In ancient Punjab Pahelwani formed the basis for the combat and self-defence training of warriors, nobles and kings and was heavily influenced by the indigenous Hindu fighting art of Mal-yudh.
In Sanskrit, ‘mal’ means wrestler or fighter and ‘yudh’ means war or fighting.
The Mahabharat and Ramayan (classics dating back to the fifth to second centuries B.C.) refer to this art, . While the martial art is said to have existed long before then, it is believed to have reached its prime by the second century B.C., when Vyas and Valmiki described it as the unarmed combat style of mythological figures like Bhim.
The main characteristics of the four great styles of Mal-yudh are described in epic literature:
1. The adroit throws of the ‘Hanumanti’ style, named after the monkey-general
Hanuman of the Ramayan saga
2. The complex joint-locks of the ‘Jambuvanti’ style, named after the bear king
of the Mahabharat era who lost to Krishan after twenty-one days of
3. The locks and joint-breaking techniques of the ‘Jarasandhi’ style, named
after the demon-king
4. The great strength and body slams of the ‘Bhimseni’ style, named after the
great Pandav warrior and brother of Arjun
In feudal times, competitive wrestling matches were often fought to the death. Over a period of centuries, Pahelwani was modified into a competitive sport; safety rules were implemented, dangerous techniques prohibited and formal training methods established. One of these standardisation measures was the introduction of the square (sometimes circular) earth-filled pits or akhara, measuring approximately 20 x 20 feet, for training and competition purposes.
In medieval times, maharajas and wealthy landowners supported a stable of professional pahelwans who matched against one another – the victor receiving a solid silver or gold mace and a king’s ransom in prize money.
The four indigenous Mal-yudh styles dominated wrestling in the subcontinent until the 17th century when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (reigned 1658-1707) sponsored an outsider, Ustad Nur-ud-din Pahelwan. Since then, three schools—Nurewala, Kaloowala and Kotwala—have produced most of the sport’s finest competitors.