Originating in modern-day India, the practice of club swinging has a long and deeply embedded cultural Indian history. In the first instance, the Indian clubs featured heavily in the Mahabharata, a Hindu religious epic written during the Indian Vedic Age (1500 – 500 BCE). Highly allegorical, the epic focused on two warring sects, the Pandevas and Kauravas, with their fierce battle a metaphor for life itself (Dasgupta, 2004, 411-420). While several figures used gadas (Indian club precursors) throughout the religious epic, it was the final gadabattle between Bhima, the king and Duryodhan, the man vying for Bhima’s throne, which became synonymous with the Indian clubs’ importance (Roy, 2012, 21-23). That each man, famed for his power and force wielded gadas linked the clubs to overt images of strength, masculinity and military prowess. Similarly, that Bhima killed Duryodhan with his club demonstrated its very real destructive capabilities (Ibid.).
Such tools were not confined to mortals within Hindu religious texts as Vishnu, the revered deity, also had a long history of wielding the clubs for martial purposes. According to Hindu mythology it was Vishnu who was responsible for forging the original gada from the bones of a vagabond demon and it was stemming from Vishnu’s association that the Indian clubs’ identity as a symbol of power and destruction was continually re-iterated (Pattanaik, 1999, 95). The Hindu relationship between deity and club did not end with Visnhu either, as Lord Hanuman’s concurrent allegorical use of the Indian clubs demonstrated. An ape-like demigod praised for his devotion to Lord Rama, Hanuman was, and is still, intensely related to Indian clubs in Hindu texts and iconography (Lutgendorf, 2006, 1-20). As the Hindu God of wrestling, Hanuman explicitly linked Indian clubs with athleticism, manliness and strength, a connection reiterated daily for Indian exercisers, who for centuries have prayed to statues of Lord Hanuman before engaging in training (Mujumdar, 1950, 614). Thus, one facet of the clubs’ reverence before the arrival of Western colonisers in India was its significance in both religious and athletic settings.
Another important aspect concerning the Hindu reverence for the Indian clubs stemmed in part from the clubs’ martial applications as depicted in the religious epics. It is thus pertinent to note that the religious epic in which the Indian clubs featured so heavily, the Mahabharata, was written soon after the Indian Vedic Age(1500 – 500 BCE). It was during the Vedic Age that Indian clubs regularly appeared in battle among various warring sects (Das, 1985, 24-25). According to Das, the Indian clubs were one of the most prominent weapons of the period, which perhaps explains the continual reference to the Indian clubs in the Mahabharata (Ibid.). Remarkably the clubs’ popularity proved particularly enduring as the rising prominence of other weapons such as swords, spears, axes and lances in the centuries following the Vedic Age did little to displace the clubs’ battlefield application. Nevertheless, the emergence of such weapons did signal a change in the clubs’ use over the following centuries (Singha, 1965, 140-163). While still used by soldiers in matters of life and death, the clubs’ usage slowly began to shift from the battlefield to the training arenas of military camps littered throughout the Indian landmass. The clubs’ transition from battleground to training ground appears to have been a gradual process as it took until the early decades of the twelfth-century for the first Indian club training manual, the Manasollasa, to be published (Gupta, 2012, 1689). Describing contemporary exercise systems, the text devoted considerable space to wrestling and club swinging, which Rosalind O’Hanlon argued showcased the tripartite relationship between club swinging, military practices and physical exercise (O’Hanlon, 2007, 493). Though now established as a gymnastic exercise, it appears that the clubs continued to serve as a martial tool for several more centuries (Rajagoplan, 1962, 172).
Within a century of the Manasollasa’s publication, another Hindu exercise text, the Malla-Purana, expanded on the clubs’ various training capabilities (Sandesara and Mehta, 1964, 6). An allegorical text, the Malla-Puranadiscussed Lord Krishna and Balarama’s prescriptions regarding wrestlers’ bodies, dietary habits and training methods such as Indian club swinging (Ibid., 10-20). The text highlighted both the enduring nature of Indian club swinging and also the significant strength one needed to wield the clubs effectively. Indeed, Singh noted that although all men could wield Indian clubs, only those with extraordinary strength excelled (Singh, 1989, 111). Those possessing such strength were relatively privileged within martial and physical culture fields, as club swinging became an effective means of using the body to gain employment and social prestige (Bourdieu, 1984, 215-217). The Malla-Purana helped fuel the Indian clubs’ masculine associations as in the post-Purana period, club swinging became linked to Hindu wrestlers’ celibacy and semen retention. Those wielding Indian clubs effectively were depicted as being in complete control of their sexual desires and therefore, their masculinity (Alter, 2004, 517). The anthropological studies of Joseph Alter, an American scholar interested in Hindu wrestling practices, demonstrate that such ideas still permeate the wrestling akharas (gymnasiums) of provinces in northern India (Ibid.).
