Morning: around 8 o’clock. Place: Hanuman Ghat. A gentleman in gamcha has stuck to his routine schedule. In his warm up before the real set of exercise he is doing some kind of half-dunds. Sights like these are not very uncommon on the ghats of Banaras. Riyaaz has been a very important and nearly universal aspect of a traditional Banarsi‘s life that begins with ganga-snan in the morning. This may be the reason behind the establishment of akhadas on many ghats and in many localities. One such place is shown below.
Place: Chausatti Ghat, the temple of Hanuman, the lord of the wrestlers and strength/body builders. The stone slabs in front of the temple and the roofed porch are spaces utilized for desi exercises viz dand, baithak, gada and jodi. Mornings and evenings are the chosen times for exercise on ghats. No air conditioners, open air gymnasiums of this kind are very common and popular in Kasi. People who come here generally belong to the neighbourhood. They are the regulars. They come seven days a week to Gangaji, hence to their exercise joint too. It’s not merely a place where they exercise. They socialize here too.
The level of formality in such make-shift open air gyms of traditional kind is low. The riyaazis follow their own combination of exercises that they have learned and finalized after experience. The new comers learn by a combination of watching and asking. Moreover, if one’s not doing an exercise right, a senior, if around will interrupt and correct him. They are essentially and completely male arenas. A lot more formal than these are akhadas.
Place: Pandey Ghat. The area under the tree there’s an akhara. Akhadas have their rules and a definite hierarchy. Wrestlers come to these akhadas that generally have a wrestling pit, a set of horizontal bars, gada, jodi, naal etc. depending on the area and resources available.
Place: Shivala Ghat. The gali behind has a very popular akhada with its wrestling pit and wrestlers (mornings and evenings). Like all the other places of exercise, the facility of a post-exercise bath is available at all these places: with no additional charges.
That’s not the case with akhadas and gyms that are deep into the galis, far from the river e.g. Bhelupura Vyayamshala. In many such cases, there’s a well or a hand pump nearby. The places for desi, semi-desi and Western type of exercises exist side by side in Kasi. Today’s generation belongs to the gym culture and subscribes to the use of exercise machines with their adjustable plates, pulleys and cables. Yet, there are many young men in Kasi who still follow the traditional exercise regime, that too at the traditional spots for such exercises, especially on and around the ghats. And, of course, there still is a large number of men ranging from middle to old age who have kept the tradition alive.
For how long?