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Posted at: Mar 11, 2018, 2:16 AM; last updated: Mar 11, 2018, 2:16 AM (IST)


Much before the Olympic sport of wrestling came into being, dangal was the accepted test of a man’s stamina and power

Gaurav Kanthwal

Travelling through the towns and villages of Punjab and Haryana, it is likely that you will get stuck on a highway flooded with unbridled enthusiasm. Villagers spill on to the roads, market and the whole of a town, just to witness two well-built men take on each other in a mud pit.

Popularly known as dangal, mitti ki kushti — in village idiom chinjj or mali — mud wrestling is not just a contest of physical prowess of two wrestlers, it is a litmus test through which the akhadas must go through in order to assert their supremacy in front of kushti-loving village folks. It is here that the pecking order of akhadas is decided at the village, district and state level. There isn’t anything better than this age-old tradition to keep the masses hooked on to wrestling as a sport.

“Dangals and akhadas are still the repositories of new breed of Olympic wrestlers for our country. Double Olympics medallist Sushil Kumar, London Olympics bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, World Championships bronze medallist Bajrang Punia, World Championships silver medallist Amit Dahiya, and the Phogat sisters, all learnt the  ropes in dangals early in their career,” said former national coach Vinod Kumar.

Much before the Olympic sport of wrestling came into being, chinjj or malis were the ultimate test of man’s strength, stamina, agility and intelligence. Away from the gaze of city dwellers, dangals are passionately held all-year round in the villages of Punjab, Haryana, HP and J&K. But the pace picks up from Gugga Navmi (July/August) onwards, after the kharif crop has been reaped and sold in mandis. Farmers are flush with money and there is no work in the fields. 

A tough season behind, sons of the soil from non-descript villages get to show all the new daavs honed in the last one year. The time, around Makar Sakranti, witnesses a second wave with bouts scheduled almost on a daily basis after every 50km or so. 

Rich tradition

Repeated attacks by foreign invaders in the 18th and 19th century forced people of the region to wake up to the need of building physical strength. Wrestling, thus, became popular. The gut-wrenching fight in dangals, a spectacle customised to thrill spectators, rewarded the winner and encouraged others to perform better.

Some of the competitions in the region are being held annually, without any break, for last 100 to 150 years. Rupowal Dangal near Jalandhar, Kiralgarh Dangal near Amritsar and Bharatgarh Dangal are some of the oldest and most famous dangals of the region.

A typical dangal has 20 to 30 participating wrestlers, sometimes even more, depending on the organisers’ invite. But the contest that enjoys the maximum hype is the kushti for No. 1 jhandi — the most awaited bout between the two top-rated wrestlers.

Jaskaran Gill, Gaurav Una, Kamaljeet, Parminder Dhoomcheri and Binder Samana are some of the pehalwans who have become household names in mud wrestling now.

“The top bout has to be riveting. Money is hardly a constraint for reputed dangals. In fact, organisers are under pressure to raise the stakes higher every year,” said Gurdeep Brahmanwala, a Ropar-based wrestling enthusiast.

Dangals still thrive on the patronage of wrestling enthusiasts, businessmen and politicians. At the village level, former wrestlers, and local business are the primary source of financial support. On a larger level, it is the politicians who still run the show in India. Politicians like Devi Lal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Abhay Chautala and Sharad Pawar are known to have used this indigenous sport to maintain their popularity in the rural hinterland.

Big bucks and much more 

Wrestlers earn handsome cash prizes, ranging between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, but the really popular ones give away a tractor or a car as the winner’s prize. 

In the last two years, Jaskaran Gill, aka Jassa Patti, a famous name in mud wrestling from Taran Tarn, has won four cars and a tractor. The wrestler has lost count of motorcycles he brought home ever since he started fighting in village fairs 11 years ago. “Roughly, one every fortnight, sometimes two in two days,” says the Punjab Police constable.

A renowned pehalwan makes around Rs 60 to Rs 75 lakh every year in Punjab and Haryana, depending on the popularity and his recent exploits. Interestingly, the highest bid for double Olympics medallist Sushil Kumar in Pro Wrestling League-III this year was Rs 55 lakh.

