The Strangest Sport No One Knows
In the highlands near Mumbai, practitioners of Mallakhamb perform curious acrobatic feats using poles, ropes … and castor oil.
In 1936, a troupe of 35 acrobats from a small town in Central India traveled to the Berlin Olympic Games to demonstrate the ancient sport of Mallakhamb. At a formal gala convened by the International Olympic Committee, athletics officials and eager media from around the world gathered to witness the 900-year-old exotic sport’s global unveiling. The team’s intricate feats of contortion, strength, and death-defying gymnastics atop a skinny, eight-and-a-half foot pole thrilled Adolf Hitler; the Führer personally bestowed each acrobat with an honorary Olympic medal before the group returned to India.
The world’s first real glimpse of this curious athletic form was also its last. But today, in the lush highlands that hug sprawling Mumbai, this peculiar sport with apparatuses that look uncannily like medieval torture devises is still practiced. It is in these few ramshackle gymnasiums scattered throughout India’s Maharashtra—the same region where Mallakhamb’s origins are traced back to 12th century Sanskrit texts—where a strange tradition that features swinging clubs, rope burn between toes, and copious amounts of castor oil—is kept alive.
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