Wrestling has long been part of Indian culture. At one time, every village, town and city had multiple akharas with gurus who taught the art of wrestling free of charge. The guru is sacred and he controls everything inside the akhara. According to Indian literature, the guru is higher than a god because the guru teaches about the gods.
Historically wrestlers were the most respected athletes and Pahalwan is still a revered title in India. But after independence cricket started to grow more popular and wrestling started to decline. Fewer parents sent their sons to learn wrestling and the number of akharas dwindled. But things are changing now. The recent success of famous athletes like Sushil Kumar has renewed interest in the sport and wrestling legends like Guru Hanuman, Guru Jasram, Guru Chandgi ram, Capt. Chandrup, etc., have helped keep wrestling alive.
Recently I went to Haryana to visit a beautiful akhara in a village called Palwal. There is a large dirt wrestling pit in the center and a mat for freestyle and Greco-roman wrestling off to the side. There’s also a very nice temple and several rooms where the wrestlers sleep. The village itself is set amid lush farmland. It’s a very peaceful and picturesque place.
When I reached the akhara Guru Samandar welcomed us and showed great warmth and hospitality. Guru Samandar started the akhara about 15 years ago. And he had learned wrestling in his youth from Bharat Kesari Guru Leelu Pahalwan of village Lalpura. Guru Leelu Pahalwan had a famous bout long ago with Guru Chandgi ram ji in which the wrestled to a draw. Guru Samandar told me that he has loved kushti since childhood. He purchased the piece of land for the akhara and constructed the temple so that wrestlers could worship the Lord Hanuman. The government has done very little to support the akhara and one of the problems they face is lack of information regarding major competitions.
Guru Samandar said that all the wrestlers get food from home. Their families are poor farmers and work hard to provide things like almonds and milk which are staples in the wrestlers’ diet. If a wrestler can’t afford to buy food, Guru Samandar chips in from his own pocket, even though he, himself, is a farmer without much money. Such is the devotion a guru shows to his akhara.
One of the best things about visiting akharas is that the gurus, coaches and wrestlers have always welcomed me like an old friend and I am deeply thankful to all of them for that. By telling their stories I hope people become more aware of their hard work and sacrifice and I hope wrestling will continue to grow in India.