How wrestling flourished in medieval India under Mughal and Hindu rulers

[Book extract] The word 'pahlavan' is thought to be derived from the name of the Parthian tribe in Iran and its Arcaside dynasty dating back to 250 BCE.

 |   Long-form |   05-08-2016
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In medieval India, there was hardly a royal court that did not venerate wrestling. Champion pahalwans were coveted and they travelled great distances to perform in front of kings and emperors.

In his memoirs, emperor Jahangir recalls watching a pahalwan called Shir Ali making his debut at court:

"At the time when I gave leave to the ambassadors of Adil Khan of Bijapur, I had requested that if in that province there were a wrestler, or a celebrated swordsman, they should tell Adil Khan to send him to me.

After some time, when the ambassadors returned, they brought a Mughal, by name Shir Ali, who was born at Bijapur, and was a wrestler by profession and had great experience in the art, together with certain sword-players.

The performance of the latter was indifferent, but I put Shir Ali to wrestle with the wrestlers and athletes who were in attendance on me, and none of them could compete with him.

One thousand rupees, a dress of honour, and an elephant were conferred on him; he was exceedingly well made, well shaped, and powerful. I retained him in my own service, and entitled him 'the athlete of the capital'. A jagir and mansab were given to him and great favours bestowed on him."

sushilkumar-getty101_080516051200.jpg Indian wrestler Sushil Kumar. (PTI) 

Shir Ali came, Shir Ali conquered - his life transformed by his skills in wrestling. With such prestige and fortune on offer, it is no wonder that the cities too were full of akhadas.

In 1550, when Jahangir ordered a census of his capital city, Agra, he directed the kotwal to visit the city's maarekahs (akhadas). The kotwal reported that "in none of these places did he find assembled less than two and three thousand persons, although it was neither the first of the new year, nor any of those days of public rejoicing, on which it was usual for the people to appear abroad for amusement".

Did wrestling have significance apart from its usefulness in military preparations and as a form of courtly entertainment? Why did Jahangir shower Shir Ali so lavishly with gifts and estates?

The Adil Khan that Jahangir refers to is Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who reigned as the sultan of Bijapur from 1580 to 1627. During his reign, a history of the Bijapur sultanate, the Tazkirat al-Muluk, was completed.

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The Tazkirat provides a romanticised origin story of the Bijapur sultanate; the story of the rise of Yusuf Adil Shah, the founder of the Adil Shahi dynasty and the first sultan of Bijapur, from slave to general in the Bahmani sultanate of the Deccan.

It begins with a dream. Yusuf, a young Iranian noble, is exiled to Turkey after a rebellion. One day, Yusuf has a dream in which he is told to seek his salvation in the Deccan.

He goes to the slave market to seek a passage. When a merchant in the pay of the Bahmani emperor buys some Turkish and Ethiopian slaves, they convince the merchant to also include Yusuf in the deal - the slaves are smitten by Yusuf's powerful body and his sweet and refined disposition.

The secret to Yusuf 's physical beauty and his courteousness is revealed on the ship: he is a wrestler. On the voyage to India, he spends his time grappling with his fellow slaves.

At the Bahmani court in the city of Bidar, he is hired as a cook. It is a life of drudgery and tedium, and Yusuf runs away to Iran.

download-1_080516051255.jpg Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling Landscape; HarperCollinsPublishers India; Rs 275 (Paperback). 

He has another dream - a reproachful one that urges him to return to the Deccan and take up his humble job again.

Yusuf returns dutifully, but this time, he starts a wrestling gymnasium where he teaches his fellow cooks the art of wrestling.

Every morning, before the work in the kitchen begins, Yusuf takes the cooks through a rigorous series of workouts and wrestling skills.

One day, a wrestler arrives at Bidar from Delhi. He is a great champion of the Mughals, and brings with him the reputation of having beaten every wrestler in every town in Hindustan and Gujarat.

He challenges the wrestlers of the Bahmani court, and beats them all. It brings great disgrace to the king.

It is then that Yusuf, the insignificant kitchen help, steps up. He pleads with the Bahmani king to give him permission to challenge the wrestler from Delhi.

"If I fall, it will become known that Yusuf the friend of the kitchen fell and if I throw him it will expel the vexation from the heart of the padshah and I will be set free from my adversities."

Yusuf beats the wrestler, carrying him by his thighs and slamming him down on his back in front of the king. The Bahmani king's reputation, his pride, is restored.

Wrestling opens the path that leads to Yusuf's destiny, the fulfilment of his dream. From here on, he moves up rapidly, becoming a leading noble in the Bahmani sultanate, and eventually establishing his own lineage.

Wrestling could make or break the reputation of kings, and those who will be future kings. In its moves and countermoves, in its training for both mind and body, lay a whole moral and ethical universe.

