Art of Pehlwani

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.

23 Replies to “Art of Pehlwani”

  1. i m interested to join some akhara in gujrwanwala, is there any acedmy to learn this art? pls share the contact number…

  2. I am so happy to review this,that we have such heroes of wrestling they make us very proud ,I think we should remember these great peoples and thanks to All Mighty Allah for granting us tremendous heroes.I am also big fan of Nasir Bholu And Zubair Jhara Pehlwan.

  3. i m big fan of wrestling bcoz my father is also a well known wrestler awarded by SHER -E- PUNJAB and PUNJAB KESRI.

  4. “I come from a family of wrestlers, both my grandfather and my father being practitioners of this art and way of life. My father would take me to the akhara and make me work out so that I would build my strength. Whatever I am writing, I have seen with my own eyes and experienced personally. When a wrestler collected his prize money after a successful match, the first thing he would do was to purchase a couple of sacks of almonds and two large canisters of pure desi ghee or clarefied butter. It was normal for a wrestler to drink butter milk or lassi made from a kilo of milk and a kilo of yogurt. Some wrestlers would drink melted ghee, after which they would lie on a cot for a couple of hours during which they would not move at all. Then they would get up and declare with great pride, “Khalifa, the ghee has been digested.””

    Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s wrestling pits

  5. This come as a brilliant news to all those of you who love the worlds ancient most sport, “KUSTI”.

    I am associated with a production house and am working towards promoting this art that crafts the body, working on a documentary film on it, any one of you who has anything to share kindly feel free to discuss it with me so that we justify portraying the ethos of such an old sport.

    Kindly support and write to me at

    Sanjay S. Devkar

  6. me very much enthusiasm in ancient wrestling art of great india. me very much inspired by the gamma pehlwan .

  7. Was wondering if anyone could gulde me in how to drape a loin cloth like the traditional kusthi wrestlers do.

    thank you

  8. I would like to know the names iof major cities (addresses) on the West Coast of India Wrestling Schools (Akhadas). Both Hindu and Muslim

  9. hello everyone!

    I am ronak and I wish to know everything about kusti, indian traditional wrestling that is held in mumbai and across maharashtra. I want an address of akhadas in mumbai. it is interesting to learn this art as this art is purely natural and is purely useful for maintaining mass by practicing its exercises.

    Do let me know at



  10. dacoit: the polish flash site made my night.

    the lassis were giant metal pints and the malai had to be spoon lifted. yummy lassis.

  11. Fascinating mini-history. Those lassis sound deadly (in every sense of the word). Were they served in small unglazed clay pots and topped with a healthy slab of malai, by any chance?

    To elaborate the historical memory angle somewhat, the legend of the mighty Pole Zbyszko continues to loom large. On the one hand, there is apparently a chap in the WWE by the name of Larry who has taken on the name. There also is a Polish beverage company (makers of such tantalizing concoctions as ‘Polo Cockta’, ‘Maxer’, and the truckdriver’s fave ‘American Guarana’) that goes by the same moniker (their marvelous Zorro-themed flash site simply must be seen:

    Most importantly, however, does anyone happen to recall the menacing American bodyguard from the over the top late-70s Amitabh-starrer ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’? Aside from featuring the most delightful easter egg of all time and the corniest cinematic qawali this side of Nusrat-Eddie Vedder duets, the fillum had our friend Zbyszko taking on the forces Hindu-Muslim-Isayi bhai-bhai-bhai. The good guys win of course, but Mr. Z continues to terrify many of us.

  12. my name is shak khan i am known amongst the asian people as sony palwan i am currently the mid heavy weight asian wrestling and street fight champion of azad kashmir.i have travelled all over the world and would love to take part in a pehlawani dungal in pakistan.anybody who would like more info on me can see my website


  14. Sepoy,

    Post-independence India had Dara Singh; who later became a film and TV personality,

    The maharaja of Mysore still has a functioning akhara, but national level ‘kushtis’ seem to be things of the past.

Comments are closed.