"You need to move ahead and then smile," the coach tells me.
I'm precariously perched on the rounded top of a 7-foot pole that is no wider than my fist. I have no safety harnesses. Smiling is far from my mind. Sure, there are some gym mats spread below in case I face-plant, but that isn't exactly reassuring. I need, somehow, to contort myself into an upright position so I can begin to perform some basic yoga poses. Yes, yoga poses on top of a pole.
Welcome to mallakhamb, part yoga, part gymnastics, part how-the-hell-are you doing that. The name of the sport comes from a combination of Hindi and Sanskrit words: "malla," which means a strong man, and "khamb," a pole. Mallakhamb combines the breathing and concentration of yoga with the athleticism of gymnastics. It is practiced with poles like this one made of teak wood, ropes, and sometimes an aerial silk apparatus.
The earliest mention of something resembling mallakhamb came sometime in the first half of the 1100s. But its revival took place in the 19th century, thanks to a Maharashtrian wrestler named Balambhatt Dada Deodhar. According to legend, two famed wrestlers from the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad came to the kingdom of the Maratha ruler Bajirao Peshwa II and made an open challenge to all the wrestlers in the land. Deodhar, all of 18, was the only one to accept the challenge, and asked for some time to prepare before the bout. He meditated for answers and his devotion was so intense that the monkey-god Hanuman, the celestial representative of strength, appeared before him and demonstrated a few wrestling tricks using a wooden pole. Deodhar practiced the same tricks and successfully beat his opponents. His methods soon became institutionalized as the sport.
A century or so later, here I am, trying my hand at mallakhamb at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir (SSVM) in Mumbai's Shivaji Park, one of the best-known centers for the sport in India. Mumbai, and other cities in the state of Maharashtra, are mallakhamb strongholds. But mallakhamb has only found its footing in other parts of India in the last 50-odd-years. It has, however, been steadily gaining fans around the world, including, strangely, Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer saw a mallakhamb demonstration during the 1936 Summer Olympics and was so impressed with the athletes that he awarded them honorary medals.
So, what does a regular mallakhamb session look like? As I enter the large room in Shivaji Park, a group of men are going through the motions of their daily yoga classes on the left, while a few women have their own little class going on to the right. Girders run across the ceiling and hold up ropes and long lengths of silk fabric. The floor is a jigsaw puzzle of gym mats, and a woman hangs from a rope in a cross-legged yoga pose about 8 feet above the ground, smiling placidly. And in the middle of the room is the wooden pole.
I watch the woman perform a few more contortions, using her toes to grip the rope and switching effortlessly from one yoga position to the next. In the blink of an eye she disentangles herself from the rope, dismounts lightly and raises her right hand over her head, paying her respects to the equipment and still smiling. The small group of mallakhamb students, ages ranging between 5 years to over 50 years breaks out in soft applause.
A few feet away from her, a man is preparing for a session on the pole. After completing his stretches he dabs his wrists and inner thighs with some castor oil. The oil has two benefits: it's sticky enough to create a little friction and works as an antiseptic. He slaps his upper arm and thigh, and begins his routine. It's a blur. Before I know it he is hanging from the pole using only his armpit while sitting cross-legged, then he is upside down holding on with just his legs, and then he is using his abdomen to balance on top of the pole with his arms and legs stretched out like Superman. This goes on for about 2 minutes before he jumps off and lands lightly on his feet. With, again, a smile. Who are these people?
The woman, Sheila Sharma, 52, and the man, Sachin Malekar, 46, are regulars at SSVM. They are both there five mornings a week, twisting and turning their bodies in ways that makes mine hurt just watching.
"I've been doing this for about eight years," Sheila says. "It all started when my daughter saw Kisna [a Bollywood movie] and said "Even I want to climb a rope and throw flowers!" like the actress." While her daughter eventually tired of the classes, Sheila was soon hooked.
Sachin's initiation to mallakhamb was less dramatic. He used to visit Shivaji Park to exercise daily, and found that mallakhamb training takes place at SSVM. Since he had practiced the sport in school, he decided to get back in touch with it.
But it was hard work. They had to first build up their strength and stamina. It took Sheila about 3 years to master the rope before she graduated to the pole. Sachin skipped the rope and began with the pole, and has been working on his technique for the past 8 months.
"I only know 5 percent of what there is to know," he says.. "It's very painful initially but you have to go through that to experience the sense of freedom you get later."
I ask them why they enjoy mallakhamb so much. For Sachin it is all about the fitness, mental and physical. Sheila keeps coming back because SSVM is now like a family for her. "The one thing I love about this sport is that there is no competition. We're always helping each other and we feel genuinely happy when one of us has a breakthrough," she says.
And why is everyone smiling when they're holding a position?
"It helps relax your body, you know," Sheila says. "When you're up there in a strange pose and trying to remain calm, forcing yourself to smile really eases the tension. And it makes for a great photo!"
As we are talking, a girl of about 15 makes her way up the rope. She is attempting an upside-down lotus position and looks nervous. The rope is thick and rough on the skin. A few athletes I speak to have deep cuts in the webbing between their big toe and second toe. The girl struggles at first before Sheila goes over and helps her out. When she finally manages to get into the right position, she shouts, "Yes! Finally!"
Uday Deshpande's name is synonymous with mallakhamb. At 61, Deshpande has been connected with the sport for over 50 years, first as a student and then as a teacher and supporter.