Yusuf's story is a masterly narrative structured around an ideal that was a lived reality for both kings and courtiers in India, whether they were from the sultanates of the Deccan or the Mughal Empire - the ideal of jawanmardi, literally, "young manliness".

The set of ethics that inform jawanmardi include the idea of physical perfection as a reflection of inner beauty (the slaves see this in Yusuf); a commitment to repetitive, mundane work (Yusuf in the kitchen, and the disciplined physical regime needed to be a wrestler); participation and service to the community rather than a selfish quest for personal glory (Yusuf sets up a gymnasium and teaches wrestling to his fellow cooks); humility (Yusuf's plea to the king); and courage (Yusuf stepping up to take on the undefeated champion).

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Wrestling champions also served as a symbol for the health and prowess of not just the king, but the kingdom itself - the Tazkirat was being written at a time of increasing Mughal aggression towards the southern sultanates, and the story of Yusuf's victory over the Delhi champion is charged with political importance.

The late 15th-century polymath and writer Husayn Vai'sh-i Kashifi wrote in his Futuwwat Namah-i Sultani: "wrestling is a skill which is acceptable and pleasing to kings and sultans, and the strongest of those occupied in this work are those who possess purity and rectitude".

This symbolic relationship between wrestling skills, chivalric codes, and the fitness of the king was equally important to the Mughal nobility.

If Yusuf, the future Sultan, rose to prominence through his victory over a wrestler from the Mughal court, the Mughal emperor Akbar is said to have thrown a much older noble boy at the tender age of two.

Akbar employed the same move as Yusuf: picking his opponent up and flinging him down on the ground. It's a feat so improbable that it can only be seen as symbolic.

Akbar, who ascended the Mughal throne as a young boy, was a born wrestler - he was born with the qualities needed to be a great ruler.


This entwined world of wrestling, heroism, religion and kingship - the ideal of jawanmardi - had far older origins than medieval India.

It held sway over a vast geographical area: from the Arab world in the West, through Persia and Central Asia and India, all the way to Mongolia and beyond.

A simple, clerical entry from the Ain-i-Akbari shines a light on the astonishing reach of wrestling. The entry lists the best wrestlers at Akbar's court, men who were paid hefty salaries and other privileges for their services to the sport.

'There are many Persian and Turani Pahluwans at court, as also stone-throwers, athletes of Hindustan, clever Mals from Gujrat, and many other kinds of fighting men. Their pay varies from 70 to 450 d.

"Every day two well-matched men fight with each other. Many presents are made to them on such occasions.

"The following belong to the best wrestlers of the age - Mirza Khan of Gilan; Muhammad Quli of Tabriz to whom His Majesty has given the name Sher Hamlah, or lion attacker; Cadiq of Bukhara; Ali of Tabriz; Murad of Turkistan; Muhammad Ali of Turan; Fulad of Tabriz; Mirza Kuhnahsuwar of Tabriz; Shah Quli of Kurdistan; Hilal of Abyssinia; Sadhu Dayal; Ali; Sri Ram; Kanhya; Mangol; Ganesh; Anba; Nanka; Balbhadra; Bajrnath."

Each name here is a door, a leap through time and space.

Here are athletes from across Central Asia: from the kingdom of Turan, bordering Persia, inextricably linked to the myth that first exemplified the concept of jawanmardi; from the Persian city of Tabriz, one of the grandest cities along the Silk Route of that time; from Abyssinia, the great cultural link and trading link between Europe, Africa and Asia; and from the ancient city of Bukhara, also on the Silk Route.

They live, train and wrestle with the Jyesthimallas of Gujarat, a Brahmin sub-caste whose very identity was founded on wrestling, Vaishnavites like Kanhya (another name for Krishna) and Balbhadra (another name for Balaram), Shaivites like Bajrnath, and warrior-ascetics like Sadhu Dayal.

Each of these athletes was brought together by a sport whose belief system was, and still is, an extraordinary example of a unified code that blurred the boundaries between the religions, myths and cultures of these realms.

We will briefly peek through each door and wonder at wrestling's mystifying uniformity over the ages, and across lands, but first, to the source of jawanmardi.

The chivalric code of jawanmardi was indispensable to the Islamic rulers of medieval Asia since at least 1010 CE, when the Shahnama, the pre-eminent epic of the Islamic world, was completed.

In the epic, wrestling is the test "twixt man and man", and every hero in the Shahnama proves himself at least once through wrestling. Indeed, at the very core of the epic is the tragic wrestling match between Rostam and his son Sohrab.

The Shahnama takes us further back, because its ideals of jawanmardi are based on Arabic and Persian warrior traditions that existed before the advent of Islam, centred around the belief that "wrestling rather than skill in weaponry was the test of superior strength".

Essential to that tradition is a figure we are familiar with: the "pahlavan", a "champion whose duty consisted in protecting the kingdom by his selfless acts of valour".

