The Body of One Color: Indian Wrestling, the Indian State, and Utopian Somatics

Peer Reviewed
Nicolas Holzheu, "Older Man Trains for Indian Wrestling." October 26, 2008 via flickr.


In this article, Joseph Alter gives an account of how notions of the body amongst wrestlers in north India have personal, cultural, and societal resonance. The body as its physical reality interacts with the body as both a symbol and nexus with social structures. Indeed, as Alter points out, "modern Hindu concepts of self and society are not guided by a simple notion of Cartesian mind-body duality. Rather, the whole person is regarded as a complex, multilayered indivisible synthesis of psychic, somatic, emotional, sensory, cognitive, and chemical forces" (49). Within this context, wrestlers' bodies function as both symbolic and physical indicators of relations to the Indian state, and the shifting relationships between individuals and that state over the last century. Discipline enacted upon and reflected by wrestlers' bodies carries a particular Hindu-oriented morality that wrestlers use to reflect upon the deficiencies of the contemporary Indian state and their non-wrestling fellow citizens. While the human body is of central importance to this article, it is in some ways treated more as object than agent — though Alter seems to indicate that wrestlers' bodies are inextricably linked with self, and thus within this construction, it might be argued, be seen as agentive.

About the Author

Joseph S. Alter is a social anthropologist who received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1989. His research specialization is in medical anthropology with interest in the relationship among nationalism, health and the body in South Asia. Specific projects have focused on sport, sexuality, yoga, ayurvedic medicine, unani medicine and transnational transformations of medical knowledge. He is currently involved in a project to study the relationship among Nature Cure, ecology and social class in contemporary India. The focus of the project is on the question of how health regimens — that involve such things as mud baths and hydrotherapy — produce an embodied ecology of being, and how distinctions of social class relate to the public health implications of this ecology as well as to the problems and politics of environmentalism. Another current project engages questions of ecology in a different way by using insights from the field of biosemiotics to critique human exceptionalism and develop a theory of society and social value that can be applied to inter-species ethnography.

Selected Works by Joseph Alter


2011. Moral Materialism: Sex and Masculinity in Modern India. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

2010. Knowing Dil Das: Stories of a Himalayan Hunter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2005 (Editor). Asian Medicine and Globalization. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2004. Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

2000. Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

1992. The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Available online at:


Forthcoming. Sex, Askesis and the Athletic Perfection of the Soul: Physical Philosophy in the Ancient Mediterranean and South Asia. In Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnson, eds. Subtle Bodies. London: Routledge.

Forthcoming. Sri Yogendra: Magic, Modernity and the Burden of the Middle-Class Yogi. In Mark Singleton, ed. Gurus in Modern Yoga. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

2012. Sacrifice and Immortality: Theoretical Entailments of Embodiment in Hathayoga. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 35(2): 408-433.

2011. Yoga, Modernity and the Middle-Class: Locating the Body in a World of Desire. In Isabelle Clark-Deces, ed. Companion to South Asian Studies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell: 154-168.

2010. Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Gender Into Nationalism in North India. The Journal of Asian Studies 53(1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 45-66.

2009. Yoga in Asia – Mimetic History: Problems in the Location of Secret Knowledge. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29(2): 213-229.

2007. The once and future ‘Apeman’: chimera, human evolution, and disciplinary coherence. Current Anthropology (5): 637-652.

2000. Subaltern Bodies and Nationalist Physiques: Gama the Great and the Heroics of Indian Wrestling. Body & Society 6(2): 45-72.

1999. Heaps of health, metaphysical fitness: Ayurveda and the ontology of good health in medical anthropology. Current Anthropology 40(S): 43-66.

1997. Therapy to Live By: Public Health, the Self and Nationalism in the Practice of a North Indian Yoga Society. Medical Anthropology 17(4): 309-335.

1997. Seminal Truth: A Modern Science of Male Celibacy in North India. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 11(3): 275-298.

1996. Gandhi's Body, Gandhi's Truth: Nonviolence and the Biomoral Imperative of Public Health. The Journal of Asian Studies 55(2): 301-322.

Background on Wrestling in India

Wikipedia article on Pehlwani tradition of Indian wrestling.

Wikipedia article on The Great Gama, the Pehlwani practitioner and undefeated world wrestling champion of his time.

"Wrestling Guru: India". Shows the cultivation of young wrestlers in one North Indian akhara, or gymnasium:

Journeyman Pictures, 2007

Further Reading

Crossley, Nick. 1996. Body-subject/body-power: Agency, Inscription and Control in Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Body & Society 2(2): 99-116.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Hunter, Ian, and Saunders, David. 1995. Walks of Life: Mauss on the Human Gymnasium. Body & Society 1(2): 65-81.

Mauss, Marcel. 1950. Techniques of the Body (Les Techniques Du Corps). In Sociologie et Anthropologie. Paris: Presses Universitares de France.

Srinivas, Smriti. 2001. Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India's High-tech City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Staal, Frits. 1983-84. Indian Concepts of the Body. Somatics Autumn/Winter: 31-41.

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