Vasundhara Yadav, 12, sporting a closely cut crop of hair and dressed in a red tracksuit, says she usually trains at the Sigra Stadium in the heart of Varanasi. But this is no ordinary Thursday for the 12-year-old, part of a group of young women wrestlers who’ve turned up at the five-centuries-old Tulsi Swaminath Akhara, Varanasi’s oldest mud wrestling gymnasium for men, at the Sankat Mochan temple on Tulsi Ghat.
It is dawn in the holy city, and there is palpable excitement among the group. The girls hope to pack in a practice session on the mud akhara before the main event of the day — the finals of the three-day Benaras Kesri, the city’s premier wrestling competition. For the first time in the event’s 30-year history, women, including girls as young as Vasundhra, are eligible to compete. The Sankat Mochan temple trust, which holds the event, has this year split the Benaras Kesri title into two: one for men and the other for women.
At around 5 am, the practice session begins in earnest, with the girls silently folding hands in reverence to the wrestling deity, Hanuman, and the earth, the theatre of their sport, before stepping into the arena. Complex danv pech follows over the next two hours, amid instructions from the sidelines. At around 7 am, the girls pack up.
As she walks down the sloped cobbled lanes leading to the main road, Vasundhara says she began training six months ago after her parents agreed to let her pursue the sport professionally. “Everyone is now inspired by movies like Dangal and Sultan. I too was inspired. I want to bring my country a medal,” she says. By 9 am, Vasundhara says, she will be at Assi Ghat, where the Benaras Kesri is to be held.
At the ghat, a large area has been cleared near the Ganga. Volunteers from akharas across the city have already laid out the yellow mat to wrestle on, plugged in and tested mics and arranged chairs, while former district and national-level wrestlers are set to double up as referees.
Varanasi’s wrestling fraternity had tested the waters for women’s wrestling last year, when they introduced a few friendly bouts between the girls at the competition. Favourable reception, shaped mostly by the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, emboldened the organisers to introduce a women’s championship this year.
“Women and girls have been wrestling in stadiums and even mud akharas in Varanasi for the past few years, but this is the first time they will fight at the open-air ghat before men who have never seen women wrestle. This will encourage women wrestlers of Varanasi and there will be many more grapplers next year,” says Prem Mishra, general secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Wrestling Association.
As the finals kick off, spectators gather around, taking their places on the ghat steps or the ground. Bets are placed; money is handed out to the winners. Tea sellers make hay and tourists stop to watch. “What is happening here today?” asks Lea Neller, a young filmmaker from Berlin. She and her partner stay to watch the competition after being told that girls are wrestling professionally here for the first time. The crowd swells through the afternoon.
A group of women wrestlers from Bengaluru, including Pooja Yadav (18), who the organisers play up as “international player Pooja Yadav”, warm up as the men begin their bouts. There are a few surprised stares as the women unzip their jackets, take off their pants and stretch in wrestling singlets akin to that of the boys.
It’s these universal singlets, reckons Siya Ram, a 64-year-old coach at the Swaminath Akhara, that has eased the passage for women onto the mud, traditionally the sole preserve of male grapplers clad in the langot or loincloth. “Women were never allowed to set foot in the mitti ke akhare till as recently as 15 years ago, but now we realise what we have been doing to the girls is very wrong. They can also get our country medals; they are no less than boys,” says Siya Ram.
At the venue, there is further vindication for the organisers’ decision, with purists later marvelling at how well behaved the crowd was. There are hearty cheers with raucous bursts of advice each time a grappler is pinned down or locked in a stranglehold; a cut chin and blood elicits concerned hushed murmurs. “No one whistled or misbehaved. Every one was on their best behaviour though the audience was made up of locals from across the city,” says Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, who is also a professor of electronics at the Benaras Hindu University (BHU).
The bouts involving women, particularly Pooja and Freedom Yadav (18), a national-level wrestler, draw less intense reactions, but even here, quick points and strong pin-downs extract howls of excitement and gasps from the crowd.
But women athletes sitting beside the veterans ringside have a grouse — “The men’s winner gets Rs 11,000 and a bike. For us, it is Rs 5,000 and a cycle,” one of them complains loudly. Kallu Pehalwan, the local pradhan and a former wrestling star of Varanasi, publicly admits it is a mistake. “Next time the prizes will be equal. Forgive us,” he gets the anchor to announce over the mic, to laughter in the audience.
Poonam Pal, an 11-year-old wrestler who crashed out of the competition the previous day, talks about how there were no weight-specific categories for the girls, unlike the boys. “It was not intentional. Actually, the decision to include women was taken at the last moment; only a few days ago. From next year onwards, the prizes will be the same and equal. And the competition will be conducted on a grand scale,” Prem Mishra now reassures.
Gopal Sahni, a local boatman who has been watching the wrestling for the last three decades, however, doesn’t agree. “The prize money cannot be equal and should not be equal because girls and boys are not equal,” he says. “Girls simply don’t have the same strength and fighting skills.”
As the day progresses, Vasundhra falls by the wayside, losing her bout. At around 3 pm, with the semi-finals for both the men and women having concluded, there is a sense of urgency. Who will the winners be? The men’s title is decided first, with Mukesh Yadav, a brawny young man, emerging the winner to take home the title of Benaras Kesri.
At 4.30 pm, it is the turn of the women. The title is to be decided between Freedom Yadav and Pooja Yadav. There is a hush as the bout begins. After six minutes of intense kushti, Freedom manages to pin down Pooja long enough to win the match. As the referee declares her winner, Varanasi gets it first woman Kesri.
Following a brief prize distribution ceremony, Mukesh Yadav proudly rides out with his prize — a blue motorcycle. Freedom, whose parents named her so because she was the youngest and “they wanted me to be free”, is thrilled at her bicycle. She mounts it as her fellow female wrestlers are arranged around her to pose for a group photo. Soon, the city’s ‘strongest woman’ is mobbed by the local media and spectators.
With the event done and dusted, mahant Vishwambhar Nath Mishra is a content man in his temple office. “I was apprehensive that I would be lampooned for making women fight in an open-air competition. There are so many people who could have voiced their opposition. But we must move with the times. Our culture is a living one. Only a dead culture does not adapt to the needs and wants of the society it serves and exists in,” he says.