The Monsoon came late to Northern India this year.
Heavy rain has meant dangerous flooding with the holy river very swollen, strong currents have stopped worshippers from bathing along the ghats in Varanasi so early morning puja’s have meant a seething mass of humanity clustering on the steps, pushing and shoving to reach the tiny bit of the Ganges that is still available to them.
Varanasi claims to be the world’s oldest living city and indeed many of the rituals, buildings, creative skills are thousands of years old. I love this city. As in so much of India the contrasts of new and old, ancient and modern, holy and everyday rub along so naturally but running through this variety of moods and challenges is a beautiful spirituality which is seamlessly incorporated into everyday living. Little shrines and temples are tended by the faithful on every street in the old city. I spent one day of my recent trip enjoying a rather unusual but fascinating tradition that is not on the tourist agenda when visiting the city.
Kushti or Indian wrestling is an ancient sport with a glorious past. Historically it was used to keep physically fit and as military combat training without weapons. Many use the discipline as a daily fitness routine but to others this is a way of life. Under their Guru they follow a rigorous routine of abstinence, no smoking, drinking or sex and a strict daily diet of milk, almonds, ghee, eggs and chapattis. The wrestler concentrates on living a pure life, building strength and wrestling skills.
The mud or pit area where they train is called the ‘akhara’. The mud is mixed with ghee, mustard oil, and turmeric which is believed to act as an antiseptic. The wrestlers will also cover themselves with oil and mud to protect their skin and help to prevent slipping as they sweat during the Kushti.
The gym I visited in Varanasi is at least a hundred years old. Before training begins each day the students, led by their Guru, make the puja to Hanuman the monkey god.