This is a story about the life and dreams of the Kushti wrestlers in the Indian city Kolhapur. It's a sport with an ancient history that dates back at the very least to the Parthian Empire (132 BC to 226 AD). The Empire was situated where Iran and Iraq are today and the sport is still being practiced in India, Pakistan and Iran.
Many of the wrestlers in Kolhapur left their home villages even before they turned 10 years old to start their training. They move in to so called Akharas (gyms) and after that they get to reunite with their families just around two to four times a year. The Akhara and it's members becomes their new family, the wrestling becomes their new way of life. Usually the parents send their kids away because of a wrestling interest in the family combined with dreams about the honor and money that it's possible to get if their sons turn into successful champions. A state champion is even remembered and respected after his death.
The parents invest a lot of money in their kids when sending them away so the pressure to succeed is big. The biggest expense is for food. A growing wrestler eats for around 60 000 indian rupees a year, that is around 1230 dollars. According to Unicef the average yearly income (GNI per capita) in India 2009 was 1170 dollars. So driven by their Gurus (teachers) strict regimes and their and their families dreams about success they practice six hours a day, six days a week.
The rules in Kushti is similar to the ones in Western wrestling, as the goal of both the sports is to pin the opponent’s back to the floor. The wrestling itself takes place in a pit whose floor is covered of soft red gravel/soil instead of the wrestling mats used in the West. A lot of focus is put on the right practice, right food and right sleep as this is what creates the healthy and strong bodies needed in wrestling. Drinking, smoking and even sex are off limits. The focus is on living a pure life, building strength and honing their wrestling skills.
Where earth turns into gold A story about the life and dreams of Kushti wrestlers
A boy is smearing red earth over his body after a exhausting match in Kushti, an ancient form of wrestling still practiced in India. The red soil is considered holy and covers the floor of the Akhara (training room) in order to make the ground softer and to increase the grip on the wrestlers bodies. The soil also makes the body cool off slower after practice. To take a shower while still being hot is considered unhealthy.
Before the fighting takes place the soil is prepared with a hack. The red earth is mixed together with purified butter called ghee and other things to get the right texture, color and smell.
A group picture of some of the members of New Motibag Talim. In Kolhapur there are at least six major Akharas (gyms). In this one, over 200 wrestlers live together in a community.
Two wrestlers in the Shahupuri Akhara measure their strength during afternoon practice.
The wrestlers train hard and it's common to practice six hours a day, six days a week. Thursdays are a holiday because it’s the day of the God that they worship, the hindu monkey God Hanunman. Most the training boys and men are driven by dreams about the fame, honor and money that comes with a successful wrestling career.
It’s not that uncommon for the practitioners of Kushti to have left their family before the age of 10 or younger to begin their training. They usually come from small villages outside Kolhapur and after leaving they rarely get to reunite with their biological families on a regular basis. The Akhara and its members become their new home and extended family; the wrestling becomes their new way of life.
A man is polishing the portrait of his Guru (teacher) Ganpatrao Krushnaji Patil. Gunpatrao became all India champion in his youth and is now at the age of 75 years still the main teacher at New Motibag Thalim.
Here two bigger boys are practicing while the younger ones are learning by watching the techniques and strategies played out in front of their eyes. Traditionally, there are only men training Kushti and the wrestlers are not allowed to have girlfriends or wifes until they finish their wrestling career.
After practice, the wrestlers shower outside in the courtyard to rinse off the red earth smeared all over their bodies. The water in the Akharas is considered to be purer then in most other places and they take several showers every day.
Night is falling over New Motibag Thalim and the wrestlers are getting ready for the night. The house that they live in is a broken down concrete house with missing walls and windows. Some of the wrestlers sleep under the stars on the roof while others spread out their blankets inside on the Akharas stone floor . Except for their blankets and a few spare clothes they don't have a lot of belongings.
When not wrestling the boys spend time together chatting about life, joking around as well as doing household chores like cooking and cleaning. The wrestlers buy and prepare their own food. Usually they eat together sitting in a circle on the stone floor. Some of them also study for future professions as most of the wrestlers stop competing when they are around 25 years old. To become a policeman is a popular choice as a second career.
At the different Akharas it’s common to give each other a daily oil massage to help loosen up tense muscles. Massage is for this purpose considered an important exercise in Kushti.