So entrenched had Indian club swinging become within Hindu athletic programmes that the sixteenth-century Mughal invasion of India did little to temper its popularity. Moghul interest in wrestling was itself centuries old, and when Moghul leader Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muḥammad (‘Babur’) consolidated his Indian empire, he endorsed Hindu and Moghul wrestling styles (Beveridge, 1922, xiii). Babur’s subjects mirrored his affection for exercise with the result being that Hindu wrestling took on several Moghul elements (Pearson, 1984, 336). Surveying Indian wrestling’s history, Alter concluded that from the sixteenth-century, Hindu wrestling became a crossbreed of Hindu and Moghul techniques whose traditions only differed culturally (Alter, 1992, 6). It was perhaps stemming from the similarities between the two athletic practices that Indian clubs grew in political significance during Moghul rule, as princes began retaining wrestlers and club swingers in their palaces to showcase their strength (Alter, 2004, 507). Such athletes acted as ‘muscular metaphors’ and toured India, competing against rival princes’ retinues (Alter, 1993, 60). These explicit ‘soft power’ demonstrations allowed kingdoms to prove their superiority over one another without engaging in warfare while at the same providing an outlet for displays of Hindu masculinity as distinct from Mughal conceptions of manhood (Nye, 2004, 1-10). Interestingly, European travellers were well aware of this practice. In 1536 Fernao Nuniz, noted in his travel that the king of Vijayanagara kept wrestlers, who although having ‘a captain over them…they do not perform any other service in the kingdom’ (Sastri and Venkataramanayya, 1946, 165). Unbeknownst to the Portuguese traveller, the wrestlers were symbols of the king’s power. Similar to religious and martial context, Indian clubs in the health context held multiple functions. For some they cultivated self-discipline and increased vital energies while for others, they were tools of political showmanship.
While Indian clubs’ multiplicity was not immediately apparent to colonial onlookers in the early seventeenth-century, Englishmen were soon alerted to this fact. As Britain’s Indian interactions intensified during the seventeenth-century, East India Company men become increasingly exposed to the daily exercise regimes displayed in the following mid-century painting (C.E.A.W.O., 1930, 414).
Figure 1. ‘The Gentil Album, Second State of Perfection with Different Exercises for the Various Parts of the Day, c. 1770’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, IS. 25:23-1980.
The exercisers shown in the bottom right quadrant projected a highly masculine and militaristic image (Alter, 1993, 60-65). This imposing scene may have been a regular sight for Englishmen in India at that time. In 1798 Hugh Boyd noted the vast number of muscular bodies one encountered on Indian streets, suggesting that public exhibitions were popular outlet for showcasing Hindu physical culture’s utility and impressiveness (Boyd, 1798, 339). The influx of Indian troops into army garrisons in the eighteenth-century would see Englishmen fully exposed to the clubs’ martial elements. At the century’s end the English soldier W. Ouseley wrote of Indian troops’ practices of whirling dumbbells and heavy pieces of wood overhead ‘in order to supple their limbs and give grace and strengthen [sic] to their bodies’ (Ouseley, 1791, 101-102). At the dawn of the nineteenth-century, English knowledge of the clubs had grown exponentially from two centuries previously. The upcoming decades would see Indian clubs become a prominent part of English life thanks to the British military.
As alluded, Indian club swinging appears to have entered the English consciousness during the seventeenth-century when Indian troops in the East India Company army stationed in India introduced the practice to British soldiers (Alter, 2004, 517). While for Indian exercisers, the practice held multifaceted religious and masculine meanings; English troops appropriated the exercise solely for health and training purposes sometime in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. This military appropriation was formalised in 1824 when Henry Torrens, the adjunct general to the English forces, recommended the use of a ‘wooden club’ in order to ‘supple recruits, open their chests and give freedom to the muscles’ in his official army training manual (Torrens, 1824, 3-4).
This ‘wooden club’, inspired by the indigenous Indian clubs of India, was a bottle shaped club swung in the hand for gymnastic exercise. It stood in stark contrast to the Indian club or jori, which could measure up to a user’s waist and weigh upwards of seventy pounds, as opposed to the three and four-pound clubs used by British soldiers (Alter, 2004, 515-520). In later decades, traditional Indian clubs were used by Indian subjects to reaffirm their masculinity to their English counterparts (Heffernan, 2017, 560-577). Another important endorsement came in 1825, when the English Army and Navy Superintendent of Gymnastic Exercise, P.H. Clias, advocated Indian club swinging for English troops and the public (Clias, 1825, 14). Drawing upon his experience training English troops, Clias’ work promised to correct health, build strength and resolve anxiety (Ibid., 1-10).
Inspired by German physical-educator Gutsmuths, Clias’ routines centred on gymnastic exercises designed to improve physical capital through strength building (McIntosh, 1957, 223). Complementing such exercises was the ‘Indian club’ (Clias, 1825, 16). Within a decade of Torrens and Clias’s endorsement, club swinging had gained a number of notable English proponents including Queen Victoria, who briefly experimented with the clubs in a bid to cure her melancholy (Woodham Smith, 1972, 134). Though presented as a relatively banal training tool, the clubs quickly became imbued with masculine connotations in the English context.