Two years ago, a photography-based show on National Geographic Channel asked its contestants to click pictures of India’s ancient game malkhamb. And this year, the incredible malkhamb was clearly the first finalist.
Malkhamb is undoubtedly a game that entwines power and perfect balance. The word can be divided into two parts to understand the meaning – ‘Malla’ means a wrestler and ‘Khamb’ means the pole. So in English, it can be comfortably termed as ‘Pole Gymnastics’.
Malkhamb has been recently declared as the state sport of Madhya Pradesh though its origin could be traced back to Maharashtra during the reign of Bajirao Peshwa the second. It is prevalent in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh.
In today’s time, there are three types of malkhamb that are practiced widely in India.
More of a supporting exercise for wrestlers initially, malkhamb was never an individual sport. It was the fitness trainer of Bajirao Peshwa, called Balambhattdada Deodhar who gave it its modern form. He realised that all the grips used in wrestling were not possible to be practiced on the malkhamb therefore he introduced cane so that finer movements too could be captured. However, non availability of cane led to the advent of rope malkhamb.
Malkhamb exponents believe that the sport, a unique combination of meditation and gymnastics, helps sportspersons develop a healthy mind and sound body. It not only develops the muscles of the body but also improves the circulatory system. This sport efficiently provides optimum exercise to the entire body in the least possible time. Interestingly, visually-challenged people benefit a lot from this exercise.
But this quirky sport remains relatively unknown, without getting the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, it is struggling to survive. The sport involves taking up an intensive exercise and rediscovering how powerful one’s body and mind can be. It is also the best full body workout, combining a range of strength and cardio exercises. The thing that ups the sport’s difficulty level is the fact that malkhamb is an aerial sport.
Tethering on the edge of existence, this dying art form lacks patronage and an unflinching determination among youngsters to pursue the sport.
In 1936, a troupe of 35 acrobats from a small town in Central India traveled to the Berlin Olympic Games to demonstrate this ancient sport. 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 none other than German dictator Adolf Hitler who 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.
Unfortunately today, in the lush highlands that hug sprawling Mumbai, this peculiar sport with apparatuses that look uncannily like medieval torture devices stares at a declining future.
It is in these few ramshackle gymnasiums scattered throughout India’s Maharashtra that the sport craves to shine bright like the Sanskrit texts of the 12th century from where it once drew its origin.