Naim Sahib forwarded a BBC story, I had missed, about tall, brown, brave, greased-up and ready to fight pehlwans. A persian word, pehlwan, means warrior or champion. It used to denote those who excelled on the battleground, besting their opponents. The greatest pehlwan was the Persian warrior-king Rustum [don't be scared of the persian, just scroll down to see the pic near the end of the page]. As a “sport,” it is roughly equivalent to wrestling (not WWE, the other mat wrestling). A contest consists of lots of gripping and holding (hence, the grease) which happens in the Akhara (the mud pit) and after which the champion gets the Gurz (looks like a mace but HUGE and made out of silver and gold with precious stones inset). The undefeated champions hold the title Rustum-i Hind or Rustum-i Pakistan.
Perhaps the most famous pehlwan was Ghulam Mohammad Gama Pehlwan (1885-1953) who was the court wrestler for Maharajah of Patiala. I don’t want, and don’t know enough of, to go into the relationship between Indian wrestling and Indian nationalism, suffice it to say that the early c. 20th saw a great emphasis by Indian nationalists on training the body and creating strong, powerful physiques. Pehlwans were the ideal prototypes. They devoted their lives to clean living and their bodies to hard, physical exertion. Living and working communaly and in harmony. Gama became the epitome of that Indian ideal. A Muslim by birth, he was known as the Krishna of Kaliyug. In 1910, he went to London to fight the Polish world champion wrestler Stanley Zbyszko under the aegies of the John Bull Society. Gama defeated Zbyszko and was crowned as the Rustum-i-Zaman[Rustum of the Times] and awarded the Sir John Bull Belt. Zbyszko’s defeat was the triumph of India over Eurpoe, earning Gama immense acclaim upon his return. In 1928, Zybszko travelled to Lahore for a re-match. Once again, Gama prevailed and cemented his legend as the Unbeatable. You can read more details of this story here.
After Partition, pehlwani continued the glorious history in Pakistan. Bholu Rustum-i Pakistan and Jhara Fakhar-i-Pakistan are two of the many greats who became people’s champions. The city of Gujranwala is the city of pehlwans – producing many many champions.
From my childhood, I remember Antonio Inoki (the Japanese wrestler who fought Muhammad Ali) coming to Lahore and fighting Akram pehlwan and Nasir Bholoo sometimes in the late 70s or something. It was a huge deal and I remember flickering t.v. monitors showing the match.
In Lahore, we used to go to the pehlwani neighborhood behind the Lahore Fort and buy some hardcore Lassi – made with yogurt, various nuts, honey, and who-knows-what. It added 5 pounds while you drank it and gave you some serious runs after an hour. good stuff.
That the art of pehlwani is dying in Lahore is sad to hear but I am sure it will pick up soon enough as retro-cool comes back. I hope. I mean, the “briefs” look exciting enough. However, it looks like people in Texas are up on it.