BHUBANESWAR, India – The 26,382 students stood still, each holding a toothbrush in one hand. As the instructor counted down to zero, everyone began furiously brushing their teeth. Left, right, up, down. The seconds stretched into two long minutes before they were asked to stop.
A world record was created that day in early November: the most people brushing their teeth simultaneously at a single venue. It took a couple of hours to count the students, who beat the previous record of 16,414 people.
“The whole world will know about us now,” said Rajesh Bhumij, a 17-year-old participant, as he took selfies with friends and flashed a victory sign.
In India, the world’s second most-populous country, creating world records has become something of an obsession. On most days, newspapers run stories of people attempting or making records: the largest wheelchair logo (112 feet by 88 feet, composed of 1,000 people in wheelchairs), the largest packaged food sentence (“Get it back India,” formed by 10,005 packs of Pringles), and the most people holding the abdominal plank position (2,353 people held the pose for 60 seconds).
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the country in creating two world records for most people performing yoga (35,985) and most nationalities in a yoga lesson (84).
Indians across the country make or break records every day in a testament to the growing aspirations of the young nation. And the Holy Grail for record seekers remains the Guinness World Records.
To get into Guinness, Indians have pulled vehicles with their beards and chopped watermelons on their stomachs while lying on a bed of nails.
“We are an extremely competitive breed,” said Nikhil Shukla, 35, the Guinness representative in India. “Whether it’s for grades at school or to get onto the local train – we have to compete.”
In the seven years since Guinness set up an office in India, applications have soared. Indians send the highest number of record applications from the developing world. Only the United States and the United Kingdom send more, according to the company. Last year, Indians submitted more than 5,500 applications, a jump of 122% from five years ago.
The meteoric rise of the internet in India has helped, Shukla said.
In the past two decades, the number of Indians with access to the Internet has increased 2,700 percent. India is also the second-largest smartphone market, and local telecom companies claim to offer the world’s cheapest mobile data plan.
Shukla recalled a case of a man from eastern India in 2012 who traveled nearly 19 miles to reach an Internet cafe to submit a record application.
Now smartphones have “changed the game,” Shukla said. “We have people applying from villages and small towns. That’s been key to our success.”
Twenty-year-old Arpit Lall grew up in a nondescript town in central India watching the Discovery channel, which often featured daring world records. He spent hours online looking up records to find something he could do.
“I wanted to be best in the world at an extraordinary ability,” Lall said.
An existing record for eating the most raw eggs seemed doable. Practice was tricky – he didn’t like the taste of raw eggs – but he persisted.
Now he holds the world record in that category, for eating nine raw eggs in 30 seconds. Lall also created records for eating the most grapes with his feet and stacking the most coins in a tower.
“It’s a feeling of being accomplished,” he said on the lure of a Guinness record. “You wouldn’t have called me if I weren’t a record-holder.”
For a $5 fee, Guinness records are an affordable proposition. For individual records, people are required to submit a video of themselves performing the challenge in the presence of three witnesses. It can take up to three months for Guinness to confirm the record. Priority applications cost $800. Mass-participation events involve an adjudicator, which can cost thousands of dollars.
“For a long time, India was the largest, most unimportant country in the world,” said Vinay Lal, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied India’s obsession with Guinness records. “The impulse was, ‘We have to demonstrate we are good at something.’ So getting into Guinness became a measure of the country’s greatness.”
For Rakshith Shetty, an aspiring athlete from a village whose family couldn’t afford to pay for his professional training, the motivation was simple.
“Since I could not run at district or state level, I thought of doing something different to make a name for myself in this sport,” said Shetty, 35.
The London marathon gave him an idea. He decided to run in costumes and now has 14 Guinness records to his name, including as the fastest person to run a half-marathon dressed as a whoopee cushion, shoe and measuring tape.
“Everyone wrote about me in the papers, but I did not receive any help from anyone,” he said, disappointed that his records spree did not result in a financial offer or a job.
Shukla, the Guinness India representative, said there is more to being a record-holder than the 15 minutes of fame on the internet.
“It’s more about recognition than fame,” he said. “How do you stand out at what you do? No matter what that may be.”
The toothbrushing event was co-hosted by a toothpaste brand, a dental association and Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. For the organizers, the record means exposure, marketing and raising awareness for a cause.
But for the participants, like Rajesh, the event meant much more.
“We can’t even afford toothpaste in our village,” he said. He studies at a free school for children of indigenous communities from one of the poorest parts of the country. “To be part of a world record is exhilarating.”