Mallakhamb is a traditional form of ancient Indian physical fitness and gymnastics. Malla (or man) and Khamba (or pole) come together to create a dynamic and rigorous display of yoga-like poses. The origin of this sport may be traced back to the myths and legends of Hanuman, Lord of Monkeys. Through the various exercises of Mallakhamb, practitioners recreate his bravery and the litheness he was known for.
For a long time, Mallakhamb was viewed as an exercise for wrestlers. In fact, some of the earliest exponents of this art were wrestlers. However, today, Mallakhamb is seen as a sport in itself in India. Unfortunately, the sport is struggling to survive. Many people are quite unaware of its existence. It received some footage in a Bollywood movie Kisna (2005) in which dancer-actress Isha Sharvani performed some well-choreographed Malkhamb. However, the film bombed in the box office, and the sport derived little mileage from it.
' The earliest references to Mallakhamb are in the 12th century classic by Chalukya, Manas Olhas (1135 AD). However, the sport lay inexplicably dormant for the next seven centuries.
It was revived during the reign of the Peshwas in first half of the 19th century, by Peshwa Bajirao II’s fitness instructor -- Balambhatta Dada Deodhar. It was said that he had practiced the art of Mallakhamb in the temple of Goddess Saptashringi Devi in Nashik. His concentration was so intense and meditation so deep, that Lord Hanuman himself came to him and taught him the skill of Mallakhamb.
The story goes that the Nizam of Hyderabad sent two wrestlers to the Peshwa’s court in Maharashtra, from the kingdom of the Nizam of Hyderabad, Ali and Ghulab. They challenged the kingdom’s wrestlers to a match. No one dared to accept but the 18 year old Balambhatt Dada Deodhar. Needless to say, he won the wrestling match and popularized the sport in Maharashtra and around the country.
Types of Mallakhamb
In fixed pole Mallakhamb, the artist ascends the pole, which is 10 to 12 feet tall. With the agility of an acrobat and the grace of a dancer, the Mallakhamb artist performs a variety of exercises. Unlike the Western concept of Pole Dancing, Mallakhamb is more spiritual, seen as a form of meditation rather than exercise or exotic dance.
Mallakhamb on a suspended pole is even more difficult. Picture a pole, suspended 65 - 70 cm above the ground. The Mallakhamb artist slides up the pole with incredible ease and swiftness. Once up, he or she assumes yogic asanas. If it for display, the artist may even perform daredevil feats. 
Three decades ago, pole Mallakhamb gave way to the rope Mallakhamb. This is the closest thing to the legendry Indian rope tricks and requires alertness, focus and balance. Treating the rope with due veneration, the gymnast slides up and down, performing various exercises and holds without knotting the rope in any way. 
Its health benefits are manifold. Mallakhamb exponents believe that the sport, a unique combination of meditation and gymnastics, helps them develop a healthy mind and sound body. It is excellent aerobic exercise. It not only develops the muscles of the body but also improves the circulatory system.
- A study of Mallakhamb at the Cologne University in Germany, concluded that this sport efficiently provides optimum exercise to the entire body in the least possible time. Besides giving perfect shape and form to the body, the practice of this ancient sport also gives remarkable control over the limbs.
- The continuous twisting and turning around the greased pole, massages the entire body. External muscles are developed and the efficiency of internal systems is increased.
- Mallakhamb also makes use of a number of yoga postures. Exponents believe that regular practice enhances the brain functions of memory, coordination and concentration.
Compared to wrestling and weight lifting, in Mallakhamb, there is no external weight or force acting over body. So chances of injury are relatively lower.
Did You Know?
- Many believe that the famous Indian Rope Trick, legendary in the West, must have originated when some Europeans saw a Mallakhamb performance.
- Training in Mallakhamb helps in practicing many other games like wrestling, judo, gymnastics, athletics, horse-riding and tennis.
- Most of the wrestlers use the Mallakhamb for shadow practice. In fact, most of the exercises in Mallakhamb have been created with wrestling in view.
- Shorter people find it easier to perform Mallakhamb.
- Mallakhamb practitioners make liberal use of castor oil on themselves as well as the pole to reduce friction.
Dos and Donts of Mallakhamb
- Do wear appropriate clothing when performing Mallakhamb. Long and loose clothes may actually impair grip and balance. That is why Mallakhamb exponents wear minimal clothing. For men, leotards or gym shorts work best. Indian practitioners also wear Langots (like jock straps) as it is essential to protect the genital area adequately. Women may wear leotards, shorts or gym suits.
- Do not start Mallakhamb without checking all the apparatus yourself. Make sure the rope is sturdy, and has a good grip.
- Do not forget to check the mattresses on the floor beneath for firmness, and ensure there are no gaps in between.
- Do ensure that the area where Mallakhamb is to be performed is not obstructed by any other object. Since Mallakhamb movements have several acrobatic elements, it is imperative that there should be no solid objects anywhere near the apparatus.
Efforts to Revive the Sport
When the National Games were held in Maharashtra in 1994, there were stellar demonstrations of Mallakhamb. However, in the National Games held later in Bangalore, Manipur and Hyderabad, this ancient sport did not feature anywhere.
One of the main reasons why the sport perhaps lacks the popular appeal it deserves is that it looks too daunting to take up. However, it’s visual appeal is immense, and it has the potential of being watched like gymnastics or figure skating are.
Some regiments of the Indian Army are still keeping Mallakhamb alive. The Maratha Light Infantry’s (MLI) first battalion, known as Jangi Paltan, traditionally practices Mallakhamb. Officers report that the sport keeps jawans fit and helps them to relate to the unit's history and culture.
- For the exact dimensions of equipment needed for the different forms of Mallakhamb, go to Mallakhamb.org.
- For more on the types of exercises performed, go to Mallakhamb India.