On a hot afternoon, Goga Pehlwan sits in the street at the back of his akhara (wrestling arena) and chats with neighbors and passers-by, while his two granddaughters run around. This is how he spends most of his day after training young pehlwans (wrestlers) just after dawn. Above his head hangs a sign boldly reading “Akhara Shahia Pehlwan.”
At the main entrance to this unassuming akhara, located behind the Badshahi Mosque, hangs a banner with photo IDs of every legendary pehlwan this area has ever known. A few steps down is the enclosed mud pit where the wrestlers train daily, at the top of which is a poster of “The Great Gama”. The walls surrounding the pit are also dotted with posters and photos of virtually every pehlwan, popular or not. A narrow path, again covered in posters, leads to a shrine and a mosque at the back of the akhara which leads further to the back door where Goga was found seated.
“This akhara was created by my father, Shahia Pehlwan, over 100 years ago when he must have been around 14 years old. The land was given to him by Mian Yousaf Salahuddin’s grandfather. My father belonged to Wazirabad and only studied till class 5 because pehlwans at that time didn’t go to school much. At about 5.5 feet tall and weighing 3.5 maund (140 kilograms) in his youth, he used to tell us how people sent their young children to large pehlwans for training. Popular names at the time were Gama Pehlwan, Boota, Chooa, Deen, Siddiqa, Meeda, Kallu among others.
The 64-year-old, who started training when he was seven, tells Dawn that a pehlwan got into the business when he was five, which is also when his father was introduced to the sport by his grandfather’s brother, who himself was a wrestler in Wazirabad. “Everyone in this field was a wrestler back then but my dad only did smaller fights which he also got Rs2-3 for because there were amazing pehlwans like Bholu back then .”
With secular wrestling and kabbadi being the most popular sports in the subcontinent at the time, a pehlwan would earn a hefty Rs3 for a match, Goga says, adding that the strongest would treat their neighbors, while an average player would quite nourished. by locals. Some of those who have trained in his akhara are Poma Pehlwan, Kala Pehlwan, Sadiq Cyclewala, Haji Afzal Pehlwan. Rustam-i-Pakistan Bashir Bhola Bhala is also a ‘graduate’ of this humble ‘school’, which according to Goga ruled for over 25 years before quitting. Besides, Bamma Pehlwan, Jeeja Teli, Sheeda Champion, Ashiq Raj, Lala Raj, Sardar and Nawab Pehlwans are also some of the prominent wrestlers produced by this akhara; most of whom made a name (and some money) just because they fought with the renowned sons of the great Imam Bakhsh, Goga claimed.
“At that time, a dangal or tournament attended by around 6,000 people would be held at Minto Park (now Great Iqbal Park) or Viyamshala on Mohni Road which belonged to Gama Pehlwan Kalluwala – the PML leader’s grandfather -N Bilal Yasin and son-in-law of a sister of Rustam-i-Hind The Great Gama.
The famous and noble sport that was once the bread and butter of its players, patronized by the state and sportsmen assuming star status, went into gradual decline a few decades ago as governments lost interest, inflation increasing and the wrestlers transform into local gangsters. “Jhara Pehlwan, who was a grandson of the legendary Imam Bakhsh, was the last of the greats to keep the sport alive. All of Bakhsh’s sons were great wrestlers: Bholu, Azam, Aslam, Akram and Goga. Both Imam Bakhsh and his brother Grand Gama Pehlwan remained undefeated throughout their careers. Hameeda Pehlwan, who was their maternal uncle, was also Rustam-i-Hind. This family had no competition.
Until the times of Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and even Nawaz Sharif, akharas and wrestlers had a glorious time. But after Jhara died at the age of 31 in 1991, the sport began to lose its magnificence. “Even if a few men from Jhara’s family had taken up the sport, it would be booming now. Japanese wrestler Inoki, who was beaten by Jhara, took one of his rival’s grandsons with him to train in freestyle wrestling.
Even in Goga’s own family, after him and his six brothers, no one has taken up wrestling except a son of one of his late brothers who trains in Goonga’s akhara. Pehlwan next door with the latter’s sons. “There is still a lot of money in this sport. From just two matches, an average pehlwan can earn tons of rupees; 10 years ago, a pehlwan earned 2 million rupees from a game. Even now, many wrestlers charge around Rs 500,000. But those who train here represent state entities like the military, Wapda and railways and earn a maximum of Rs 100,000.
Apart from the abandonment of family tradition, one of the other reasons for the downfall of the game is the cost incurred and the difficult daily routine.
“The daily expense for each wrestler is 3,500 rupees – one kilogram of meat, four garwi (jar) of milk, a quarter of a kilogram of almonds. I am training 25 pehlwans here right now, they come right after Fajr prayers, sweep and clean the akhara, tie up their loincloth, choke on oil, dig the pit, do sit ups, push ups , run, rope climb , lift dumbbells. They then leave around 10 a.m. Back then pehlwans trained for 7-8 hours, ate, slept and rehearsed,” says Goga.
Today, he complains, wrestlers spend all night on their cell phones and get up late. “They barely do 1,000 to 1,500 push-ups. But there are some in Multan, DG Khan, Lodhran who own and do 4,000 to 5,000 sit-ups, consume a kilogram of ghee. There is a huge difference between yesterday and today. These pehlwans were religious, prayed regularly. When they sat outside the akhara after training, the women would bring their sick children to them for prayer.
The closure of many akharas over the years in Lahore, either due to lack of state support or lack of enough players, has also contributed to the sport’s abandonment. Goga says while Jhara, Ikram Pehlwan, Bhai Pehlwan arenas were forced to close, Goonga’s, his, Jhara’s uncle Neema Pehlwan near Minar-i-Pakistan, one in Samanabad, another at Shahdara run by his student, two near Shahdara Station, a few at China Scheme and one at Saddar Cantt are still functional.
But all is not lost. The veteran says dangals, or wrestling matches, are still held every Sunday at China Scheme, which are attended by large crowds for free. “At that time, dangals were sponsored by governments, but now we don’t have the kind of pehlwans that appeal to the masses or government support. No mother can bear a child like Jhara now.
On the other hand, neighboring India sends contingents of pehlwans to international tournaments, produces films and invests in its athletes. “There are training schools in India where about 150 to 200 students are enrolled. The country spends on them, they take it very seriously. Our governments can help us if they wish, by establishing akharas, allocating a monthly budget and providing food for the trainees,” Goga suggests.
He also acknowledges the impression that some Pehlwans later became gangsters due to their strengths and the declining popularity of wrestling. “They often fought, including Jhara. No pehlwan should become abadmaash; it is a respectable and noble sport.
Posted in Dawn, May 31, 2022