For more information about the Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia see

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For more information about the Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia see
Pehlivan, Pahlavan, Pahelwan
The Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia
A question I have often asked is; when did the first human beings begin to wrestle each other before the
sport became a global phenomenon? From researching this topic for over two decades I have come to
the conclusion that this question may be impossible to answer because the activity is actually older than
humanity, extending back to the evolution of intra-species combat rituals seen across the animal
kingdom, from the smallest insects to the largest mammals. So unlike every other sporting genre,
wrestling may claim to be instinctive to human nature and by denying youth proper access to it, as
happens in countries without popular grappling traditions, we might unnecessarily be creating
environments detrimental to a healthy upbringing. There are places in the world however that seem to
inherently understand this concept and embrace the sport as a core cultural activity, making training a
mandatory rite of passage. These places include Mongolia, parts of Japan, China and Korea in East Asia,
deep in the Amazon of Brazil but could also include nearly the whole of Africa, which has seen a recent
phenomenal explosion in popularity for traditional wrestling sports. This no doubt will bring the sport
full circle since as the continent that spawned humanity, wrestling has more than likely existed there
longer than anywhere else in the world.
Central Asia most certainly fits into the categorisation as a part of the world’s geography where
wrestling is not just viewed simply as a competitive sport or as a corporate form of crowd
entertainment, as is most common in the Western World, but something much deeper to cultural
expression. In discussing Central Asia here I am referring not just to the Stans or former Soviet Republics
of Turkestan, (i.e. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) but also to Turkey,
Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang and India, a significant proportion of
the land surface of planet Earth. The word for wrestling used in this region often changes from country
to country with several variations used in the Turkic languages; Gures in Turkey, Gulesh in Azerbaijan,
Kurash in Uzbekistan, Khuresh in Tuva, Kures in Kazakhstan and Gyulesh in Xinjiang the most common
but also the Persian word Koshti is used across a wide domain from Iran to Tajikistan to Afghanistan to
Pakistan and India.
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There is another expression however, or likewise derivations of it, that encompasses the whole area and
as the title of this article indicates this is the word most often used to describe wrestlers in the region,
Pehlivan in Turkey, Pahlavan in Iran and Pahelwan in India/Pakistan. Strangely there is no word in
English that we can use to directly translate this concept but maybe the closest would be Strongman,
Hero or Knight. The reason there is no synonym in English is because the word doesn’t just describe a
person of great physical strength but also one with spiritual fortitude and a moral code of honor that is
indoctrinated during the process of training. Somewhere along the line of history, the sport was
separated from chivalric behavior in the West but in more recent times some contemporary sportsmen
are rediscovering a connection and this is mostly coming from the study of the Central Asian wrestling
tradition.
In Turkey Pehlivan are great national heroes competing in the Kirkpinar Festival, the international
showcase for Yagli Gures or Oil Wrestling, which is also performed in Bulgaria and Northern Greece.
Despite claims by some that Greco-Roman Wrestling is the direct descendent of the style practiced at
the ancient Olympik Games, called Orthopale, it is more likely that Yagli Gures is the true holder of this
title. It does after all exists in the same region where Hellenic people were practicing Orthopale in their
Palaestra wrestling schools during the whole Classical era but the rules for both sports also have many
similarities, including the use of olive oil for pre-match preparation and the inclusion of music during the
competition. Some theorise that the Turkish word for wrestler may ultimately come from the Greek
verb Palaio-to wrestle and there are obvious etymological similarities with the Greek for wrestlerPalaistes and the word Pehlivan. Interestingly scholars are now debating the origin of the name of the
country Palestine, which may have evolved from the ancient Greek description of a land inhabited by
the descendants of Jacob/Israel, he who wrestled with God.
The Kirkpinar Festival has been held annually each June since 1360 and initially commemorated the
battles fought by an elite force of warriors that conquered a large area of the Balkans. At a meadow
called Ahirkoy in what is now Greece, these Ottoman soldiers began a wrestling contest for pure
recreation but the last two fighters, the brothers Selim and Ali, refused to submit to each other and
continued wrestling long after night fall. When the other soldiers awakened the next day they were
greeted with the grisly sight of seeing these two men locked in a motionless death embrace, having died
of exhaustion during the night. They were then buried on the spot and when their comrades returned to
their gravesite a year later to pay tribute they discovered forty underground fountains had miraculously
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appeared to nourish the earth, hence the title Kirkpinar, which means Forty Springs in Turkish. With a
history of over 650 years, the Kirkpinar Festival is regarded as the longest running wrestling contest,
even by the Guinness Book but in 1924, only a year after the creation of the Turkish Republic, the site of
the festival was moved to Edirne, the old Ottoman capital.
In the long history of the sport it has produced numerous champions, many of which have statues made
of them, just like in ancient Greece. These include Pehlivan Kel Aliço of Plevne who held the title of
Baspehlivan of Kirkpinar for a phenomenal 27 years between 1859 and 1886. Pehlivan Koca Yusuf of
Sumnu became known as the Emperor of Wrestling, holding the title from 1887 to 1890 and travelling
the world to take on all comers in any style of wrestling, starting a trend as the first ‘Terrible Turk’ in
European professional wrestling. Pehlivan Kurtdereli, who wrestled internationally under the French
name Cour Derelli, was undefeated from his initial success at Kirkpinar in 1890 till 1911 when he
arranged an international Catch as Catch Can tournament in Istanbul. When the Kirkpinar Festival
almost ended due to a period of frenzied modernisation in 1931, it was the words of Pehlivan Kurtdereli
that saved it. He wrote ‘In every wrestling match, I picture the Turkish nation supporting me, and I think
of our national honour.’ This inspired President Ataturk to offer generous state support for the festival
as still happens today and Kirkpinar is now acknowledged by UNESCO as an important part of the
Intangible Cultural Heritage of the entire world.
