A unique group in the city of Bangalore brings together beer and running for a heady experience.
Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran
Pictures: Hash House Harriers – Bangalore Chapter
Every month, Manoj Bhat heads out to some place on the outer fringe of the sprawling metropolis of Bangalore. He is going on an excursion. At a pre-designated spot, he meets several others who have come on the same excursion. But it is an excursion with a difference. Soon, Manoj starts running along with several other men and women. Some others opt to walk. The runners and walkers move at a comfortable pace; nobody is in a hurry. Their trail is rough and uneven, and takes them through fields, farmland, slushy patches and wooded areas. Midway, there is a pit stop, where they are served water and fruits.
Upon reaching the end of the trail, they reach for bottles of chilled beer to slake their thirst. Soon, the entire group assembles there. Many of them grab beers; others have soft drinks. Snacks are distributed. The group forms a circle and the banter starts. Anecdotes from the run are narrated, jokes are cracked freely and a lot of leg-pulling happens. Mock charges are hurled at some members of the group, who then have to defend themselves. And all through this, the air crackles with laughter and mirth.
Welcome to the world of hashing – a world of fun, fitness, beer and the outdoors.
A worldwide movement
Way back in 1938, a group of British soldiers (and possibly, some expats too) began meeting once a week in the Federal Malay States (now Malaysia) to run for health and fitness. They modelled their run on the old British game of Hares and Hounds, which involved ‘hares’ laying trails through the outback and ‘hounds’ following those trails while running. The soldiers named their group ‘Hash House Harriers’ for the building in which they were living. It is unlikely that they knew that their early runs would spark off a passionate global movement called hashing and that hash chapters would spring up in several cities across the world.
The Bangalore chapter of the Hash House Harriers (HHH) was set up in 1991. It is, like all other chapters, headed by a Grand Master (GM). Helping him is an organising team known as the mis-management team.
The great outdoors
Hash runs are organised once a month. People from all walks of life meet at a pre-designated spot just outside the city and start running (or walking, if they so wish). They follow the trail laid out by ‘Hares’, who are members of the mis-management team. On the Hares falls the critical task of scouting for a new route every month and laying the trail with chalk. But just so that the hashers don’t take them for granted, the Hares lay false trails too. It is common for eager frontrunners (outrageously called ‘Front Running Bastards’ or FRBs) to go up a steep incline and cut through some woods, only to fix a board marked ‘X’. This brings them to a hard stop and the belated realisation that they have spent a lot of energy going nowhere. They are then forced to switchback, return to the proper trail and then follow it again. Trails usually are between 6 and 8 kms long. But an FRB who takes a few wrong turns could end up running an extra 3 or 4 kms.
Abnash Singh, GM of the Bangalore Chapter of the Hash House Harriers, says that false trails ensure that the runners do not reach the end point much ahead of the walkers. He says, ‘’We are particular about offering good trails to the hashers. Though all our trails are rough and cover uneven territory, they have to be clean and safe. We have men, women, children of all ages running; ensuring that they have a good hash experience is very important.”
Earlier, the Chapter used to have fortnightly runs. Over a period of time, participation dwindled to the 10s and 20s. The runs started feeling jaded perhaps, because some trails were being repeated and the runs were being held too often. Then, they started holding runs once a month. Participation picked up, because the longer gap and the fact that the hares could pick a different trail each time, brought back the element of freshness and interest into hashing.
Hashing started off as a movement that put fitness at the core of the activity; so, most of the early hashers were serious runners. In time though, it has evolved into a fine blend of fitness and fun. Many hashers are in it because they love the outdoors and want to meet interesting people. Chandra Mouli, who goes by the hash name Organraiser, says, “We hashers have abundant fun amidst nature. For those few hours, we simply let our guard down and be ourselves. We are not judged for who we are, how we dress or what we say.’’
