As someone interested in fitness, I discover new training methods every two months. From Pilates to aqua yoga, from CrossFit to bhangra-fitness, there is something for everyone. But in this race to find something new, many traditional South Asian training patterns seem to have been lost. Well, not entirely. There are still a few people who try to keep these traditions alive: one of them is the use of the “mudgar”, an object that is used by Indian wrestlers for bodybuilding in wrestling. akharas.

Mudgars (also called ‘karlakattai’ in South India or ‘mugur’ in East India) are wooden clubs of varying weights and are primarily used to train the shoulders. The practice of using such clubs must have been popular in parts of Asia, as you will find similar equipment in Iran called the “meel” used in the zurkanehs, the regional equivalent of the Indian akharas. Legend has it that the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great used 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 soldiers’ strength by keeping their muscles under tension for longer periods of time.

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From a 19th century pamphlet showing how to train with Indian clubs.
(Istockphoto)

A martial connection to the use of mudgar was clearly the inspiration for Bengaluru-based Rishabh Malhotra. He launched Tagda Raho, his brand of mudgar, borrowing the phrase from the battle cry of the Assam regiment. “Each member of the regiment salutes and signs saying “Tagda Raho”, as if to stay strong. It’s something that I found very inspiring, coming from a military background myself,” Malhotra says.

Malhotra, 35, tried to figure out why, despite being such a brilliant training tool, mudgars never caught on in India’s modern fitness landscape. He also thinks it’s a misconception that only wrestlers can use them. To accomplish this shift in perception, Malhotra started designing workout programs and teaches classes at a gymnasium in Bengaluru. Realizing that the Mudgar’s weight is often a hindrance, he made the design modular where one can add or remove weights easily.

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“The most important task was to create awareness of how it can be used outside the akharas as well. I designed ‘prahaar’ to make it less intimidating and to integrate it with modernity. We needed people to realize that mudgar, if used well, can work on your grip, abdominal muscles and lower body,” he explains.

In Haryana’s Hisar, Meenu Sukhlecha, 39, is already seeing the benefits. Having abruptly moved to her hometown amid the covid-19 pandemic, Sukhlecha and her husband were unable to find a suitable gym to train in. While her husband wanted to get stronger, Sukhlecha’s goal was to calm down and get rid of the anxiety and mental turbulence she felt after the move. “I had also developed neck pain while sitting in front of the laptop. I came across the Tamil warrior art form of Karlakattai which focused on the mind and body and decided to I ordered two of these wooden clubs online, but soon realized the handle was too big for me,” she says.

So Sukhlecha used his furniture design background to build custom mudgars that would suit him. Once she started practicing, within a few months she saw relief from her neck pain. This encouraged her to learn more about human anatomy and how the movements of the mudgar could impact her. “For the mudgar, a full range of motion is needed and not just one direction of motion. This is why the shoulder blade joint is most stressed. But along with that it also works on the core. More the weight is moved away from your center of mass, the more effort you have to put in. Since the mudgars are moved away from the body, we have to engage our core and put in a lot more effort,” she says.

Since then, Sukhlecha has been taking orders online to make custom mudgars for people who want to learn more about the club and exchange training ideas and techniques with the wider fitness community. But more than anything, she appreciates the peace that training brings her. During the hour she trains, Sukhlecha must be acutely aware of the mudgar: “The movements may be repetitive, but focus and concentration make it a physical exercise as well as a mental one.”

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Chennai-based Trusha Dethe, 38, holds the world record for karlakattai (maximum uninterrupted rotation of karlakattai in 30 minutes) which she set in 2021. However, her journey to becoming a coach has not been easy. Dethe suffers from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative autoimmune disease that slowly releases control of her body. After consulting various doctors and despite several alternative healing methods, Dethe could not get any relief.

At the suggestion of a martial arts teacher, she decided to try karlakattai. She moved to a gurukul in Pondicherry, and within five months his symptoms had apparently disappeared. Convinced that she was on the right track, Dethe took further training and became the first female coach to complete two levels of training. Over the past two years, she has facilitated workshops and trained nearly 4,000 people.

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A historical difference between North Indian mudgar and South Indian karlakattai is that while the former had become exclusive to wrestling communities, the latter was very much part of everyday life for ordinary people. It was traditionally used as fitness equipment for everyone, and that’s probably why Dethe finds a lot of female students in her workshops and classes – over 60% of them. Many come with lifestyle health issues such as lower back pain, spondyloarthritis, diabetes, or arthritis. Some are complete beginners while others have trained in a traditional gym. Classical dancers and amateur triathletes also came to see her to train.

“The biggest challenge for teaching is people raising their ego. And that cannot be tolerated in mudgar training. If you don’t have the mobility or the stamina, you will get tired, you could injure you,” Malhotra explains. Since all of the weight is stacked on one side (unlike a barbell or dumbbell), it can feel a lot heavier than it actually is. Thus, it is always advisable to start slowly and under direction.

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For Dethe’s coaching, she uses a few weeks to a few months to simply practice and understand her student’s readiness to pick up the karlakattai. Until then she practices meipadam– the springboard for any practice of warrior art. These are 1,500 dynamic movements that must be synchronized using only body weight.

“For a student, it can be difficult to be consistent, especially if you want to gain weight. And if it’s not regular, the growth will be slower. That’s why the teacher must know what movement comes next what, how to breathe during the movements. Each class can be made different because swing variations can be done. For an indigenous martial art form that is getting lost, being able to practice it and show the benefits to people is all I can do,” says Dethe.

Sohini Sen is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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