The Greasy Pole

In a hard-up Tamil Nadu district, an ancient Deccan sport endures

A mallakhamb athlete, 18-year-old B Balaji, performs a routine on the pole during Khelo India Youth Games 2023, on 21 January 2024 in Tamil Nadu's city of Trichy. With him, onstage, are others from the six-member Tamil Nadu mallakhamb team consisting of Rohith Sairam, aged 17; P Sutejas Reddy, aged 14; Amirtheshwar R, aged 15;  S Vishnupriyan, aged 16; and R Deodatth, aged 11. Nainu Oommen
31 March, 2024

In the narrow Nanthanar street in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, Mallan G Athithan’s fitness centre humbly hides itself from passersby. As one walks through its doors, a mural sets the tone with the letters, “Mallan, King of Traditional Arts.” The portraits of veteran mallakhamb practitioners Ramachandran, Janarthanan, K Ganesh and, the man who started it all, Ullaga Durai, overlook the teak poles, ropes and hanging apparatus on which dangle the dreams of Villupuram’s youth. Despite challenges, efforts persist to make it an Olympic sport, facing stiff challenge from other better-known pole sports aiming for recognition.

Mallakhamb, derived from Marathi for “wrestler’s pole,” originates in India’s Deccan region, notably the Maratha kingdom. Initially a training tool for soldiers and wrestlers, it gained prominence in the twelfth century. Though its etymology is unclear before the eighteenth century, its practice likely predates this. It has evolved from a combination of wrestling, yoga and gymnastics. In Tamil Nadu, according to K Ganesh, traces of mallakhamb—or mallar kambam, as it is locally known—can be found on stone carvings dating back to the seventh century. It garnered international recognition following its display at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and later at events like the Lingiad, an international sporting event, in Stockholm, in 1949. Rooted in ancient acrobatic traditions, with performers entertaining crowds atop poles, mallakhamb showcases impressive athleticism. The first-ever national mallakhamb championships were held in 1962, in Madhya Pradesh, and the first mallakhamb world championship was held in 2019, in Mumbai, with 17 participating nations.

There are three varieties of mallakhamb competitions depending on the apparatus used: pole, hanging and rope. In pole, as the name suggests, a teak or sheesham pole, usually polished with castor oil, is fixed on the ground. For hanging mallakhamb, a similar pole, slightly smaller in size, is hung with the help of a chain, leaving a gap between the bottom of the pole and the ground. Rope mallakhamb uses cotton rope. The acts last 90 seconds each and athletes are judged based on the difficulty, combination and execution of the routine.

“If only MGR had seen us perform, our lives would have been different,” Durai, an 85-year-old who spent four decades of his life building an ecosystem for this almost forgotten sport across the state, told me. He was referring to the state’s chief minister in the 1970s and 1980s, Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran, popularly known by his initials. Durai narrated the story of the missed opportunity, as he sat beside a half-open window shining light onto the walls of his residence, where his trophies share space with portraits of political leaders, one of them MGR. During MGR’s term in office, Durai and his students had been invited by a minister of education to perform at a Children’s Day celebration in Coimbatore. MGR was set to attend the celebration and inaugurate a science exhibition in the city. “However, it rained continuously for the next two days, with the stadium getting waterlogged up to a foot and a half, due to which MGR did not come for the celebration. He just inaugurated the science exhibition and left on a helicopter.”