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Taking a break in the Himalayan foothills.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi who visited Pragpur in September, 2007]
Once a year this sleepy hamlet in the Kangra Valley comes alive-violently. Men here like to flatten each other like pancakes. Best known as India 's first 'heritage village' (stone-cobbled streets, gabled roofs, and fruit-heavy trees), not many visit the Pragpur annual wrestling tournament in September. I did.
My night train from Delhi was delayed. By then it was all uproar at the Judge's Court Hotel where I was booked. The tournament was to start in two hours, and the Himachal Pradesh governor-the chief guest-had still not arrived. The proprietor of the hotel was anxious. His wife was busy issuing instructions to the steward. The cops were preparing for the guard-of-honor.
Amidst the hum-and-stir, somebody remembered to escort me to my room. Its Edwardian ambiance reminded me of British-era PWD inspection houses. The old furniture exuded dignity. Chandeliers glittered with tempting secrets. A teakwood almirah was packed with books. I could only manage to flip through Madame Bovary. The kushti was starting at two.
When I reached the village outskirts, most eyes were set on the akhara or mud pit where the langoti-clad star Babbu was playfully slapping his thighs. Turban-clad dholak-wallas were beating the hell out of their drums. Country people from near and far had gathered around the pit. All were men. Their women showed more interest in golgappas, a Ferris wheel and churiwallas.
In Babbu's show, there was no thrill but much fun. After quickly flattening his dismal rival, Babbu pranced around jubilantly. Everyone cheered for him when he jumped into the spectators' section to collect appreciation money. Meanwhile, two new wrestlers took over the akhara. One looked ferocious in his twirling, oiled moustache. Both had tiny langotis tied round their loins that just managed to cover the essentials, most of the time.
I was soon mobbed by a few wrestlers. They had spotted my camera and were asking for 'photo'. These young men hailed from various towns in Himachal as well as villages in Punjab and Haryana. They seemed too soft-spoken and gentle to harm an ant. But those torsos were chiseled to brave the kushtis.
Wrestling has its rules. You have to get your rival fall flat on his back to be the victor. The move is called Patki. To do that, you have to twist his body, pick him up and flung him away, bend his legs, topple him upside down, shove his head, ram into his knees, or lay on him till he is exhausted. That's hard work. By the end of the day, all 116 pehelwans had muddy chests. Many were marked with blisters.
The grappling went on for about four hours. The final match was the most thrilling. Rahmat Ali vs Johnny Pehalwaan. It was,apparently, the clash of titans. Everyone fell silent. The Ferris wheel stopped. The dholak wallas paused.
Johnny leaped for Ali's legs. Ali fell down. Johnny propelled his knee on Ali's back. Ali flinched. The crowd roared. The announcer pleaded for the "true sprit of Kushti". Johnny loosened his grasp. A two-minute break followed.
Fanta was served to Ali. Action resumed. Even the women were interested now. The finalists ritually rubbed mud on each other's chest. Ali then struck hard on Johnny's shoulder. Johnny swayed, slipped, and fell on his back. Patki. Ali won. A few hands tapped sympathetically on Johnny's shoulders. Ali grinned. It had been a great day. But now stars were twinkling. Exhausted, I strolled back to the comforts of Judge's Court. And Madame Bovary.
Mr.Governor is Coming
Push, Shove, and Patak
I'm He Man
Watching the Climax
Have a Break
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Altitude 565 meter from sea level Nearest Railway Station Una The Judge's Court (01970) 245035, 245335