Two American martial artists journey to India to track down traditional grapplers.
The cauliflower ears caught our attention. It was April 1998 in the city of Mysore in Southern India. Phil Migliarese, a jiu-jitsu black belt under Relson Gracie, and I were sitting on the fence bordering the Mysore central market, taking a rest from the oppressive heat. Having been in India for a few weeks, we’d grown accustomed to the inordinate amount of attention we drew from the locals. Wherever we went, a small crowd was sure to follow.
So it was no surprise to have two men drive up and park their motorcycle close to where we were sitting. However, when they dismounted, they glanced at us not with awe or curiosity but with disdain. Furthermore, they gave us the scantiest of looks, as if we didn’t even merit their full attention. It was when they turned away that we noticed their ears. Cauliflower ears. Wrestlers.
Coming to India
Phil and I hadn’t come to India to find wrestlers. We’d come to study ashtanga yoga with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the then 88-year-old patriarch of this ancient art. Phil was a teacher of Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Maxercise, the first center in Philadelphia to offer classes in the Gracie system. I was one of his students. Both of us shared a passion for ashtanga yoga, and early in 1998, we decided to deepen our study of it with a visit to Pattabhi Jois.
Before we left, we’d heard from various people that the roots of jujitsu lie in India, and we thought it would be interesting to go there and find some actual Indian wrestlers. Upon arriving in Mysore, we figured we’d just ask a taxi driver where the nearest wrestling school was.
We did just that, but the first rickshaw driver — taxis are rare in Mysore — told us there was no wrestling there. So did the second. And the third. Pretty soon, we’d resigned ourselves to the possibility that we might not encounter any Indian wrestlers. It wasn’t until the day we decided to go to the market that we found what we were looking for.
Phil and I immediately hurried after the two men. That was easier said than done in a crowded Indian market. Luckily, they were easy to spot, and not surprisingly, crowds readily made way for them. The wrestlers eventually disappeared into a banana stall in the heart of the market.
Almost out of breath, we reached the stall and saw the men seated in a circle with three others. All of them had large, impressive physiques — rare in Mysore — and they displayed the same cauliflower ears. Instinctively, the oldest man, who looked about 45, reached for the nearest bunch of bananas and asked, “How many?”
“No,” we replied, after which Phil and I simultaneously burst into an excited and incoherent explanation of why we’d come to India: “We study Brazilian jiu-jitsu with the Gracies. Do you know the Gracies? They’re famous! We heard that jujitsu has its roots in Indian wrestling. Are you wrestlers? I mean, those ears ... there’s no other way you can get those ears.”
It struck me that our rambling explanation probably would have left a native English speaker dumbstruck. We decided a more graphic demonstration was necessary, so Phil wrapped his right arm around my neck and started choking me. I dutifully responded with the appropriate defense, and Phil transitioned to an armbar. I tapped. We looked eagerly at the wrestlers.
This time, a glimmer of comprehension shone in their eyes. The largest man laughed and yelled something in Kannada, the dialect of Mysore. Then another man, the original passenger on the motorcycle, retrieved two more stools, placed them in front of us and motioned us to sit. With a brilliant smile, he said in clear English: "My name is Punesh Urs. I am a kushti wrestler. Welcome to Mysore.”
Modern forms of wrestling, judo and jujitsu attribute their beginnings to India. Here is wrestling in its most primitive and pristine form. The rules of kushti (also spelled gushti) have been preserved from its inception, which some historians have traced back to the time of the Buddha, around the fifth century B.C.
Kushti, although virtually unknown in the West, enjoys a wide following throughout India. Matches resemble boxing prizefights, drawing crowds of up to 10,000. The Mysore team is especially well-known, as it’s been the Karnataka state champion for many decades. A kushti match also resembles a Greco-Roman wrestling bout in that the objective is to put your opponent’s shoulders in contact with the ground.
Viewed as sacred events, matches take place in a ring of hallowed soil. Contests are always preceded by an elaborate ceremony in which priests bless the ground. Fighters don a thin strip of cloth around their waists and cover their bodies with coconut oil. Opponents fling mud at each other to facilitate any type of grip. Bouts have no time limits, no rounds and no draws.
Our new friend, Punesh, explained that the reason we were unable to find the famous Mysore wrestling team was that Phil and I had used the wrong words for wrestling — we’d tried Sanskrit and Hindi variations on the word “wrestling,” but they were apparently uncommon and virtually unknown.
Kushti is the formal name for Indian wrestling. Unlike “wrestling” or “grappling,” which are broad terms that encompass a variety of contact sports, kushti is a specific term that refers to one particular form of Indian wrestling.
The men who initially caught our attention in the Mysore market happened to be two of the most prominent athletic figures in the city. Punesh was a former champion bodybuilder and worked as a physical trainer in the most prestigious hotels and sports clubs around Mysore.
The driver of the motorcycle was Shankar Charavarthy, an imposing hulk of a man who, at 330 pounds, commanded attention and respect with his mere presence. He was the reigning Karnataka kushti champ, and his skill and strength were legendary.
The other men in the banana stall were also wrestlers, two of them former members of the Mysore kushti team. The oldest, who turned out to be 65, was Shankar’s father and the proud owner of the stall. After an hour of gesticulating, demonstrating and, thankfully, translating by Punesh, Phil and I won ourselves an invitation to a practice session with the Mysore team the following day.
Story and photos by Joji Montelibano, a freelance writer and martial artist based in Santa Monica, California.