The diet and fitness routine of India’s pehelwans
Behind the rigours, the message is quite straightforward: work off what you consume and be wary of those empty carbohydrates.
Amit Chandila, the former pehelwan, who is now an advocate, still visits the akhara every other day. Located in the heart of Ballabgarh, Haryana in the grounds of a temple, the dusty expanse stands in stark contrast to the bustling market streets. Some plastic chairs are strewn around the mound, along with a grinding stone with almond paste, and on the edge of the ground, there is a grove of trees with ropes and bars hanging from them.
Amit Chandila bows to the akhara as he enters and greets the other pehelwans who are warming up and slapping their thighs. There are kids wearing loincloths, circling each other on the mound. There is a village elder around whom the younger men have congregated, and a couple of ripped, earnest high schoolers are near the grinding stone, working on the milk concoction that is central to the pehelwan diet.
The lethal milk mixture
“The amount of food we put away, and the kind of food we eat is not sustainable for the ordinary person. This is the food and lifestyle of a body that is constantly pushing itself to the limit. For a city dweller, or a person who sits at a desk all day, this diet is not tenable,” Amit explained.
He walked over to the grinding stone and massaged the paste. “The boys have grated almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and cashews. To this, we will add black pepper, dakhni mirch (white pepper), water, and kishmish (golden raisins). And of course, you can’t forget ghee. We use a lot of ghee!”
The milk is diluted with water, the dry fruit paste is added to it and then the ghee is poured in. As you can imagine, this drink is heavy. The pepper and ghee take away from the sweetness of the already diluted milk and the dry fruit gives it the completeness of a meal. It is not unpleasant but the stomach instantly feels full afterwards.
In praise of dry fruits
Dry fruits pack in a lot of energy and are also rich in fibre. Since they are dehydrated, small amounts can pack a big punch; just one serving is sufficient for the daily dietary requirements of various vitamins and minerals. They have a low to medium glycemic index value and a low insulin index which means that they may not adversely affect blood sugar levels whilst providing essential micronutrients. However, they are not without their flaws - they are composed, in a large proportion, of naturally occurring sugars that can be harmful in high amounts. They are certainly better than other processed snacks such as chips.
Fat is not the enemy
“Ghee is not a problem for us. A pehelwan will have around 200 grams of it in a day as it is packed with energy and helps the body bulk up. Along with this, we will consume 2 kgs (or litres) of milk a day and have fruit in the morning and evening. All kinds of subzis (vegetables) are great - we consume soybean, spinach, broccoli, lettuce, to name a few. There is no real restriction on quantity but we do restrict the number of rotis we have. They are an unnecessary addition of carbohydrates.” Amit also mentioned that rice is limited to 3 times a week and the amount of salt and sugar is strictly regulated. “Too much salt consumption can affect the functioning of the liver,” he adds.
Ghee has a higher smoke point than butter which may make it healthier to cook with. A study by Dr Hari Sharma in 2010 suggested that diets consisting of 10% ghee do not show increased levels of heart disease indicators - only for those who aren’t predisposed to heart conditions. Preliminary studies have also shown that dairy fats may be protective against the complications of diabetes. Overall, ghee may not be so bad - but let’s not forget that it does contain saturated fats which aren’t good for you.
The pehelwans are unanimous in their ambivalence to meat. They agree that it was not essential to the bodybuilding and wrestling lifestyle because the protein requirement is fulfilled by vegetables and paneer. About 200 grams of paneer a day is enough. If desired, chicken and lean meats are usually consumed 2 or 3 times a week to add to the diversity of the diet.
Desserts and breaks
They indulge in kheer, gud, and halwa thrice a week. Rabri is also made with generous helpings of dry fruit, but an important distinction is that it is sweetened by gud (jaggery) rather than refined sugar.
One of the younger pehelwans, who had helped prepare the milk for everyone, adds that getting adequate sleep is an essential part of the lifestyle, “Complete dedication and commitment to pehlwani is a must if you want to succeed. Sleeping refuels the body and aids the absorption of the food we eat. Eight hours of sleep at night is required for this, and we also nap during the day for 2-2.5 hours.”
The pehelwans move towards their exercise equipment to get their day started. One by one they mount the rope hanging from the neem tree and climb their way to the top. The lift is propelled entirely by the arms and upper body.
Next, they line up under the bar and execute effortless pull-ups. “Upper body strength needs to be built before you can do this, and your back must be tight. If you don’t follow the correct technique and exert your body improperly, you will get injured,” Amit explained.
Low-tech and no-nonsense
The pehelwans then demonstrate the tyre flip exercise. A truck tyre lying flat on the ground is raised and flipped to its other side. The pehelwans crouched and placed their hands under the tyre and used their entire bodies — not just their backs — to gather the strength and momentum to pull up the tyre. This is a complete body workout, just like most of their other workouts. They used dumbbells and a plough attached to their legs to target those groups of muscles specifically but the general approach of the exercises was overall conditioning.
Pushups, squats, burpees also made up a large chunk of the workout. Sets were completed after as many as 1000 pushups and 500 burpees and squats.
Amit said, “You will find that gym-goers will not last a day here in the akhara. These are no-nonsense workouts without the luxuries of an AC gym. Here we focus on harnessing the potential of your body to the fullest and using your mental and physical faculties to overcome your opponent.” The members of the akhara are not too impressed with gym culture; they don’t consider it to be a holistic approach to fitness and health.
Pehlwani is not for everybody
The pehelwan lifestyle is a rigorous one. The number of calories that they consume are too much for a person living a sedentary life and will invariably lead to an increase in weight and other health issues. But, for the pehelwans, their rigorous lifestyle complements their heavy diet. Being wary of carbohydrates and refined sugar is well-founded and endorsed by the scientific community. Recently, and with more conviction, the consensus on saturated fat (of which ghee is an example) is also shifting. There is a lot to be said about the determined life of the pehelwan - the recent success of Haryanvi wrestlers is a testament to the fact. Behind the rigours, the message is quite straightforward: work off what you consume and be wary of those empty carbohydrates.
For more information, please read our article on Diet Chart for Weight Gain.
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