Pehlwani , or modern Indian wrestling, is a synthesis of an indigenous Aryan Hindu form of wrestling that dates back at least to the 5th century BC and a Persian form of wrestling brought into South Asia by the Mughals.

A practitioner of this sport is referred to as a pehlwan (also spelled pahlwan in Persian, champion, literally a Parthian). Generally speaking, Hindu teachers of wrestling are known as guru and Muslim teachers ustad.

The Indian wrestling form has undergone several changes in both the nomenclature and training methodologies through the ages. The more prominent influences include the introduction of Persian nomenclature and western training methods.

Wrestling competitions, known as Dangals, held at village levels, have their own rules which vary from place to place. Usually, a win is awarded by decision from the panel of judges, knockout, stoppage or submission.

Training: In Indian wrestling, vyayam, or physical training, is meant to build strength and develop muscle bulk and flexibility. Exercises that employ the wrestler’s own bodyweight include the sun salutation, shirshasan, and the dand, which are also found in hatha yoga, as well as the bethak. Sawari (the passenger) is the practice of using another person’s bodyweight to add resistance to such exercises.

Exercise regimens may also employ the following weight training devices:

  • The nal is a hollow stone cylinder with a handle inside.
  • The gar nals (literally “neck weights”) is a circular stone ring worn around the neck to add resistance to dands and bethaks.
  • The gada is a mace, as associated with Hanuman. An exercise gada is a heavy round stone attached to the end of a meter-long bamboo stick. Pahalwani trophies take the form of gadas made of silver and gold.

Exercise regimens may also include dhakulis, which involve twisting rotations; rope climbing; log pulling; and running. Massage is regarded an integral part of a pahalwan’s exercise regimen.

Diet: According to the Samkhya school of philosophy, everything in the universe—including people, activities, and foods—can be sorted into three gunas: sattva (calm/good), rajas (passionate/active), and tamas (dull/lethargic).

As a vigorous activity, wrestling has an inherently rajasic nature, which pahalwan counteract through the consumption of sattvic foods. Milk and ghee are regarded as the most sattvic of foods and, along with almonds, comprise the holy trinity of the pahalwan’s khurak, or diet. A common snack of pahalwans is chickpeas that have been sprouted overnight in water and seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon; the water in which the chickpeas were sprouted is also regarded as nutritious. Various articles in the Indian wrestling monthly Bharatiya Kushti have recommended the consumption of the following fruits: apples, wood-apples, bananas, figs, pomegranates, gooseberries, lemons, and watermelons. Orange juice and green vegetables are also recommended for their sattvic nature. Some pahalwans eat meat in spite of its rajasic nature.

Ideally, wrestlers are supposed to avoid sour and excessively spiced foods such as chutneys and achars, as well as chaats. Mild seasoning with garlic, cumin, coriander, and turmeric is acceptable. The consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and paan is strongly discouraged.

History: Wrestling has been very popular in India since Vedic times. Malla-yuddha, the classical form of Indian wrestling, dates back before the Aryan invasion and was a precursor to modern Pehlwani. There is a memorable wrestling contest between Bhima and Jarasandha narrated in the Mahabharata, and there is a duel between Rustam and Sohrab mentioned in the Persian Shahnameh (Book of Kings).

Balarama, the brother of Lord Krishna, was a wrestler described in these religious texts. In the Ramayana, there is mention of the vanara King Vali, having won against the mighty Ravana, the king of Lanka, in a wrestling contest. These texts describe the ancient wrestling art of Mallayuddha.

In the 16th century India was conquered by the Mughals, who were Persians of Mongol descent. They brought the influence of Persian and Mongolian wrestling to the local Malla-yuddha. This was the beginning of modern Pehlwani.

India in the recent past had great wrestlers of the class of Great Gama and Gobar Goho. India reached its peak of glory in the IV Asian Games (later on called Jakarta Games) in 1962 when all the seven wrestlers were placed on the medal list and in between them they bagged 12 medals in Freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling. A repetition of this performance was witnessed again when all the 8 wrestlers sent to the Commonwealth Games held at Kingston (Jamaica) had the distinction of getting medals for the country.

During the 60’s, India was ranked among the first eight or nine wrestling nations of the world and hosted the world wrestling championships in New Delhi in 1967. The undefeated champions of India hold the title Rustum-i-Hind title.

Cross training was inevitable even in this ancient discipline. Pehlwans who compete in wrestling nowadays are also known to cross train in the grappling aspects of Judo and Jujutsu.

Legendary wrestlers from the bygone era eg. Karl Gotch have made tours to India to learn the art of Pehlwani and further hone their skills. Karl Gotch was gifted a pair of “mudgals” (exercise equipment used by the Indian wrestlers) by the Indian wrestlers. The conditioning exercises of Pehlwani are incorporated into many of the conditioning aspects of both catch wrestling and shoot wrestling, along with their derivative systems. These systems also borrow several throws, submissions and takedowns from Pehlwani.

