Where to Go in 2019: For West Bengal’s Earthy Tales

A peek into the lives of the pehelwans of the Hooghly.  
Where to Go in 2019: Kolkata
The banks of the Hooghly are hallowed for their spectacular sunrise and sunset. They hold other secrets too, like these rustic akharas that keep tradition alive. Photo by: Manjit Singh Hoonjan

I am not new to Kolkata. I lived there for two years at the start of my career, made the occasional trip in between and have done the usual touristy activities—from wandering around the Victoria Memorial to eating egg rolls on Park Street. I have been on a boat ride on the Hooghly, never realising that there were akharas or wrestling schools there.

A few months ago, when Kaushik Chatterjee, our guide for the Kolkata morning walk suggested that my husband and I visit an akhara, we were intrigued. The school is situated by the Mallik Ghats on the Hooghly, near the flower market. A yellow board declares it to be the Siyaram Akhara Bayam Samity under the aegis of National wrestler Guru Jwala Tiwari. Behind the akhara is a decrepit old building with peeling walls and stained windows. Beside the akhara are steps leading to the ghats, a small makeshift temple with a clutch of idols where devotees place offerings of milk, oil and flowers. The rest of the ghats seem caught up in the early morning bustle, but the akhara is calm.

An open pit bounded by white washed pillars, festooned with colourful bunting is the wrestling arena. I step into it to get a closer look, but Tiwari admonishes me.

Where to Go in 2019: Kolkata 1

While young men training in akharas will never be an uncommon sight, these days, there are more women joining the akharas too. Photo by: Manjit Singh Hoonjan

“Remove your shoes,” he says. “This is a holy place.” The mud in the pit is not ordinary, or from the streets but a unique mixture prepared with herbs, turmeric powder, ghee, and mustard oil. Tiwari is a burly middle-aged man who is happy to talk to strangers about his passion. A receding hairline and a generous stomach belie his strength and grit. He hails from a family of pehelwans and came to Kolkata 35 years ago from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. There was too much competition there, too many wrestlers fighting for meagre amounts in local competitions. Kolkata, unfamiliar and unexplored, beckoned to a wrestler with dreams of setting up his school and churning out champions. I wonder whether life turned out the way he imagined, but he has no complaints.

“Has anything changed over time?” I ask him.

“There are more girls now who want to learn wrestling.” Many have been inspired by the success stories of Indian women wrestlers in international competitions and come there, hopeful, ambitious, taking out their rage and disappointment on the mud floor.

“But a wrestling mat is very expensive. Almost six lakhs,” sighs Tiwari as he moves towards the pit.

Where to Go in 2019: Cities 3

The mud in the pit is a unique mixture prepared with herbs, turmeric powder, ghee, and mustard oil. Photo by: Manjit Singh Hoonjan

The young wrestlers warm up by whirling stout wooden clubs called mudgars around their heads. A friendly match begins. I do not follow the sport and don’t understand the rules. But there is something tender about these young men with their muddy, naked bodies; the faint air of bravado tinged with despair. They grapple with each other, thrashing about like lost fish on the warm, moist mud by the banks of the river. It seems like a dance, a deceptive one where what seems like courtship ends with a deadly strike. A skinny young boy in an orange loin cloth manages to get the better of his heftier counterpart. Tiwari gets into the pit and demonstrates a counter move to the loser. The winner lies down on the floor and is rewarded with a back massage.

It is just another day at the akhara on the Hooghly.

(walkingtoursofkolkata.in; tours from Rs750 per person; wrestlers are paid a gratuity of Rs1,000-1,500 which goes towards the akharas’ upkeep. Photographer Manjit Singh Hoonjan conducts tours to the akharas; calcuttaphototours.com; shared tours adults from Rs2,000, children under 12 Rs1,200.)

  • Nirupama Subramanian is a columnist and author of two novels, "Keep The Change" and "Intermission". She has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition prize in 2006 for her short fiction.

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