Mallakhamb: Maharashtra’s Ancient Sport Combining Yoga and Gymnastics

Experts tell you everything you want to know about this traditional sport.

Shraddha Varma

Visually impaired gymnasts of the Victoria Memorial School of Blind defy gravity to effortlessly glide, roll, swing and perform yogasanas on and around an eight-feet-tall pole at the Samarth Vyayam Mandir in Shivaji Park, Mumbai. Fellow athletes and sports enthusiasts at the public park cheer them on, but these boys hear nothing but the instructions of their guru Uday Deshpande. They are demonstrating a variety of Mallakhamb poses.

Don’t Miss: Uday Deshpande and his students on LF’s Mast Maharashtra 

For the uninitiated, the word Mallakhamb is a combination of the terms ‘malla’ meaning wrestler and ‘khamba’, which means pole and it was originally a support exercise for wrestlers. It is a unique combination of yoga, gymnastics and martial arts that can be traced back to the 12-century Maharashtra, where it was first mentioned in the 12th century Chalukya text Manas Olhas as ‘mall-stambha’.

Deshpande, who has been practicing the art form since he was a three-year-old, shares the story of Mallakhamb’s origin: “During the 19th century, Balambhatta Dada Deodhar from the regime of Peshwa Bajirao II revived the art form when he accepted a challenge to beat two Nizami wrestlers, Ali and Gulab, who were touted as unbeatable at that time.” Legend has it, Deodhar sought help from goddess Saptashrungi. He saw a vision of lord Hanuman demonstrating a few moves on a wooden pole and used those to beat the sinister outsiders. Since, the art form belongs to a time when documentation wasn’t as easy as today, it has been purely dependent on the guru-shishya tradition for survival. That explains how the sport travelled and was mastered in other Indian states such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu adds Deshpande—today he is the director and secretary general of the Vishwa (World) Mallakhamb Federation.

Many variations of Mallakhamb have been introduced over the years, informs Ravi Gaikwad, who has spent two decades (and counting) practising and teaching this ancient sport. He is also one of the co-founders of Mallakhamb India, a group that spreads knowledge about this sport on a national and international level by participating in television shows such as Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega (India) and Georgia’s Got Talent (Georgia). His group is known for combining traditional Mallakhamb with aerial choreography.

A girl performs yogasana on a rope at Shivaji Park 

Gaikwad divides the types in two: competitive, which includes, pole (fixed), rope (cane) and hanging Mallakhamb; and demonstration, which features the use of traditional weapons, fire and glass bottles. “While pole Mallakhamb is performed on a wooden pole called sheesham, the rope/cane one uses a thick cotton rope and hanging uses a shorter pole that is suspended by a hook and chain. You can watch these at sports competitions,” he explains. As for the second type, which can mostly be seen at performing art programmes, it features gymnasts performing with flaming torches and. According to him, the thrill of the twists, turns and stretches (with or without props) is what keeps the spectators hooked to a Mallakhamb demonstration. “Each of these has its own challenges and it takes years of practice to master,” he adds.

For Gaikwad as well as Deshpande, Mallakhamb is the ultimate exercise for not just the body but also mind. “Yoga has its own benefits and performing these poses on a pole or rope helps a gymnast learn balance and self-control. It focuses on building core strength, agility and aids full body coordination,” Gaikwad reveals. In addition to those, the sport also known to enhance one’s mental ability. The asanas and tricks showcased in Mallakhamb promote logical thinking, creativity, concentration and build self-esteem.

Guru Uday Deshpande with one of his oldest students

Over 800 years later, this ancient sport is still relevant because of people like Deshpande and Gaikwad, who are globalising it in their unique ways, and it’s slowly and steadily gaining popularity as a means to stay fit and build mental and physical strength. 

Images: Sohail Joshi for Mast Maharashtra


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