Wrestling, as popular as ever

 Wrestlers in action at the Mysuru Dasara wrestling competition. Dh photos

A caparisoned elephant carrying the golden howdah, rituals like ayudha puja and banni puja, cultural events and sports are the main attractions of Mysuru Dasara. Though there have been changes over time, the core of the celebrations has remained intact since the beginning of the festivities four centuries ago, from the days of the Vijayanagar rulers to the days of the last Maharaja of Mysuru, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, and the post-Independence era.

Games and amusements such as animal fights, jugglery, equestrian show, acrobatics, animal fights, sword-fight, water-sport, gambling, puppet shows, folk or traditional games and pyrotechnic display have traditionally been part of the festivities. Of them all, wrestling has remained to be a star attraction since the beginning. True to its fame, the traditional sport finds a place in records and sculptures.

Women in the arena

While it was common for soldiers to get trained in wrestling, historically, women were expert wrestlers, too. One of the famous wrestlers who finds mention in the records is Hiriyakka. Women used to take an active part in all the games and amusements and perform many physical feats.

Domingos Paes, who visited India in the 16th century, gives a graphic description of Dasara wrestling of Krishnadevaraya’s period, “...there are blows (given), so severe as to break teeth, and put out eyes, and disfigure faces, so much so that here and their men are carried off speechless by their friends; they give one another fine falls too.”  

Similarly, the Portuguese horse-trader Fernao Nuniz, who visited Vijayanagar between 1535-37, records, “The king has a thousand wrestlers for these feasts who wrestle before him, but not in our manner, for they strike and wound each other with two circlets with points, which they carry in their hands.” Nuniz obviously refers to the famous Vajramushti Kalaga, which is held even now during the annual Dasara in Mysuru. If ‘Vajramushti’ fight was one type, there were other traditional styles like freestyle, also known as Indian style, Greeko-Roman and Panja Kusthi. 

Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi is elaborately carved with reliefs representing the procession of soldiers, musicians, horses, elephants, camels, geese, crocodiles, dancing girls posturing before the king, wrestlers wrestling before the royalty, etc. A H Longhurst in his book, Hampi Ruins, says, “The sculptors have tried to represent the gorgeous procession and sports which took place at the Mahanavami festival around the throne platform...”

After the fall of Vijayanagar, the Dasara platform was shifted to Srirangapatna and Raja Wadiyar celebrated the first Dasara in 1610 AD with grandeur, with some modifications. On the first day, he witnessed the wrestling of the jettis. He also witnessed ram and buffalo fights, and acrobats by the members of Dombaru community. Pyrotechnics were also arranged in the night when he returned to the Palace after witnessing Deevatige Salaam, the present day torchlight parade, conducted on the banks of River Cauvery.

On the Mahanavami day too, wrestlers fought with each other and it was ensured that blood would fall in front of the weapons when the Ayudha Puja was in progress. In the evening, after worship of the Banni tree at the Banni Mantapa on the northern side of Srirangapatna, he received a salute presented by soldiers holding torches in their hands.

This is the first recorded Dasara and torch-light parade of 1610, which was followed by his successors in Srirangapatna and, later, in Mysuru. Poet Govinda Vaidya in Kanteerava Narasaraja Vijaya gives a contemporary account of the entire Dasara, including wrestling, celebrated with great pomp and show by Kanteerava Narasaraja Wadiyar in 1647. He says, during the daily public Durbar, boxing and wrestling were arranged in pairs, and also exciting acrobatic performances, ram-fights, fights of rutting elephants, and fights of daring men with tigers and bears let loose. On the Ayudha Puja day, a special event was the Vajra Mushti Kalaga in the Palace, besides the Malla Yuddha, in which wrestlers fought ferociously. 

At the Shami Mantapa, a distance of about three miles from the palace, the king used to display his archery skills and ride the State elephant. After the worship of the Shami tree, he returned to the Palace on the State elephant, amidst the resounding noise of fireworks.

After him, it was Krishnaraja Wadiyar III who revived Dasara glory in Mysuru. “The feats performed, the wrestlers, the elephants, the horses and the trained acrobats, and the musical marches performed by the military, all these add to the grandeur of the occasion and make it imperishable in the minds of those who came from far and near to witness the Durbar during the ten days the festival lasts,” writes C Hayavadana Rao in his book Dasara in Mysore.
It was during this period, perhaps, the earlier Deevatige Salaam became Panjina Meravanige.

Dasara assumed further grandeur during Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, taking a turn towards social-orientation. While the tradition of holding wrestling and pyrotechnics continued, programmes like music performances, parade by army units, sword fights, sports and folk events, Dasara exhibition, and Palace illumination became additional attractions.

The grandeur was maintained even during the period of the last Maharaja, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, his last Dasara celebration being in 1969. Post-independence, Dasara took a pro-people turn as Nada Habba. While the religious aspect was confined to the royal family and to the Palace, organising of the Dasara, including the procession, was taken over by the Government in 1975.

Though many of these sports and entertainment events conducted during the reign of the rajas and maharajas have faded away due to social and political changes, what is noteworthy is that wrestling continues to be a prominent event and crowd-puller even to this day.

A veteran wrestler and former president of Mysore Garadi Sangha, Pailwan Mahadev, recalls that traditions of the yore like preparing the matti (ring) in the wrestling houses, different styles and religious ceremonies are followed without major changes. 

The preparing of the Kemmatti, the red earthen arena, where the wrestlers practice daily in the ‘Garadi’ houses, are prepared by using red earth (kemmannu), thoroughly mixed with substances like ginger oil (yellenne), turmeric powder (arishina), kunkuma and rude camphor (paccha karpoora) for several days, so that the mud on the matti does not cause any injury while practising, and instead helps nourish the body.
Pailwan Mahadev, who hails from a wrestling family, enthusiastically narrates how the matti is held sacred. He recalls the importance given to wrestling by the Maharajas of Mysuru, who used to witness wrestling matches in the specially placed wrestling arena in the open ground in front of the Durbar Hall, and reward the winners.

As a result of their continued patronage, Mysuru has retained the wrestling tradition even to this day. The city has over 44 Garadi houses, where around 10 wrestlers practice every day.

During Dasara, wrestling competitions are held in Mysuru by the Dasara Organising Committee of the state government. Wrestlers from all over the state and even other states, take part in these competitions. Wrestling bouts are also conducted in the women’s section. The champion wrestlers are awarded prizes, silver and gold maces, apart from cash prizes. There is an akhaada or wrestling stadium, opposite main palace 0n the Dasara Exhibition grounds, in Doddakere, where these bouts are conducted.

As Dasara festivities are just a couple of days away, thrilling bouts are store for wrestling enthusiasts who visit the heritage city of the state to witness the cultural extravaganza.

 

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Wrestling, as popular as ever

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