My father grew up by the Ganges, in the streets of Varanasi. Summer dawns were spent in the lap of the river, diving off rooft ops, crossing the currents and racing with friends between the banks. The days and years rolled by and fate and fortune brought him to Delhi where my mother, a career and I happened to him.
But every blue moon and green, the old days and the river call out to him and so we pack our bags for the holy city by the holy Ganges. Varanasi is not what it used to be when he was a young boy. There are more people, fewer cows, more cars and not as many rickshaws but the banks… the banks, he says, have remained the same through the years.
Young boys still jump off the roof tops my father used to jump off, into a river that is a lot browner than in his time, but on the ghats, life is still the same... Bearded sadhus stare at the rising sun as they chant, bathers stand in waist deep water, eyes closed, lips quivering in quiet prayer, seeking to either leave their sins behind or carry the river’s blessings with them. And high on the ghats, away from all the other river worshippers, I saw those men who triggered this tale..
Bronzed bodies, bare and oiled, glistening in the soft light of the early morn, a tiny cloth wrapped around their loins, legs muscled thick as if growing from the stone beneath their feet, broad backs straining hard, cords of muscle, rippling, climbing and descending along the length of the spine as the hands heave a massive jori – a heavy wooden club in concerted rhythm. These men, seemed to be praying too, but instead of words and chants, they were offering their blood, breath and sweat to the sun and the river, seeking eternal life, light and vigour like these two gods of the city.
I was fascinated by the aura of strength and devotion that these men exuded… you would not find that sense of surrender in a gymnasium. You would not find that almost warrior-like near-selfless struggle with one’s own weaknesses in most yoga studios.
But back home in Delhi, that memory faded with time. In South Delhi’s urbane alcoves, loin cloths and joris were a little difficult to fit in.
Then, about a couple of years ago, I met a learned man – a student of the yogic arts, and an accomplished master of some of its branches. It was he who introduced me to the gada – the ceremonial mace and battle club of yore, and a close cousin of the jori.
By now, you would have realised that what I am swinging your way is a short history of the club, an instrument of war and mayhem that once shaped the fate of epics (Lord Hanuman, Bheem, Duryodhana – they all wielded the mace to mark the pages of time) and of nations at war (from Paleolithic ages when the mace was first developed, the first weapon designed to kill another human being, to Sardinian mercenaries to Persian knights and the all conquering Russians from the middle ages, they all swung the club to shape history). But the club, unlike other weapons, could not be wielded by all. Due to its weight and design, it demanded exceptional strength from those that chose to tame it. And so it came to be a strength building tool as much as a weapon of destruction.
So, under the tutelage of the afore-mentioned yogi, I joined that long list of warriors who had swung with the club. The mace was not a mere weapon or training tool for this man but an agent of growth that was as spiritual as it was muscular. He offered to teach me how to train with the mace once I got one made for myself. He gave me very specific instructions about the design of the mace I was getting made at the local blacksmith’s. It included a sharp point at either end of the implement.
That mace is staring at me from across the room even as I type these words, as it leans against the wall and seems to taunt me. “Come, don’t be shy… lift me up if you dare. You lift weights, don’t you, bragging about all the tons you can pull in the deadlift ? Then why are you running away from me.. I wouldn’t be 25 kgs from head to toe?”
Indeed the mace or club is a treacherous lover. The odd weight distribution makes even lift ing it up a fair challenge. The yogi and I could not meet too often after I got my mace and so my lessons with it remained unlearnt. And there it stays against the wall taunting me still as I walk past, and giving it as wide a berth as the furniture in the living room would allow.
Stung by the mace’s silent insults, and frustrated by the wedge of time and space that separated me from my teacher-of-the-mace-to-be, I stalked the ancient art on the internet. And I thought, whoa! The world had passed us by… The humble mace, forgotten in the land that it shaped in war and peace, had now become the training tool of choice in the hands of martial artists, fitness experts and SWAT teams.
But all was not lost. Like on the banks of the Ganges, there are other corners where time has stood still. In remote akhadas (wrestling mud pits) across the country, there are men of steel still clubbing away in search of pride, piety and power and to them I will go in search of answers for you and for me… To know what makes the club/mace/gada/jori such a powerful workout tool? To know what it does to the body and mind and how it touches us differently from all the other weights and tools in our gymnasiums? And I will swallow my pride and seek out my teacher again to know why more than my physical self, it is the spiritual self that the mace sculpts and empowers… The mysterious powers of the unassuming club shall yet be unraveled …
So hang in there for a while, and I shall return to reveal if the club is indeed the missing link in the ‘get-fit’ plan you’ve been toying with for the New Year… But while I go looking, why don’t you get yourself a mace, brace that back and start swinging…