Wrestle-Mania (in art) : the Indian edition!

The world has undergone a lot since 2020, and we couldn’t be more glad for the Olympics which gives us a reason to cheer, collectively. For this edition, we picked an olympic sport that won India its first individual medal : Wrestling. In 1952, at the Helsinki Games, K.D Jadhav won a bronze, & created history. 

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Wrestlers (Haripura Posters) by Nandalal Bose, 1937

Long before the Greeks wrestled it out in Olympiad events, these wrestling matches took place across the world. Across cultures, as wrestling techniques developed, it became the first systemised fighting-art. 

Malla Yudh to Kushti

In India, Wrestling has a long history. The term Malla-yudh, or ‘wrestling combat’ first appears in the Ramayana, referring to a match between Bali and Ravana. Later, the Mahabharata describes wrestling matches featuring Krishna, Balram, Duryodhan and Bheem. Sangam Tamil literature too, acknowledges the presence of Indian wrestling. While the written texts came later, the oral traditions are much older.

Krishna and Balarama Fight the Evil King Kamsa’s Wrestlers: Page from a Dispersed Bhagavata Purana , 1650 , The Met Museum – CC0

Wrestling scenes are popular in the art of Gandhara too. In this 2nd-century frieze you see Prince Siddhartha (the future Buddha) and a competitor wrestling at the center, each grabbing the other’s robes.

A gray schist relief with Siddhartha wrestling Gandhara, 2ND/3RD CE. Christies.

Another frieze from the same time period, shows a wrestling match. The Gandharan depictions could well as be Greek-influence (just like the art), reminiscent of the Hellenic (greek) soldier training, “Pankration”, which remained an Olympic game for 1400 years! 

Wrestling, 2nd century CE, Jamalgarhi, Gandhara Gallery, Indian Museum, Kolkata

By the 13th century the Jyesthi-Malla clan (professional wrestlers from Modhera, Gujarat) had documented the ancient sport in the ‘Malla-purana’. The literary piece includes amidst other information, the routine of wrestlers, exercises, diet (according to seasons), preparation of the wrestling-pit and tips and tricks to handle opponents.   

Ragini Desakh, Page from a Jaipur Ragamala Set, ca 1745 and 1770, Art Institute of Chicago CC0

Mallayudha ( that included grappling, joint-breaking, punching)  was popular as entertainment, as competitive events as well as full-contact fights. The Jyesthimallas also practiced the vajra-musti, which refers to the use of the ‘knuckle-duster’. Do you spot it in this GIF? Interestingly, in ancient Rome, the ‘caestus’ was a kind of knuckle duster used by gladiators in boxing matches. The Vajra-musti would go on till one player submitted.

GIF by TheHeritageLab based on Pair of wrestlers fighting. Gouache drawing, Wellcome Collection CC-BY-SA.

This form of wrestling continued to be popular across the Indian subcontinent though in southern India it continued in its original avatar even as northern India came under Mughal rule. 

The Emperor Shah Jahan watching a wrestling match, attributable to Mir Kalan Khan, Delhi or Lucknow, circa 1750 | Sothebys.

Pehelwani developed during the Mughal rule, combining the ancient Mallayudha with the Persian varzesh-e-bastani (sport of heroes). In Iran, the physical training tradition can be traced back to the Parthian dynasty where it was practiced by soldiers to keep them battle-ready. Pahalwani was meant to improve their strength, mobility and increase their mindfulness. This form consisted of ‘koshti’ – traditional grappling that was practiced in the “zoorkhaneh” (gyms). 

[Lutteurs dits] Delly ; Moeurs et costumes des Orientaux [Collection of Customs and Costumes of the Orientals], Gallica Digital Library

The main part of a Varzesh-e Bastani session was dedicated to weight training and callisthenics, notably using a pair of wooden clubs called ‘mils’. While similar clubs existed in India as well (mudgar-yaksh) , the claim that club-swinging was part of a traditional training practice remains disputed. The 13th century text, Mallapurana refers to lighter clubs – joris – for training purposes. 

Image taken from Tashrih al-aqvam, an account of origins and occupations of some of the sects, castes and tribes of India. Originally written at Hansi Cantonment, Hissar District, eighty-five miles north-west of Delhi, for Colonel James Skinner, 1825. British Library, CC0

By the colonial period, the Jyesti clan became known as Jetti (anglicized). Many of them migrated to Mysore, in pursuit of patronage from the royal families. Wrestling remained popular owing to royal support. For example, “Vajramusti ” continued to to be encouraged by the Wadiyar Dynasty long after the Vijaynagar rulers, & Tipu Sultan. The ancient sport is part of the Mysore Dasara festivities to this day.  

Three Jeyties Exercising, Gangaram Chintaman Tambat, ca. 1792, Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, CC0

And though wrestling underwent changes during the Mughal (and subsequently the colonial) period, the training regime remained the same. Some elements of wrestling like club-swinging made their way to Europe and America by the 19th century. It is possible that the East India Company soldiers witnessing the use of clubs, took them back to England. British Manly Exercises by Donald Walker, published in 1834, believed to be the earliest reference book on the subject of ‘club swinging’, terms the mugdars, as ‘Indian clubs’. These soon became a sensation in the western world.

British sepoys watching Indian physical training, Hulas Lal 1830, V&A

From Museums : these events are a must-attend!

DAG Museums: First part of a series of talks and discussions on museums, collections, and the shaping of Indian art history curated by Prof. Tapati Guha-Thakurta.
Zoom registration: https://tinyurl.com/4mduzmm7
Note: Sign language interpretation is available on Zoom viewed on desktop or laptop.

Sarmaya Arts Foundation is organising a Virtual Quiz on all things history. If you have been following Sarmaya Spotlight for a while, then you have a great shot at winning the prize: a copy of the book, ‘India – A Story Through 100 Objects’ by Vidya Dehejia.
To participate, click here and fill the form: bit.ly/SarmayaVirtualQuiz

From our community:

Last week, we organized a meme-making workshop with the Museum of Art & Photography. The resulting memes are fun to browse through, but here’s one we particularly resonate with.

Photo of the Week

In 1952, for the first time, India sent women athletes to the Olympics. Nilima Ghose was only 17 when she participated (100m & 80m hurdles), & Mary D’Souza competed in the women’s 100m & 200m races. They didn’t win anything, but they paved the way for future women athletes.

Photo: United Press, July 1952
Photo : Mary D’Souza’s Facebook page.

That’s all for this week 🙂 If you spotted something fascinating from a gallery, museum, archive or library, tell us about it! Whether it is a link, image, or story, we’d love to hear from you at [email protected]Thanks for reading!

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