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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Chhara: Where everyone wrestles

The land of Chhara is credited to a mythical hunter, and its wrestling pedigree to fabled pehelwans. Fact remains that the output of grapplers is down to modern academies and good old one-upmanship. The Indian Express travels to the village which is a feeder to Chhatrasal and responsible for shaping Deepak and Bajrang Punia.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: October 6, 2019 8:34:44 am
Haryana village wrestling, Chhara Haryana, Chharya haryana village, Chhara wrestling, wrestling in haryana, haryana deepak punia, chhara bajrang punia, indian express news In a village that has a population of a little more than 15,000, there are five government schools and as many akharas. (Express photo: Gajendra Yadav)

“Mitti ke bete hai. Mitti se jude rahenge, chahe jawaan banke ya pehelwan (They’re sons of the soil. They’ll stay connected to the soil, be it as a soldier or a wrestler.)

Sitting on a charpoy, Kartar Singh Dalal talks in a low, but firm voice about Chhara’s two biggest obsessions — military and mat (or for a few, even today, mitti). The second option, in fact, is the first choice for most. Dalal, an octogenarian, says wrestling is the reason why hundreds of village kids wake up every morning. “Army is a backup; either after your career is done or if you don’t make it as a wrestler.”

Driving through its narrow lanes, past the identical-looking and slightly dilapidated houses, there seems nothing extraordinary about this modest farming village. It’s only when you reach the outskirts that the countryside reveals itself in all its glory: a small pond surrounded by wheat and sorghum fields on both sides of the road, stretching as far as the eyes can see. And dotted at intervals are wrestling akharas; four on a 2km stretch from the bus depot to the police station.

It’s a site unique to this region that was once a jungle. Two centuries ago, the story goes, a powerful zamindar named Sahab Singh hunted down and killed a man-eater. The British rewarded him with 6,000 bigha land and as his descendant, Dalal inherited a portion. “Gradually, the forest made way for farmlands,” Dalal, 80, says. Today, in middle of these farms, on the land gifted by the British, is an akhara where hundreds of wrestlers are cultivated every year.

Haryana village wrestling, Chhara Haryana, Chharya haryana village, Chhara wrestling, wrestling in haryana, haryana deepak punia, chhara bajrang punia, indian express news Inscribed on the walls are names of World champion Khetik Tsabolov and Olympic champion Helen Maroulis.

It’s tough to separate fact from fiction. But Dalal argues with conviction. “You can ask anyone… it is true. Our village has historically produced courageous men and women. First, it was Sahab Singh’s bravado. Then the freedom fighters. And now, the pehelwans.”

The last bit, at least, is undisputable. In September, this nondescript village in eastern Haryana pinned itself on the Olympics map. Of the four wrestlers who qualified for the Tokyo Games via the World Championships, two began their journey in Chhara at the academy started by Dalal’s son Virender.

Bajrang Punia — the world number 2 in 65kg category and multiple Worlds medalist — spent his formative years in Chhara. But he isn’t spoken about as affectionately as the other Punia, Deepak — the world number 1, who has emerged as the latest sensation in Indian wrestling, winning the junior World Championship title in August and following it up the next month with a silver in the senior worlds.

“Woh toh jawaan bhi hai aur pehelwan bhi (He is both a soldier and a wrestler),” Dalal says of Deepak, an Army Subedar. “Apni mitti ka bana hai (He’s made of our soil).”

***

The lazy explanation for Haryana’s dominance in wrestling is the passion they have for the sport here. Wrestling is everywhere; and the suffix ‘pehelwan’ signifies pride and power. But if passion was the only driver, Kerala and Bengal would’ve revolutionised football in a similar manner or Punjab would’ve ensured India remained a hockey royalty.

Chhara serves as an ideal sample to understand why Haryana is the heartbeat of Indian wrestling. “A decade ago, wrestling here was dead,” Subhash Punia, Deepak’s father, says, referring to Olympic style wrestling. Mitti dangals were still a popular fixture at village fairs but the transition to mat did not take place.