Ask most Turks with knowledge of the subject and they ascribe a Persian origin for the word Pehlivan,
which is almost identical to the Farsi-Pahlavan. With the final fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the
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Greek wrestling schools ultimately came to be called Tekke in Ottoman Turkey, places of gathering for
Islamic mystical orders called Sufi. In addition to teaching of art of wrestling, these gymnasiums also
advocated the study of the Koran, sacred music and dance as indicated by the famous Whirling
Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order, a Tekke founded in Konya by the disciples of the Persian Sufi poet Rumi
in 1273. These Sufi Lodges, although they no longer include wrestling within their curriculum, did once
share much in common with the Persian Zurkhaneh or Houses of Power. There are so many parallels
between the two they must be thought of as the same institutions in different lands and probably
defined a widespread agonic tradition. The pezrev ritual dance of Yagli Gures used by the Pehlivan at the
start of the performance has similar steps to the callisthenic regime of Varzesh-e Pahlavan still seen in
the Zurkhaneh. It is documented that during a peace treaty between Sultan Murad III of the Ottoman
Empire and Shah Abbas the Great of Safavid Dynasty Persia in 1591, a troop of Turkish Pehlivan travelled
to the Zurkhaneh at Arg-I Bam Citadel in Kerman Province Eastern Iran to teach the art of wrestling and
it may be from this point that the leather kizpet wrestling trousers were introduced to the country.
Some scholars credit the Iranian Zurkhaneh with a history extending back to mythical times and Rostam,
from the 10th century ‘Shahnameh’ epic national poem by Ferdowsi, as the first Pahlavan. Obviously
many pre-Islamic elements are retained in the practice of Varzesh-e Pahlavan, the ancient martial art
taught in the Zurkhaneh gymnasiums and it is highly likely that something similar existed when the
region was long dominated by Zoroastrianism, the indigenous Faith of Persia. No doubt wrestling is a
very ancient activity in Iran but evidence of a deeper philosophy associated with the sport comes from
the 14th century, when the Sufi master Pourya-Ye Vali insisted that Pahlavan must “learn modesty, if you
desire knowledge; a highland would never be irrigated by a river”. The first Western knowledge of the
Zurkhaneh comes from 1670 when the Frenchman Jean Chardin gave a description to the European
courts and about a century later the German Carsten Niebuhr sketched the first image of the inside of
one. Interestingly there are musicians depicted at this time playing the flute and drums similar to those
currently used in Yagli Gures displays.
During the period of the Qajar Dynasty 1785 to 1925, numerous private Zurkhaneh were built
throughout Iran, with large wrestling competitions held before the Shah each Nowruz, the Persian New
Year on March 21 and many elements of Varzesh-e Pahlavan are still kept in the Azerbaijan folk style of
wrestling Gulesh, demonstrating how widespread the practice was. Apparently Baghdad had its own up
until 1980 and there were even non-Muslim ones built with a Zoroastrian Zurkhaneh in Yazd and Jewish
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Zurkhaneh in both Shiraz and Tehran. At the start of the Pahlavi Dynasty, Varzesh-e Pahlavan suffered a
serious setback as it was ignored by the government as a relic of a bygone era, ironic considering the
name of the dynasty and it wasn’t until 1934, the thousand year birthday of Ferdowsi, that the
Zurkhaneh were again patronised by the Shah. One of the more famous Zurkhaneh from this time was
the Chahar Fasl established by Pahlavan Hashem Akbarian in Isfahan in 1939, which did much to
promote a popular image of the sport due to the charitable acts of its membership. The government
sponsored Jafari Zurkhaneh of Tehran became the epicenter of Varzesh-e Pahlavan from 1958 until it
faced stiff competition from the privately sponsored Bank Melli Zurkhaneh and both vied against each
other for the privilege of doing performances for visiting dignitaries and celebrities.
This era witnessed the greatest of all modern Iranian Wrestling Heroes, Gholamreza Takhti, the only
man given the title of Jahan Pahlavan or Champion of the World since the mythical Rostam. He wrestled
before the Shah in the Koshti-e Pahlavan style, first winning the title Pahlavan-e Paytakt or Champion of
the Nation in 1950 at only 20 years old. The next year he competed in the FILA Freestyle Wrestling
World Championships in Helsinki winning a silver medal, which he repeated the following year at the
Helsinki Olympics. All the while he dominated the wrestling championships in Iran but after winning a
gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the first his country had seen, he was instantly catapulted
to national celebrity. It was not just his success on the mat that that turned Jahan Pahlavan Takhti into a
popular national hero but also his personality. He was generous to the poor, kind to the vulnerable and
always humble in speech, embodying all the characteristics expected of a proper Pahlavan. After The
Great Bou’in-Zahra Earthquake in 1962 that killed over 12,000 people, he personally organised a relief
effort in Tehran that saw blankets, food and money delivered to the neediest and he was able to draw
other high profile celebrities to his cause. His popularity may have garnered jealousy from the Shah but
his social activism certainly made him a target for the SAVAK secret police and his death under
suspicious circumstances in 1968, officially ascribed to suicide, turned many away from the royal family,
fuelling resentment from the people that would eventually snowball into full scale revolution.
