A practitioner of this sport is referred to as a pehlwan while teachers are known either as ustad or guru, depending on their religion. Many southern Indian practitioners of traditional malla-yuddha consider their art to be the more “pure” form of Indian wrestling, but most South Asians do not make this clear distinction and simply view kusti as the direct descendent of ancient malla-yuddha, usually downplaying the foreign influence as inconsequential.
The ancient South Asian form of wrestling is called malla-yuddha. Practiced at least since the 5th millenniun BC, predating the Indo-Aryan invasions, and described in the 13th century treatise Malla Purana, it was the precursor of modern kusti.
In the 16th century, northern India was conquered by the Central Asian Mughals, who were of Turko-Mongol descent. Through the influence of Iranian and Mongolian wrestling, they incorporated groundwork to the local malla-yuddha, thereby creating modern kusti. Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was a wrestler himself and could reportedly run very fast for a long distance while holding a man under each arm. Mughal-era wrestlers sometimes even wore bagh naka on one hand, in a variation called naki ka kusti or “claw wrestling”.
During the late 17th century, Ramadasa the “father of Indian athletics” travelled the country encouraging Hindus to physical activity in homage to the great god Hanuman. Maratha rulers supported kusti by offering large sums of prize money for tournament champions. It was said that every Maratha boy at the time could wrestle and even women took up the sport. During the colonial period, local princes sustained the popularity of kusti by holding matches and competitions. Wrestling was the favourite spectator sport of the Rajputs, and were said to look forward to tournaments “with great anxiety”. Every Rajput prince or chief had a number of wrestling champions to compete for his entertainment. The greatest wrestling centres were said to be Uttar Pradesh and the Panjab.
In 1909, a Bengali merchant named Adbul Jabbar Saudagar intended to unite the local youth and inspire them in the anti-British struggle against the colonists through a display of strength by holding a wrestling tournament. Known as Jabbar-er Boli Khela, this competition has continued through independence and the subsequent partition. It is still held in Bangladesh every Boishakhi Mela (Bengali new year), accompanied by playing of the traditional sanai (flute) and dabor (drum), and is one of Chittagong’s oldest traditions.
In the more recent past, India had famous wrestlers of the class of the Great Gama (of British India and later Pakistan, after partition) and Gobar Goho. India reached its peak of glory in the IV Asian Games (later on called Jakarta Games) in 1962 when all the seven wrestlers were placed on the medal list and in between them they won 12 medals in freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling. A repetition of this performance was witnessed again when all the 8 wrestlers sent to the Commonwealth Games held at Kingston, Jamaica had the distinction of getting medals for the country. During the 60s, India was ranked among the first eight or nine wrestling nations of the world and hosted the world wrestling championships in New Delhi in 1967.
Pehlwan who compete in wrestling nowadays are also known to cross train in the grappling aspects of judo and jujutsu. Legendary wrestlers from the bygone era like Karl Gotch have made tours to India to learn kusti and further hone their skills. Karl Gotch was even gifted a pair of mudgal (exercise equipment used by South Asian wrestlers). The conditioning exercises of pahlavani have been incorporated into many of the conditioning aspects of both catch wrestling and shoot wrestling, along with their derivative systems. These systems also borrow several throws, submissions and takedowns from kusti.
Although wrestling in South Asia saw changes in the Mughal era and the colonial period, the training regimen has remained the same for over 150 years. Fledgeling wrestlers may start as early as 6, but most begin formal training in their teens. They are sent to an akhara or traditional wrestling school where they are put under the apprenticeship of the local guru. Their only training attire is the kowpeenam or loincloth.
Vyayam or physical training is meant to build strength and develop muscle bulk and flexibility. Exercises that employ the wrestler’s own bodyweight include the Surya Namaskara, shirshasana, and the danda, which are also found in hatha yoga, as well as the bethak. Sawari (from Persian savâri, meaning “the passenger”) is the practice of using another person’s bodyweight to add resistance to such exercises.
An old Indian pehlwan exercising with Indian clubs near Varanasi.
Exercise regimens may employ the following weight training devices:
- The nal is a hollow stone cylinder with a handle inside.
- The gar nal (neck weight) is a circular stone ring worn around the neck to add resistance to danda and bethak.
- The gada (mace) is a club associated with Hanuman. An exercise gada is a heavy round stone attached to the end of a meter-long bamboo stick. Trophies take the form of gada made of silver and gold.
- Indian clubs, exercise clubs introduced by the Mughals.
Exercise regimens may also include dhakuli which involve twisting rotations, rope climbing, log pulling and running. Massage is regarded an integral part of a wrestler’s exercise regimen.
Kushti in Bharatpur
Wrestling competitions, known as dangal or kushti, are held in villages and as such are variable and flexible. The arena is either a circular or square shape, measuring at least fourteen feet across. Rather than using modern mats, South Asian wrestlers train and compete on dirt floors. Before training, the floor is raked of any pebbles or stones. Buttermilk, oil, and red ochre are sprinkled to the ground, giving the dirt its red hue. Water is added every few days to keep it at the right consistency; soft enough to avoid injury but hard enough so as not to impede the wrestlers’ movements. Every match is preceded by the wrestlers throwing a few handfuls of dirt from the floor on themselves and their opponent as a form of blessing. Despite the marked boundaries of the arena, competitors may go outside the ring during a match with no penalty. There are no rounds but the length of every bout is specified beforehand, usually about 25–30 minutes. If both competitors agree, the length of the match may be extended. Match extensions are typically around 10–15 minutes. A win is achieved by pinning the opponent’s shoulders and hips to the ground simultaneously, although victory by knockout, stoppage or submission is also possible. In some variations of the rules, only pinning the shoulders down is enough. Bouts are overseen by a referee inside the ring and a panel of two judges watching from the outside.