Visiting an Akhada has been on my wishlist for quite some time. It was during the recent trip to Varanasi that I was able to spend a morning at the famous Tulsi Akhada. It is located at Tulsi Ghat, not too far from the more famous Assi ghat in Varanasi. One fine morning I reached the Akhada around 6:30 AM. Pahalwan’s were still to come so I took a small walk around the place.
I reached the house of Goswami Tulsidas – the author of Tulsi Ramayan. No Photography was the condition on which I was allowed to enter the house – the temple is open to the public. I went around the house with goosebumps all over my body. This was the place where one of the most popular works of Indian literature was written. A rather simple house has three parallel windows looking out towards Ganga. You see the boats moving to and fro as the pilgrims pray. How can your creative juices not flow, when you sit there?
A small temple of Hanuman sits in the corner of the house. A small niche has books lined up, though I could not see Tulsi Ramayan anywhere around. Talking to the men sitting there I learned that the Akhada was set up by the Tulsidas Ji. This not only means that this is a 500-year-old Akhada but the fact that Tulsidas Ji also practiced in this Akhada.
What is an Akhada?
Akhadas are the original gyms of India. These are the places where young men spend their mornings building their bodies. However, they look nothing like modern-day gyms, even though Akhadas have their own set of equipment that men use here.
At Tulsi Akhada, there is a shed on top of a mud floor. There is a small Ram Temple on the wall. Each pillar of the shed says Jai Shri Ram.
Outside the shed is a mud floor for the open-air exercises. A platform to sit runs around two walls of the Akhada.
Morning rituals at Tulsi Akhada
Unlike modern gyms, people do not turn up and start working out. Akhadas are treated with reverence and a whole set of morning rituals are followed. This is what I observed that morning:
- The ground is prepared by tilling the soil under the shed, pretty much as a farmer prepares it before sowing. First, they softly dug it with a spade and then with their hands. Two Pahalwans did this till the earth was soft enough for Kushti or wrestling.
- Water is sprinkled on the soil.
- Flowers are offered to the soil.
- Prayers are offered at the Ram temple located within the premises. Incense sticks are offered to Lord Rama and then to the Akhada soil. All the wrestlers line up with folded hands to say the prayers.
- Only after the prayer, do wrestlers step into the arena for practice.
Wrestlers at Tulsi Akhada
Wrestlers started walking in around 7 AM. Shri Mewa Ram who was the senior-most wrestler started doing his exercises while keeping an eye on the younger boys.
Boys come and the first thing they did after changing into the Langot or the only garment they wear while wrestling was to oil their bodies. They would sit on the bench and lovingly oil their bodies.
After applying oil, it is time for exercise. I followed one person who was running the length of the Akhada. I was amazed at the number of ways he did his laps. In fact, no two laps were similar. Finally, he was running with a heavy tire around his neck. I was stunned, not as much at the weight he was carrying around his neck, I am sure he has practiced it, but with the rhythm in his walk. It was such a lyrical – measured walk as if it was a cakewalk. I learned a lesson – the grace that you get with persistence and practice is incomparable.
While the younger boys were spread out in various parts of the Akhada doing Vyayaam or varjish or exercise, it was Mewa Ram Ji who surprised me with his agile body. He could bend his body at any angle and suddenly I saw him hanging upside down and swaying like a swing. Years of practice were there for anyone to see and admire.
Akhada Equipment of Wrestlers
Most of the equipment used by wrestlers at Akhada is made of heavy wood. Here they were all painted red. In the morning they were all lined up around a tree. Here are some of the equipment for you, check out the video on how they are used:
- Gada or the Mace
- Naal or the wheel around the neck
- Jodi or the two long weights that you can see the Pahalwan rotating around his body
- Santulan – or the Balance
By 7:30 AM or so wrestlers started entering the arena and started practicing their bouts. They were calm but their moves were aggressive. Mewa Ram Ji kept giving instructions as he continued with his own exercise routine. He told them what moves to practice most of the time in monosyllables. He would take the name of a wrestler and the way he takes the names says it all. The only sentence I remember saying to him was – Dimaag Thanda – Badan Garam i.e. Keep your body warm and your mind cool.
Slowly boys formed pairs of two and started wrestling. It was a pleasure to watch a game that essentially is a form of a fight being performed in such a calm and dignified manner. In between bouts, they rubbed the soil on their bodies as if it was talcum powder. I did not dare ask them a question and break their concentration but it seems the soil gives them the needed friction on a well-oiled body.
I spent a couple of hours observing & clicking the Pahalwans or wrestlers there. For me, it was a very rustic experience that was so damn Indian. The way the wrestlers treated the Akhada like a temple made me question our relationship to our chosen vocations or professions. Do we relate spiritually to what we do? Would the quality of our work be much better if we did? Do we realize whatever we do is a small part of a larger wheel?
Video of Tulsi Akhada, Varanasi
Managed to capture a few glimpses during my visit. Recommend you watch the video in HD mode
The pillar at the entrance announced the names of the Pahalwans who run this Akhada. The interaction between Mewa Ram Ji & boys also gave me a glimpse of how our guru Shishya Parampara must have been. There is so much more between them than just the transfer of skill from the teacher to the student.
It was a very humbling experience to visit the Tulsi Akhada. In a strange way, it made me feel very rooted.
Recommend you read the following travel blog on places to visit in Varanasi.