The Nation Sunday Plus
By Emanuel Sarfraz
In the urban congestion outside the Walled City only some open spaces called akhaaras (wrestling rings or mud pits) remain. In the immensely dense neighbourhood wherein roaring whole sale business of semi precious stones continues on the one side while the hundreds of shops selling all kind of household items the Champions Wrestling Club near Lohari Gate housing the traditional akhaara is like an island of peace amidst the roaring sea of business activity.
Kushti (traditional wrestling) is a 3,000 years old martial art.
It is like a relic of shared Aryan, Persian and Mughal traditions. It is the antecedent of the Greco-Roman style. The gladiators and the professional wrestlers used almost the same exercises that have been followed here in sub-continent long before their arrival in the Roman Empire. Akhaaras have always been there for ages in Lahore and other cities and towns. But these hallmarks of the city are now becoming a rarity. Lahore not very long ago boasted of more than a hundred akhaaras with thousands of people engaged in pehlwani and kushti (traditional wrestling).
Now only a few akhaaras are left. Other nations like the highly capitalist Japanese have preserved their cultural heritage. Sumo wrestlers are patronised by the government and honoured in the society. Sumo wrestlers are provided special funds to ensure that they maintain their good diet. Sumo wrestling thrives because it is considered an important part of the cultural heritage.
Kushti (wrestling bout) and pehlwani (the way a pehlwan (wrestler) lives) though essentially part of our culture have lately been ignored.
Even though the sports are not given due promotion in the country, the sportsmen continue to bring accolades for the country. Sohail Rashid, who is coach for the Wapda team of wrestlers as well at the Champions Club in Lohari talking to Sunday Plus said his coached wrestlers have won 17 medals in the last three months.
"Neither the media nor the government has given them due recognition and honour. In the Commonwealth Wrestling Games held in December 2009 at Jallundhur, India, our wrestlers won seven bronze and one silver medal. At the Youth Commonwealth Wrestling Championship we won one bronze and three silver medals. At the South Asian Games held in Dhaka our wrestlers won two gold, silver and two bronze medals. Muhammad Umar, Muhammad Ali, Salman Butt, Tehseen and Usman Shahid all shone at the event and proved that Pakistani wrestlers are second to none. They need patronage of the government," Sohail said.
The ideal age for the training of pehlwan is in his teens. 14 or 15 years old youngsters are considered ideal for grooming as pehlwan. There was a time when more than a hundred men took training at the akhaara at the time. Not so any more. The number has dwindled to 20 or 25. Akhaaras once home to great wrestlers now attract professional wrestlers who work different institutions, students and those people who want to continue with the family tradition.
At the Akhaara run by Babar Pehlwan the 22 disciples practicing the ancient art come from different backgrounds. Ahmed Butt is MBA student. He is working hard to prepare for the Under 19 All Pakistan Wrestling Championship. Ali Shahzad Butt is an I Com student studying at Punjab College. Robin Masih is an employee of Wapda. When questioned by the scribe they all resolved to continue with the ancient tradition of wrestling. "The sport teaches discipline and keeps you physically fit. There is no chance that we will ever leave this sport", they maintained.
The pehlwans practiced at akhaaras early in the morning and in the evening. Now since full time wrestlers are few in number the practice sessions are held only in the evening. For the pehlwans the rectangular akhaara that is daily softened by ploughing or digging is a sacred place. No one is allowed to enter the place wearing shoes or any other footwear. The pehlwans start the practice by first running down the shower and then applying oil on their bodies. When their bodies are glistening with oil they put soil on their bodies and then start all the different kinds of exercises.
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