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 the Persian martial art was again ignored by the
government, most probably due to its pre-Islamic and Sufi connections, while the Olympic wrestling
styles took precedence. The only Zurkhaneh that continued to thrive were those that professed strong
Islamic characteristics and conformity was then enforced. At the start of the 21st century a committee
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got together to discuss the state of affairs of Varzesh-e Pahlavan and in 2004 they formed the
International Zurkhaneh Sports Federation to re-popularise the activity in Iran and spread the code
around the world. Initially comprising 22 countries that number had shot up to 52 by the 2010 World
Championships but the modern style of Koshti-e Pahlavan they promote is very different to its ancestor.
Nowadays even though they wear traditional style trousers, wrestlers must also wear singlet tights and
boots, with competitions held on a mat, making it similar to the Olympics styles. Other contests are
included in the overall performance such as calisthenics, club twirling and Islamic prayer chants but at
least their efforts have succeeded in having the Zurkhaneh exercises acknowledged by UNESCO as part
of an Intangible Cultural Heritage just like the Kirkpinar. Like many other martial arts, there are gradings
in Varzesh-e Pahlavan and the ranks are; Nowcheh (Novice), Nowkhasteh (Advanced Student) and
Pahlavan but the ranks continue for trainers as Pahlavan Zoorgar (Master) and Pahlavan Bozorg (Grand
Master). George Lucas must have been aware of this when he wrote his Sci-Fi epic Star Wars back in the
1970s because he used the term Padawan to describe trainee Jedi Knights.
In Pakistan and India it is the term Pahelwan that is used to describe the Wrestling Heroes. Although
there are abstract images found in the debris of the 5,000 year old Indus Valley Civilization that some
interpret as being of wrestlers in combat, the sport is so old that it is only in Hindu mythology that its
origin can be gleaned. Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana give vivid descriptions of the activity
and in one episode Lord Krishna and his brother Balarama wrestled and killed the champions of Rajah
Kamsa while still in their boyhoods. In a later story one of Lord Krishna’s disciples named Bhima, defeats
the demonic Rajah Jarasandha after 27 days of continuous fighting by tearing him in half. It was the
monkey god Hanuman, the most loyal follower of Lord Rama however who came to be the patron of
wrestling, as it was his ape like race of forest dwelling people called the Vanaras who taught mankind
the art form. This was done so it could be used in the wars against Ravana and his demons on the island
of Sri Lanka. Devotees of Hanuman are expected to emulate his behavior and virtues such as loyalty to
peers, discipline in work and sheer joy in day to day life are highly regarded; there are hundreds of
temples dedicated just to his worship and these often have wrestling schools attached to them.
From the study of philology it can be estimated that Indo-European languages were first introduced
beyond the Indus Valley about 3,500 years ago, explaining why North Indian cultures share so much in
common with those of Central Asia. After the Hellenic invasion led by Alexander the Great in 326BCE,
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new ideas about athletic training were introduced and it is highly probable that Palaestra were
established, suggesting why there are similarities between modern Indian Akhara gyms and ancient
Greek wrestling schools. During the reign of Ashoka the Great 269BCE-232BCE, when virtually the whole
South Asian region was united under one empire, a unified set of rules were codified for wrestling and
the sport was seen as a method to reduce hostilities between people before escalating into violence.
This idea fit in quite well with the popular Buddhist concept of the time, ahimsa or non violence and why
the practice became so widespread, as can be gleaned from some of the superb statues of wrestlers
from the period. Wrestling has a very long history in Greater India and the sport has seen the rise and
fall of many kingdoms, republics and empires but it has always been an important part of the lives of the
common people.
Between 1124CE and 1138CE Rajah Somesvara III ruled the Western Chalukya Kingdom that dominated
much of Central India and he commissioned an encyclopedic work called Manasolhas to be written in
Sanskrit, the official language of learning. In one chapter about recreation called Vinoda Vimśati it gives
a vivid description of how wrestling matches are to be conducted, how wrestlers should exercise and
what diet they should eat, which corresponds to the way the sport is still conducted in India today. A
more detailed work was done in the 13th century called Malla Purana that explained the origin of the
Jyesthimalla caste of Brahmin priests from Gujarat that performed a ritual type of combat called
Vajramushti (i.e. grasping a thunderbolt) that combined wrestling with strikes from a wooden
knuckleduster. In this work the martial art of grappling, Malla Yuddha, is differentiated from the sport of
wrestling, Malla Krida. Interestingly in the Sindh Province of Pakistan, where the ruins of the Indus Valley
Civilisation are mostly concentrated, the locals still arrange tournaments in a type of belt wrestling with
a similar sounding title called Malakhra, which may well be the oldest style of the sport in the
Subcontinent.