The fact that these runs/walks are not competitive is a major attraction. Which is why, many hashers bring their elderly parents and little children along. Abnash says that they have hashers from the age of 5 to 75. Everybody is free to finish the trail at their own pace. Several hashers, who used to be eager runners in their youth, have switched to walking for reasons of health or advancing age. Nimou Nilakantan, one of the earliest hashers of the Bangalore chapter, recalls, “I used to be a very good runner in my youth. But after a knee surgery, I was forced to stop running. I returned to hashing as a walker.”
Love for the outdoors is a common thread binding all hashers together. The chance to leave behind the frenetic life of the congested city and escape to the countryside is a compelling attraction for them. In the days when this city was smaller, hash trails used to start 10 or 15 kms from the city centre. But rapid expansion of this metropolis has pushed the trails farther and farther away from mid-town. Many hashers travel 30 or 40 kms from their homes to the starting point of the trail. But they don’t mind it. Some come by car (car-pooling is encouraged); others come on their motorcycles.
A few members say that hashing has toughened them and spurred them to take up high altitude trekking and long-distance running, such as marathons and ultra marathons.
Hash runs are not restricted to the city’s outskirts. Once in a while, the group heads to a hill station for a couple of days. In the recent past, hash runs have been organised in Gandikota, Kotagiri and Horsely Hills, all of which are a few hours away from Bangalore by road.
And then, there is the beer. At the end of every trail, cold, refreshing Kingfisher beer awaits the hashers. Most adult hashers are beer lovers; many of them easily put away several cans of the brew in one sitting. For them, there can be no hashing without beer. Indeed, it is tricky (and futile) to try figuring out what is more important to a hasher: the run or the beer. Which is why, the hashers can’t decide if they are runners with a drinking problem or drinkers with a running problem! Much of the raucous fun and laughter that ensues after every hash run can be attributed to the beer.
Kingfisher has been sponsoring beer for hash runs since the inception of the Bangalore chapter. This association has remained intact for 28 years! On the other hand, Big Basket is the official food and logistics partner of the HHH.
The Hash House Harriers have their own nomenclature, rituals, conventions and songs – perhaps in a nod to military tradition, since the founders of the club were soldiers. One of these conventions is to give every member a hash name. Hash names are funny, irreverent and often ribald. They are drawn from some characteristic of the person or his/her background. Chandramouli was named Organraiser because he was an event manager many years ago. Manoj Bhat is Phatphatiya, because he used to come to the run venues on a Royal Enfield motorcycle. Her habit of walking with her umbrella unfurled got a female hasher the name Shady Lady.
While adults members of the club are called ‘hashers’, children are aptly referred to as ‘horrors’. Newcomers are Virgins. The Grand Master of the chapter is Pervert Producer.
After every run, the hashers and horrors gather in a circle that is presided over by the Grand Master. The hares are invited into the center of the circle and feted for a job well done. The hares down their drinks and bask in the appreciation, while the rest of the group cheers them lustily. Later, the offenders (those who flout any hash convention) are asked to sit on a large slab of ice as ‘punishment’. Putting your hands in your trouser pockets, using your mobile phone or indulging in cross-talk when the circle is in session – all these qualify as offences. So do competitive running and excessive off-trail shortcutting. Virgins too are made to sit on the ice as they are grilled about their personal and professional details.
And then, there are hash anthems, as also songs for several occasions – including birthdays of members.
I am sitting at a long table with about 20 hashers at The Bier Library, a pub that opened a few months ago in Bangalore. This is one of the monthly pub meets of the HHH. My drinking mates are a motley bunch. I say hello to a wine store owner, a printer, a contractor, a data scientist, an employee of the World Bank, three anesthetists and a few more, whose professions I forget.
As the beer flows, bonhomie rules. Ribald jokes fly over the table. Some of the more docile members of the group become targets of good-natured ribbing. The Pervert Producer is busy ensuring a steady flow of food and drink. From time to time, raucous laughter erupts, shaking up the guests seated at the next table.
Watching them, I realise what a wonderful way of life hashing is, how it has turned strangers into friends and how much it means to the hashers.