Mark in India: Kushti Wrestling
Wrestling Roots’ most intrepid traveler, Mark Lovejoy, has once again logged a unique wrestling experience and shared his experience with our readers. Slideshow of photos are at the bottom of the post — don’t miss out and be sure to comment!
Before I try to put my thoughts into words, I just wanted to say a huge thank you to Ansuia Prasad for putting up with me, bringing me all over town, and buying me a half-dozen chai teas that are keeping me awake tonight to type this write-up. The passion you have for the history and the future of your sport was so much fun to witness today.
Two years ago, I was teaching at an international school in New Delhi, India. While living here, a chance bump-in at a coffee shop while wearing a tshirt depicting our inaugural wrestling season, lead to an invitation to visit a Kushti wrestling gym. This early morning visit led to an email exchange with some random guy who wrote about a similar experience he had while visiting Vietnam…that guy ended up establishing Wrestling Roots.
Fast forward to today and I am back in New Delhi. I will be spending this coming weekend refereeing an “American style” wrestling jamboree between my old team here and the two other international schools in the world that have established “American style” wrestling teams.
After another series of email exchanges, but this time with a true expert in the history of Kushti, Ansuia Prasad, led me to the first-hand experience I had today.
According to Ansuia, a form of wrestling was found within scriptures found in this region of the globe dating back 4,000 years ago. Because the writings are so old, it is hard to state exactly what the genesis of the sport’s rules are. But, these artifacts give more evidence that wrestling truly is the world’s oldest sport.
No one knows exactly where Kushti originated. The sport is older than the boundaries that separate the counties of the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, the wrestlers in both India and Pakistan have much respect for each other since they share a common past. Even though they live in countries that currently have much tension between the two, according to the men I met today, the athletes have nothing but peace and respect for each other. It may be too simplified (and hyperbolic) to state that wrestling brings peace… but it doesn’t hurt.
According to the Kushti gym’s guru, men from around the world throughout history have come to India to learn Kushti wrestling. Therefore, having some random global nomad like me appearing at their training session today was not as unique as I envisioned.
Unlike most forms of wrestling, there are no points awarded during a Kushti match. Rather, there is only one way in which a winner is declared: by pin.
Matches are conducted by fixed times (there are no periods or rest, just one continuous match). Since matches can only be won by a pin, you can take your opponent down dozens of times during your match; however, if you do not secure a pin, the match will end in a draw. A pin is earned once your opponent’s shoulders immediately touch the ground.
Matches vary in length depending on how old the contestants are.
- Kids’ matches last 2 minutes
- Juniors have matches that last 5 minutes
- Seniors have matches that last 15 minutes
- The finals of some tournaments or “big” matches will be contested with no time limit. They simply wrestle until a pin is earned.
- Even though there is a “ring” made of chalk on the ground, there are no actual boundaries during a kushti match. There have been contests that have ended up within the midst of the spectators. The two opponents continue to wrestle even in the spectators’ area until a pin is secured.
- Unlike many forms of wrestling, you may grab onto your opponents shorts (called a Janghiya) to try to take him down. This is not unlike judo or BJJ competitions with a gi. My assumption is that this is why the Jaghiyas are so small.
Hybrid style of Kushti
Due to the recent success of Indian wrestlers within international competitions, there has been new interest in teaching freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. India has had a very strong showing in both the 2010 Commonwealth Games (hosted by New Delhi) and during the 2008 Olympics. A major reason for this success has been due to the success of Sushil Kumar. Sushil earned a bronze medal during the Beijing Games and earned the gold medal during the 2010 World Championships. The positive press he received in India has become a catalyst of interest of the sport in this country of 1.2 billion people.
To keep up with this new interest in international styles of wrestling, some Kushti gyms have adapted by creating a sort of hybrid of the two forms. This is why there was both a traditional sand pit for Kushti wrestling and a regulation wrestling mat within the same gym I visited today. During our session we had two separate practices: one freestyle and one kushti.
However, this hybrid form of the sport has caused some awkwardness. For instance, since a kushti pin happens when your shoulders immediately touch the ground, techniques such as a gut-wrench and gator roll will cause the offensive wrestler to lose the match.
With that said, this hybrid sport takes its scoring from international rules. The match’s length is still the same (one very long period), but wrestlers score points based upon takedowns. After the time concludes, the winner of the match is determined by whoever scores the most points (unless there is a pin). If a there is a tie after the clock runs out, the winner is the wrestler who scored the most recent point at the end of the match (i.e. whoever scored the last point of the match is declared the winner).
Even though this new form of wrestling is still experiencing some growing pains, it shows just how hard Indians are trying to keep up with the contemporary standards of the sport of wrestling, but still respecting the history and culture of a sport that is thousands of years old.
- Most Kushti wrestlers are vegetarians. Therefore, their diet consists of lentils, flatbread, and clarified butter (ghee). To get the protein they need to keep their strength up (and oh man are these guys strong) they eat a mixture of almonds and milk. This mixture is high in protein and calories.
- The SAND!
- The sand truly is a great equalizer for a match. It slows everyone down. Therefore, technique is paramount.
- Since the sand makes it incredibly hard to shoot in for a takedown, much of the takedowns are scored with upper body attacks, not unlike Greco-Roman wrestling. For example, my attempted single-leg takedown was greeted with sand in my face…and a lack of desire to attempt that again.
- Plus, when wrestling on an actual mat, one does not get nervous when an opponent takes you down. In fact, many points are score on a wrestling mat by simply continuing the momentum of your opponent to score either a takedown or reversal. However, once you are taken down within the sand of a kushti pit, your movement simply stops in its tracks. There is no momentum to keep the wrestlers going to hope for a reversal. Once you opponent takes you to the sand…you’re going to stay there for a long while.
The amount of respect all the wrestlers have for their guru was amazing to watch. Before each man took to the practice mat, they gently touched his leg and/or feet to show a sign of respect. It was very tender thing to watch such hulking athletes show their elderly guru such deference.