At 3 o’clock the next afternoon, Punesh Urs and Shankar Charavarthy showed up at our door on two motorcycles and gave us a lift to the kushti shala (wrestling school). It was a humble, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it establishment, located on a dirt road in the middle of a nondescript neighborhood. No signs indicated that this was where the wrestlers trained.
We entered through a rickety metal gate and found ourselves in a small square with a basin of water sitting at the center. A clothesline was strung around the perimeter, on which hung several strands of cloth. To our horror, we learned that these meager fibers would serve as our uniforms during the workout. The loincloths weren’t unlike the mawashi worn by sumo wrestlers. Their sole purpose was to keep unwanted appendages out of the way during a match.
After reluctantly donning our very uncomfortable loincloths, we entered a separate room that measured about 30 feet square. It reminded me of any jujitsu or judo hall, except that in place of mats, it had a two-foot-high platform of mud. We lined up along the edge to begin the day’s practice.
About 15 wrestlers had gathered, ranging from 12 to 91 years old. The eldest, Balaji, began with a solemn chant honoring the god Hanuman, the patron of all kushti warriors. After the short prayer, we stepped onto the platform and formed a circle.
The warm-ups were arduous. They consisted of several sun salutations, in which we bent forward to touch our hands to the floor, jumped back to a push-up position, moved our chests forward and upward to do a backbend, and then lifted our buttocks toward the ceiling in what’s known in yoga as the downward-dog pose. The series of movements and postures was difficult enough, but the wrestlers insisted on making it even more challenging by passing around a 110-pound concrete ring that was placed around each man’s neck. Phil and I couldn’t even support the ring while standing up.
Following the sun salutations were more familiar calisthenics and stretches that, thankfully, we were capable of doing. Fifteen minutes later, we were ready to wrestle.
Shankar was the instructor. He talked us through the general objective of kushti: to touch your opponent’s shoulders to the ground. However, kushti uses no point system, so the matches continue until there’s a victor.
The techniques Shankar then demonstrated were similar to standard wrestling pins, throws and locks. I dare say the Mysore team was quite impressed with our command of them. After about 45 minutes, Phil and I thought that we had this kushti thing down pat. The practice, however, proved to be merely a rehearsal for the real thing which, as we all know, doesn’t always turn out the way we expect.
Shankar decided that Phil and I were ready for a match. I was up first, and my opponent was Punesh. Before we began, we were given a bowl of coconut oil to spread over our bodies. In fact, one’s team members were expected to help spread the oil on the fighter’s body to make sure every area was covered. Although slightly shaken by this unforeseen moment of intimacy, I was soon ready to rumble.
I faced Punesh and moved forward to attack. Rather than defend, however, he bent down, took a handful of mud and threw it at me. I retreated, not knowing exactly what was happening, and he kept on dealing the dirt.
Not quite ready to engage in a mudslinging contest, I went for a double-leg takedown — and slipped. Punesh was just too oily, but I was covered with mud, which provided him with enough friction to apply a hold. The match was over in a few seconds.
I followed my instinct which, when faced with an unfamiliar adversary, is to put him in my guard. Because it involved placing my shoulders on the ground, I lost.
Next were Phil and Shankar. Phil had learned from my mistake, and immediately he engaged in the mudslinging ritual before the actual wrestling. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is a dangerous person, but so is a kushti champion. Both Shankar and Phil knew that, and rather than release their full fury on each other, they took it easy, applying a few leg sweeps here and there, attempting a throw and so on.
The match wasn’t all that exciting, and not surprisingly, Shankar got Phil on the ground pretty easily. Phil was impressed with his technique, and Shankar said the feeling was mutual.
There’s nothing better than the end of a hard practice. The kushti wrestlers know that and milk it for all it’s worth. After a final prayer thanking Hanuman for the opportunity to train, we all lay down and covered ourselves with the cooling, healing mud. I’d never had a mud bath in my life, but at that moment, I understood why people did it.
We rested there for a good five minutes, got up and bowed to Shankar and Balaji. At 91, Balaji didn’t participate in most of the practice, but his presence lent an air of profundity and wisdom to the session.
With everyone covered in mud, the logical question was, Where’s the shower? There were no showers at the shala, but there was that large basin of water at the center of the square. Phil and I joined the wrestlers as they formed a circle around the basin and faced to the right.
The procedure involved taking a little bucket out of the basin and washing the person in front of you. Again, Phil and I were taken aback by yet another intimate exchange, but we decided it would be best to go with the flow. Besides, we probably turned out cleaner that way.
At 5:30 p.m., Shankar and Punesh drove us back to our rooms. Thus concluded our first day of kushti.
Phil remained in Mysore, India, for a month after our first session, and both he and I trained regularly with the team during that time. I stayed on for three more months after his departure and had the opportunity to witness the Karnataka State Kushti Championship, which took place in Mysore that year.
More than 5,000 spectators showed up to witness the matches. The Mysore team had eight wrestlers competing, and I had the honor of sitting ringside with them.
As in the shala, the ring was a circular mound of mud with a flat top. The competitions began with an elaborate ceremony — kushti is, after all, a sacred art form, and rituals had to be carried out to prepare the field of battle. Garlands of flowers, colored dust and assorted charms were strewn around the ring, and Brahman priests circumambulated it several times, chanting a litany of praises to the pantheon of Hindu gods, especially to Hanuman.
Then the matches commenced, beginning with the lightest weight class. About 30 bouts took place during the day, with six of the first seven Mysore wrestlers winning theirs. Each bout finished fairly quickly, lasting an average of three minutes.
The headline fight was between Shankar and an equally imposing giant from the northeastern part of Karnataka. The match lasted 15 minutes, with both men exhibiting impressive grace and agility for athletes of their size. In the end, it was Shankar who prevailed, taking his opponent’s back and lifting him overhead for a perfect takedown.
The crowd erupted; for the fourth year in a row, the Mysore wrestlers had won the majority of their matches. Although no formal title was bestowed on the team, everyone in town knew who the kushti champions were.
Since that initial visit to Mysore in 1998, I’ve kept in touch with Punesh, who regularly updates me about the status of kushti there. Sadly, its popularity has declined over the years. Younger people aren’t as drawn to the ring as they are to computers, movies and cars. Still, the wrestlers command the same respect from the locals.
Punesh and Shankar took jobs with the Mysore Police Department, and Shankar is the proud father of three children. The demands of fatherhood and livelihood have eaten away at his practice time, but he still dominates the field.
In 2002 I returned to Mysore, where I practiced with the team again for two months. Balaji, then 95, was still going strong. At a regional kushti championship that I was lucky enough to attend, the Mysore team prevailed, and Shankar won his match handily.
Kushti matches continue throughout the rural areas of India, and even some city dwellers are showing interest in the sport. In February 2004, a large competition took place in Mumbai, where more than 60 wrestlers competed in front of 5,000 spectators. Recently, some American organizations, such as Dungal USA, located in Texas, have begun promoting the art, and that’s encouraging news for wrestling enthusiasts and martial arts historians around the world.
Story and photos by Joji Montelibano, a freelance writer and martial artist based in Santa Monica, California.