We have all heard of Indonesia’s famous mixed martial arts, Brazil’s renowned and deadly jujitsu, Japan’s high-flying karate, and Korea’s defensive yet lethal taekwondo. These remarkable fighting techniques from around the world are taught in several dojos across our country. But have you ever heard of India’s homegrown ancient form of martial arts called Musti-Yuddha? The style dates back centuries and is the only surviving Indian unarmed fighting style.
The name Musti-yuddha comes from the Sanskrit words Mushti, which means fist, and Yuddha, which translates to war. While any form of boxing art could be called Musti-Yuddha today, the ancient art form originates from the land of Varanasi. References to Mushti-Yuddha can be found in important Indian religious texts such as the Vedas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. The 18th-century Sikh text, Gurbilas Shemi, also gives several references to Musti-Yuddha. Some of the descendant art forms of Musti-Yuddha include present-day popular fighting styles such as Muay Thai in Thailand, Muay Lao in Laos, Pradal Serey in Cambodia, and Lethwei in Myanmar.
To learn the craft, fighters had to undergo years of training and discipline. They toughened their fists by using stones and bricks as training dummies. If you punch against such hard surfaces, over time, the bones in your knuckles will slowly disintegrate. After that, the body produces a layer of calcium over those bones, that conditions your knuckles to be strong enough to break rocks, coconuts, or skulls with your bare hands. The techniques taught include hard-hitting punches and elbows, athletic kicks, strong grappling, and deadly submissions. The rules of Musti-Yuddha are fairly straightforward. The fighters wear no protective gear and must fight bare-knuckled. One can hit any part of the opponent except the groin. Matches can be 1 versus 1 or a group of fighters taking on another group. There are three roads to victory — knockout, ring-out, or submission. In ancient times, there was also another popular road to victory — the opponent’s death. It used to be decided beforehand if duels were to be fought to the death.
This glorious and deadly sport saw a sharp decline from 1890 onwards when the British colonial masters introduced western boxing. Mukti-Yuddha only survived in the holy city of Varanasi, which has been hosting boxing festivals annually for centuries. The colonial rulers even tried to ban Musti-Yuddha from its last place of resort, Varanasi but a European police commissioner revived it. Two of the most well-known Musti-Yuddha warriors from post-independent warriors are Narayanguru Balambhat Deodhar and Lakshmanguru Balambhat Deodhar. Legends say that they possessed inhuman strength and could take on a dozen men in battle.
Today, Musti-Yuddha is extremely rare and unheard of. It has been that way since the 1960s. However, rumor has it that it is practiced illegally in underground spaces in Kolkata. Some say that these underground Musti-yuddha events are endorsed by politicians and gangsters. It is also a haven for gamblers, who bet money on the fighters. There are fighters from across the globe, especially from Burma and Thailand. If legends are to be believed, the only way into one of these matches is if you’re part of a gangster or politician’s entourage.
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