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Wrestlers Body

Wrestlers Body

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The Wrestler's Body
The Wrestler's Body

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Published by: pigahv on Feb 26, 2011
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The Wrestler’s Body

Identity and Ideology in North India

Joseph S. Alter


Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford

© 1992 The Regents of the University of California

For my parents
Robert Copley Alter
Mary Ellen Stewart Alter

Preferred Citation: Alter, Joseph S. The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North
Berkeley: University of California Press, c1992 1992.



• Note on Translation
• Preface

• 1. Search and Research
• 2. The Akhara: Where Earth Is Turned Into Gold
• 3. Gurus and Chelas: The Alchemy of Discipleship
• 4. The Patron and the Wrestler
• 5. The Discipline of the Wrestler’s Body
• 6. Nag Panchami: Snakes, Sex, and Semen
• 7. Wrestling Tournaments and the Body’s Recreation
• 8. Hanuman: Shakti, Bhakti, and Brahmacharya
• 9. The Sannyasi and the Wrestler
• 10. Utopian Somatics and Nationalist Discourse
• 11. The Individual Re-Formed

• Plates
• The Nature of Wrestling Nationalism
• Glossary


Note on Translation

I have made every effort to ensure that the translation of material from Hindi to English is
as accurate as possible. All translations are my own. In citing classical Sanskrit texts I
have referenced the chapter and verse of the original source and have also cited the
secondary source of the translated material. All other citations are quoted verbatim even
when the English usage is idiosyncratic and not consistent with the prose style or spelling
conventions employed in the main text. A translation of single words or short phrases
appears in the first instance of use and sometimes again if the same word or phrase is
used subsequently much later in the text.

Transliteration has been done with an eye toward readability and simplicity. Diacritics
are excluded from the text but have been included in the glossary. Although the common
language spoken in Banaras is Bhojpuri, almost everyone also speaks some version of
Hindi, Urdu, or a combination thereof. All of my interviews were conducted in Hindi.
Therefore, transliteration usually conforms to the standard Hindi pronunciation, but in
some cases the wrestlers with whom I spoke affected a particular pronunciation of
specific words, as, for example, bethak (deep knee bend) rather than baithak. In part this
may be a function of the linguistic interface in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and in part because
wrestlers have developed a slight accent of their own when talking about the specifics of
their art among themselves. If these terms are not in common usage, and it seems that
even non-Banaras wrestlers have the same pronunciation, I have conformed to the
wrestlers’ predilection.



This is a study of wrestling as a system of meaning, and it must be made clear at the
outset that I have not undertaken to study the technical aspects of the sport. Those who
look for a detailed explication of moves, countermoves, and techniques will undoubtedly
be disappointed. The reason for this is quite simple. The moves, countermoves, and
techniques of Indian wrestling must be filmed or photographed to be appreciated and
understood fully. This monograph is not an exercise in replication or description of this
exact sort; it is a work of interpretation to adapt an old adage, 1001 words offered in
place of what would otherwise be a mere picture.

I am indebted to a number of institutions and individuals for the support they have given
to this project. Preliminary research funding was afforded by a Humanities Graduate
Research Grant from the University of California at Berkeley for a study of the popular
literature on Indian wrestling. Funding for a year of field work was provided by a
Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant under the auspices of the Fulbright-Hays
Foundation. The ample financial support given under this grant was much appreciated. I
would also like to thank the staff officers in Washington and Delhi for their efficient
work. Without their help, getting the necessary visa and academic affiliation would have
been impossible. While I was in India the staff at “Fulbright House” were very helpful in
many ways, which made the difficult task of research that much less arduous.

In Banaras I was granted affiliation with the Department of Physical Education at
Banaras Hindu University under the direction of Dr. S. S. Sharma. I am grateful both to
the university and to Dr. Sharma for their support.

Upon completing the field research I was awarded a Mabelle McLeod Lewis Memorial
Grant for a year of dissertation writing. This support proved invaluable and fulfilling, as I
was able to write without distraction for an entire year a rare situation today.

In India a number of people contributed to the success of this project. I cannot remember
the names of every wrestler whose words and ideas have found their way into this text.
To all of them goes my sincere gratitude for patience and long-suffering indulgence. A
few wrestlers with whom I spoke extensively must be mentioned by name. In Banaras,
they are: Lakshmi Kant Pande, Govardan Das Malhotra, Jatindar Kumar Pathak, Narayan
Singh, Kaniya Lal Yadav, Amru Dada, Banarsi Pande, Indramani Misra, Pratap Singh,
Jharkhande Rai, Krishna Kumar Singh, Kaniya, Ashok, Sohan, Manohar, Atma, Shyam,
Govind, Anand, Subhash, Danesh, Ram ji, and Lal ji. I am deeply indebted also to Sita
Ram Yadav, a champion wrestler of his time; Nathu Lal Yadav, a genuine pahalwan; and
Lallu Pahalwan, a quintessential guru. I would also like to thank the owner, managers,
and staff of Sandeep Hotel, where I lived for seven months. Their good humor was
always appreciated. I recommend their services highly. If I have left out anyone’s name it
is not by design or lack of appreciation but because so many were helpful.

In Dehra Dun I express my heartfelt thanks to Kanta Pahalwan, who first introduced me
to Indian wrestling. During my stay, however, Kanta was absent from Dehra Dun, and I


worked closely with Yamin and his cadre of young wrestlers from Saharanpur. A special
word of thanks must go to Dr. Shanti Prakash Atreya, who is by popular acclaim the guru
of Indian wrestling. I had hoped to work closely with him in Dehra Dun but was unable
to for various reasons. (The life of a fieldworker does not always accommodate itself to
the obligations of a grihastha.) Instead I have read his numerous articles on Indian
wrestling and hope to have absorbed in this way what he would rather have had me learn
in his akhara at Bandarjuddha. His influence on my work is considerable.

In the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley a number
of people made valuable contributions to my research in particular, and to my academic
career in general. My greatest debt is to my advisor and friend Gerald Berreman, whose
support has been unstinting. Over the years his critical eye and astute judgement have
broadened my appreciation and deepened my understanding of anthropology. The spirit
of his work has informed much of my own thinking. William Simmons’s good-natured
support and insightful comments have helped to keep me on the right track. Thomas
Metcalf’s extensive knowledge of India has provided a necessary and much appreciated

Other people have looked over various portions of this manuscript as it went through a
number of drafts. I am grateful to Burton Benedict for his comments and to the members
of the dissertation-writing seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, for a chance
to exchange ideas. Philip Lutgendorf has provided encouragement and has pointed out
more than one bhram. I am indebted to Bruce Pray and Joseph Schaller for looking over
the glossary. My thanks also go to Peter Nabokov, who took an interest in my work and
recommended the manuscript to the University of California Press. More than one
anonymous reviewer made valuable suggestions for which I am very grateful. Although
not directly involved in this project, I would also like to thank Elizabeth Traube, my
M.A. advisor at Wesleyan University, for getting me to ask the right questions.

Finally I am indebted to Nicole Constable, whose sharp eye for imprecision is but one
mundane feature of a wholly immeasurable and invaluable contribution to the larger


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