India@75: Mallakhamb — a fascinating tale of athleticism and tradition

Steeped well in tradition and still continuously evolving, the ancient sport of Mallakhamb deserves every bit of attention from the world’s audience. Here’s why.

It was a nippy December evening in 2019, and I was at the edge of my seat the entire time I was watching a popular bamboo circus show at Hanoi’s Tuong Theatre in Vietnam. Gawking at 30-odd acrobats throw themselves in the air, walk barefoot on top of long bamboo sticks with absolutely no support, and juggle props with mind-bending ease, I had forgotten the world around me. But even in that moment of utter fascination, my mind managed to wander back in time to the day when I had watched, with the same degree of preoccupation, a live show of Mallakhamb in Maharashtra’s Amravati years back. That is the charm of this fascinatingly unique Indian sport — once you see it happening before your eyes, its memory is etched in your heart forever.

Decoding the sport

The fastest growing traditional sport in the world today, Mallakhamb requires athletes to perform 90-second routines packed with intricate skill combinations and judges performers on their speed, grace, and difficulty. Just like any other gymnastic or aerial sport, Mallakhamb functions on the synergy of mind and body, employing every muscle and helping develop speed, stamina, and better health. It involves aerobic and acrobatic stunts as well as yoga poses, and the interval between one gravity-defying pose and the next is called a transaction. Twisting, twirling, and curling on a pole, enthusiasts put on display their flexibility, skills, athleticism, and courage.

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A stunning display of Mallakhamb in Amravati. Image: Shutterstock/CRS PHOTO.

With its many facets, the traditional sport has been morphed into a martial art, a competitive sport, a performing art, a variation of yoga, and a circus apparatus over the years! There are three types of Mallakhamb — pole, cane, and rope. Pole or Fixed Mallakhamb, the traditional form, uses a free-standing, fixed 10 to 12-feet pole made of teak or Indian rosewood and lathered with castor oil before each use to reduce the friction and minimise the injuries. In Cane or Hanging Mallakhamb, the pole is usually shorter in height (3.5 to 4 feet) and is left hanging from a hook and a chain, leaving a gap between its end and the ground. The degree of difficulty while performing on a hanging cane is higher due to its swinging and revolving nature. For Rope Mallakhamb, postures are performed on a 5.5-metre-long rope, without any knots, suspended from the top.

The beginning

The term Mallakhamb derives from the conjunction of two words: ‘malla’ meaning wrestler or athlete in Sanskrit and ‘khamb’ meaning pole in Marathi. The ancient martial art finds its first mention in the 12th-century text, Manas Olhas, of the Chalukya kings. With the end of the Chalukya dynasty, the sport too was dormant for long, until it was finally revived in the early 19th century by Balambhatta Dada Deodhar — sports teacher to Peshwa Bajirao II.

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Young boys practicing their Pole Mallakhamb routines at a gymnasium in Mumbai. Image: Courtesy Slate/Gaar Adams.

In 1936, a troupe of 35 acrobats from the small town of Amravati in Maharashtra travelled all the way to Berlin to demonstrate the ancient sport at the Summer Olympics. As the team performed intricate feats of strength, contortion, and jaw-dropping gymnastics using a mere skinny pole, curious media from around the world and the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler watched in awe! It was the first time when the world got a glimpse of Mallakhamb’s global revelation. The competitive version of the sport, however, made its first national-level appearance in 1958 at the National Gymnastics Championships held at the Pahadganj Stadium, DelhI. It was here that the Gymnastic Federation of India proposed to recognise the game and include it in the subsequent championships.

Grabbing the global spotlight

Steeped in tradition and mysticism, Mallakhamb deserves much more attention than it is receiving at the moment, and efforts are being made to make it possible. In 2013, the state had declared Mallakhamb as its official sport. In February 2019, the first ever Mallakhamb World Championship was organised at Shivaji Park’s Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir in Mumbai. Athletes and enthusiasts from 15 countries participated in the tournament. More recently, India’s ministry of sports inducted four native games, including Mallakhamb, in to the reputed Khelo India Youth Games earlier this year. “By equating such an indigenous game to other international sports, it changes the people’s perception of it,” said Ramesh Indoliya, President, Mallakhamb Federation of India (MFI). “Earlier Mallakhamb athletes were invited to give demonstrations at the Khelo India games, today we are part of the main games, which is a giant leap for us.”

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Rope Mallakhamb has a higher degree of difficulty. Image: Courtesy Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation.

Formed in 1981, the governing body of MFI organises national-level competitions each year and has been conducting these championships for over 19 years now. There are several other international organisations, including Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation, Mallakhamb Confederation of World (MCW), Asian Mallakhamb Federation (AMF), and South Asian Mallakhamb Federation (SAMF), that are leaving no stones unturned in keeping the sport alive or igniting a passion for the same in the hearts of youth across India and abroad.

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Mallakhamb has now started gaining popularity on international platforms. Image: Courtesy Mallakhamb India.

From organising championships to teacher coaching camps and workshops, these organisations have been doing it all. The Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation is a non-profit organisation formed in 2016 and committed to promote the sport, showcase its health benefits, and oversee competitions. Uday Deshpande, Founder Director and Secretary General of VMF, has trained more than 50,000 students at the centre, and has travelled to 47 countries so far to promote and propagate Mallakhamb over four decades. As member of the Mallakhamb Federation of India, he has also formed and registered 29 affiliated state association across the country.

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Mallakhamb’s popularity has started picking up in the USA, Tokyo, among other international destinations. Image: Courtesy Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation.

“Mallakhamb has played a great role in putting native sports from India on the global map,” believes Ravi Gaikwad, one of the founding members of another foundation called Mallakhamb India. A national-level judge and player himself, Gaikwad has been doing his bit by training young enthusiasts and promoting the sport at the grassroots level. “In 2006, a few of the national players and Shree Shiv Chhatrapati State awardees, including myself, came together with a vision in mind to promote our sport across the world. Showcasing Mallakhamb through the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia, Russia, South Africa, Georgia and China, the collective’s amazing performances have taken them to global stages such as Cirque du Soleil, Dragone, Das Supertalent (Germany), Georgia’s Got Talent, The Ellen Degeneres Show, as well as the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast (2018)!”

Where to see and learn Mallakhamb

Mallakhamb is a famous sport in Central India, particularly Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir in Mumbai’s Dadar area is the most famous nursery of the sport, with coach Uday Deshpande as its venerated guru. Pune, Amravati, and Nashik are hotspots for Mallakhamb in the state of Maharashtra, while Gwalior and Bhopal are ideal places to catch some performances in Madhya Pradesh. There are several other small pockets in the country, especially in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where this sport is still alive. In the north, Chandigarh and Amritsar, too, have dedicated training centres. However, due to COVID restrictions, most of the institutes are currently not hosting any performances or competitions, so you’ll have to wait a while to be dazzled by a Mallakhamb display.

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The sport is quite popular in Pune city of Maharashtra. Image: Shutterstock/Yogiraj Shelke.

Thanks to the national and international organisations, the sport is slowly but steadily gaining popularity in various international destinations. The USA, Mauritius, Germany, Japan, Portugal, Switzerland, and even the Réunion Island have evinced interest in it. The incredible sport had once awed the global audience. All eyes are now on the demonstration of this centuries-old, indigenous, and unique sport at the World Mallakhamb Championship USA in 2022!  

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