We know by now that the original Sanskrit word for wrestling was Malla so it probably wasn’t until the
Moghul invasion in 1526 that the Persian language became widely spoken in India and why the
Urdu/Hindi word for wrestling, Kushti, is now the same as that used in Iran. The first Moghul Emperor
Babur loved his combat sports including camel fights, elephant fights, even ram fights but, because of
his Mongol ancestry, he especially adored wrestling as can be seen in a beautifully illustrated page from
his biographical memoires called Baburnama. With such a long tradition in the sport, Moghul wrestling
blended seamlessly in India and the Emperors soon patronised regularly scheduled competitions, the
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largest of which was the Rustam-i Hind or empire championship that was named after the first great
Pahelwan of Persian myth. The main wrestler of note from this era was Pahelwan Nur-ud-Din who in
1700 established the first Muslim wrestling school, Nur-e-Wala, that produced many subsequent
champions. The Kaloo-Wala school was established in 1780 by one of the Nur-e-Wala students,
Pahelwan Kaloo, who was allegedly a giant and the last major school was the Kot-Wala that was built on
the wall of the Lahore Fort in the early 19th century by Pahelwan Elahi Bakhsh; all these training centres
developed a strong competitive rivalry.
For the decade following 1644 the religious leader Swami Samarth Ramdas set up 11 Maruti Temples
dedicated to Hanuman in Maharashtra with an idea to strengthen young Hindu men in preparation for
resistance against what he considered debilitating foreign forces. This movement eventually led to the
establishment of the Maratha Empire by one of his disciples, Maharajah Shivaji Bhosale, which retook
large parts of India back from the Moghul Empire between 1674 and 1818. A famous Hindu wrestler
from this period was Balambhattdada Deodhar, who with his students built Akhara gymnasiums in
Benares and Maharashtra in the early 1800s. He is also credited with the invention of the unique form of
Indian gymnastics called Mallakhamb that uses a wooden pole to perform acrobatic feats.
It is probably worthwhile describing these Akharas to compare them with the Greek Palaestra, the
Turkish Tekke and the Iranian Zurkhaneh. Central to all Akhara is the wrestling training pit made of
churned earth mixed with buttermilk and medicinal herbs that has been standardised to a size of
20x20ft since the time of Ashoka. In this way it is similar to the ancient Greek wrestling schools that had
a centralised sand covered courtyard called a skamma surrounded by colonnades with adjoining rooms,
one of which had a dirt pit used for the practice of the first style of mixed martial art Pankration. It could
also be compared to the sunken octagonal pit called a gaud that is in the centre of all Zurkhaneh.
Surrounding this Akhara dirt pit is equipment that might be familiar to someone that has trained in a
Zurkhaneh with different kinds of swinging clubs, climbing ropes and heavy flat stones that are worn
around the neck to make squatting more strenuous. Indian wrestlers have their own form of yogic body
movements called Vyayam that can be compared with the calisthenics of Varzesh-e Pahlavan and they
are notorious for the number of squats and scoop push ups they do in the process of training. More
often than not thermae bath houses were built right next to the ancient Greek Palaestra and this is still
common in Turkey and Iran with their hamam bath houses, although not so common in India.
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It is impossible to write about traditional Indian wrestling without mentioning the most famous of all
Pahelwan, Gama the Lion of Punjab. There is of course much hyperbole on the subject but there can be
no doubt this man had a profound influence on wrestling in the Subcontinent. Training at the Kot-Wala
school Gama achieved great fame in 1901 when as a 19 year old he challenged the 7 foot tall Rustam-i
Hind, Pahelwan Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala to a match and even though it ended in draw, the
spectators all recognised his ability. Over the next decade he built a pretty impressive fight record,
winning the title of Rustam-i Hind in 1909 and by the following year was ready to take on the world. He
travelled to London with the Australian fight promoter, Dr Benjamin and his ‘Circus of Indian Wrestlers’
issuing a challenge to any wrestler to stand against him. Again showing his dominance he defeated two
of the major wrestlers of the era, Benjamin Roller of the USA and the Greco-Roman world champion,
Stanislaus Zbyszco of Poland. When he returned to India, news of his success had preceded him and he
was given a stupendous welcome with thousands greeting him at the port. In the media he was declared
Rustam-i Zaman or Champion of the World and was worshipped by both Muslim and non-Muslim
sectors of society.
Gama was beating the best in the world at a time when the Indian Independence Movement was
beginning to grow a much broader following and his successes gave pride to the people of a newly
emerging nation. The British Raj had come to dominate the land after the failed 1857 Indian Sepoy
Rebellion that also saw the inglorious end to the Moghul Empire. Although generally efficient rulers, the
British were always considered foreigners and met opposition from many different angles of Indian
society. Gama was very influential in igniting a mass movement simply by his actions and it must be
remembered he was doing all this nearly a decade before Mahatma Ghandi made his political debut in
India. Gama became a protégé of the Maharajah of Patiala, continuing his success in the dirt pits and
when Stanislaus Zbyszco was invited to India for a rematch in 1928, the Maharajah had a stadium built
to sit 50,000 spectators. Apparently even this wasn’t big enough and it is reported that another 150,000
were waiting outside, marking the largest audience ever recorded to witness a wrestling match. I can
only imagine the chaos of 200,000 ecstatic sports fans when Gama won this contest in less than a
minute. With the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, because of his Muslim Faith, Gama moved to
Lahore but due to government neglect, died in poverty in 1960.
