I am sitting in a plastic chair outside the temple of Sankat Mochan, furiously swatting the mosquitoes swarming around my legs. Locals are coming up to the quietly imposing man next to me, offering him—and on his instruction, offering me—holy water. He drinks and splashes it on his head. I do the same. It’s 5:30 a.m. The young women are late, but my companion, known as Parashinath, the wrestling trainer, assures me they are coming.
Daylight arrives, and so does Anjali in a sporty tracksuit. She’s the first to turn up to practice. Anjali jumps off her bicycle and touches Parashinath’s feet in respect, before passing into the temple. Several more girls appear and he pushes open a huge rusty gate, exposing a path that leads through jungle into the temple grounds. It ends at a square platform of sand sheltered by a corrugated metal roof painted orange, the color of Hanuman, the monkey god and deity of this temple. Anjali is there, attacking the packed sand with a rounded shovel to fluff it up, sweat dripping from her forehead.
Parashinath swirls a bunch of incense sticks around the four corners of the wrestling platform. “Har har Mahadev,” everyone chants in unison, the famous invocation of the Hindu god of creation and destruction. (Translation: “Hail Lord Shiva.”) Kashish Yadab, who is 20 years old, squares up to her brother, Kanam, under Parashinath’s watchful eye. Wrestling against her male sibling, Parashinath tells me, will make her stronger. Soon they are grasping each other’s arms, necks, hands, trying to force the other to the floor.
Welcome to the akhada
Sankat Mochan temple was founded in the 16th century C.E., by Goswami Tulsidas, a revered Hindu priest and poet. It is one of the most important Hindu temples in Varanasi, India’s oldest and most holy city. Varanasi sits on the Ganges River; Hindus believe dying in this city will allow one to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation. Thousands of pilgrims throng Varanasi daily, to burn their dead and cleanse themselves in the Mother Ganga.
Situated in the grounds of the temple of Sankat Mochan is an akhada, an outdoor space for the practice of kushti, a centuries-old form of wrestling still practiced widely across northern India. Akhadas are similar to outdoor wrestling gyms, complete with dumbbells and larger weights, often with lodgings for the wrestling trainees. Traditionally, only males have been allowed to train in akhadas. But in 2017, following a decade-long campaign by a few very determined local girls who wanted to wrestle—namely Nandini Sarkar and Aastha Verma—Swaminath Akhada of Sankat Mochan opened its doors to women for the first time in its 478-year history. Today, the akhada is the wrestling home of four young women, who range from 16 to 21 years of age.
Female wrestling in India is a very recent phenomenon, generally attributed to the 2016 Bollywood film, Dangal which tells the true story of Geeta and Babita Phogat, two sisters from the Indian state of Haryana, who became world-class wrestlers. Since then, a string of other female Indian wrestlers have progressed to the top international levels of the sport. Indeed, in 2022, Vinesh Phogat, a cousin of the Phogat sisters, is ranked world number one in the 53-kg (117-lb) category.
These successes on the world stage have inspired many other women in India to take up the sport, including the girls at this akhada. As I watch the next set of wrestlers, 21-year-old Apeksha Singh tells me she was inspired to try the sport after Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman to win a medal for wrestling at the 2016 Rio Olympics. For Kashish—resting after the practice match with her brother—akhadas are a part of her heritage. “It’s in the blood! My grandfather is a national wrestler,” she says. “And after the Bollywood film, Dangal, I was desperate to start practicing.” But she admits she is the first woman in the family to wrestle.
While Kashish has the full support of her wrestling family, for Apeksha the journey has not been so easy. “My father is dead and only my mother supports me. Money is a big problem for my family,” she says. “But the temple has provided me with food supplements and milk that I couldn’t otherwise afford. Without these I would not be strong enough to wrestle.”
Wrestling with change
It is March, the start of the hot season, and the early mornings are humid. The faces of the four girls are glimmering with perspiration. Three sport cropped hair, rare in Indian societies—a decision that makes clear their dedication to the sport.
Between barking instructions, Parashinath explains to me that female wrestling is still uncommon here in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most socially conservative states. At 912 to 1,000, the state’s ratio of girls to boys is significantly worse than the Indian average of 940—literacy rates exhibit a similar gap. According to Parashinath, Sankat Mochan was the first akhada in Uttar Pradesh to allow women inside, and he isn’t aware of any others that have done the same.
Meeting the man who made this decision, Dr. Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the head priest, or mahant, is no easy task. After days of asking for an official appointment, I wait late in the evening at the temple, on a tip that he prays here daily. This proves to be true and around midnight, after negotiating layers of entourage, I finally find myself sitting opposite one of the most influential figures in Varanasi. Men wearing crisp kurtas touch his feet and withdraw to the walls of the private chamber to observe.
While cymbals clash and chants emanate from the belly of the temple, he tells me what he hopes wrestling will bring to the girls. “India is still a male-dominated society,” he says. “There are many who talk about equality, but it is not reality. If girls can wrestle, this will bring them security and confidence.”
While wrestling is clearly a sport many women are passionate about, joining an akhada can also lead to meaningful employment. According to Mishra, many Indian government agencies, such as the railways and armed forces, take “quotas” from wrestling centers. Quotas mean jobs in these institutions are reserved for a number of wrestlers, and so being associated with an akhada greatly improves job prospects. “There is huge prosperity in the life the akhada provides,” he stresses.
The clamor from the worshippers increases and Mishra pauses; today is Tuesday, the day of Hanuman. “This is a big change in the history of our akhada,” he continues, eventually. “It is a new experience for me also. Some people were apprehensive about this, saying this is a very risky path. I told them I am willing to take that risk.”
Back in the akhada the next morning, I ask Apeksha her hopes for the future. “I want to study for a bachelor’s degree in physical education,” she says. “My background was very difficult and in the future, I want to be able to help people like me.”
Inevitably, the conversation comes round to marriage. “Many girls my age are already getting pressured by their family to get married. But I am not interested just now,” she says. “Only if someone loves me from the heart will I marry.”
She goes on to describe the opposition she faces in her village over her decision to wrestle. “Many people say, ‘Why have you cut your hair? Why are you wearing shorts?’ They ask me this just because I am a girl,” she tells me. “But I know it is only my choice; who I am, what I want to be, the direction my life will go.”
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Palak Yadav steps up to take on her male cousin, Kanam. They shake hands and punch their right hands to their hearts. Palak captures Kanam’s right leg, lifting it high, but he manages to stay upright and get free. Parashinath halts them to point to where Palak’s hand should be. A few minutes later, Palak is pinning Kanam to the floor, trying to force his back to the sand. The other girls crowd around, clapping and cheering.
Before I leave Sankat Mochan for the last time, Kashish tells me proudly how she reached the national youth semi-finals in Mumbai last year. Her enthusiasm and ambition are palpable. “I just want to wrestle,” she smiles. “I want nothing more than this.”