A few years back, Chandrasekhar Chauhan got a tattoo. On his veiny forearm – inked in Sanskrit – is the Maha Mrityunjay mantra, a prayer dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
The 25-year-old hails from the ancient city of Ujjain. The city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is famous for the temple of Mahakaleshwar, one of the twelve jyotirlingas (sacred shrines) of Shiva. “I’m from Ujjain which is famous for the Mahakaleshwar temple. There can’t be anything better for a tattoo than the mantra of Mahakaleshwar (Shiva),” Chauhan says.
The gold medallist in mallakhamb at the ongoing National Games also first learnt about the sport in the temple premises. “At the end of the months of Saawan and Bhado (the fifth and sixth month in the Indian calendar), there is a yatra (journey) from the temple. And there is also a demonstration of mallakhamb. I came in touch with the sport there,” he says.
The Maha Mrityunjay mantra, as belief goes, is an invocation to protect the reciter from danger.
There’s plenty of danger in mallakhamb. Rope burns are common, a couple of athletes at the Sanskardham venue in Ahmedabad have twisted knees, one landed awkwardly on her neck but carried on as did another despite picking a nasty gash on her chin after slamming on the equipment.
The sport is undeniably exhilarating like artistic gymnastics. Players’ twist around a slippery looking wooden pole and balance upside down with just the tip of their foot supporting their lithe frames. The acrobats perform on a rope four meters above the ground. They drop headfirst towards the earth before catching their fall – just before hitting the floor – with a coil of rope wound around their ankle and weakly anchored between their toes. This sport is for bravehearts.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, was left impressed by the daredevilry and posted a video of a 10-year-old participant on Twitter. “What a star Shauryajit is,” read the quote tweet of a video of the youngster performing a routine on the mallakhamb pole.
“ Ek number ka competition gaya (The competition went well)” grins Shauryajit Khaire when asked about his competition.
Shauryajit’s newfound fame is like the spotlight mallakhamb has garnered in recent years. It first received mainstream attention during the first season of the television show ‘India’s Got Talent’ in 2009. Mallakhamb has now spread across India, and competitions are organised at mainstream tournaments like the National Games and Khelo India School Games. Practitioners, too, are increasingly rewarded with jobs and awards. The sport has found support in Bollywood and actress Adah Sharma had posted a video of her practising on a mallakhamb pole.
While mallakhamb might have entered the mainstream discourse recently, the sport has been there for a long time. The legends of its origins vary depending on whom you ask. Yogesh Malviya, the only mallakhamb coach to get a Dronacharya Award and one of the organisers of the tournament in Ahmedabad, says: “The founder of mallakhambh – Dada Balambhatt Deodhar – was challenged by two powerful wrestlers and he was meditating to figure out ways to beat the wrestlers. Lord Hanuman appeared and told him to see how monkeys were playing. The monkeys were climbing trees and hanging from branches using their tail. Dada Balambhatt Deodhar then started to train like the monkeys and beat those wrestlers.”
But that’s not the only legend. “Mallakhamb can be much older. There’s another story that Lord Krishna played the sport when he was in Ujjain,” Malviya says.
Dharamvir Singh, the general secretary of the Mallakhamb Federation of India has a less colourful theory. “Most probably it was a form of military training in the Maratha army. Soldiers would climb ropes and wooden poles to build strength and stamina. That’s literally what the name means. Malla means to fight and khamb is a pillar,” he says.
While the origin story is shrouded in mystery, there’s little confusion over what mallakhamb is today. The organised sport – as seen at the National Games – consists of three apparatuses. Where traditionally athletes would just compete on the pole (also called mallakhamb) made of sagwan (teak) wood, there is now a lat mallakhamb (in which the pillar is suspended by a chain from a height) and a rope. While male participants compete in all three events, women are allowed to compete on the pole and the rope. This is a radical shift from tradition as earlier women were not allowed to compete. A couple of years ago, women were allowed to only compete on the rope.
“Every player has 90 seconds to perform on the apparatus. They must perform 16 elements on the mallakhamb and 18 on the rope. They must perform a strength-based element, a hold-based element, a backward element, a forward element. They must perform a mount and a dismount,” says Chauhan.
The elements are mostly variations of yogic poses and holds –with names like natrajasan (where the performer has one leg pulled behind their back with the sole resting on their head), mayurasan (peacock pose) – and the degree of difficulty rises significantly as athletes go through their routine while also balancing on their apparatus.
“They are scored out of 10 points. 3.8 points are given for the degree of difficulty, 1.6 points for transitions between the elements and 4.6 points are reserved for the degree of execution,” adds Chauhan, who won the gold medal in the men’s team event, representing Madhya Pradesh.
The sport has borrowed heavily from gymnastics scoring system. “The Mallakhamb Federation was started in 1984 but for over a decade, mallakhamb was just seen as another apparatus in the gymnastics nationals. In 1996, mallakhamb had its first nationals,” says Dharamvir.
The journey towards acceptance and today’s popularity was not easy. “It was seen as a strange thing people did. We would go around and try and convince kids to come,” says Malviya. “It was a hard sport to sell. It takes a lot of time to get good at this and it is very injury-prone. There weren’t any jobs in the sport, and it was demotivating for young players to see older players struggling financially.”
Things changed for the better from the mid-2000s. “In 2005, mallakhamb became a state sport in Madhya Pradesh,” says Malviya. But momentum truly picked up a few years later when Malviya and some of his trainees in Ujjain were asked to take part in the first season of the ‘India’s Got Talent’. The team came in second and for the first time the sport got mainstream visibility. More support followed and in 2014 mallakhamb alongside gatka, thang ta, yoga and kalaripayattu were identified by the Indian government for promotion as indigenous sports.”
“Everything changed after that,” says Dharamvir. “Our players are now eligible for Central Government jobs in the group C and group D category. We receive funds to conduct national tournaments.”
The number of participants has also seen a steady rise. “10 years back, we wouldn’t even have 100 kids from four states. The main state for mallakhamb was Maharashtra. Now we have over 1000 children who compete at the Nationals. Each year the standard gets better,” he says. The Khelo India Games earlier this year had a mallakhamb team from Jammu and Kashmir.
All this growth has come with its share of challenges. “We don’t have enough qualified coaches to work with all these youngsters who want to learn. Most coaches are just players who have retired. There’s no systematic coaching for them,” says Malviya.
Overall, the outlook is positive though. With more parents interested, the profiles of athletes have begun to change. “In the past you only had children from lower economic background. Now we see kids from more middle-class families,” says Malviya. 14-year-old Siddhi Gupta – gold medallist in the mallakhamb apparatus at the Nationals last year – is the daughter of an affluent businessman from Ujjain. “My father encouraged me to take up this sport. He is a fan of the game,” she says.
Even the nature of competition has got tougher. “At the National Games, both the Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra men’s teams had all their players score above nine points in the mallakhamb apparatus,” says Chauhan, who won gold at the 2012 Nationals as a 15-year-old.
That difference Chauhan says is visible in the number of risks athletes are taking. “They are performing dismounts that are backflip somersaults. They are performing difficult hands-free catches,” says Chauhan who lost his front teeth after a bad fall.
All this makes mallakhamb a spectacular but dangerous sport, but Chauhan wants more. “Right now, people like our sport but they still see it as something that is anokha (exotic). They see it as an adventure and not a regular sport. But it is a sport like any other. I hope mallakhambh will be soon seen as any other sport and not something strange,” he says.
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