He was introduced to mallakhamb as a young boy, when his grandfather suggested that he join the SSVM to channel his energies. SSVM's coach at the time, Kale Guruji, and Deshpande's grandfather had fought together for India's independence. As time went by, Deshpande's interest in the sport grew, to the point where he'd train every morning at 5:30a.m. before school. Soon he was competing in district, state and national tournaments and participating in demonstrations around the country. He tells me about one of his most unforgettable mallakhamb moments.
"We were once performing a cane routine [where a cane is used like a rope] in front of 25,000 people in Eden Gardens [a cricket stadium], Kolkata," Deshpande says. "There were four of us hanging in different positions from a single cane, no thicker than a finger, when it suddenly snapped!"
Somehow all four of them managed to land on their feet simultaneously, drawing much applause and demands for an encore from the audience.
Eventually, Deshpande got involved in coaching. Starting with the SSVM and local organizations, he travelled through Maharashtra conducting workshops and demonstrations to showcase mallakhamb. Coaching gradually led to organizing, with Deshpande occupying official posts in state and national bodies dealing with the sport. In 1989 he was appointed the secretary of the Mallakhamb Federation of India (MFI).
"At that time there were only four state associations that were affiliated with MFI. But by the time I left, we had 29-affiliated state groups," Deshpande says During his tenure, he traversed the country, visiting every Indian state and showcasing mallakhamb. His efforts included getting the sport officially recognized by the Government of India and the Indian Olympic Association. He also worked to organize regular competitions at various levels and encouraging participation from around India.
"I didn't get into mallakhamb with the idea of promoting it. My main purpose [when I conduct a demonstration] is to involve and teach the sport to anyone who is interested," he says.
Last year Deshpande quit his job as a customs officer and now devotes all his time to mallakhamb. There's a lot he wants to do—write books, put out videos, get mallakhamb officially recognized in the National Games, before taking it to regional sporting events like the Asian Games and then one day, hopefully, the Olympics. "But with all this day-to-day running of SSVM, I have no time at all," he says.
Outside the SSVM about 40 children in red leotards and orange shorts prepare to perform their mallakhamb routines for a pair of filmmakers from Brazil. Gym mats are being carried out, castor oil and powder poured into bowls, and on one side, stools are being balanced on empty milk bottles, promising some imminent daredevilry.
It isn't uncommon for tourists from around the world to stop by SVMM during their Mumbai visits and snap a couple of pictures. Though the sport might still not be entirely mainstream in India, it has garnered a fair following overseas.
For the past 25 years or so, there has been a steady stream of foreign students at SSVM, drawn to the place by a desire to learn mallakhamb. Apart from the Brazilians, there were an American couple, a dancer from Austria and an aerial acrobat from Germany practicing mallakhamb at SSVM that week. And it's all been word of mouth. There have been no emails or ads or flyers printed up. Just people telling others about that time they saw a little boy do a handstand on a pole.
Though Deshpande doesn't have an advertising budget, he does his best to spread awareness about the sport, accepting invitations from all over the world to perform demonstrations. During one of our conversations he pulled out a folder that had pictures and newspaper clippings of all his foreign students.
His first overseas visit was a weird one, to say the least. In 1997, a Japanese TV channel invited one of Deshpande's friends to take a team to Japan and participate in a game show. One of the tasks included trying to fit as many people as possible in a transparent telephone booth four feet wide by four feet deep by six feet high. "My friend came to me and said why don't you go with the team," Deshpande says. So he did. And thanks to some mallakhamb magic, he managed to fit 15 people into that booth and shut the door, winning the contest. Since then, invitations have poured in from Germany, England, France, the US and other countries.
I ask David Grace, half of the American couple, how he heard of mallakhamb. He runs a gym in California and said one of his clients had told him about it. Curious to know more, Grace made a trip to India in November 2011, and stayed in Mumbai for three months so he could learn mallakhamb. He was back now for a short visit.
Sarah Goody, the aerial acrobat from Canada, read about mallakhamb in the newspaper during her first trip to India, 13 years ago. Since then, she's been trying to recall what she saw in the paper, until one chance conversation finally led her to the sport. "I was telling someone, "Oh, you know it's like yoga on a rope" and they said, "You mean mallakhamb!"" she said.
Deshpande's students who have settled down around the world are also helping spread the word about mallakhamb. Chinmay Patankar, a 35 year-old management consultant in the New York area started the Mallakhamb Federation of USA (MFUSA) last year with his friend Rajesh Narkhade. They both trained together under Deshpande growing up in Mumbai, and decided to revive their interest in the sport after they moved to America.
The MFUSA has been doing its best to generate interest in mallakhamb. Last year, Patankar and his group had mallakhamb demonstrations in Times Square in association with the Indian consulate. Over the phone, he told me he's planning a few mallakhamb camps this year, starting with one in Baltimore in May.
Back on the top of the pole, terrified, Deshpande begins to call out instruction. I need to shift my center of gravity.
"You still need to move ahead just a little bit more, " he says.
After a deep breath, I wriggle around a bit and manage to move a millimeter or so forward.
"That's perfect!" he says. Thank god.
Then Deshpande tells me to sit up straight. He walks me through some basic yoga poses, including a namaste, and another where I balance with my hands stretched out to my sides.
The whole time, I can't believe I am staying up, actually doing this. When I reach the final position, Deshpande calls out to me again.
"Don't forget to smile!"