The Walled City of Lahore is a rich amalgamation of heritage and culture both tangible and intangible. While looking at the gigantic gates, majestic monuments and havelis, one cannot ignore the cultural life and setting of the city. I think if the culture is taken out of Lahore, all the sites will go to waste. And one of the most pervasive examples of the City’s intangible culture are the wrestling arenas and the traditional art of wrestling.
There was a time when we used to hear the stories of wrestling in the akharas (arenas) of Lahore, and the battles between the local wrestlers and the many encounters they would have with international stars. Our elders would proudly narrate those stories to us, and rejoice in this rich, thriving culture. Wrestling and wrestlers had always been an integral part of Lahore’s culture, but unfortunately it is now a dying culture, and does not bode well for other cultural practices teetering on the edge of extinction. Lahore had once been famed for the sport of wrestling, and some of the greatest wrestlers of the subcontinent were born here in walled city. Unfortunately, new generations are unaware of this game’s connection with the heritage and culture of Lahore. Going deeper into the history of Lahore, we see that there were almost twelve arenas inside the city and the most popular ones were located inside Bhatti, Shah Almi and Sheranwala gates. These wrestling arenas were alive and world class tournaments were held there. The wrestlers would take pride in those arenas and the public would gather early in the morning to see the wrestlers’ work out, and practice. Lahore’s major wrestling contests before 1947 always used to be held in Minto Park, but now those are also not seen. Many famous dangals (wrestling matches) in different Akharas of the city were held in old times. The wrestlers would prepare for them the whole year. What happened to this part of our culture and how it vanished is a mystery to me.
Sitting with the aged wrestlers one gets to know that they have had to put in a whole lot of sweat and blood in their daily routines in their quest to be world famous. Sleeping immediately after the Isha prayers, they rise at three in the morning, religiously following their routine. The wrestlers then get their bodies rubbed with oil to build muscle force. The collective dietary need of the akhara consist of more than ten liters of Sardai, milk, and almonds per day. After having all of this they start their wrestling practice. The senior wrestlers are assigned to sit with the others to discuss their faults and new tactics they have devised to defeat rival akharas. For each wrestler it is important to eat red meat and desi ghee in the evenings for a healthy life. Back in the day, wrestling was a profession of respectable people and the wrestlers were the caretakers of in their own Mohallahs so that no crime or misconduct takes place. So what happened to this culture and profession?
Let me tell you a bitter fact, at present there are only four functional Akharas in Walled City out of which two belong to the famous Shahiya Pehalwan and other two are located in Lohari Gate. Recently, an arena near Tibbi Thana has been closed down as the wrestlers were not getting sufficient economic benefit. I came across a wrestler, Khadim Hussain, known as Ami Pehalwan sitting outside Mohammadi Mohallah inside Delhi Gate selling juices and sardai. It was painful to see a man of famed repute doing this. He was the grandson of the famous wrestler Natha Pehalwan who was once the title holder of Rustam -e-Hind. He told me that many of the wrestlers had changed their profession because it was no longer respectable among the public. He said that the government paid no heed towards this game and was not at funding the wrestlers, whereas he mentioned that in India the government looks after their wrestlers and has sustained the game and its culture. Khadim Hussain said that the new technologies of gym culture and food supplements have replaced the ages old culture of wrestling after vigorous training.
Let me tell my readers that the world famous wrestlers were from here and their stories are amazing. A wrestler named Jhara Pehlwan had defeated Hulk Hogan in a hectic fourteen hour match. Gamma Pehalwan the most famous wrestler titled as Rustam-e-Hind and later Rustam-e-Jahan had defeated the American champion Benjamin Roller in just 1 minute, 40 seconds. Later he defeated Zybisko, a Polish champion, in 1935 in an amazing 40 seconds fight. Gama also defeated a Japanese Hall of Fame wrestler Inoki, and JC Peterson in just 45 seconds. Other wrestlers to be recalled are Rustam-e-Hind Imam Bux, Hameeda Pehlwan, Ghaus Pehlwan, Lala Raj Pehlwan, Kala Pehlwan, Ikka Pehlwan, Billa Pehlwan Cahbuksawar, Bholu Pehlwan, Kala Pehlwan Sheeshagar and Achha Pehlwan. That was the strength of our wrestlers. Now imagine how popular Lahore was in this game which is now dead in the city.
Recently the Walled City of Lahore Authority tried reviving this culture and held a wrestling match at one of the Akharas inside Taxali. I this was a small but important step towards the revival of this intangible culture of the walled city Lahore. I think that people should be encouraged to join this game and the wrestlers who have left it should be brought back into the field. Wrestling had been a cultural feature of Lahore and should be treated as such. I am sad to see that our neighboring country is making this game popular as a part of their culture through films and dramas, but we in Pakistan could not sustain it.