Both the Indian and Pakistan governments have allowed this ancient tradition to struggle for survival
over the last six decades and while sports like Cricket, Hockey and Kabaddi receive generous subsidies,
Pahelwan Kushti is only kept alive by dedicated purists. Kabaddi is another type of wrestling sport
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originating in the Subcontinent, except it is based on teams and has a ‘raider’ running into the
‘defenders’ territory to quickly tag one of them before trying to escape back into his own team’s
territory, all done on a single breath. It has spread around the world since it was demonstrated at the
1936 Berlin Olympics and is now the national sport of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran as well as the state
sport of Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. India has competed at every summer Olympics since
1920 and the national Field Hockey team was virtually unbeatable from 1928 till 1980, explaining why it
is considered the national sport but no sport has come near Cricket in popularity since India won the
World Cup in 1983. The amateur status laws of Olympic Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling initially
prevented the Pahelwan from representing either India or Pakistan at international events as they were
considered professionals and bizarrely it wasn’t until 2008 that this ridiculous ruling was overturned.
This explains why countries so steeped in wrestling tradition have performed so poorly on the world
stage in the second half of the 20th century.
There was a dramatic shift when the Pahelwan were finally invited to compete and the 2010 Delhi
Commonwealth Games saw the creation of a new national wrestling superstar, on par with Rustam-i
Zaman Gama. Pahelwan Sushil Kumar is the son of a wrestler and trained at the famous Guru Hanuman
Akhara in Delhi. He first came to media attention when he won the bronze medal for Freestyle wrestling
in the 66kg division at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but when he won the gold medal at the 2010 FILA
World Championships, followed by another gold medal at the Commonwealth Games held in his own
backyard, his story touched the heart of a nation of over a billion people. Pahelwan Sushil was awarded
Rajiv Ghandi Khel Ratna, the highest honour for an Indian sportsperson and has subsequently been well
rewarded financially but his celebrity has done much to reverse decades of negligence towards India’s
most illustrious sporting heritage. Just like in the time of Ashoka the Great, people are beginning to
realise that this noble sport may have a beneficial effect on promoting peaceful interactions and wise
businessmen are now sponsoring very big competitions, known as dangals, between the rival nations of
India and Pakistan, not in international styles of wrestling but in the wonderful old style of Pahelwan
Kushti.
The term for strongman of high moral character is not just limited to Turkey, Iran and India/Pakistan but
has a wide usage across Central Asia. In Kazakhstan for example, participants in the traditional jacket
wrestling style of Kures are known as Beluan while in neighbouring Uzbekistan the pronunciation is
more like Polvon. In the countries of Eastern Europe that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, like
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Croatia for instance, the term Pehlivan is still used to describe wrestlers while in Afghanistan and
Tajikistan, because of the similarities in language, it is spoken more like the Iranian Pahlavan. The word
has also spread into common usage in parts of Southeast Asia and in Malaysia there is an important
historical graveyard called the Makam Pahlawan or Mausoleum of Heroes dedicated to significant
figures in Malaysian politics who gave their lives to their country. The word Pahlawan or Hero is used
often in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia as a surname, to describe political parties and even
give title to shopping malls. There is a large island in the Philippine Archipelago called Palawan that is
named after a tribe that live there who have practiced wrestling since time immemorial and a similar
thing may have occurred with the neighbouring Pacific Island nation of Palau. There is another wrestling
tribe of Aboriginal people from Taiwan called Paiwan who also speak an Austronesian dialect although
the fact that the term most often used to describe Tasmanian Aboriginal people, Parlevar, who live far
outside this cultural zone may moot this point.
Ashoka obviously sent proselytising Buddhist missionaries into Southeast Asia that introduced Indian
cultural practices as early as the 3rd century BCE but half a millennium later there was a powerful empire
called Pallava that occupied most of the southern portion of the Subcontinent between 300CE and
900CE, which had a more profound influence on neighbouring polities. Rajah Narasim Havarman ruled
from 630CE till 668CE when the Pallava Empire was at its peak and he chose the title Maha Malla-Great
Wrestler, to define his reign. He established the city of Mahamallapuram on what is now the east coast
of Tamil Nadu state and built the famous Seven Pagodas or Ratha Temples dedicated to the Hindu
deities. Most of these buildings were submerged by a 13th century tsunami but the 2004 Boxing Day
Tsunami famously exposed many of them again for scientific scrutiny. The fact that a powerful monarch
identified himself with the sport and the name of his country sounded very similar to the word used
across the region to describe Wrestling Heroes may turn out to be beyond coincidence. Whatever the
case there was a sudden flourishing of art images in wrestling throughout Southeast Asia from the 7th
century with fine examples seen in Sumatra, Java and Cambodia.
Iranian scholars point out that the common term for the Middle Persian language during the time of the
Parthian Empire 247BCE-224CE was Pahlavi, as attested to by the indigenous script of the same name.
When the Arsacid Dynasty overthrew the Seleucid Empire, which had dominated since the time of
Alexander, they considered themselves the rightful heirs of the Achaemenid Shahs that had ruled Persia
from 550BCE till the Macedonian invasion in 330BCE. Therefore the Parthians or Pahlavan as they called
themselves were regarded as the protectors of the homeland of Eranshahr and this descriptive word
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was carried through to the period of the Sassanid Empire 224CE-651CE. The army of this era consisted of
a core of 10,000 Zhayedan (Immortals), similar in concept to the same titled positions that fought the
300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480BCE, but comprised exclusively of the Azadan noble caste of lance
wielding heavy cavalry. These shock troops quite literally left a lasting impression on the Roman forces
that encountered them and it seems apparent that this concept came to influence the initial
development of knighthood in Europe. We are aware of the Code of Chivalry ‘to excel in arms, to show
courage, to be gallant, loyal and to swear off cowardice and baseness’ and these knightly virtues share
much in common with the expected behavioural standards of the Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia. Just
maybe the ideas of the Pehlivan, Pahlavan and Pahelwan have permeated the West for longer than we
have realised.