Virender, the coach, got an Olympic-sized mat at his academy in 2004 but mat wrestling, many villagers held, was a ‘sissy sport.’ That perception changed in 2008, when Sushil Kumar won the Beijing Olympics bronze and everyone jumped on the bandwagon fuelled by his success. “Everyone here thought, bahar se medal laaya (he brought a medal from overseas),” Subhash says, smoking beedi and sipping chai.

Within a week of his medal, Virender says, all akharas in Chhara and neighbouring Mandothi village — another wrestling hub — got mats. “We did not discontinue dangals. You can’t give up your tradition just like that. But there was an acceptance that we need to adopt mat wrestling. And Sushil pehelwan is single handedly responsible for changing the mindset,” Virender says.

In a village that has population of a little more than 15,000, there are five government schools and as many akharas. Virender’s academy is said to be the biggest, with close to 150 trainees — most from Chhara and neighbouring villages but some from as far as Jammu and Maharashtra.

Virender hones young wrestlers, and once they are ready, sends them to Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, Sushil’s alma mater. Chhatrasal is to Indian wrestling what Surjit Academy is to hockey and Bhiwani Boxing Club once was to boxing. It’s the stepping stone to national team.

“Sonipat, Rohtak and Jhajjar are the biggest wrestling belts in the country. There are villages in these districts that produce steady stream of wrestlers. Chhara is one of our biggest catchment areas,” says Satpal Singh, who runs the academy at Chhatrasal.

There have been so many wrestlers from here who have dabbled at the national level that they do not even bother to keep a count. Roughly 40 have gone on to represent India at various international tournaments across age groups. Two will be Olympics bound next year.

***

“Kaam chahe jo karein, is gaav ka har aadmi ek baar langot zaroor bandhta hai (No matter what job they end up doing, every man of this village wrestles once at least)”

Chhara’s sarpanch Jitender Singh repeats the words that are oft-uttered here. Dalal interjects to explain why, stirring the myth pot again. “There used to be one Sujan pehelwan. He could drink seven litres of milk in one go and lift a 70kg man like this,” Dalal says, lifting an imaginary barbell.

Another tale involves Sukhram pehelwan, who ran in the fields with a man on each shoulder. “People saw their strength and the goodwill they earned because of it. Consequently, they were lured to take up the sport as well. Since then, the tradition has continued,” Dalal says.

Subhash dismisses these theories. According to him, the key reason why almost every household here has a wrestler is straightforward, and one that not many will readily accept. “Ego,” the 49-year-old says. “The thinking here is, ‘if he can do it, why can’t I?’ There’s this mentality to portray yourself stronger than the other person. It’s a matter of pride.”

That’s one of the reasons why Deepak got introduced to wrestling.

Punia Sr spent a major part of the 30 years tending to the family’s farming and dairy business. Everyday till noon, he would take care of the multiple crops they cultivated on the 10 acre land. Post lunch, he would travel almost 50km to deliver 300 litres of milk to the residential areas in the outskirts of Delhi. The round-the-clock working hours barely gave Subhash time to pursue his passion: wrestling. “Many kids from the village were into the sport. I thought, ‘if they can, Deepak can too’,” Subhash says.

Deepak was five when he joined Virender’s akhara. For the next 10 years, he lived in a 10 sq ft room at the academy. A period when his coach spent every minute ensuring he did not waver from the basic tenets of brahmacharya; and his father making sure he did not do anything utt pataang.

***

Bijender Singh has put both his sons, Kartik (who trains in Chhara) and Yogesh (graduated to Chhatrasal), into wrestling for just one reason. “Izzat hi izzat.” If you were to put up a shop and sell the sport around this region, izzat hi izzat would’ve been an apt name (for the uninitiated, the shop names here are often too literal — a sweet shop will simply be called mithai hi mithai, and so on). But that would also have been an inaccurate representation.

Bijender drives down his younger son, Kartik, every day to Chhara from the neighbouring Saampla village. And at least twice a week, he makes travels to Delhi to meet his elder son. Why? “Bhatak na jaaye (to make sure they doesn’t go astray),” he replies.

That is the underlying fear of every parent whose child is a wrestler. The fears aren’t unfounded. Considering that only a fraction of akhara-going population actually go on to make a decent living from it, and coupled with the fact that there aren’t many employment opportunities, quite a few wrestlers do ‘go astray.’

