For centuries, Pahelwani boasted a huge following in Punjabi society as its national sport. The health of the pahelwans reflected on the health of society as a whole.
Today, however, the popularity of this tradition is in sharp decline. Changing tastes, modern lifestyles and moral values adopted from the West have combined to push Pahelwani to the brink of obscurity. Traditional wrestling pits are disappearing and with them, so too is an entire culture of discipline, relationships and tolerance.
The origins of this decline can be traced back to 1947, the year of Punjab’s partition. This momentous political event marked the end of the British Raj and paved the way for the creation of two new sovereign states. West Punjab fell in the Muslim-dominated country of Pakistan, and East Punjab in the Hindu-dominated independent India. Partition stripped Pahelwani of its main source of financial support: the vast wealth of the maharajas.
Since time immemorial, the needs of professional pahelwans were taken care of by royal patrons (many of whom trained in akharas). Patronage enabled pahelwans to concentrate on the refinement of their art and the building up of their bodies. In return, their magnificent physiques testified to, and reflected on, the power of the monarchs; they would march on ceremonial occasions in royal processions, and represent the honour of their patrons in competitive bouts against wrestlers from other states.
Partition changed everything; when the old ruling class relinquished power to the newly created states of India and Pakistan, they lost their ability to support the Pahelwani tradition.
An ever decreasing number of traditional akharas were left to survive on a meagre state income or from voluntary donations from students and supporters. The struggle for financial survival was compounded by the dearth of novice pahelwans. Notions of western modernity influenced young Pakistani and Indian minds to the point where dedicated students interested in learning this ancient art became hard to find; those that joined an akhara pursued the sport as a hobby rather than a full-time profession.
Pahelwans of the calibre of the greats such as Ghulam, Kikkar Singh, Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala, Ghulam Mohi-ud-din, Gama and Imam Baksh emerged owing to a unique combination of circumstances—a pool of talented and dedicated athletes whose only purpose was to prepare themselves for titanic battles, a culture that embraced wrestling, and a group of wrestling-mad maharajas who financed the sport. They produced a great era of Punjabi wrestling that sadly can never again be truly duplicated.