Pit dug deep
State neglect and rapid commercialisation have led to demise of desi kushti and akhara culture
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
A frequent visitor to the Walled City or the areas surrounding it is bound to come across the fast diminishing open spaces amid dense neighbourhoods called 'akharas' in native language. The akharas (wrestling rings) have been the hallmark of the city for ages where people would come early in the morning, and also during the later parts of the day to exercise and grapple with each other.
For those who have never been to an akhara, it can be described as a circular or rectangular earthern wrestling pit, softened by ploughing or digging. For the traditional wrestlers, skilled in the art of "desi kushti" (conventional wrestling), this place is as sacred as one can think of. With their bodies glistening with the oil rubbed all over, they would bend down, touch the ground with their hands and kiss the ground respectfully and hop around to the rhythm of the deafening beats of the dhol.
Many of us would have heard from our elders tales of world-renowned "pehalwans" (wrestlers), hailing from the Indo-Pak sub-continent. There were times when pehalwans were looked at with awe and the attainment of physical beauty and strength was dream of every young person.
Unfortunately, things have changed very fast over the years. Desi kushti, which happened to be the most popular sport in the region, is dying gradually due to multiple reasons. As admirers of the sport put it, the biggest reasons are the government neglect, use of akhara lands for commercial purposes, encroachments and popularity of modern sports like hockey and cricket.
Muhammad Iqbal, 65, a resident of Mohni Road, tells TNS that he would spend four to five hours in akhara during his youth and even middle-age. He says it was his father who took him to a nearby akhara and requested Akram Pehalwan, a popular trainer of that time, to make him his disciple. "We took garlands, turban cloth and sweets along for pehalwan jee. This was the practice of the time and every new disciple was supposed to do this as a token of respect," he says.
Iqbal says parents in those days wanted their children to avoid bad company and spend spare time in healthy activities. Life was not as fast as today and distractions such as cable television and VCR were unheard of, he adds. He says desi kushti was an essential part of every festival where professional and amateur wrestlers showed their skills and won prizes and people's praise. "Unfortunately, this sport is fast disappearing from the scene though some people are struggling hard to keep it alive," Iqbal adds.
Sardar Pehalwan of Rang Mahal holds the successive governments responsible for the decay of desi kushti. Instead of patronising this sport, the rulers damaged it beyond repair, he adds. Sardar, who is son of famous Pamma Pehalwan Choorigar, tells TNS that the worst blow came from Mian Nawaz Sharif's government in early 1990s.
He says at that time the tomb of famous poet Hafeez Jalandhari, who wrote Pakistan's national anthem, was shifted from Model Town to Minto Park (now Iqbal Park). "This move came at the cost of the wrestling stadium at the park. The government promised that many wresting stadiums and pits would be built around the city to compensate this loss but these promises never materialised," he adds.