The Sassanid Empire, weakened by almost 30 years of continuous war with the Byzantine Empire, was
invaded by Arab troops in 634CE. Although initially repelled during the ‘Battle of the Bridge’ on the
Euphrates River, eventually they succumbed three years later at the ‘Battle of Al Qadisiyyah’ in which
the Eran Spahbod or Commander of the Armed Forces, Rostam Farrokhzad was brutally decapitated.
The Arabs burned the palace archive of Taq-i Kisra at Ctesiphon and from then on Islam became the
dominant Religion but the Caliphate continually faced guerrilla resistance from bandits that were
referred to in documents as ‘Pahlavan’. It is theorised that the Zurkhaneh developed at this time by
becoming venues for the Persian speaking nobility to continue their warrior training when their right to
bare arms was revoked and why the sport of wrestling was thereafter imbued with such a strong code of
moral behaviour. Parthia was actually a northern province of the Persian Empire that today is called
Khorasan and despite the odds against it an indigenous style of jacket wrestling has survived in this
region since longer than anyone can remember. Around the Persian New Year, the city of Esfarayen sees
huge crowds pack a 200 year old stadium cut into a large hill to watch the Koshti-e Bachokheh
Championships. Unlike the Koshti-e Pahlavan style, traditional wrestling in Northern Khorasan is
thriving.
Khorasan was the major centre of resistance to the Muslim Caliphates and when a popular leader of the
region who had freely converted to Islam, Abu Muslim al Khurasani, was executed in 755CE under
accusation of heresy, this sparked a revolution that continued for the next 80 years. A brilliant man
named Babak came to lead a Zoroastrian sect called Khorram Dinan that believed Abu Muslim, or as he
was referred to Behzadan, was a Messiah like figure who would return in vengeance to destroy the
Caliphate. Creating an egalitarian Persian republic, numerous raids came from his fortress in Azerbaijan
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Province from 816CE till he was finally captured in 837CE and because of the strain Babak put on the
economy, the Caliph took great pleasure in inflicting vengeful torture upon him. His legs and hands were
chopped off and then according to legend, Babak bravely rinsed his face with the drained blood,
depriving his enemies from seeing him turn pale before he died. Babak’s words echo those later said by
Che Guevara ‘Better to live for just a single day as a ruler than to live for forty years as an abject slave.’
Today Babak is considered a national hero and a great defender of the Persian culture, someone who is
rightfully called a true Pahlavan.
Interestingly all the while this resistance to Islam was happening in Persia, the expansion of the
Caliphate was also being blocked in Far Western Europe. The army of Umayyad Caliphate conquered the
Lombard Kingdom of Hispania with ease in 718CE, establishing the Emirate of Cordoba to control the
Iberian Peninsula. They were only stopped from continuing further into Europe by one of the great
military geniuses of the Dark Ages, the de facto ruler of the Frankish Kingdom Charles Martel. By using
strategies that were mostly unknown at that time, Charles succeeded where so many others had failed.
One of his favourite battle tactics was to feign retreat and then strike back when the opposition least
expected, a strategy known to the Romans as the Parthian Shaft. From where Charles learnt such
concepts is unrecorded in history but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he had Persian
advisers, keen to help prevent Islam from conquering the whole world.
Whether by coincidence or not it was at this time that the Persian war strategy board game of chatrang
was first introduced to the Frankish Court, a game that later became known as chess. At the Battle of
Poitiers in 732CE, Charles decisively turned back an Umayyad invasion force that outnumbered his army
by two to one and in this case it was by using infantry formations against cavalry that proved so
successful. After this history turning event Charles then went on to create a permanent standing army
and cavalry that made the Frankish Kingdom the strongest polity in the region. The Emperor
Charlemagne continued the strengthening process started by his grandfather and after 795CE essentially
kept the Saracens on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains mainly by using his Paladin, that are
remembered so well through the romantic Medieval stories such as the La Chanson de Roland.
The Paladin were the first of the European Knights and mastered the techniques of heavy cavalry just
like their earlier Persian counterparts. The word is said to have evolved from the Latin Palatinus- a high
level official attached to the Imperial Roman court but how this came to refer to mounted Frankish
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warriors by the end of the 8th century is anyone’s guess. If there were Persian military advisers at the
court of Charles Martel as seems likely, surely the word Pahlavan would have been mentioned and it is
not too farfetched to consider this the true root for the word Paladin. Wrestling was an important part
of the training regime of the warrior classes of the Middle Ages and we can only assume this was the
case with the Frankish Paladin. In one of the Medieval stories from the Chanson de Geste or Song of
Deeds of the Carolingian Cycle, the two great Paladin and best friends, Roland and Oliver, are sent as
champions to duel against each other, one representing Charlemagne the other the rebellious Duke of
Vienne. Because they were wearing face covering helmets, neither knew who the other was and after
nine hours of battling with weapons they fell upon each other and started to grapple. In the process
their helmets were knocked off and upon recognition, immediately discontinued fighting and instead
began to hug in great joy. This provided an example to the Emperor and the Duke, instantly bringing
peace to region. In this story we find traces of the Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia.