In Chhara, there have been numerous cases where wrestlers have been often used by mafias in land grab activities, Subhash says. “Five years ago, the sarpanch of the village, who was also a wrestler, was shot dead because of a tussle over land,” he adds.

The situation here is slightly better off than, say, Sonepat or neighbouring Mandothi, once the sport’s hub, where police found a pattern in the crimes that were committed in the region. “Those who wanted a particular job done actively looked for wrestlers who failed to make it big,” says an officer at the Mandothi police station.

It has been reported that one of the men who were accused of shooting at Umar Khalid outside Delhi’s Constitution Club two years ago was a wrestler from Mandothi. The officer isn’t aware of the incident but it hardly surprises him. “Hundreds aspire to be international wrestlers but only a few make it. Apart from farming, job opportunities are few so it’s tempting to use their strength the wrong way to make a quick buck,” he says.

You ask him what’s the most common crime in his village? “302 (murder),” he replies. And the most accused? “Wrestlers,” he says, without hesitating.

It’s something that kept Deepak’s father awake at nights. “I quit everything I was doing and concentrated on giving him best quality food and whatever else he needed,” Subhash says. “It helped his wrestling, of course, but that was also one way to ensure he did not go off the rails. The technical bits were taken care of by Virender coach and Mahabali Satpal.”

***

Virender’s coaching career was born out of an athletic failure. He spent his youth dreaming of an Olympic medal but faulty training methods in his formative years meant he never really developed body structure required to thrive in international wrestling.

So, in his mid-20s, Virender took lessons in ‘advanced coaching’ from independent India’s first World Wrestling Championship medalist (1961, bronze in 67kg), Udey Singh and in 1995, started his academy. The place is built like a fort. Every room is inter-linked, exits are strategically planned and from his room in a house adjacent to the wrestling hall, Virender monitors every move via six CCTV cameras.

“I’m not a control freak, but I need to keep an eye on whatever’s happening here. The first thing we do, and it is very important even though it may sound strange, is to brainwash children,” Virender, a physical education teacher at a Delhi school, says. “Mat pe kushti aur bhagwan ki bhakti (wrestling and praying), this should be the focus. That’s what we teach them. Why do you think I set up my academy in a jungle? These are all fit men at the prime of their youth. It’s easy for them to get distracted.”

Virender wants every pehelwan to assert complete celibacy and self-control. The phrase they use at the akhara is to always keep a ‘tight langot’. Wrestler Pradeep, who is from Chhara and represents Railways in domestic events, admits it’s arduous in the beginning. “But once you get used to it, it is okay,” he says. “Wrestling requires a lot of strength. If you can’t control your mind, then you can’t control a bout.”

Pictures of freedom fighters hang on the walls of the giant, dingy wrestling hall. There’s Lokmanya Tilak, there’s Bhagat Singh. Opposite the hall is a cattle-shed where Dalal takes care of the family’s eight desi cows.

Virender is peeved at the politicization of cows. “No one is talking about its benefits,” he says. “Cow’s milk gives you visfotak taaqat. Explosive strength. That’s what makes a wrestler. How do you think Deepak got so good?” Certainly not only because of cow milk? “Yes, but you can’t deny nutritious food did not contribute!”

***

Back at Deepak’s house, Subhash and Jitender, the sarpanch, are going over the arrangements for the world number’s 1 welcome ceremony, planned for October 13. Tractors, trucks and SUVs have been ‘arranged’ for the procession that’ll last for half-a-day. “We’ll pass through several villages. It’ll inspire future generations,” Jitender says.

There’s no dearth of inspiration, actually. In the farm-turned-akharas of Haryana, they are already harnessing their Olympic ambitions. The trainees at the only academy for girls in the village took up the sport because of Sakshi Malik’s medal in 2016.

But bronze they won’t settle for. These girls aren’t afraid of dreaming. Nor are they afraid of talking about it. On the walls of the academy, they have inscribed the names of Olympic and World champions, a constant reminder of what they’re set out to achieve.

“Helen. Khetik. Olympic,” it reads, referring to American Olympic champion Helen Maroulis and Russia’s Khetik Tsabolov, a world champion.

You wonder why Haryana is good at wrestling? The writing, quite literally, is on the wall.

 

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