Deepak Ansuia Prasad continues his exploration of akharas around Delhi with a visit to an unusual facility at Gur Mandi.
Dasharath Pahalwan, a friend of mine who is a wrestling coach and a physical education instructor recently invited me to visit Guru Premnath akhara in Gur Mandi, north Delhi.
Indian akharas are normally run by elders or gurus, adhering to the old customs and culture, requiring strict obedience to ancient rules. But Guru Premnath akhara is totally different. It is run by one young and experienced wrestler who is a reputed coach and referee, under the supervision of his father, Guru Premnath, who once in while will come and check the progress of the pupils.
Guru Premnath’s son Vikram Pahalwan was busy training the wrestlers when we reached the place. He welcomed us and started talking about the akhara. He said the akhara was first established in 1948 by Guru Baijnath, a disciple of Guru Hanuman. At that time settlers, slum dwellers and labourers used to live around here and the place was almost deserted. Guru Baijnath ran the akhara for a long time and then handed over the reins to Guru Premnath in 1976. He ran the akhara until about 5-6 years ago when Vikram Pahalwan took over.
The akhara is also known as Sonkar wrestling club, as the community around the akhara is known by that name. The community donates and helps in maintaining it.
Presently 13-14 national and international wrestlers along with a number of other pupils are being trained in the akhara, and many of the wrestlers are being sent to a wrestling camp for the upcoming junior national games to be held at Kanyakumar.
The akhara has a great history of producing renowned wrestlers like Sangeet, Laxmi Narayan of Orisa, Rajesh (Malwa) Pahlwan, Bitto and Mausam Khatri the great Olympic wrestler.
The wrestlers compete in all sort of wrestling competitions, national and international as well as dangals, the local wrestling matches. Recently one of the akhara’s wrestlers named Birju defeated the renowned wrestler Varun of Railway at a traditional wrestling competition at Jhansi, MP. Two girls of the akhara won in the national games and got medals, while a male wrestler won a medal in the Greco-Roman category.
The akhara is clean and well-maintained. It’s a two-story building with a dirt wrestling pit on the ground floor as well as a sauna and bathing facilities and a few rooms for the wrestlers. There are two big ropes hanging down from the top floor for climbing. It is amazing that without any commercial activities the akhara has sustained itself only with help from the guru and the Sonkar community. However, the mat could use a replacement, but mats are expensive and therefore help is needed the government or from a corporate donor.
All the wrestlers I talked to were happy with the facilities and the training provided by the akhara and were confident that they could win some medals in competition to make their coaches proud. All were from very poor families. “Why would a girl from a rich family practice wrestling?” asked Vikram Pahalwan. “Wealthy people teach their children to stay away from harm.”
He said he went door to door to persuade people to send their daughters to learn wrestling. “It payed off and we have many girls learning wrestling here.” Vikram Pahalwan said that Haryana has done a great job helping medal winners secure government jobs and wished all the states would do the same. He told me the story of a wrestler who fractured his leg recently. There was nobody to support him because his parents were very poor and the medical expenses were so high. He had to collect donations in order to get him treated and is doing some daily chores like cleaning and maintaining the akhara to earn some income. “These children really need support,” he said.
Traditional dirt pit wrestling is still a breeding ground for wrestlers in India. It’s where new wrestlers are trained and after that they learn the international format. Traditional wrestling also offers wrestler the opportunity to earn some money in local wrestling competitions Vikram says.
Vikram Pahalwan and his assistant, Bobby Sonkar, are both very dedicated to wrestling and hope that their students are able to turn their hard work into medals.