The reputed Guru Shyamlal Aaya Nagar Akhara is located next to a crossing near Village Aya Nagar on MB Road on the outskirts of Delhi. The akhara is on the way from Delhi to Haryana’s now-famous town, Gurgaon, the Millennium City. It’s also along the route of the Delhi Metro and passengers can actually see the wrestlers practicing through the windows of the train, as that section of the Metro line is elevated.
Guru Shyamlal Aaya Nagar Akhara is an old akhara, says Ajit Pahlwan, the akhara’s senior wrestler. Ajit was once a pupil of Guru Shyamlal, who started the akhara about four decades ago. There were originally two akharas, but, he says, they were merged into one about 10 years ago, when the sport of wrestling in India was in decline. Ajit says now things are changing as more and more young wrestlers are seeking admission to the akhara, inspired by the recent success of Indian wrestlers on the world stage, such as World Champion and Commonwealth Games Gold Medalist Sushil Kumar.
There are 40-50 young wrestlers who train here. I began chatting with the brother of one of the wrestlers who supervises his sibling’s training. He says he comes with him to the akhara each day, which means getting up at 4 a.m. to make the 15 kilometer trek from their home, just so he can ensure that his brother does everything he can to become a great wrestler. After 3-4 hours of practice they go home, he says. There they take a rest and repeat the drill in the evening when they come back for another practice session.
The two men are unemployed and have been doing this for about 7 years. It will take 8-10 years to become a good Indian-style wrestler, he says.
The akhara is maintained by a group of veteran wrestlers, including:
- Ajit Pahlwan
- Rajinder Pahlwan
- Shri Pahlwan
- Rishi Pahlwan
- Ajeet Pahlwan
- Bishan Pahlwan
- Susheel Pahlwan
Becoming a great wrestler takes guts, strength and also money, says Khalifa ( guru) Ajit Singh. It might appear to be a low-cost sport, but a wrestler has to eat proper food, containing almonds, milk, ghee, etc. And without a job he has to rely upon his family for support.
During my visit, I also met the father of one of the best wrestlers of the akhara, Jeetu Pahalwan. The man, who works as a driver at a private company, is also son of Guru Shyamlal, who started the akhara. Guru Shyamlal went on to become a Sub Inspector in the Delhi Police Force, even though was illiterate, because of his wrestling fame. “My father started to bring Jeetu to the akhara. He wished Jeetu to become a good wrestler and now he is following his footsteps and won a national championship,” he says.
Recently, the akhara hired Coach Manoj Pahalwan to train wrestlers in freestyle wrestling. The young coach was trained at the famous Chatrasaal Stadium akhara in New Delhi, where Sushil Kumar also trained. Coach Manoj is very optimistic about his wrestlers and works hard with his pupils. The training starts with warm-ups -- running, and aerobics -- then he pairs off the wrestlers for practice, teaching techniques and the points system of freestyle wrestling. Most of the wrestlers have never wrestled on a mat before – having been trained only in traditional Indian-style wrestling in the pit. Many had never seen a wrestling singlet before and didn’t know that wrestling shoes are required in freestyle competition. (Shoes are forbidden in Indian-style wrestling.)
“It will take them time to learn things in the international style,” he says. “But once they adapt to it, they are certain to bring glory to the akhara and the village,” he adds, provided they put their hearts into it and train for 8-10 years.
I asked if wrestling had helped any of the wrestlers to gain employment. “No,” was the answer, but a few wrestlers from the akhara -- Azad Pahlwan, Sanju Pahlwan Ashok Pahlwan -- were able to get jobs in the armed forces and their wrestling careers helped with that.
Ajit Pahalwan, the veteran wrestler, remembered how Indian wrestling was adored in the past. There used to be block-wise wrestling competitions in Delhi and wrestlers from various blocks of all the districts of Delhi used to compete, drawing large crowds of spectators. The government used to organize the events and they were a runaway success. There used to be Bharat Kesari wrestling (Indian championship), in Delhi. The government would organize the competition at stadiums and the tickets would sell out. But the sport went into decline sport in 80’s until recently.
But Ajit Pahalwan hopes things are going to be different now. Sushil Kumar’s Olympic medal and world championship and the 10 gold medals won in the Commonwealth Games have given wrestling a shot in the arm. Ajit Pahalwan says the sports authorities and the government must help improve wrestling training facilities at the local level. He also hoped more dangals get sponsorship so that wrestlers who compete in these events can earn some money to support themselves. “If these things happen we shall be on the top of the world!” he exclaims.
Before leaving the akhara, I asked all the veteran wrestlers to pose for a group photo. I thanked all of them for letting me complete my work on the akhara and bid farewell.
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