As someone who is interested in fitness, every other month I come across new training methods. From Pilates to aqua yoga, from CrossFit to bhangra-fitness—there is something for everyone out there. But in this race to find something new, many of South Asia’s traditional training regimens seem to have been lost. Well, not entirely. There are always a few people trying to keep these traditions alive: one such is the use of the “mudgar”, an object that is used by Indian wrestlers for weight-training at wrestling akharas.
Mudgars (which is also called the “karlakattai” in southern India or “mugur” in eastern India) are wooden clubs of varied weights and are mostly used to train the shoulders. The practice of using such clubs must have been popular across parts of Asia, because you’d find similar equipment in Iran, called the “meel” used in the zurkanehs, the regional counterpart of Indian akharas. Legend has it that Persian emperor Cyrus the Great used the meel to train his army. Since these clubs were two to three times heavier than the swords they would use in battle, the practice built up the soldiers’ strength by keeping their muscles under tension for longer periods of time.
A martial connection with the use of the mudgar has clearly been the inspiration for the Bengaluru-based Rishabh Malhotra. He started Tagda Raho, his mudgar brand, borrowing the phrase from the battle cry from the Assam Regiment. “Every person in the regiment greets and signs-off by saying ‘Tagda Raho’, as in stay strong. This is something I found very inspiring, coming from a military background myself,” says Malhotra.
Malhotra, 35, tried to understand why in spite of being such a brilliant tool for training, the mudgars never caught on in India’s modern fitness landscape. He also feels that it is a misconception that only wrestlers can use them. To accomplish this shift in perception, Malhotra has started designing training programs and conducts classes in a gym in Bengaluru. Realizing that the weight of the Mudgar is often an obstacle, he made the design modular where one can add or remove weights easily.
“The biggest task was to build awareness about how it can be used outside the akharas as well. I designed ‘prahaar’ to make it less intimidating and integrate it to the modern day. We needed people to realize that the mudgar, if used well, can work on your grip, core muscles and lower body,” he explains.
In Haryana’s Hisar, 39-year-old Meenu Sukhlecha can already see the benefits. Having moved abruptly to her hometown in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic, Sukhlecha and her husband couldn’t find a proper gym to work out in. While her husband wanted to build strength, Sukhlecha’s focus was to calm down and get rid of the anxiety and mental turbulence she felt after the relocation. “I had also developed neck pain from sitting in front of the laptop. I came across the Tamil warrior art form of Karlakattai which focused on mind and body and decided to give it a try. I ordered two of these wooden clubs online but soon realized the grip was too big for me,” she says.
So Sukhlecha used her furniture design training to build customised mudgars that would suit her. Once she started practicing, in a few months, she saw relief from her neck pain. This encouraged her to learn more about the human anatomy and how the mudgar’s movements could impact it. “For the mudgar, a full range of motion is needed and not just a single direction of movement. This is why the scapula joint gets worked the most. But along with that it works on the core as well. The further the weight is from your center of mass, the more effort you have to put to lift it up. Since the mudgars are swung away from the body, we need to engage our core and put in that much more effort,” she says.
Sukhlecha has since been taking online orders to make custom mudgars for people who are interested in learning about the club, and exchanging ideas and training techniques with the larger fitness community. But more than anything, she enjoys the peace the training brings her. During the hour she trains, Sukhlecha has to be extremely aware of the mudgar: “The movements might be repetitive but focus and concentration makes it a physical as well as mental exercise.”
Chennai-based Trusha Dethe, 38, holds the world record for karlakattai (maximum unbroken karlakattai rotation in 30 minutes) which she set in 2021. However, her journey to becoming a coach has not been easy. Dethe suffers from multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune degenerative disease that slowly loosens one’s control over one’s body. Having consulted various doctors, and despite trying multiple alternative methods of healing, Dethe was unable to get any relief.
On the suggestion of a martial arts teacher, she decided to give karlakattai a try. She moved to a gurukul in Pondicherry, and within five months, her symptoms had seemingly gone away. Convinced that she was in the right track, Dethe got further training, and became the first female coach to have finished two levels of the training. For the past two years, she has conducted workshops and taught nearly 4,000 people.
One historic difference between the north Indian mudgar and south Indian karlakattai, is that while the former had become exclusive to wrestling communities, the latter was very much a part of the daily life of common people. It was traditionally used as a fitness equipment for all, and this is probably why Dethe finds a lot of female students in her workshops and classes—over 60% of them. Many come with lifestyle-related health ailments such as lower back pain, spondylitis, diabetes or arthritis. Some are complete beginners while otherds have had training in a traditional gym set up. She has also had classical dancers and amateur triathletes coming to her for training.
“The biggest challenge for teaching is people who ego lift. And that cannot be tolerated in mudgar training. If you don’t have the mobility or stamina, you will get tired, you might get injured,” says Malhotra. Since the entire weight is stacked on one side (unlike a barbell or a dumbbell), it can feel much heavier than it actually is. So, it is always advisable to start slow and under guidance.
For Dethe’s coaching, she uses a few weeks to months to just train and understand her student’s readiness for picking up the karlakattai. Till then she practices meipadam—the stepping stone in any warrior art practice. This consists of 1,500 dynamic movements that needs to be synchronized using just body weight.
“For a student it can get difficult to be consistent especially if you want to pick up the weight. And if she is not consistent, growth will be slower. That is why the teacher must know which movement comes after which, how to breathe during the movements. Every class can be made different because the variations in swinging can be done. For an indigenous martial art form that is getting lost, being able to practice it and showing the benefits to people is all I can do,” says Dethe.
Sohini Sen is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.