Another 18th century rāgamālā (‘garland of ragas’) image.
A rāga is an improvisation recipe for musical performance, with associated attributes and mood. This one, deshakh rāginī, is meant to be played early in the day during the rainy season: it is said to be fierce like a wrestler’s hold and wrestling is the mainstay of its visual representation. (Sold by Sotheby’s and now who knows where, but still up in good resolution in their catalogue here.)
All the activity shown is wrestling or training for it. In the foreground two women wrestle. To the right a woman uses a bow-without-arrow as a resistance tool. On the left it’s whirling clubs. These, sometimes called mugdar, come in various sizes, up to 70kg, and may be equipped with spikes just to keep the whirler fully focused. Often they are painted with an image of the monkey god Hanuman, the god of wrestling: wrestling grounds (akhara) usually have an altar to him. To the rear a woman has just executed a controlled head-first descent down the pole until her hands reach the ground.
(Many examples of this style of representing this rāga survive. The ones I’ve looked at always have five figures, but the gender varies: all male, all female or four males and one female. Where it’s all women they dress the same as the men: bare-chested and in flashy shorts. Where there is a single woman she is in a wrapped sari and is always the one on the pole.)
The pole is a malla-khamb, a “wrestlers’ pole.” Several versions occur (including a short one that hangs from a rope as a swinging log) but here it is the main version, a tall sturdy trunk embedded in the earth. On top it narrows suddenly to a small flat-topped knob.
Originally it is a tool for wrestlers to train on to help develop strength, agility and balance. For instance gripping the shaft with the legs to mirror grappling an opponent’s body. But mallakhamb also became an activity in its own right, shifting it in a more gymnastic direction.
How old such pole work is is unclear, but it became much more widespread in the early twentieth century. Swami Kuvalayananda, the pioneer investigator and measurer of yogic physiology, launched a movement to promote both mallakhamb and sun salutes (sūrya-namas-kāra) as training regimes for Indian youth.
Any of the one-legged balance poses from the yoga repertoire can be mounted on the pole’s top knob, or both feet or hands if they are together. Straight-legged positions mounted off the main shaft sometimes resemble standing poses—but done sideways with the upper foot hooked around the back of the pole.
Performance on the pole is rapid and surging with positions generally held only for a moment. In one of the examples pictured below a boy supports himself with the top knob gripped in one armpit while he sits in an aerial lotus with his free hand held in a meditational mudrā—needless to say this display of seconds is not meditation, but a highly strenuous allusion to it. It’s likely that this theatrical yogic display is new.
The pole itself obviously requires (and creates) extreme athleticism. But as with east Asian martial arts, the hard core is centred around the young and those in their prime, but practitioners may continue their whole lives in a modified form, around the pole if not up it.
Interaction between wrestling and yoga has been an object of scholarly investigation in recent decades, most prominently by Joseph Alter. Many of the developers of modern yoga were wrestlers themselves or had dealings with its world. Sun salutes, reformatted into their modern form by the 1920s, came into yoga via wrestling—which had long trained using daṇḍs, a form of push-up which is more or less an upface-downface dog alternation.
Those who practiced wrestling and other world-directed physical crafts were better placed than renunciate yoga practitioners to interact with the international physical culture movements that arose in the late 19th century. At the same time wrestlers did not think of themselves as opposites to the worlds of renunciation, meditation and asceticism.
In an intriguing 1992 article Alter describes the culture of the north Indian wrestling ground and its psychological and cultural richness: in particular its partial identification with renunciate sannyasins, even as the two groups ask very different things from their bodies. The yogins are naked or nearly so and covered in ash; the wrestlers are in loincloths and covered in the earth of the wrestling ground (into which may be mixed oil, turmeric, rosewater and buttermilk!). They have day jobs which they must accommodate around their life of wrestling discipline, but nonetheless view themselves as akin to yogic renunciates on a psychological plane—sometimes with a political dimension, spurning class, caste and sectarian discriminations in the common ground of body, earth and struggle.
[B&W images taken by the lateFrits Staal, published in an essay Indian Bodies in Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Colour images a selection from Pinterest and here, thanks to Ruth, is a clip of themallakhamb in action. Turn the sound off. The rapidity of the movements fits with a scoring system from Western gymnastics where as many moves as possible must be packed in within a time limit.]