Daily Times: Sunday, March 18, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s wrestling pits

By A Hamid

Wrestling and wrestlers are integral to Lahore’s culture. Some of the greatest wrestlers of the Subcontinent were born in Lahore. Let me name just a few: Rustam-e-Zaman Gama Pehlwan, Rustam-e-Hind Imam Bux, Hameeda Pehlwan, Lala Raj Pehlwan, Kala Pehlwan, Bholu Pehlwan, Ghaus Pehlwan, Billa Pehlwan Cahbuksawar, Kala Pehlwan Sheeshagar, Ikka Pehlwan and Achha Pehlwan.

Rustam-e-Zaman Gama Pehlwan had the great European wrestler Zabisko on the floor in three minutes flat. The old residents of Lahore may still remember the wrestling feats of Rahim Bux Sultaniwala. One of the most memorable contests took place in Lahore between Gunga Pehlwan and Imam Bux Pehlwan. Allah Wasaya’s hot bath saloon – garam Hamam – in Bhatti Gate was one of the favourite gathering places of wrestling fans who came there to exchange stories of great contests, past and present. Wrestling no longer has much popular following but the wrestling pits – akharas – of Lahore still exist where wrestlers and their students – called pathas – gather every morning and evening to exercise and build their bodies. There is always a crowd that gathers at these places to watch them.

Before a wrestler steps into the pit, he first turns to his white-turbaned coach and teacher – the khalifa - to seek his permission. He asks in a voice that everyone can hear, “Do I have permission, khalifaji?” The khalifa picks up a bit of earth from the pit, throws it at his student’s body and says, “As Allah wills.” Every Sunday there is wrestling at Vayam Shala, outside Texali Gate. There still remain many people in Lahore who follow wrestling matches and later talk about the contests of that day and of days gone by when they gather at the old city’s hamams and sweetmeat shops.

Lahore’s major wrestling contests before 1947 always used to be held in Minto Park. Large coloured posters with pictures of the wrestlers, ceremonial maces resting against their shoulders, would be plastered on city walls. Wrestling contests were given special names such as Shahi Dangal – or royal wrestling match – or Kantadaar Dangal, or the tightest of tight contests. A day before the dangal or contest, under the auspices of the munsif or judge of the show and the contractor or thekedar who had organised it, a procession on tongas was taken out through city streets, with the principal wrestlers perched on the front seats wearing orange coloured and gold threaded turbans. Junior and minor wrestlers would follow in the tongas behnd. The great dangals would engage Master Sohni’s Band which would be at the head of the procession playing popular ditties of the day. Fans would stand on either side of the street cheering and raising slogans in praise of their favourite wrestler. There would also be a drumbeater in one of the front tongas making announcements. People would also throw flowers at the wrestlers.

The procession would stop at every major intersection or chowk and the drumbeater would ask for people’s attention and then say: “Kind friends and supporters, in Data’s own backhard, this city of yours, tomorrow is to be held a grand wrestling match between Achha Gujranwalia and Mad Elephant Akbar Pehlwan, patha of Mehni Aianiwala. Other matches will feature Tony Pehlwan and Rakhho Pehlwan, the Star of Chichawatni, Jeeja Pehlwan, patha of Sajja Pehlwan, and Noora Kulchafarosh. Hawai Jahaz Pehlwan and Rocket Pehlwan will test each other’s strength. The munsif’s decision will be final. Anyone who tries to create trouble during the matches will be handed over to police. Freeloaders are requested not to bother coming.” Fixed matches are known as “Noora Kushti” and can lead to violent protests if the spectators, who have paid good money to watch a fair contest, suspect that they have been taken for a ride.

The profession and art of wrestling has always been considered a moral following. Wrestlers are expected to be men of character, who shun carnal temptations and fear God. Rustan-e-Zaman Gama Pehlwan never missed his prayers and it was said that such a man of God he was that at midnight genie would materialise from thin air to join him in exercise. In 1949-50 when Gama Pehlwan was living in Kamran’s Baradari on the Ravi, Ahmed Bashir and I went to interview him for Daily Imroze. He was physically formidable with a magnificent moustache but on his face he bore a childlike impression. His conversation was also that of a simple, innocent, God-fearing man. I don’t know about the wrestlers of today, but the wrestlers of those earlier times would rise at two in the morning to have their bodies massaged with oil. After that they would perform a thousand body presses, which they would follow by stepping into the wrestling pit to wrestle with a pehlwan of their age and physique. The khalifa who would watch the contest carefully would provide guidance where needed. After the wrestlers were done, they would drink a special concoction prepared by their students to lend strength to their bodies, which they would follow by drinking a large quantity of buffalo milk that had been boiled and cooled. At noon, they would drink soup extracted from a couple of kilos of red meat, eat lunch and then take a siesta. They would return to the akhara early in the evening to exercise and try their strength in friendly matches with fellow wrestlers from their akhara.

I come from a family of wrestlers, both my grandfather and my father being practitioners of this art and way of life. My father would take me to the akhara and make me work out so that I would build my strength. Whatever I am writing, I have seen with my own eyes and experienced personally. When a wrestler collected his prize money after a successful match, the first thing he would do was to purchase a couple of sacks of almonds and two large canisters of pure desi ghee or clarefied butter. It was normal for a wrestler to drink butter milk or lassi made from a kilo of milk and a kilo of yogurt. Some wrestlers would drink melted ghee, after which they would lie on a cot for a couple of hours during which they would not move at all. Then they would get up and declare with great pride, “Khalifa, the ghee has been digested.”

Wrestlers had their own turn of phrase. A former wrestler used to run a milk and yogurt shop in Gwalmandi. He also happened to have a taste for classical music. One day I asked him, “Pehlwanji, what is the difference between raag Maulkauns and raag Bhairvin?” He looked at me and replied, “My innocent prince, you ask me about Malkauns and Bhairvin. They dwell in different countries which have different climates.” A former wrestler in Lahore became a film producer. It so happened that his music director came from a family of butchers. One day, the music director was trying to impress the producer with the quality of his compositions, when the old wrestler cut him in mid-sentence and said, “Masterji, one thing I want you to note and I promise to pay you all the money you are owed. The score in my movie should be of the best cut.”

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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