An akhara (Sanskrit and Hindi: अखाड़ा, sometimes shortened to khara) is an Indian word for a place of practice with facilities for boarding, lodging and training. It can either refer to a training hall used by Indian martial artists or a monastery for religious renunciates. In the context of the Dashanami Sampradaya sect, the word denotes a regiment. In some languages such as Odia the word is officially transcribed as akhada, by way of rendering the flapped [ɽ] sound as a d. The Haryanvi and Khari Boli dialects shorten this to khada (खाड़ा).
Similar to the English word school, the term akhara 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. Unlike the gurukul in which students live and study at the home of a guru, members of an akhara 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, 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 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. When the 8th-century philosopher Adi Shankaracharya founded the Dashanami Sampradaya, he divided the ascetics into two categories: Astradhari (Sanskrit: अस्त्रधारी, lit. weapon-bearers) or warriors and Shastradhari (Sanskrit: शास्त्रधारी, lit. scripture-bearers) or intelligentsia. The former referred to the Naga sadhus, an armed order created by Shankaracharya to act as a Hindu army. These highly militant sadhu used to serve as mercenaries and thus were divided into akhara or regiments. Although they still carry weapons, the modern Naga sadhu rarely practice any form of fighting aside from wrestling. 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.
In modern usage, akhara most often denotes a wrestling ground and is typically associated with kusti. 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.
The major martial akhara include:
- Agastmuni Akhara from Tamil Nadu in south India
- Hanuman Akhara from Maharashtra and the Dakhin plateau of central India
- Paika Akhara from Orissa on India's east coast
- Parashurama Akhara from Kerala in southwest India
- Shivakhara from the Himalayas
- Ranjit Akhara from the Punjab region of northwest India and northeast Pakistan
|#||Major Akhara||Minor Akhara||Smaller Akhara|
|1||Juna Akhara||Avahan Akhara, attached to Juna Akhara||Agni Akhara, attached to Juna Akhara|
|2||Niranjani Akhara||Ananda Akhara, attached to Niranjani Akhara||-|
|3||Mahanirvani Akhara||Atal Akhara, attached to Mahanirvani 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.
An akhara is governed by the sacred body of five Sri Pancha and divided into 8 dava (divisions) and 52 marhi (मढ़ी). The marhi are centres of practice, led by a mahant or spiritual leader. Smaller akhara, some as small as having only one marhi, may be set up either as an affiliate to a larger group or occasionally totally independent due to disagreements over succession.
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 Marhis 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:
- Acharya Mahamandaleshwara, the chief divisional leader of spiritual order of the God
- Mahamandaleshwara, the senior divisional leader of spiritual order of the God
- Mandaleshwara, the divisional leader of spiritual order of the God
- Sri Mahant, the senior spiritual leader
- Mahant, the spiritual master. Each marhi within the akhara is governed by a mahant
At Kumbha Mela
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- James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. pp. 23–4. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8.
- "The Wrestler's Body". Publishing.cdlib.org. Retrieved 2012-03-29.
- Chakravertty, Shreya (26 August 2008). "Life in Satpal's akhada: Early mornings and lots of ghee". Indian Express. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
- "Akhada". www.firstfoundation.in. Retrieved 2013-02-28.
- Kumbha Mela Students' Britannica India, by Dale Hoiberg, Indu Ramchandani. Published by Popular Prakashan, 2000. ISBN 0-85229-760-2.Page 259-260.
- Maha Kumbh Mahakumbh: The Greatest Show on Earth, by J.S. Mishra. Published by Har-Anand Publications, 2007. ISBN 81-241-0993-1. Page 21.