples. Rao came to Delhi in the mid-1980s and met his fellow villager Guru Hanuman who asked him to come over to the akhara. So impressed was he with Guru Hanuman that he soon became his assistant. Thus began a long legacy of great wrestling, Indian style.


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