I kept searching for them: the riyazis and gada (the stone clubs with bamboo handles) on the ghats. The gada had all vanished and I found only one riyazi (I hope) performing dand-baithak on the steps of Ahhilyabai-Munshi Ghats. Before we continue, a riyazi is a person who practises a skill or art or a regular basis (wrestling, music etc.), with a definite objective in mind. So, a person exercising in a gym or a wrestler practising moves in an akhada or a vocalist performing his morning raga in his room are all riyazis.
Dand is also known as the Hindu pushups. The gentleman in the image above is performing a kind of dund that is comparatively easier to do because his hands are at a level higher than that of his feet. Normally, either both the feet and hands are kept flat on the floor or bricks, stones, niches in walls etc. are used to keep the feet at a level higher than that of the hands that may rest on ground or over a pair of bricks placed shoulder length apart.
One rep of a dand begins at the top with hands and feet planted firmly nearly shoulder width apart and the body forming an inverted V, its vertex at the point where the backbone meets pelvis. From the top, the chest is brought downwards, keeping the derriere up until the chest either actually touches the ground or is nearly there. From the point when the chest has reached the ground, derriere comes down and the backbone is bent to bring the chest up front. The body touches the ground nearly mid way at this point of time, so do the ball of the feet and the top of the knees. From the bottom stretched position the body is brought back to the initial inverted V position by pulling the torso back and up. Returning to the original position completes one rep.
A baithak is a free hand dynamic squat, popularly known as the Hindu Squats too. The person performing a baithak sits down with a kind of push forward so that the back and the knees are farther to the front than they are prescribed in a standard Western squat. Moreover, arms dangle freely and move following the momentum of the torso.
Akhara at Kooch Behar Kali Bari
The image above is of a place for desi riyaz that I have known since I was a child. I have cut out some portions from the same picture to show some important elements of strength training in an akhara: gada, naal and jodi. I had once attempted to swing a very small gada (the one given to the beginners) and it had hit me in the lower back. I never touched it since then. Neither have I exercised with naal or jodi.
A gada is a symbol of strength in a way. It is the only weapon that the protector of wrestlers and exercisers, Hanumanji carries. Therefore it may also stand for Hanumanji. The gada that the Lord of Strength carries is fully metallic. The ones shown in the hands of the warriors in Mahabharat e.g. Bheem, Duryodhan etc. are metallic too. The ornamental prize gadas are of similar material, but the ones used for exercise purposes is almost always made of stone and bamboo. The head of the gada is stone and the shaft is of bamboo. I have seen people exercising with it. They poise the upright gada on one of their shoulders, swing it at their back and haul it over the other shoulder. Although the process sounds simple enough, the balancing and swinging parts require practice and experience.
I have never seen anyone actually practising with a naal. I am quite sure that it is a desi deadlift equipment; a substitute for kettlebells. Someone had once told me that the riyazis use it to strengthen their neck muscles too, and I had figured it out that they must tie it with a rope to their neck and lift it. I don’t know whether I was right or wrong. During my research on naal, I found out that the advanced riyazis may also use it as a kind of dumb bell to strengthen arms and shoulders.
Jodi means a pair, i.e. two clubs, generally wooden. The end opposite to the handle is kept touching the floor and wears out faster than any other part. Sometimes a metal rim is nailed to that end, probably to prevent the routine wear and tear. I have also seen mugdars (single club) with spikes all over them. Jodi must be carefully used and that may be the reason behind my not seeing it in akharas and open exercise spaces as commonly as gada. Moreover, wood is costlier than a bamboo stick and a stone or a cement block. So, making or buying a gada is comparatively easier.
Exercise Space and Temple near Pandey Ghat
I used to pass by the exercise area in front of the small stone temple above very often, sometimes after the sundown. There always used to be a couple of riyazis exercising there. The last couple of time I passed the temple there was nobody there. Wrong time, probably.
Not even a decade has passed from the days (mornings and evenings) when I used to see riyazis on many ghats. They had all vanished, or, probably the very culture of exercise has changed in a way that favours gyms and machines over the more traditional and not so appealing dand-baithak, gada, jodi, naal. etc.
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