Obituary: Guru Hanuman

THERE HAVE been few Indian wrestlers of any merit over the past five decades who at some point in their careers were not either coached or given valuable tips by the legendary wrestler Guru Hanuman. Scores of potential champions daily practised the ancient intricacies of Indian free-style wrestling at the akhada, or wrestling seminary, he founded in the old, walled city of Delhi 76 years ago.

Under his baleful eye, they learnt wrestling grips, feints and tricks which few in India know today. Two of Hanuman's disciples won gold medals at the Asian Games in 1982 and 1986. Seven others trained at his akhada won various national championships and received the Arjuna Award, the highest honour for Indian sportsmen. Others coached by him represented India at the Olympics and a handful secured medals in free-style wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s at the Commonwealth Games.

Free-style Indian wrestling in which Hanuman specialised has few rules, no mats and no time limit. The duration of each bout can seem interminable as two wrestlers circle one another in a bid to get a firm grip and pin the other flat or "chitt" on the ground for the count of three.

At times, locked in a deathly clinch, wrestlers push and pull one another around the ring for long periods, aiming to flatten their opponents with the "sudden death" stratagem which Hanuman perfected. This deft manoeuvre entails tripping up one's opponent and then flinging him to the ground before he regains his footing.

Wrestling is highly popular in northern India, mainly amongst rural folk who have little or no access to many other forms of entertainment. It is not uncommon at evening time to see hundreds of villagers gathered around a mud wrestling pit, cheering on the local lads dressed in skimpy loin-cloths, grappling with one another.

On special occasions rural competitors oil their bodies, making a firm grip difficult. This makes the bouts lengthier, tests the competitors' skills to the maximum and adds spice to the betting. Wrestlers or pahelwans become folk heroes in rural India and some are in great demand by political parties during elections to boost their chances at the hustings.

Hanuman was born in 1901 in Chidwa village in western Rajasthan into a poor home, and named after the mythical monkey god with formidable physical prowess and agility. He did not attend school but began wrestling at the local village akhada for fun at an early age. His inherent wrestling talent greatly impressed a local businessman who persuaded him to move to Delhi and helped establish his akhada in 1923 in the old, northern part of the walled city area.

Within a few months Hanuman's fame as an accomplished wrestler spread and youngsters flocked to be part of his seminary, dedicating themselves to his strict regimen that included numerous workouts and mud-pit wrestling besides practising special holds and grips. The inmates' bonus was a rich, vegetarian diet, swimming in gallons of ghee or clarified butter and endless glasses of milk. This diet kept Hanuman fit and coaching till he died in a car accident at the age of 98.

In the early 1940s he inadvertently became involved with India's freedom struggle when he provided refuge to a wanted revolutionary fleeing the police. He was arrested by the police and reportedly subjected to severe third-degree torture that included being hung upside down for hours over a well. But he was steadfast and refused to divulge the whereabouts of the wanted man, who managed successfully to evade capture.

After independence in 1947 Hanuman's akhada became the home for competitive wrestlers in northern India. He never turned professional, concentrating exclusively on coaching. In the 1980s he was awarded the Padma Shree, one of India's highest civilian honours, and the Shree Dronacharya Award - named after the mythical sage warrior - which is reserved for coaches.

Hanuman, wrestler: born Chidawa village, India 15 March 1901; died Meerut, India 24 May 1999.

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