In their day, champion pahelwans were devastating because they trained hard, ate big and possessed superior technique, power and fighting hearts.
Many of the best professional pahelwans were born into wrestling families; a son followed in the footsteps of his father and started to wrestle as soon as he was able to walk. As Pahelwani was the child’s one and only pursuit, and as he learnt young and kept his body supple under good teachers, who were to be found in great numbers, the akhara system produced extraordinarily efficient and scientific wrestlers.
The pahelwan, though very much a part of society, considered himself a man apart. When he entered the akhara, he left behind him the mundane for a world of tranquillity and authority. He would adhere strictly to the moral principles of continence, honesty, internal and external cleanliness, simplicity, and contemplation of the Divine, an attribute that he shared with the ascetic fakir or sadhu of the Muslim and Hindu worlds respectively.
The diligent pahelwan strove towards the ideal of perfect health. To achieve this he had to release himself from the world. In this perfect state of self-realization (‘jivanmukti’), ignorance was banished as spiritual consciousness and wisdom developed. At this level, a pahelwan was unaffected by emotions of any sort; he had no concern with the sensory world of pain and pleasure, suffering and greed.
Central to the development of a pahelwan’s moral and ideological framework was physical training (‘virayam’), the focal point of his daily routine. This entailed the repetition of specific exercises and the continual practice in actual wrestling.
Stress was placed on stamina and strength rather than beauty. If a pahelwan became a very large man he was given additional exercises to improve stamina and to harden his body. For instance, he was made to turn the shaft of the Persian wheel (the traditional device used to draw water from wells), a task usually performed by a couple of bullocks or camels. This type of exercise done for a length of time was prodigious hard work.