As Islam spread, Rustom became subsumed in the figure of Ali himself, and Muslim wrestlers still honour him as the "true master of the wrestling pit and the founder of the path of pahlavani and futuvat".

The pahlavan's continuing importance in Iran as well as its ancient provenance are both easily evident even now, in the traditional Iranian "zurkhanas" or houses of exercise.

The rituals of the zurkhana - "varshez-e-pahlavani" (the sport of heroes) - show distinct Zoroastrian and Mithraic influences, which means its origins may go as far back as 600 BCE.

The word "pahlavan" itself is thought to be derived from the name of the Pahlava or Parthian tribe in Iran, and its Arcaside dynasty, dating back to 250 BCE.

Like akhadas in India, zurkhanas still thrive in Iran, and they are the foundation on which Iran's exceptional record in wrestling at the modern Olympics is based.

In India, these traditions have left an indelible mark. Until the late 1990s, the winner of the most prestigious traditional kushti tournament was given the title Rustom-e-Hind. Sushil Kumar's coach Satpal Singh was one.

The word for a wrestler in India is pahalvan, of course, and it continues to embody the weighty ideals of the chivalrous man.

The origin of the word kushti is even older: it is derived from the Persian "kushti-gir" - belt-grabber - which in turn is derived from "koshti", the sacred girdle wrapped around the Zoroastrian initiate.


Wrestling at the Hindu court

In 1509, Yusuf Adil Shah was killed in battle by the forces of the other great Deccan kingdom, the Vijayanagara Empire, under the command of its king Krishnadevaraya.

They may have been competing kings, but Krishnadevaraya and Yusuf Adil Shah shared their belief in wrestling's profound importance, that "the strength and vigour of the king was closely linked to the health of the kingdom".

In 1520, the Portuguese traveller Domingos Paes was given access to Krishnadevaraya's morning ritual. The king began his day by drinking "three-quarters of a pint of gingelly oil".

Then he put on a small loincloth before more oil was vigorously massaged into his skin. Then, "taking a sword, he exercises himself with it until he has sweated out all of the oil, and then he wrestles with one of his own wrestlers".

All this happened before daybreak, and by sunrise, the king had been massaged and bathed, and was ready to hold court.

Paes' fellow traveller Fernao Nuniz commented on the importance of wrestling as a ritual activity during the festival of Mahanavami in Vijayanagara, and noted that the wrestlers, of whom a thousand are in the king's pay, "do not perform any other service in the kingdom".

On the first day of the Mahanavami feast, the king sat in his "victory palace", meeting every man of great importance in his kingdom: "… and all those that are inside make their salaam to him.

As soon as they have done this the wrestler's seat themselves on the ground, for these are allowed to remain seated, but no other, howsoever great a lord he be, except the king so commands; and these also eat betel, though none else may eat it in his presence…"

If Nuniz's account is to be believed, the court wrestlers were given extraordinary importance: they were the symbols of the empire's health and strength.

The Vijayanagara kings were following well-established norms. The Chalukya king Someshwara III, who ruled over the area that would become the Bahmani sultanate 200 years later (and parts of what would become the Vijayanagara empire) completed an encyclopaedic treatise called the Manasollasa in 1137 CE. Wrestling was one of the hundreds of subjects covered in the book.

The royal wrestlers, the Manasollasa tells us, were kept under strict observation, and trained rigorously every day. They were provided a large allowance, and a special diet "fit for the king himself", but were barred from mingling with women or having sex.

On match days, they came to court on royal elephants, dressed in fine clothes and gold jewellery given to them by the king.

Before the match, they rubbed themselves with sandal paste, and raised an earthen mandap to the god Krishna next to the wrestling pit.

The king and the wrestlers worshipped together at the mandap before the match. Victorious wrestlers, the Manasollasa says, were given land, money, elephants, horses and jewellery.

Almost a hundred years after Nuniz passed through the Deccan, the Jesuit missionary Pierre du Jarric described a gymnasium at the Vijayanagara court: "The house fitted for this has a yard in the centre, the pavement of which is covered with a layer of lime so smooth it looks like a mirror; there is a walk around it, spread over with red sand, on which they rest as on a soft bed. One who would wrestle strips himself.

Then several strong and brawny youth called geitas, 46 who are ready beforehand, rub the nobleman; then they box, jump, fence and take other kinds of exercise with him, in order to strengthen him; and this they do until perspiration flows freely.

Then the geitas cover the whole of the nobleman's body with sand, and massage him, and move his arms and legs in every direction as if they would disjoint his bones.

Finally, the noble man is brushed, anointed and washed with warm water; and when dry, dresses himself. Noblemen take this kind of exercise almost every day before dinner, in order to be fit and healthy."


Rudraneil Sengupta Rudraneil Sengupta

Author, 'Enter the Dangal'.

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