Kushti is a traditional form of Indian wrestling established centuries ago in Persia. In vogue particularly during the 16th-century Mughal era, this martial art continues to be practiced today. Indeed, kushti is more than traditional Indian wrestling: it is a way of life, perpetuating a tradition where every encounter serves as a spiritual quest. More than a sport, it is a lifestyle that requires the rigorous discipline of all martial arts.

Inside specially-built gymnasiums, known as an akhara, the wrestlers gather each day. Wearing only a well-adjusted loincloth (langot), wrestlers or pelwhans enter a pit made of clay to face off. The material is often mixed with salt, lemon and ghee (clarified butter). This clay, representing Mother Earth, is renewed every two years. Before every match, each wrestler covers the body of his adversary with this earth, whose color varies by region (red in Kolhapur, yellow in Varanasi). During combat, the coated bodies meld with the color of the arena.

The rule for winning is simple: the shoulders of your opponent must be pinned to the ground. It is strictly forbidden to strangle or throw punches, yet the swollen ears of seasoned wrestlers are testament to the vigorous contact that occurs.

The religious rituals of preparation before each fight are as important as the fight itself. Inside and around the arena, the statue of the monkey-god Hanuman serves as the object of litanies and daily prayers.

For long periods (between 6-12 months), wrestlers in training dedicate their bodies and souls to the practice of kushti. Living at the akhara, training begins with mastering self-control and learning to respect others. The wrestlers are bound by extremely demanding regimens: some will train 365 days a year, even in the summer when temperatures reach 40°. Up at 5 am, they will work out till 8 or 9. They break until 4 in the afternoon, when for the next two hours the skirmishes in the arena start up again. At the end of the day, wrestlers rest against the walls of the arena covering their heads and bodies with earth to soak up any perspiration and avoid catching colds. This relaxation ceremony is completed with massages to soothe tired muscles and demonstrate mutual respect. These massages, which require close contact between the men, create an atmosphere of social unity. Finally, a cold shower outside, with a simple hose or bucket over the head, signals that training is over.

Dietary rules are specific: almonds, milk, ghee and chapatis (traditional bread). Younger boys (from 7 to 8 years old), new recruits and novices handle all the peripheral services necessary for the smooth running of the akhara. Living together promotes camaraderie, solidarity and fraternity in this specific universe where time stands still. During the monsoon, they sleep together under large mosquito nets erected around the pit.

This spartan existence aims to awaken a heightened sense of self in the world. Participants exert themselves physically but also on a moral, spiritual and social level. From the moment they enter the akhara, a sacred space, strip down and coat their bodies with clay, they all become equal. Here, there are no castes; wrestlers of all ages and professions co-habitate. The hierarchy here is built solely on strength and capabilities. Yet physical strength is not the goal—rather a means to control muscles as well as the soul.

Today, the practice of kushti is in decline in India as youths are drawn away from traditional practices to global sports like football and cricket. Kolhapur and Varanasi are some of the few cities where the sport remains popular and where during the season, competitions are frequently organized.

—Alain Schroeder