Akhara or Akhada (Sanskrit and Hindi: अखाड़ा, shortened to khara Hindi: खाड़ा) is an Indian word for a place of practice with facilities for boarding, lodging and training, both in the context of Indian martial artists or a sampradaya monastery for religious renunciates in Guru–shishya tradition. For example, in the context of the Dashanami Sampradaya sect, the word denotes both martial arts and religious monastic aspects of the trident wielding martial regiment of renunciate sadhus. In Chota Nagpur plateau region, Akhara or Akhra is village ground where villagers dance during harvest season and various feastvals.
The term akhara, is a gender egalitarian term, which means the circle or more precisely the spiritual core, congregation or league, it is similar to the Greek-origin word academy and the English word school, can be used to mean both a physical institution or a group of them which share a common lineage or are under a single leadership, such as the school of monastic thought or the school of martial arts. Unlike the gurukul in which students live and study at the home of a guru, members of an akhara although train under a guru but they do not live a domestic or homely life. Some strictly practice Brahmacharya (celibacy) and others may require complete renunciation of worldly life. For example, wrestlers are expected to live a pure life while living at akahara with other fellow wrestlers, refraining from sex and owning few material possessions.
In its earliest usage, akhara referred to training halls for professional fighters. Govind Sadashiv Ghurye translates the term as "military regiment". Ancient use of the word can be found in the Mahabharata (c. 400 BCE text describing 900 BCE era) epic which mentions Jarasandha's Akhara at Rajgir. Legendary figures like Parashurama and Agastya are credited as the founders of the early martial akhara in certain regions of India.
Svinth (2002) traces press ups and squats used by South Asian wrestlers to the pre-classical era. Many of the popular sports mentioned in the Vedas and the epics have their origins in military training, such as boxing (musti-yuddha), wrestling (maladwandwa), chariot-racing (rathachalan), horse-riding (aswa-rohana) and archery (dhanurvidya).
When the 8th-century philosopher Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) founded the Dashanami Sampradaya, he divided the ascetics into two categories: Shastradhari (Sanskrit: शास्त्रधारी, lit. scripture-bearers) intelligentsia and Astradhari (Sanskrit: अस्त्रधारी, lit. weapon-bearers) warriors. Shankaracharya established Naga sadhus as an astradhari armed order. He also popularised the Char Dhams during the rein of Katyuri dynasty of Garhwal Kingdom.
In 1398, Islamic fanatic Timur massacred thousands of Sadhus of various Akharas and Hindus at Haridwar mela after sacking Delhi to punish the Tughlaq Dynasty's Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq's perceived lack of brutality towards Hindus.
In 1690 CE and 1760 CE, Akharas of Saivites and Vaishnava sects fought each other at Nashik mela (60,000 died) and Haridwar mela (1,800 died).
Today, akhara may be used for religious purposes or for the teaching of yoga and martial arts. Some of the noted Akhara organizations include, Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (All India Akhara Council), Nirmohi Akhara, Shri Dattatreya Akhara and Guru Hanuman Akhara.
Sampradaya is a particular system of belief and within it a particular guru's lineage is called parampara. There are 3 distinct belief-system Sampradayas (Vaishnava, Shaivite and Dashanami sampradaya), each of which follows one of 3 types of Guru–shishya parampara lineage (Deva, Rishi and Manav parampara), each sampradaya-parampara may have several akharas of shastradhari (intellectuals) or astradhari (warriors), and larger akharas may have own one or more permanent mathas.
Sampradaya (Sanskrit : सम्प्रदाय IAST sampradāya) translated as ‘tradition’, 'spiritual lineage' or a ‘religious system’.[note 1] It relates to a succession of masters and disciples, which serves as a spiritual channel, and provides a delicate network of relationships that lends stability to a religious identity. Sampradaya is a body of practice, views and attitudes, which are transmitted, redefined and reviewed by each successive generation of followers. A particular guru lineage is called parampara. By receiving diksha (initiation) into the guru–shishya traditional parampara of a living guru, one belongs to its proper sampradaya. One cannot become a member by birth, as is the case with gotra, a seminal, or hereditary, dynasty. In the traditional residential form of education, the shishya remains with his or her guru as a family member and gets the education as a true learner. In some traditions there is never more than one active master at the same time in the same guruparamaparya (lineage).
Astra (HIndi: अस्त्र), the weapons or martial arts have a long tradition in India. The oldest recorded organized unarmed fighting art in South Asia is malla-yuddha or combat-wrestling, codified into four forms and pre-dating the Vedic Period. Stories describing Krishna report that he sometimes engaged in wrestling matches where he used knee strikes to the chest, punches to the head, hair pulling, and strangleholds. Based on such accounts, Svinth (2002) traces press ups and squats used by South Asian wrestlers to the pre-classical era.
In modern usage, akhara most often denotes a wrestling ground and is typically associated with kushti. For wrestlers, the akhara serves as a training school and an arena in which to compete against each other. The akhara used by wrestlers still have dirt floors to which water, red ochre, buttermilk and oil are added. Aside from wrestling, other fighting systems are also taught and practiced in akhara, which are commonly named after their founder. Indian martial artists may still practice in regional versions of traditional akhara today, but these are often replaced with modern training studios outside India.
