Pahelwani, or ‘Kushti’ as it is also known, is the traditional wrestling of Punjab, the ‘Land of Five Rivers’. It is believed to be one of the oldest martial arts in existence.
It is a synthesis of an indigenous Hindu form of wrestling called ‘Mal-yudh’, the ancient discipline of Yoga, and a Persian form of wrestling brought into the Indian subcontinent through the gateway of Punjab by the Indo-Persian and Mughal dynasties.
The classical texts bear eloquent testimony to the popularity of wrestling since ancient times. Of the more memorable fights mentioned are the bout between Bhim and Jarasandh narrated in the Mahabharat, the contest between King Bali and the mighty King Ravan of Lanka in the Ramayan, and the duel between Rustum and Sohrab described in the Persian epic, the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’).
A practitioner of Pahelwani is called a ‘pahelwan’. This term is derived from the Persian ‘pahlavan’, which means champion or warrior. It was particularly used to denote those warriors who excelled on the battlefield. The greatest pahlavan recorded in the annals of the Persian tradition was the legendary warrior-king, Rustum. Until modern times, champion pahelwans in India were honoured with the title ‘Rustum-i-Hind’ (Rustum of India).
For centuries, the wrestling lifestyle has enshrined the essence of man. In the confines of the carefully prepared earth wrestling pit (‘akhara’) and under the expert guidance of Pahelwani masters, variously called ‘guru’ or ‘ustad’, the pahelwan achieved self-discipline through physical fitness, as well as identity and purity of the body, mind and spirit.