The World’s Strangest Sport Involves Swinging Clubs and Lots of Castor Oil

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
July 11 2014 8:08 AM

The Strangest Sport No One Knows

In the highlands near Mumbai, practitioners of Mallakhamb perform curious acrobatic feats using poles, ropes … and castor oil.

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In another corner, girls practice rope near an old file cabinet covered in cobwebs and trophies. Clutching the braided cord between their toes, they climb upward, performing intricate shifts of their weight to form lassos around a leg or an arm that catch the body as it cascades downward into dumbfounding yogic positions—a Sisyphean act of scaling, falling, then rescaling the rope like a Jacob’s Ladder toy.

“Mallakhamb is a sport of discipline. It is an Indian sport,” Deshpande says without making eye contact, stroking his close-cropped beard as he closely observes an 8-year-old girl somersaulting down a rope. A loop of it cuts sharply into her ankle to stop her trajectory and prevent a fall to the floor. She barely flinches. Suspended 4 feet in the air upside down, the young acrobat effortlessly grabs her leg behind her head as Deshpande makes slight adjustments to her positioning like a Soviet ballet master. Her muscles twitch and—in an instant—she’s climbing back up the rope under her coach’s steely gaze.

“We strive for perfection in our sport,” says Rajesh Amrale, a renowned former national competitor whose mallakhamb demonstrations led him to the finals of India’s Got Talent in 2009.  “Even in India, people haven’t seen mallakhamb and don’t believe it when we perform,” he adds, grinning.

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As students grab their shoes from a rack and head out the door to school, Deshpande saunters to his musty office. He retreats to the yellowing books and papers on Ayurveda and Indian sporting traditions that line the cupboards along his walls, pulling out mallakhamb’s limited literature for consultation. Originally developed as a training methodology for wrestlers, mallakhamb’s own name entwines Sanskrit and Hindi to literally mean pole wrestling. The ritual of greasing both the equipment and athlete in castor oil mirrors the Indian kushti wrestling tradition of dousing both ring and wrestler in ghee.

Mallakhamb3.
A girl practices an intricate hang on rope mallakhamb before cascading down the apparatus.

Photo by Gaar Adams

The climbing, joyfulness, and irreverence of mallakhamb are said to be informed by the spirit of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and its strange apparatuses reflect his anatomy: The pole is his phallus (which is why Pole has no female practitioners) and the rope is his tail (which is why the rope is exclusively climbed with toes, as using the soles of feet would be disrespectful).

After the sport’s initial introduction in the 11th century, mallakhamb resurged in a fantastical merging of history and myth. Hanuman is said to have appeared to the famed physical trainer of the Marathi kingdom’s royal prime minister, Balambhatta Dada Deodhar, in the late 18th century, after he was challenged to a wrestling match by sinister outsiders. The trainer watches Hanuman climb a tree and acquires the monkey-god’s skills, learning to mimic Hanuman’s strength and agility.

“It has a colorful heritage and strong regional roots, so India should be proud,” Deshpande says, rifling through more cabinets.

Carefully flipping through fragile pages listing the detailed history of his top students and their accomplishments—he’s coached national champions each year since the competition’s inception more than 30 years ago—Deshpande sighs as a cricket ball sails onto the gymnasium porch. He smiles and waves over a sheepish young boy to come retrieve his ball.

“Why don’t you come try mallakhamb instead?” Deshpande says as he sends the boy off, cricket ball in hand. The kid rejoins one of five simultaneous cricket games bleeding into one another in the nearby dirty lot, his uniform blending with the sea of other players. “It’s a sport of colonialism,” he sighs again, before turning back to his aging books. And though it would be easy to dismiss mallakhamb’s peculiarity as the product of endemic isolation, even it didn’t escape a run-in with Western imperialism.

Though British colonialists did their best to outlaw traditional Indian athletic practices, such as kalaripayattu martial arts, mallakhamb largely flew under the radar until the 1920’s, when Indian nationalism reached a fever pitch and the sport became a symbol of Indian heritage for some. But the formation of a unifying governing body—the mallakhamb Federation of India—to officially define the odd training form as its own sport emancipated from wrestling led to standardizations that drew upon the traditions of Western gymnastics—like the inclusion of certain established moves, prescribed routines, and time limits.

Deshpande reaches for a small, tattered book next to a photograph of his grizzled father, an Indian freedom fighter, the man who encouraged him to attend mallakhamb practice each day as a boy. Inside the book, neatly drawn diagrams of men standing atop poles outline the rules and regulations of the sport. Though some of the skill names look unfamiliar, stitching together Hindi and Sanskrit, other later-era terms lift directly from British gymnastics. As students pour in through the front door, he rifles quickly through the manual, a melding of the languages and images of mallakhamb dancing on the page like a flip book turning backwards through time.   

“Pole dancing is famous in the whole world but our sport with one thousand years of history is forgotten,” laments Ravi Gaikwad, a former competitor who now coaches in Mumbai in the hopes of keeping mallakhamb alive for the next generation.

Later that evening, his students from both the morning and afternoon sessions gather outside in the wide lot, kicking up red sand in plumes as they walk. While they strain to carry the bulky equipment out into the open air for a rare public performance, Deshpande lowers his voice. “Actually, I do wish mallakhamb could be back in the Olympics,” he says.

As the full team of students marches out together in lockstep before a gathering crowd, Deshpande recalls fondly mallakhamb’s one big moment on the international stage. The time when 35 mallakhamb acrobats, marching two steps behind the official Indian contingent waving the Union Jack, solemnly carried India’s independent saffron flag. The time when their incredible feats of athleticism awed the world. “Their incredible feats of athleticism awed the world,” Deshpande says. “And the world should know about mallakhamb once more.”

Gaar Adams is a freelance journalist based in the Arabian Peninsula. He covers the Middle East and South Asia on Beacon and can be found on Twitter.