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MUMBAI—In 1936, a troupe of 35 acrobats from a small town in Central India traveled to the Berlin Olympic Games to demonstrate the ancient sport of mallakhamb. At a formal gala convened by the International Olympic Committee, athletics officials and eager media from around the world gathered to witness the 900-year-old exotic sport’s global unveiling. The team’s intricate feats of contortion, strength, and death-defying gymnastics atop a skinny, 8½-foot pole thrilled Adolf Hitler; The Führer personally bestowed each acrobat with an honorary Olympic medal before the group returned to India.
The world’s first real glimpse of this curious athletic form was also its last. But today, in the lush highlands that hug sprawling Mumbai, this peculiar sport with apparatuses that look uncannily like medieval torture devices is still practiced. It is in these few ramshackle gymnasiums scattered throughout India’s Maharashtra—the same region where mallakhamb’s origins are traced back to 12th-century Sanskrit texts—where a strange tradition that features swinging clubs, rope burn between toes, and copious amounts of castor oil—is kept alive.
Athletes perform 90-second routines packed with intricate skill combinations as a panel of three judges assesses each competitor’s speed, grace, and difficulty on one of the sport’s three apparatuses: pole mallakhamb, hanging mallakhamb, or rope mallakhamb. It is an insular sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. And although its sole governing body—the Mallakhamb Federation of India—organizes a handful of national competitions each year, the sport is mainly a Marathi Hindi practice. In a country where cricket is thought of as the unifier of more than 1 billion people, mallakhamb is a blip on the radar—an eccentric regional phenomenon largely tucked away in Maharashtra.
“Mallakhamb is history’s hardest sport that no one knows,” says coach Uday Deshpande before he catapults into a forward flip, landing 4 feet up a wooden pole by catching it between his thighs. With roots in Hindu monkey god mythology, bellicose ancient fighting traditions, and an unexpected brush with British colonialism, mallakhamb may be history’s oddest sport, too.
Deshpande, a legendary guru and one of the sport’s foremost authorities, knows Mallakhamb better than perhaps anyone. Though he carries a deceptive slouch in his slight frame, the sprightly 60-year-old still rises before dawn each morning to head the training facility in central Mumbai. For four decades, Deshpande has ushered more than 50,000 students into this cramped, derelict building of corrugated metal and crumbling cement. Although the gymnasium now sits in the shadow of encroaching skyscrapers, his institution is one of the few physical education facilities left where traditional Indian sports like mallakhamb are cultivated amid the crush of modern Mumbai.
Upon first entering his dusty gym and witnessing the training regimen, the most remarkable thing is that mallakhamb looks like no other sport on the planet. Even its three apparatuses—the pole mallakhamb, the hanging mallakhamb, and the rope mallakhamb—appear bizarre, almost cartoonish. In one corner, boys practice pole—greased up in castor oil, they shimmy along a tall wooden rod, tapered to a mere 1-inch diameter, while executing Herculean skill sequences under threadbare mats: sideways hangs with one arm; upside-down slides using one leg; straddles, splits, and superhuman balancing acts utilizing an endless variety of hand, foot, knee, and elbow grips. A few feet away, the hanging mallakhamb seems even more formidable as plucky 5-year-olds navigate the same risky skills on a shorter, squatter pole that twists and twirls with each body movement, swinging through the air like an immense wind chime.