No Lahori tale is ever complete without the mention of the old city’s legendary akharas and their pehelwans. The word pehelwan, as true Lahoris will agree, was a term of reverence for someone well versed in the martial art of wrestling. He was also someone who dabbled in orthopaedics and was often called upon to set fractured bones and dislocated joints. His title made him a leading citizen of the community and people looked upon him with awe.
The moat turned garden outside Bhati Gate and the Mori sported some well known akharas and their celebrated pehelwans, who were known as ustads or trainers and pathas or trainees. These trainers were or had been big names in their own times with a fan following of thousands.
A visit to one of these akharas or wrestling arenas was an abject lesson in protocol. The trainees entered the scene early to prepare the arena for the days proceedings. First the ground was turned afresh using kahis and then levelled using a trainee to pull a beam weighted down by two of his fellow pathas and pulled round and round like a farmer’s suhaga. This activity also served as a muscle strengthening exercise that helped these young men in actual wrestling bouts.
The ustad arrived with his entourage, dressed in a flowing silken kurta with broad sleeves, an equally elegant dhoti topped by a pugree and golden khussas on his feet. All activity stopped until he was comfortably seated on a charpoy at one end of the akhara. One by one, the pathas came to touch his feet and sit on the ground at the edge of the arena.
The daily fitness routine then began in earnest, with baithaks or sit ups, dand or push ups and then laps around the akhara with a colleague mounted piggy back style to add weight. One often found trainees yoked to a harness and pulling a huge stone round the arena.
Exercises were followed by bouts between joris or two wrestlers. Each pair walked across to the ustad for his blessing, then touched the soil of the akhara, kissed their fingers, touched the same to their foreheads and then faced each other in the middle. Circling around each other, their eyes locked and hands ready to grapple, they finally locked into combat, each one trying to throw down the other so that his shoulders touched the ground.
One of the more well known of the traditional throws was the dhobi patka or the ‘washerman’s throw’. This involved upsetting the opponent’s centre of gravity, lifting him across the back and throwing him over the shoulders, in the classic imitation of a washerman beating the clothes on a stone slab. A popular hold was called the kainchi or ‘scissor hold’. This entailed wrapping ones legs around the opponent’s neck to choke him into submission or turn him over for a win.
Often, tournaments or dangals were held for the title of ‘Rustam-e- so and so…’ and it was then the hard work of the ustads and their pathas was tested. These big events, often part of festivities during melas in and around Lahore, were publicised through loudspeakers mounted on tongas, decked with fanciful images of contestants holding the traditional wrestler’s weapon - the gurz. A tonga mounted procession of pehelwans dressed in their finest kurtas, dhotis and dastaars was also taken out and paraded in the streets, accompanied by drumbeats.
One could spot a pehelwan in a crowd of people from the way he dressed, his imposing bulk and swaggering gait. Many were also distinguishable because of their cauliflower ears - the aftermath of many a punishing bouts. There was, however, one character trait amongst these men of sport that stood out and that was their unflinching loyalty to the ustad and their akhara.
Localities outside the old walled city limits also boasted some well known akharas. There was one next to Bagh Gul Begum and another one behind the fire brigade station opposite the junction of Waris Road and Queen’s Road.
The advent of freestyle wrestling, the wresting mat and now the comedy that is enacted inside ‘fancy rings’ on television, appeared to have sounded the death knell for the traditional dangal. Luckily for us, this did not happen and while many akharas closed down, some continue to practise their art in the traditional manner of old.
The writer is a freelance columnist.