While akhara is a place where practicing martial artists lodge and train under a martial art guru, akhara is also usually an arena for the dangal organised among the competing sports person. While living at akhara, pehlwan practice celibacy, stay smoke free and alcohol free and they eat nutrition tradition diet usually rich in milk, ghee, dried nuts and roti. Dangal is originally a Punjabi language word which means Sparring or competition in akhara. Sparring is a form of training common to many combat sports which may vary in its precise form varies, but it is relatively 'free-form' fighting, with enough rules, customs, or agreements to make injuries unlikely.
Langot (लंगोट) or langota (लंगोटा), also Kaupinam (कौपिनम) or kaupina (कौपिन), is a traditional style of Indian loincloth for men, worn as underwear in dangal held in akharas. It is now mainly used by men when exercising and other intense physical games especially wrestling, to prevent hernias and hydrocele.
Langota, mostly worn by wrestlers, is a sewn undergarment which covers the buttocks and groin. A kaupina, mostly worn by ascetics or by older men in poorer parts of India, is a similar but unsewn garment which does not covers the buttocks and instead it passes between the buttocks.
Shastra (Sanskrit and Hindi: शास्त्र) means treatise, scriptures or the school of thoughts based on those. There has been a long monastic tradition of obtaining "Shashtra Vidhya" (knowledge of sashtras) in various Sampradaya schools of thoughts in Hinduism, where disciples could learn one or more of the following in a monastic setting: Hindu scriptures, Yoga Sashtra, Vastu shastra (architecture), Vaimānika Shāstra (ancient aerospace technology), Jyotiḥśāstra (astrology), Nadi sashtra (fortune telling), Rasa shastra (medicine), Shilpa Shastras (arts and craft), Natya Shastra (dance, drama and performing arts), Tantra, Para Vidya (Higher scholar), Madhu-vidya (knolwedge of bliss), and so on.
According to some texts, an akhara is governed by the sacred body of five Sri Pancha and divided into 8 dava (divisions) and 52 Matha (Sanskrit: मठ) or Marhi (Hindi: मढ़ी). The maths are permanent centres of monastic practice with physical structures, led by a mahant or spiritual leader. Though not all akharas follow this structure, mainly due to the insufficient size. For example, smaller akhara, some as small as having only one marhi, may be set up either as a subsidiary affiliate to a larger and more established older akhara group or occasionally an independent akhara due to the disagreements over succession. Akharas can march as subsidiary akhara under the current preferential order of sequence in the Shahi Snan during Kumbh Mela or they are given the last place if their claim for the independent akhara is approved by the authorities.
According to the texts, the top administrative body of each of the akhara is the Sri Pancha (sacred body of five), representing Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti and Ganesha. It is elected by consensus from among the Mahants of Matha or Marhi (Sanskrit: मठ and Hindi: मढ़ी ) that make up an akhara on every Kumbha Mela and the body holds its post for 4 years. It is a concept similar to centuries old Indian republican consensual elective system of Panchayat (at an individual village level) and Khap (grouping of the related villages within a union).
Among the five elected Sri Pancha of the akhara, they hold the following positions in the decreasing order of seniority, all of which can be considered guru in their own right:
At highest level, akhara are classified into one of the four different Sampradaya (philosophical denominations) based on their traditional systems: Each sampradaya has several paramparas (lineages), each started by a guru based on the guru-shishya tradition. The subsidiary status is as per the traditional Shahi Snan preferential sequence of procession, though time to time several subsidiary akharas have unsuccessfully tried with authorities to have this sequence altered as the number of their followers grew.
Initially there were only 4 akharas based on the sampradaya (sect), which have split into subsidiary akharas due to differences in the leadership and expansion in the followership. In january 2019, there were 13 akharas that are allowed to participate in Prayagraj Kumbh Mela and they have formed the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad with 2 representative from each of the 13 akharas to manage the akhara related affairs across all kumb melas and across the nations.
The still-extant seven Shastradhari or monastic Hindu akhara founded by the 8th-century philosopher Adi Shankaracharya (also the founder of four Mathas) can be classified, in terms of affiliation and the number of followers, as three major akharas, three minor akharas under major akharas and one smaller akhara under the major akhara:
The akhara with the most sadhu is Juna Akhara, followed by Niranjani Akhara and Mahanirvani Akhara. Among these, today, three are considered major akhara (Juna, Niranjani and Mahanirvani) and three minor akhara (Avahan affiliated with Juna, Ananda affiliated with Niranjani and Atal affiliated with Mahanirvani). The 7th, small Brahmachari (celibate) akhara named Agni is also affiliated with Juna Akhara.
There are numerous other still-extant akharas, founded by the disciples of the existing akharas, that are usually loosely or directly aligned under one of the existing akhara lineage. The Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP) (Hindi: अखिल भारतीय अखाड़ा परिषद, transliterated as All India Akhara Council), founded in 1954, is the apex organisation of 13 akharas of Hindu Sants (saints) and Sadhus (ascetics) representing the largest followership in India. These are entitled to the special privilege of the Shahi Snan at Kumbh Mela and Ujjain Simhastha mela in a pre-determined sequence.
The monastic akhara and their Sri Pancha of various sects meet during the Kumbha Mela. The Naga sadhu and the various akhara traditionally lead and initiate the bathing rituals before the general population steps in.
The order of procession is 1. Mahanirvani akhara with Atal akhara, 2. Niranjani akhara with Anand akhara, 3. Juna akhara with Ahvahan and Agni akhara, 4. Nirvani akhara, 5. Digambar akhara, 6. Normohi akhara, 7. Naya Udasin akhara, 8. Bada Udasin akhara and 9. Nirmal akhara.