Of the things legends are made of, Rustam had in abundant supply. Even though a creation of fiction, Rustam inspired many. Not only was he a valiant general and warrior, but he was also a spectacular wrestler. His pehlvani was the stuff of legends, so much so that a wrestling title was named after him – Rustam-e-Hind. This is not Rustam’s tale, it has already been told in the Shahnameh.
The world used to be huge once upon a time. With leaps and bounds in human achievement over the past century plus a few years, we’ve managed to shrink the globe quite a bit. It astounds me, that thousands of years ago, when communication across the globe was a rarity, wrestling was popular in nearly all cultures the world over. In a world without the Internet and ice bucket challenges that become global, this combat sport was already there. Of course, the forms it took varied across regions, but it was there – middle-East, Persia, ancient Greece and Rome and even the Far East. Perhaps, combat and fighting is coded into the human gene. Wrestling (not WWE) is as old as time. The earliest documentary evidence has been preserved in the form of cave and rock paintings. And even the ancient Olympiad featured the sport. All of these details can be collected through a simple Google search.
Malla-yudha existed in the ancient Indian subcontinent. Even the epic Mahabharata alludes to it. In ages long gone, rulers and kings would recruit wrestlers as a testament to their might. Wrestlers and wrestling was highly venerated and not just for entertainment: disputes between rival kingdoms would be settled with wrestling matches! Centuries passed but the tradition of wrestlers being in the active service of princely rulers remained. It was during the Mughal era that kushti or pehlvani that we know today was shaped and moulded from malla-yudha, Turko-Persian and the Central Asian forms. In fact, Babur was a well known wrestler himself! And the British arrived. As the princely states were annexed one by one, there remained little point in wrestlers handling disputes in an akhara. And from there on, it was purely sport and entertainment.
Out of the numerous desi sports as I like to call them, I’ve seen Kabaddi (both variations) and tent pegging, but never kushti. But I’ve always been in awe of this sub-culture – for that is what it is – it is a whole different world, with its own language and customs and sardai (although I have tried it, but I would give a lot to be treated to an authentic sardai made by an ustad ji!). Boys are initiated into this lifestyle very early on (if some are to be believed, by age 3 or 4). Perhaps, it sounds like a cult, and maybe it is on some levels.
The akhara – the pit, in which the sport is played – is the third character (the first two being the two wrestlers fighting for glory). For us commoners, the akhara is just a pit of earth, but for those who live a wrestler’s life, it is so much more. And so, it is prepared every day with love and care, water and earth and even ghee! The akhara is not just the arena: it is treated as hallowed ground and a place of worship. If one thinks about the near ascetic like lifestyle that comes with kushti, there is a deep meaning attached to this whole exercise. While all of us are divided by nationalities, ethnicities, religion and so forth, it is this very earth that we are all made of that unites us. And in there, practitioners of this discipline leave worldly ideas behind.
A 20th Century Sports Superstar
Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt was perhaps the most well-known pehlvan of the 20th Century. If that doesn’t ring any bells, this certainly will: Ghulam Mohammad Bakhsh was better known as Gama Pehlvan, or the Great Gama. It is said, that Gama remained undefeated in his career, which spanned over 50 years. He came from a family of wrestlers and was fielded at an early age. As was the custom then, Gama earned the Patronage of the Maharaja of Datia. He was later Rustam-e-Hind and Rustam-e-Zaman etc etc. One could call him the very first sports superstar in the Indian Subcontinent. By the time Partition happened, Gama had allegedly fought over 5000 bouts of wrestling. Eventually, Gama settled in Lahore and very nearly became a distant (with a capital D) relative of mine – but we will not go there.
The Giant of Gujranwala
Before Gama was Rustam-e-Hind, there was Rahim Bakhsh Sultaniwala (born c 1864) who held the title. People speak little of him and there is precious little known about him. The city of Gujranwala had three notable akharas – Sheranwala Bagh, Rahim Bakhsh Pehlvan’s akhara and I forget the name of the third one (there have been numerous others, but these were the ones that produced the best of the best). So Rahim Bakhsh Sultaniwala of Gujranwala was the original master before Gama became the Great Gama. It is said that Rahim Bakhsh was over 7 feet tall. Like, Gama an many other pehlvan families of Punjab, Rahim Bakhsh’s ancestors were also from Kashmir. Apparently, Rahim’s grandfather, another well-known wrestler settled in Gujranwala as he was given the patronage of Hari Singh Nalwa (yet another notable former resident of Gujranwala). We don’t have much information about Rahim Bakhsh’s stellar career – faint echoes are all that remain.
Throughout his career, Rahim Bakhsh received the patronage of several princely states: Indore, Kohlapur, Junagarh, and Patiala to name a few. By the time Gama’s reign as the king of the akhara was beginning, Rahim Bakhsh was nearing the end of his career. At 17, Gama challenged the then favourite Rahim Bakhsh Pehlvan. No one thought the still fresh Gama could beat Rahim Bakhsh – and he didn’t. The match went on for an hour before it was drawn. The two fearsome figures from wrestling history faced each other three more times over the years. When asked about his most formiddable opponent, Gama nominated Rahim Bakhsh for the spot. By the time 1910 rolled over, Gama had faced and beaten nearly all the well known pehlvans in India – except for Rahim Bakhsh – who, was nearly 18 years older than Gama. It wasn’t till their fourth and final match in 1910 (the second and third matches were undecided as well) , that Rahim Bakhsh was beaten by Gama – the fight was conceded after Rahim Bakhsh broke his rib. Not even the Great Gama was able to pin (chit) down Rahim Bakhsh during a match! He remained unchitable!
When Rahim Bakhsh retired – it is said – the Nawab of Bahawalpur granted him a life pension of Rs. 100 a month as a tribute to the giant among wrestlers. During his 60 year career, Rahim Bakhsh participated in hundreds of matches and lost only a few, but he was never pinned. Even in his last public appearance, at the age of 72, he beat a 28 year old Canadian wrestler in just 3 minutes. We can argue whether the Canadian was terrible or a rookie, but that was no easy feat!
The Giant of Gujranwala passed away in 1942 in his native town after decades of being a famed wrestler and giving Gujranwala the great gift of an Akhara. Today though, the glorious sport of kushti is nearly wiped off. A few akharas remain. The reasons are numerous, the greatest of which is perhaps the fact that traditional kushti is localised to our region, it doesn’t have a platform and without that, our wrestlers can’t take this tradition forward. Wrestlers today compete in freestyle wrestling with a different set of rules, they may learn at akharas under their ustads, but thats where it ends – the global arena cannot afford to include the hundreds of traditional wrestling variations from across the world.
I can’t say how long kushti can survive, maybe another generation and then we’ll only find it in books. And I leave you there with that sad thought, as I think about more stories to bring to you – I already have a list, so don’t worry!