Kusti (or Kushti, or Pehlwani) is an ancient sport of wrestling with surviving links to a history embedded in religion of Zoroastrism and Hinduism. *) Kusti is a synthesis of an indigenous Aryan / Hindu form of wrestling that dates back at least to the 5th century BC and a Persian (Iranian) form of wrestling brought into South Asia by the Mughals. The old wrestlers (Pehlwan) were kept isolated from women and were expected to devote themselves to building their bodies..
Currently, this wrestling style is still popular in many regions in India. Wrestling matches are played in the square dark red wet clay ground (or shallow pits), which is known as "Akhara" (Akhada). The bigger bouts attract crowds of 20,000 or more.
Through the ages, the Indian wrestling form has undergone several changes in both the nomenclature and training methodologies. The more prominent influences include the introduction of Persian nomenclature and western training methods.
In ancient times kings sometimes didn’t fight battles but sent their champion wrestlers to engage in a match. The wrestler who defeated his rival was supposed to have won victory for his king. Some of the Kings were themselves good wrestlers.
For centuries, men have practiced wrestling for body building as well as for promoting their social status. The technique of interlocking the arms, using the torso and legs to twist and turn the opponent’s body, and fell it, is difficult and requires stamina. It needs strength to flatten an opponent, when he lies firmly on his stomach like a rock. A pehlwan who has trained his body and built himself up by eating butter, milk and almonds, can defy the wrestler on top for hours.
Nowadays, the social status of women in India is unexampled high and of course they break into areas which used to be men’s privileges. Particularly, it is referred to the kusti wrestling.
Originally, mud wrestlers were highly prized fighters perceived to be directly descended from the great Hindu warrior monkey-god, Hanuman. Even today, kusti wrestlers are paid tribute - they may train in Hanuman temples, so the wrestlers can pay tribute.
Kusti wrestling is played in mud with an ulterior motive because for the Hindu mud has sacred properties, being a dry blend of ghee (clarified butter), rose petals and obscure medicinal herbs. Besides the sacred properties of the mud, mud wrestling attracts spectators by something else. Probably an opponent may be disgraced much more certain being to dragged in the mire. The spectators have stronger impressions too. After a wrestling match, washing off the earth, dirt and sweat off one’s body in running water is a special pleasure. **)
There are many modifications of kusti which names come from their legendary or real founders. The most famous are
Bhimaseni, Jarasandhi, Hanumanti and Jambuvanti. The most attentions are paid to physical and athletic training of pehlwans. It includes hundreds and thousands push-ups (Dand) a day with sinuosity of spine (Jor). They are accomplished by leaning on both hands and legs; on hands and knees; on one hand and one leg. Numerous daily curtseys on one foot with the lifted other one (Baithak) are also mandatory. Such exercises are often accomplished with heavy stone rings putting on neck or with partners sitting on the shoulders.
The objective of a kusti match is to take an opponent down and force him/her to submit using techniques of four main groups. The first group includes holds and throws based on brute force. The second one includes holds and throws based on the inertia of opponent motions. The third one includes restraining techniques accomplished in order to make an opponent motionless or weakened. The most dangerous techniques belong to the fourth group – painful locks (allowing breaking extremities, fingers and even spine) as well as choke holds.
Before a match wrestlers grind the ground (mud) in their hand in order to secure better holds. A winner (Rustam) is awarded with a big wooden Indian club with carving and gold-plated decorations. The name of the winner came from the Persian epic hero Rostam.
Indian wrestler “Great Gama” (1898 – 1960) is considered as the most outstanding kusti master of all times. He was the Indian national kusti champion for many years. In 1947, after India had become independent, kusti was proclaimed a national sport.
Wrestling competitions, known as Dangals, held at village levels, have their own rules which vary from place to place. Usually, a win is awarded by decision from the panel of judges or by knockout, stoppage or submission. In fact, kusti is a form of submission wrestling because the wrestlers compete until one of them capitulates or is unable to continue.
The town of Kolhapur (400.000 inhabitants) is the main center of Kusti in India. If America is crazy about boxing, the Kolhapur city is famous for its wrestling.
This former exclusive men’s sport have given rise to the popular world wide entertainment and sport – “mud wrestling”, in which the majority of participants are women.
The legendary Pro Wrestling promoter Paul Boesch is credited with the invention of mud wrestling being a modification of the ancient sport of kusti. It first became popular in the United States in the 1980's, and later spread worldwide. Although originally performed in bars, nightclubs, and strip clubs, mud wrestling is now a mainstream to the point where organizations have staged mud wrestling events everywhere – from parks to stadiums - for fun, competitions and charity.
Nevertheless, contemporary mud wrestling is not just “saucy, scantily clad women splashing around while gangs of drunken men drool like idiots.” Some mud wrestling competitions are real contests. This entertainment has become a real international competitive sport for women - even "World Bikini Mud Wrestling Championships" are held on the regular basis. In India, some women began training and practicing real kusti which requires strength and stamina. Unlike men who wrestle just in short boxers, women cover their bodies when wrestling.
Kusti is a prototype of several related wrestling forms, in which one athlete struggles against a few opponents. These techniques are widely used in the game of kabaddi, very popular in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Kabaddi is a team sport where in certain situations a player (players) should immobilize an opponent and keep him/her from fleeing. To accomplish this, techniques adopted from kusti are evolved -- the single leg, double leg, body lock, sprawl, hip-heist all the pins, etc. The similarity between kabaddi grappling with kusti matches is deepened by the fact that kabaddi is played on earthen arenas and players actually wrestle in dirt/mud like kusti wrestler do.
*) Kushti or Kusti, also spelled as Koshti, is the sacred girdle worn (along with the shirt Sedreh) by Zoroastrians around their waists.
**) Another variation of wrestling in a substance is oil wrestling "Yagly gures", which is a very popular and traditional sport in Turkey.
Udaipur Women Wrestlers. Photo from Udaipur Times
Episodes with women's Kusti
Rajiv Gandhi memorial wrestling in Delhi. Photo by Manit/DNA. DNA
Photo from Youtube Videoclip
Kushti Kangal championship. Women 70kg. Photo from Udaipur Times