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Pehlwani, also known as kushti, is a form of mud wrestling in South Asia. (Nikhilmore nimo / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Exacting World of Kushti Mud Wrestling in India

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Classical wrestling has its roots hidden far back in the history of the world. It has been present - in some form or other - in many of the world’s oldest civilizations. The ancient Greeks were mad about the sport, as were the Babylonians and Egyptians.

Distinct versions of wrestling existed all across Asia as well: it was a renowned activity in both Persia and India. Over time, these styles merged to form Kushti mud wrestling, which has remained popular for centuries and continues to attract champions and enthusiastic followers today. But, what does it take to be a Kushti mud wrestling champion?

Two men Kushti wrestling from the Tashrih al-aqvam, an account of origins and occupations of some of the sects, castes and tribes of India. (Public domain)

Two men Kushti wrestling from the Tashrih al-aqvam, an account of origins and occupations of some of the sects, castes and tribes of India. (Public domain)

The History of Kushti Mud Wrestling

Kushti mud wrestling is also known by the popular term Pehlwani, with both of these names coming from the Persian language. The word pahlavani means “heroic,” while koshti means “wrestling.” The connection here is pretty clear, and signifies that this form of wrestling was always seen as a calling for the bravest and the strongest of men.

Kushti mud wrestling is a distinct sport that emerged during the era of the Mughal Empire, which lasted from the 16th to the 19th centuries. However, the origins of this sport can be traced back to much earlier times.

On the Indian subcontinent, there has always been a highly ancient form of wrestling known as Malla-yuddha. This sport dates back as early as the 5th millennium BC and was extensively described in a dedicated treatise in the 13th century AD.

5th century terracotta depiction of Kushti mud wrestling found in Uttar Pradesh and housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Public domain)

5th century terracotta depiction of Kushti mud wrestling found in Uttar Pradesh and housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Public domain)

Malla-yuddha shared similarities with other forms of wrestling practiced in Asia, and incorporated grappling, joint-breaking, punching, biting and even choking. Compared to modern styles of wrestling, Malla-yuddha was highly intense and violent, but over the centuries it became more codified.

Yet, Malla-yuddha is only one of the “parents” of modern Kushti mud wrestling. In the 16th century AD, India was swiftly conquered by the Mughals, Central Asian peoples of Turko-Mongol origins. Besides many other things, these conquerors brought with them the traditional athletic system of Persia, called Koshti pahlavani.

As a result Indian-style wrestling merged with Persian wrestling elements, and took on the new name - Kushti. Still, even though refined, many aspects of Malla-yuddha persisted in Kushti mud wrestling: the training regime remained very strict, while wrestlers were still expected to be vegetarian, celibate and devoted to rigorous training.

Hyderabadi Peahelwans preparing for Kushti mud wrestling in 1870s India. (Public domain)

Hyderabadi Peahelwans preparing for Kushti mud wrestling in 1870s India. (Public domain)

Let the Best Man Win: Training and Diet in Kushti Mud Wrestling

Excelling in Kushti mud wrestling meant that one had to achieve great prowess, dedication and skill. This sport was a show of not just strength and agility, but also of skill and perseverance. The men (and even women) who practiced it had to endure years of strict training and a rigorous lifestyle.

Kushti mud wrestling training has been described in detail and has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. For instance, a typical day of training would start as early as 3 am. The trainee would wake up and immediately begin training, performing up to 4,000 press-ups and squats before the day had even begun This rigorous routine was followed by heavy weight lifting. By 8 am, the wrestling session would commence, with trainees wrestling continuously for three hours.

At 11 am, it was time for the wrestlers to take a break and indulge in an oil massage, followed by a few hours of rest. But, at 4 pm it was time for another two-hour session of continuous wrestling, before finally being allowed to sleep at 8 pm.

This grueling training regime was complemented by a very specific diet, essential for the wrestlers to build their strength and muscles. Interestingly, the majority of a Kushti wrestler's diet comprised fruits, along with milk and ghee - a popular Indian dish made of clarified butter. Wrestlers also consumed plenty of meat for protein, alongside apples, oranges, bananas, figs, pomegranates and other fruits. Though it was a relatively "narrow" diet, it was incredibly effective and healthy.

Juniors learning by watching Kushti mud wrestling in Kolhapur, India. (nevil zaveri / CC BY 2.0)

Juniors learning by watching Kushti mud wrestling in Kolhapur, India. (nevil zaveri / CC BY 2.0)

Centuries of Strict Adherence to Tradition in Kushti Wrestling

Traditionally, Kushti wrestling has been performed in dirt and mud. Where other types of this sport are done on mats, Kushti stuck to its origins. Wrestlers compete on the ground, which has been raked free of stones, and softened with water. The consistency is just right to be soft but not sticky. Before the fight begins, wrestlers throw dirt onto each other, as a form of a blessing, but also for better grip. Then, it’s down to business!

Kushti rules are rather lax. Even though the ring is clearly outlined, competitors may step out of it during the match without incurring any penalty. There is no point-based scoring in Kushti: victory is achieved by pinning the opponent’s hips and shoulders to the ground, simultaneously.

Of course, victory can also be reached by stoppage, knockout and submission. Two judges and a referee observe the match for irregularities and fights can last up to 30 minutes. The fighters use all the tricks up their sleeve in order to win. They specialize in unique moves that could gain them the upper hand. Shoulder throws and strangle pins are amongst the most powerful moves.

Pehlwani, also known as kushti, is a form of mud wrestling in South Asia. (Nikhilmore nimo / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pehlwani, also known as kushti, is a form of mud wrestling in South Asia. (Nikhilmore nimo / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kushti Mud Wrestling - A Sport for the Greatest of Heroes

Kushti wrestlers are traditionally men - but women were known to practice the sport on occasion. Needless to say, all the wrestlers are muscular and large, owing to years of hard Kushti mud wrestling training. They are also known to be very devoted to their sport, some dedicating their whole lives to it.

Over the years and centuries, many legendary Kushti champions have emerged. Amongst the most well-known today are the legendary fighter Great Gama (Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt), considered to be the best Kushti mud wrestler of all time, and Dara Sindh Randhawa, who also excelled as an actor. Harishchandra Birajdar is also amongst the best modern Kushti wrestlers, who gained the nickname Lion of India.

Top image: Kushti mud wrestling. Source: As Dnyaneshwar / CC0

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Sepoy. 16 June 2004. “Art of Pehlwani” in Chapati Mystery. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130516232808/http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/homistan/art_of_pehlwani.html

Unknown. 31 October 2013. “The Culture and Crisis of Kushti” in The Hindu. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/the-culture-and-crisis-of-kushti/article5297790.ece 

Unknown. “Pehlwani - Indian Wrestling” in Topend Sports. Available at:
https://www.topendsports.com/sport/list/wrestling-pehlwani.htm

 
Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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