It seems probable through even the briefest study that the idea of Chivalry, as it became known in
Europe during the Middle Ages, was originally introduced from Persia in the 8th century but whereas due
to situational circumstances this warrior code became attached to the wrestling in Central Asia, the
same did not occur in the West and instead it was limited to elite horsemen only. Codified behavioural
standards were known to many warrior groups across the globe from the Hwarang of Korea to the
Bogatyrs of Russia but the Japanese Samurai provide the best demonstration that the Far East may have
also indirectly borrowed this idea from the Central Asians. There are numerous parallels between the
Code of Chivalry of the European Knights and the Way of the Warrior or Bushido that was practiced in
Japan from the 9th century till the end of the 19th century.
This point has been discussed in literature several times so there is no real need to continue in this
trajectory except to mention the word used to describe Sumo wrestlers in Japanese, Rikishi, which
translates into English as Strongman. The word itself may be completely different than that used in
Central Asia but the sentiment is exactly the same. Originally being of the Samurai class, Rikishi are
expected to display all the same traits inherent in Bushido and like their Central Asian counterparts, live
by a strong moral code. Incidentally the Samurai shaved the crowns of their heads in exactly the same
manner as the Iranian Pahlavan did up until the start of the 20th century, whether this demonstrates a
connection or is just pure coincidence is unknown, but intriguing never the less.
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Sumo traces its origin back to the mythical era and the position of the first Emperor of Japan was
decided by a Sumo match to the death. For about 2000 years it was a sport used to entertain the noble
classes and select the best warriors from around the land but in 1684 a Samurai named Ikazuchi
Gondaiyu created strict rules of play when he embedded a 4.5m wide circle of straw into a clay mound
and set 48 acceptable techniques around holds on the mawashi wrestling belt, creating the sport as we
know it today. By arranging performances at the major Shinto Temple in Edo he popularised Sumo to
the general masses and it has been a beloved national icon ever since. Even the most diehard Japanese
purist must concede however that Sumo also borrowed much from T’ang Dynasty China (618-906AD),
which arranged huge tournaments of a similar nature called Xiang Pu at the capital of Chang An and
there are surviving pieces of art from paintings to sculptures that showed what this belt style of
wrestling looked like. Casual observers could be forgiven for thinking what they were seeing was actually
depictions of Japanese Sumo.
Obviously the Chinese Strongman tradition was followed across a wide domain, influencing the way
wrestling was displayed in neighbouring lands but it could also be argued that the Wrestling Heroes of
Central Asia were influential in this development as well. No one can argue of course that gentlemanly
behaviour, fairness and sportsmanship have not always been a part of wrestling, it is after all a form of
combat with meticulous laws, but there is something much deeper to way it is perceived in the lands of
the Pehlivan, Pahlavan and Pahelwan. In India the Hindu Religion has left its imprint on the sport,
especially through the Cult of Hanuman and yogic principles have also more than likely been part of it
for a very long. In ancient Greece the gods of the pantheon played their role in the way wrestling was
perceived and similar to Hanuman in India, the popular Cult of Heracles helped spread the sport across
the Hellenic world. The Sufi mystics continued the tradition of attaching esoteric qualities to wrestling
via their Tekke/Zurkhaneh and their tolerant form of Islam preserved many ancient customs. Unlike
what occurred in Europe, they democratised chivalry and anyone who trained with them was taught the
correct moral attitude required of a warrior.
Zoroastrianism, or as practitioners of the Religion call it ‘Behdin Mazdayasna’, is essentially a moral Faith
with commonly stated mantra such as ‘obey the truth, abhor the lie’ and its core purpose is as Nietzche
pointed out in 1885, to build better people by promoting right thoughts, right deeds and right actions,
so humans can play their part in the celestial battle between good and evil. The Zoroastrian initiation
rite involves winding a cord three times around the waist of the initiate and this cord is called a koshti,
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possibly in reference to an ancient form of belt wrestling. The usual training garb worn in most
Zurkhaneh is a type of red coloured sarong called a ‘long’ which may also allude to this ancient wrestling
belt and as stated earlier, it was only in the late 16th century that Persian wrestlers started wearing the
Turkish style leather kispet trousers. Despite numerous attempts over the years from religious
extremists to purge the Zoroastrian traits from Varzesh-e Pahlavan, this has never been achieved and
the ethical principles indoctrinated into wrestlers are all present in the original Persian belief system.
Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest organised Religion, dating anywhere from 3000 to 8000 years old
and was a major influence on Judeo-Christian thought, from its monotheism to its duality between
Yahweh and Satan. The best known wrestling incident in the Bible is from the Book of Genesis when
Jacob wrestled the Angel at Penuel and as a blessing was renamed Israel. It is highly likely that the type
of wrestling he engaged in was a belt style because as indicated by the Zoroastrian koshti initiation belt,
this was the most common way the sport was played across the whole region. This is supported by the
oldest artwork from the Middle East depicting wrestling, which was excavated from the 5000 year old
Sumerian city of Tutub, near Baghdad and is most often referred to as the Khafaji Bronze. Showing two
men holding each other by the belt while apparently balancing vases on their heads, some interpret
these as being oil jars thus the sport as oil wrestling but they also remind us somewhat of Sumo Rikishi.
