How can India's ancient form of wrestling (kusti) be revived?
If we track the origins of Kusti, it all started sometime in 5th century BC. Back then, Kusti was known as Malla Yuddha, meaning “wrestling combat”. We can also see the reference of Malla Yuddha in our ancient scriptures like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Malla Yuddha used to be a competition held for entertainment as it was popular among the population at at large, where even the Kings used to take part in it. The two opponents who used to participate, represented their respective King who belonged to different provinces.
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The bouts were usually death matches which were used to settle disputes and avoid war. In fact, Buddha before achieving enlightenment was known to be an expert wrestler. In the 13th century, a detailed exposition called “Malla Purana” was written. Malla Purana classifies the different types of wrestling, it explains in great details about the techniques of wrestling, the different forms of exercises required to prepare for a bout. It also provides a fair account of the diet the wrestlers have to follow during each season of a year. Such was the level of knowledge and expertise ancient India had about wrestling.
But the traditional Indian wrestling began to decline in the northern part of India with the invasion of Mughals. After the invasion, certain features of Persian wrestling were incorporated into Malla Yuddha. But the southern part of India still followed the traditional Malla Yuddha which was popular in the Vijayanagara Empire. But the influence of Persian wrestling stuck with Malla Yuddha in the north, the fusion of which created the modern Kusti.
It was much later during the 17th century that Ramadasa the “father of Indian athletics” traveled the country encouraging Hindus to participate in wrestling to pay homage to the monkey god Hanuman. Ramadasa found the support of the Maratha rulers who supported kusti by announcing a huge prize money to the winner of the tournament. This encouraged everyone from small boys to women who took up the Kusti passionately. Later, during the colonial period, local princes sustained the popularity of kusti by holding matches and competitions. The greatest wrestling centres were said to be Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab, which have continued this tradition even to this day. From here on Kusti became a sport rather than a physical fight between two individuals.
Subsequently, India produced famous wrestlers like Great Gama (he was part of British India and later part of Pakistan after the partition) and Gobar Goho. But Indian wrestling truly came off age during 1962, when India won 12 medals in fourth Asian Games in freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling, with all the seven participating wrestlers among the medals. The Indian wrestlers continued their medal streak in the Commonwealth Games held at Kingston, Jamaica, where all the 8 participating wrestlers secured medals. This string of strong performances led to India hosting the world wrestling championships in New Delhi in 1967.
Unfortunately, over a period of time, we have neglected Kusti a sport which had such a rich history in our tradition. Today, the sport of Kusti has few takers, present only in rural areas and places where it has had a strong traditional connect like Punjab and Kohlapur. The world over, the concept of wrestling has evolved over the course of time, with mats replacing the traditional wrestling on mud pits.
The athletes practicing Kusti today still follow the age old tradition. This has limited the presence of Kusti to India and may be to some Asian subcontinental countries. This is because in major tournaments like the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, the concept of wrestling has changed. Wrestlers around the world now use mats and the training and preparation is drastically different to the wrestlers who practice Kusti, which still follows the training regimen which is over 150 years old.
Nowadays, Kusti has been reduced to local tournaments conducted in Kusti strongholds like Punjab and Kohlapur. For example, the biggest international wrestling tournament conducted at Warananagar in Kolhapur district, held on December 13 every year, has the largest wrestling maidan in Maharashtra. It attracts top wrestlers from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and even some African nations. Surprisingly, wrestlers from Pakistan and Iran have a huge fan-following during such events. Mr. Vinay Kore, MLA (and former minister) from Kolhapur and the organizer of the event says that up to three lakh people can gather during the event on December 13.
So, clearly there is some potential in Kusti still left. But unfortunately, it is still confined to just a few regions. The heads of the Kusti federations are mostly politicians who are interested in only gathering crowds for their political ambitions. You will be surprised to know that Union Minister Sharad Pawar is the head of the Wrestling Federation in Maharashtra. Still nothing has been done to promote kusti on a large scale. Another factor is that the wrestlers who aspire to take up Kusti as a sport usually come from poor farming families. The diet a wrestler has to follow usually costs him around Rs. 500-700 a day. On an average, a young wrestler earns Rs. 2,000 a bout and the experienced wrestlers get around Rs. 5,000. Also since Kusti is majorly practiced in rural areas, it is intrinsically linked to the farm/agricultural economy, which is very fragile and further adds to the woes.
The efforts to conduct Kusti on mats haven’t been feasible because a standard-size mat measuring 40 feet by 40 feet costs around Rs. 7 lakh. This is far beyond the reach of tiny village taleems (wrestling schools for Kusti). There is also an argument that if a switch is made to mats, most local tournaments might lose their relevance and hence wind up. So, the organizer of the tournament and the taleems are not prepared for a major switch to mat wrestling.
So, at the moment there are problems aplenty for Kusti. The top political leaders who head the various wrestling federations, need to stand up and take notice of the situation. The most important need of Kusti at the moment is good infrastructure for the taleems and financial encouragement to the wrestlers who have the potential to compete at the highest level. Efforts should also be made to bring in private players as sponsors to try and infuse some money into Kusti.
May be we can look at WWE (although it is different in concept to Kusti) and how the promoters of these wrestling federations effectively travel throughout the country and stage shows. Let’s hope wrestling federations wake up and take the necessary actions to reinstate the historic glory of Kusti that it so richly deserves.