Of dangals and icons of the sport

September 5, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of the “ancient sport” of kushti, the many akharras, and young wrestlers and their khalifas in old Lahore

— Image: Supplied
— Image: Supplied

Lahore was the centre of kushti (or wrestling) champions and arenas. Just outside the city walls there used to be many wrestling grounds known as akharras. Here, the young men would test their might and tactics. They would soften the earth by digging and spreading it with a spade for the wrestling area.

Every akharra had some patron who would financially support young, aspiring wrestlers and hold seasonal bouts. While testing their strength, everyone would try to put their hand around the rival’s head and vigorously press his ear. All wrestlers, hence, had the cartilages of their ears broken and were therefore called kann tuttay.

Back in the day, every male child in the household aspired to be a pehlwan (wrestler). Even those who could not make it took great interest in the sport and attended the wrestling bouts.

The rules of the game were very strict. No injury or foul play was allowed. It was not only a test of bodily and muscular strength/ stamina but also a scientific system of undoing the tactics of the opponent. Dhobi patra, putti thibbi and reverse flying kick were formidable strategic counter-attacks used when a contestant was underpinned, much to the awe and excitement of the onlookers.

Long before the sunrise, the people and their rams would head off to the akharra. Some of them could be seen ‘brushing’ their teeth with a miswak on their way. Holding a bottle of mustard oil and a loincloth over the shoulder, a wrestler would enter the arena exchanging pleasantries with everybody. In a secluded area he would don the red langot and, with the help of a spade, dig some more clay and warm himself up by running in small circles. Then he would do a few dozen sit-ups and push-ups. The mustard oil would make every muscle of his body shine with grease, but the real purpose was that his rival should not get a firm grip on him.

A champion wrestler’s body would glisten in the rays of the early morning sun. After a strict regimen of hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups, under the supervision of the khalifa (trainer), he would proceed to challenge his rival — usually of the same ‘weight’ category.

In the wrestling arena, the rivals would begin by hurling fistfuls of clay at each other so that the other’s body would become less greasy.

Soon, both the (young) wrestlers would collapse and sit themselves down to catch their breath.

The khalifa was generally a retired wrestler who knew the rules of the ancient sport. He had an eye for the emerging talent. He would encourage wrestlers to learn new tactics.

In one corner of the arena, a drink of almonds was prepared and given generously to the young wrestlers. After drinking to their fill, they would proceed homewards while their lambs followed them.

The wrestlers would drink lots of milk and consume calorie rich foods that eventually made them very bulky. Moreover, the countless sit-ups made their knee joints ache in old age.

Accidental dislocation of joints during the bouts was very common. Though, it was not fair deal if you deliberately hurt your rival. Some old wrestlers had learnt the art/skill of fixing dislocated joints of arms, shoulders and ankles.

A wrestler, who was nicked Pehlwan, served as a model at the Fine Arts Department of the University of the Punjab and the National College of Arts since pre-Partition days till the 1990s, and posed for countless students, including this scribe. He was also a khalifa at an akharra outside the Lohari Gate.

Once, I also got my left arm dislocated. Dr Abdus Samad could not handle it and referred me to some pehlwan. Asad Sheikh, an uncle of mine, who is now based in Brazil, took me to one in Mozang. Following his instructions, my uncle took me in his lap and held me tight while the pehlwan, ignoring my cries, gave me a jerk of a lifetime. But the next minute, it had been restored to the ball and socket joint. (Dr Muhammad Nasrullah told me that that bone is called humerus. God knows, it wasn’t humorous!)

The pehlwan then applied a paste of flour mixed with turmeric and wrapped my arm in a bandage. I could feel that I was alright now, yet a follow-up visit was mandatory — perhaps, for monetary reasons.

The more a pehlwan subjected his ‘patient’ to torture, the more accomplished he was considered to be. Inside the Lohari Gate you could hear screams emanating from the ‘clinics’ of these ‘orthopedic surgeons’.

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Every time a new entrant challenged a known wrestler, it would become a subject of hot discussion at the tharras, barbers’ and the milk parlours.

If the challenger was from another city, it would be considered a matter of prestige for every local. For days, announcements would be made from loudspeakers that were mounted on tongas, in the backdrop of the noisy drums, accompanied by incessant tolling of bells. When the people gathered, they were asked to be quiet and listen up.

After making the announcements about some big and some lesser bouts at the Minto Park (now Greater Iqbal Park), they would ride away to other localities with same jingling.

All bouts were Shahi or Shahenshahi dangals. A day before the event, the two would ride a tonga donning do ghorra boski (larger than life) shirts and big turbans over their heads, a hankerchief over the shoulders, and holding a trophy gurz. The coachman too would sit on the far end of the bamboo to maintain balance.

Large monochrome posters printed in lithograph would be on display in the entire city, showing images of the main contestants in the centre while those of the junior contestants were displayed on the side. The names of khalifas were also printed. These posters are now a collector’s item.

The last time Lahore saw such an event was in 1979, at the Gaddafi Stadium. It was a bout between Zubair alias Jhara, from the family of Gama Pehlwan, a world wrestling champion, and Inoki, a renowned freestyle champion from Japan. It was also the last game of kushti telecast live on local television.

Jhara was in his prime back then. A day before the event, they held a sort of tele-conference. Inoki gave a long speech in which he predicted his victory; Jhara, in chaste Lahori Punjabi, commented, “Ainu kal pataa lag jawega!

Interestingly, no promotional posters were printed for the event. A tonga ride would have highlighted our culture vis-à-vis the wrestling traditions, but it was not to be. Moreover, an encounter in a red langot in akharra could have been a replay of Siddhartha.

The bout went the distance. Jhara had held Inoki down. Inoki got up and raised Jhara’s arm. Ever since, there have been endless debates on whether this was a Noora Kushti or a fixed match.

Jhara died on September 11, 1991. In 2012, Inoki, now Muhammad Hussain, visited his arch rival’s grave to offer fateha and pay respects. Such is chivalry. Even in his graceful concession Inoki won our hearts.

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The local style of wrestling is fast dwindling. The few akharras that are left in the city need to be protected under the Punjab Special Premises Act, 1985.

Note: For more information on the subject, check out Dastaan-i-Shahzoraan by Akhtar Hussain Shaikh; and Rustam Zaman, Gama, by Dr Ghazi Amir Ali

(This dispatch is dedicated to Masud Hayat, a nephew of Gama and a wrestling journalist)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Of dangals and icons of the sport