More likely is that this is a re-enactment in bronze of the most popular legend told in Sumer, Babylon
and Assyria, the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is the life story of Gilgamesh the King of Uruk, who while
wrestling the wild man Enkidu found he had finally met his match in strength. After this fight they
became best friends going on many adventures together and even in this early era the transformative
powers of wrestling were recognised. In 2001 Iranian archaeologists uncovered what can only be
described as a lost civilisation in Kerman Province and naming it after a nearby township it is now
referred to as the Jiroft Culture. With its own peculiar iconography often carved into stone utensils,
Jiroft obviously had its own rich mythology showing some sort of horned muscular strongman battling
fierce creatures such as snakes, scorpions, bulls, felines and raptors, providing what could be the original
source for the Enkidu legend. By shear appearance alone it may be that documentary evidence for the
tradition of the Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia dates back more than 6000 years, explaining why it is
so entrenched in cultural consciousness and widespread in practice.
The relevance of all this for our times cannot be overestimated because the ancients obviously knew
that by encoding morality into a sport that is hyper masculine by its very nature, it would attract young
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men and a process of indoctrination could then take place. Through training, initiations and simply by
association with experienced elders, they would learn about the correct behaviour expected of mature
adult men and this certainly entails the protection of the most vulnerable in society. These heroic
obligations are denied to males in the modern Western world who are facing an emasculation process
like never before in history, as the state aggressively takes these responsibilities from them.
Contemporary writers refer to this as a crisis in masculinity especially in this era of mass divorce, which
is seeing a whole generation of youth raised in single parent families, all too often with little or no
positive contact with their own fathers, never mind other male role models. Mass media then provides
the de facto definition of manhood that boys aspire towards and due to teen angst this inevitably comes
from thrash metal, gangsta rap, shock video games and Hollywood action films. In their most
impressionable years boys are given no guidance on how to proceed into adulthood and instead are
propagandised by unrealistic fantasies that are impossible to attain without negative social
consequences, ultimately leading to esteem destruction and nihilistic pessimism. While the state
continues to sponsor family breakdown it is inevitable that these lost boys will congregate into criminal
gangs, which act as substitute families, leading to the slippery slope of further social discord.
Comic book superheroes have provided the machismo template for young men to follow for over seven
decades and have had a huge influence on world culture. The Phantom started the trend of spandex and
masks in 1936 but only two years later Superman set the standard that has subsequently been followed
by all other superheroes. As the years passed the mood in comics darkened and the wholesome attitude
of the early superheroes was supplanted by a cold antihero cynicism in the 1990s but in essence has
always sent the same message, all problems can be solved by brute force and carefully directed
violence. Japan embraced this comic book subculture like nowhere else with its manga, anime and
cosplay that often go hand in hand with the Japanese form of professional wrestling, Puroresu. Mexico
likewise has adopted the attitude of its own version of professional wrestling, Lucha Libre, which was
epitomised by the Silver Masked Man-El Santo whose ring career incredibly went from 1942 till 1982.
Generations grew up knowing him also as the saviour who protected the world from aliens, mummies,
vampires and a whole range of monsters via his popular comic book series and as the star in over 50
movies. Being the perpetual good guy, El Santo actually followed principles that were very similar to the
code of the Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia, without any knowledge whatsoever of the subject. The
trouble is not all luchadors were good guys like El Santo and every tecnico had his rudo nemesis.
In 1954 a book was written by Fredric Wertham called “Seduction of Innocence” which critiqued comic
books, challenging the premise that they are just harmless fun, suggesting that they could actually be a
major cause of juvenile delinquency and sexual perversion in adulthood. The impact of such literature
was limited and had little effect on sales but the same logic is now being applied to professional
wrestling, especially in its most sensational incarnation of World Wrestling Entertainment, the multibillion dollar multi-national company run from the USA. Much like comic book superheroes, professional
wrestlers always solve problems through violence and the dichotomy between bad and good is
theatrically displayed as a battle between the heel and baby face, where the baddies are villainous to
the extreme and the goodies are ridiculously manly in a grossly exaggerated parody of the wrestling
hero archetype. Professional wrestling gives an identity construct to boys’ that is just as violent as comic
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books, glamorising the culture of dominance in the form of bullying, homophobia, sexualisation of
women and even justifying domestic violence in some cases. The promotion of the most extreme
version of the shows, called hardcore wrestling, which sees the performers commit drastic stunts like
falling from dangerous heights, cutting themselves to display more blood while using props like barb
wire ring ropes, thumb tacks and broken glass should be seen for what it is, pure sadomasochism.
Modern professional wrestling has moved so far from its ancestral form that it is no longer recognisable
and this change in wrestling culture is having a profound effect on the world. Without the guiding force
of the virtues invested in young men from tuition in ancient combat systems like that provided by the
Wrestling Heroes of Central Asia, social instability is inevitable. By distorting these principles like what is
presently happening, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that chaos will ensue. The English word hero
actually evolved from an ancient Persian word, haurvaiti, which means to keep vigil over something, in
other words a protector. Unlike the fantasy of a comic book superhero or a professional wrestling
performer, a hero by modern definition is an ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances using
strong convictions that get them through. None of us are born knowing this attitude of assertion and it
is very much a behaviour learnt through life experience but if the moral compass is corrupted in
childhood, well how can we expect anything but weeds to grow from uncultivated soil? Our ancestors
were wise enough to understand this and realised that by allowing aggression to be expressed in a
controlled manner through a sport like wrestling, rather than being suppressed as is most commonly
expected in over crowded cities, individuals could be purged of residual anger. If this happens enough
times with enough people while right thoughts, deeds and actions are taught then peace not war could
be ensured for society. Why is this so hard to comprehend in our technologically advanced civilisation?
Coreeda Association of Australia
November 2011
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