As uncertainity looms

In some of the dangals organised in Maharashtra, a gathering of 40, 000 to 50,000 people congregate to watch a bout. The Seoni Dangal in Madhya Pradesh attracts wrestlers not only from India, but also abroad.

However, everything is not hunky-dory about this combat sport. There are two sides of mud wrestling; one is a happy picture of mud-wallowed pehalwan gleefully counting his wad of notes, the other is a picture of stagnation — of pehalwans and the sport itself. A pehalwan peaks for a very short time, a maximum of five to 10 years, and then begins the struggle to make ends meet. State governments too have shifted their focus to mat wrestling. Best rewards and government jobs are kept for mat wrestlers, not for mud wrestlers. The risk of a career-threatening injury always looms over a pehalwan’s mind. 

So what do the wrestlers do once they are past their prime?

Wrestlers find the answer to the question by turning into coaches and further to organisers of village-level dangals. Often their success in their second innings depends on their popularity and performance during their active careers. The cycle has been continuing for centuries on the simple market principle of demand and supply.

Golu Pehalwan of Vishwkarma Wrestling Academy, Mullanpur, near Chandigarh, said, “They generally take forward the tradition of the akahada ahead. After the coach, either it is the most illustrious wrestler of the akhada who becomes the caretaker, or, in some cases, children of a famed wrestler carry the legacy forward. Rest take up agriculture or engage themselves in small-time businesses in villages.”

For top-notch wrestlers, it is a lucrative profession, but there are only 10-15 wrestlers for thousands overall in India who get to earn in lakhs. “In Punjab, there are not more than five wrestlers who are earning big bucks. Overall, there may be 10 or at the most 15 who are faring well,” said Benia Jammu, a wrestler.

The new-age challenges

In times when doping has been recurrently rearing its head to sully the image of wrestlers, it is a huge challenge to keep the new crop of pehalwans away from this menace. With no checks and temptation for big prizes getting bigger, it is only the strict discipline enforced by ustaads and the robust moral values of akhada culture that keep the budding pehalwans away from doping.

One of the biggest shortcomings of mud wrestling is that it is stuck in rigidity. It refuses to grow out of mud pits. The other is that the dangal organisers shower all the bounty on the top-notch category winner, the rest hardly gets very little incentive.

Mud wrestling cannot be expected to improve the skills of wrestlers beyond a certain level. Punjab was once known as the powerhouse of wrestling, but gradually Haryana has stolen a march over them. Haryana’s akhadas nurture wrestlers who aim for Olympic glory. Their training, diet and mindset have evolved with time, but in Punjab, wrestlers are still languishing in mud. Same is the case with a conservative Maharashtra, where any deviation from wrestling in mud is frowned upon.

Former India national coach PR Sondhi said, “There is one wrestler from Punjab who is very famous in mud wrestling all over India. We took him for Nationals twice and he was beaten 10-0 both times on the mat.”

However, it is not necessary that a wrestler who competes on the mat can return to a mud pit with guaranteed success. Ask Narsingh Pancham Yadav, the Indian wrestler banned from competitive wrestling for four years due to an alleged doping violation ahead of the Rio Olympics, and who is now back to dangals. The ‘Olympian’ is a big draw in Maharashtra, but in a Kohlapur dangal three months back he lost to an unheralded wrestler from Sirsa.

Wrestling, as Yadav would say, is a tough sport, whether on a mat or in mud pits. 

Calendar year of Mud battles

  • Rupowal Dangal in September
  • Kiralgarh Dangal near Amritsar in August
  • Bharatgarh Dangal in September 
  • Nurmahal Dangal in August/September
  • Beas Dangal near Jalandhar in January next year

There are 120 state government registered akhadas in Haryana. 

Cashing in on success

Haryana Sports and Youth Affairs Department organises district-level wrestling akhada competition, “Zila Kumar” and “Zila Kesari Dangal” in all district headquarters. The winners of district-level akhada competition take part in the state-level akhara, Kumar and Kesari Dangal. Last year, the winners of Haryana Kesari were given a cash prize of Rs 1.51 lakh, Rs 1 lakh and Rs 51,000 respectively. Haryana Kumar winners were given a cash prize of Rs 51,000, Rs 31,000 and Rs 21,000, respectively.


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