MUMBAI – Wearing only underpants, Pavel Kalina twisted his body up a wooden pole before performing a handstand at the top in the first world championships of an ancient Indian sport.
The 55-year-old Czech practices Mallakhamb, a gymnastics-like discipline that originated in western India in the 12th century and is often described as “yoga on a pole.”
“I do it because I’m a crazy man,” Kalina said, struggling to catch his breath after two minutes performing poses on the pillar, covered in castor oil to prevent friction burns. “To be honest it is like torture, but I have to do it because I need to spend my energy,” added the former gymnast, who took up Mallakhamb 10 years ago.
Kalina was among some 100 competitors from 15 countries taking part in the Mallakhamb World Championships in Mumbai over the weekend.
The sport, first mentioned in Indian texts in 1135, is popular in western Maharashtra state — of which Mumbai is the capital — but is little known outside India.
“‘Malla’ means wrestler and ‘khamb’ means pole,” explained Uday Deshpande, the organizer of the event and India’s most renowned Mallakhamb practitioner. “The pole is 8½ feet (2.6 meters) in height. It is smooth, well polished and tapered at the top. Different acrobatic exercises and yogic postures are performed on it.”
It “is there in the absence of your partner, and you are wrestling against it.”
On day one of the event men, mostly in swimming trunks, and women, mostly in leotards, wowed a crowd of several hundred with gravity-defying moves in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park.
Onlookers clapped and cheered as a competitor from Spain stretched out on his front like Superman on the top of the pole, which had a circumference of just 35 centimeters (14 inches).
A participant from England gave a Usain Bolt-like salute from the summit. Kalina sat in a meditative position with the palms of his hands facing skyward.
Faezeh Jalali, wearing a headscarf, represented Iran in the rope category, in which participants performed stunts up and down a rope that hung 15 feet in the air.
“You feel a real achievement and you build strength and flexibility. It’s amazing what the human body can do,” said Jalali, 39.
Competitors from France, Germany, Malaysia and Vietnam also took part.
Deshpande, 65, said Mallakhamb helps people mentally as well.
“When you perform yoga on the ground you get lots of benefits — meditation, breathing, concentration. When you perform yoga at 8 feet high you get the same benefits but you also develop your confidence, your courage.”
Deshpande organized the championships to promote Mallakhamb globally and dreams that one day it will appear at the Asian Games and then even the Olympics.
“We want to spread this traditional Indian culture abroad,” he said.