The popularity of this tradition seems to be withering away. The “milked sand wrestling pits” (20X20 deep stone courtyards, filled with clay and water or milk), which served as the traditional arena for both training and competitions are now giving way to wrestling mats and rings. The wrestlers are pursuing the sport as a hobby and not as a full time profession, and popular professional wrestling promotions have pushed Pehlwani to the brink of obscurity.

Famous Pehlwans, Olympic Freestyle Wrestlers:
*Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav – 1952 Olympic bronze medalist, 1948 Olympics 6th place.

Asian Games Freestyle Wrestlers:

Master Chandgiram 1970 Asian games gold medalist is an Indian wrestler who is Known for defeating champions from numerous other disciplines of martial arts. Currently runs Chandiram akhara in old delhi.

  • Satpal Singh 1982 Asian games gold medalist,1972,’80 olympian currently Director general of sports Delhi.

Legendary Indian Wrestlers:

  • Great Gama.
  • Karim Bux – was the first wrestler to get into world headlines, when he defeated Tom Canon of England in 1892.
  • Mama Moti Singh, trainer of Kikkar Singh and Kalloo whom he trained in the unique dog method of wrestling.
  • Kikkar Singh – Dev-e-Hind, Known for his phenomenal chest and body.
  • Gulam – accompanied the late Pandit Motilal Nehru to Paris in 1900 and defeated Cour-Derelli of Turkey.
  • Gobar Goho – defeated the legendary hook wrestler Ad Santel in San Francisco in 1922 and became the world champion.
  • Rajeev tomar- Holds the distinction of being awarded Bharat Kesari the maximum number of times.
  • Anuj Chaudhary- Arjuna award winner Indian Wrestler.
  • Ramzi Pahlwan.
  • Kalloo.
  • Labhu Lohar.
  • Rahim Sultaniwala.
  • Imam Baksh Pehlwan -The Indian wrestling legend, and the former Rustam-I-Hind as well as the winner of several strength contests in India.
  • Viddo – (Sitara-I-Hind).
  • Bular.
  • Goonga Baliwala.
  • Mhani Reniwala.
  • Gutta Singh Khakhanwala.
  • Hamida Pehlwan – former Rustam-I-Hind and the trainer of the Bholu Brothers.
  • Ganda Singh Johal.
  • Haider Amritsaria.
  • Bholu – He is the eldest son of Imam Baksh Pehlwan. And the eldest among the Pehlwan Brothers.
  • Ajit Singh- Indian Wrestler.
  • Bholu Brothers- Illustrious Pehlwan Brothers (Bholu , Aslam , Goga , Akram and Azam).
  • Akram Pehlwan- the son of the wrestling legend Imam Baksh Pahalwan. He became famous for his mixed martial arts match against Antonio Inoki. He is also one of the Bholu Brothers.
  • Aslam Pahlwan also trained by Mama Moti Singh.
  • Nasir Bholu- Well-known wrestler from the Bholu family.
  • Jhara Pehlwan- Real name Zubair , was the son of the famous Aslam Pehlwan.
  • Banta Singh Waltoha (Bharat Kesari award winner).
  • Santokh singh bahadurnagar (Bharat Kesari award winner).
  • Mehardin (Bharat Kesari award winner).
  • Malkit Singh Kanjli (Well-known wrestler from Kapurthala(Punjab), Four Time University Champion and two times Inter-varsity Champion,currently runs an akhara in Kapurthala(Punjab,INDIA).
  • Salwinder Singh Shinda (Rustam-e-Hind) and Indian national wrestling champion. He is also a four time Chandigarh Kesari award winner. Now he was a president of district wrestling association Tarn-Taran.

Pehlwani Associated with Professional Wrestling: Professional Wrestlers (Professional wrestling is an orchestrated sport and has been created so that it is entertaining, hence the term, sports entertainment. Although some of it seems to have an element of realism, it is mostly choreographed, where the fate of the match has been pre-decided. Everything in WWE, TNA and other professional wrestling promotions has to do with more acrobatics and storyline angles than the non-choregraphed amateur wrestling.)

  • Sonjay Dutt: (TNA Wrestling) of Indian origin, a light heavyweight style wrestler.
  • The Great Khali (Dalip Singh): (WWE) The Punjab State, Jalander, police bodybuilder and wrestler (Pehlwan) from Northern India standing at 7 feet 3 inches tall.
  • Tiger Jeet Singh: Real name, Jagit Singh Hans, is the world renowned Indian pro-wrestler.
  • Tiger Ali Singh: Real name, Gurjit Singh Hans is an Indian Pro-wrestler and son of Tiger Jeet Singh.
  • Dara Singh: Wrestler and actor, famous for traveling to the United States of America; knocking out the professional wrestlers in the US, then coming back home after realizing the meaning of the word “working” in American professional wrestling.
  • Gadowar Singh Sahota
  • Dalibur Singh
  • Prince Mann Singh

Indian Wrestling Titles:

  • Rustam-i-Hind: (also spelled Rustam-e-Hind) Wrestling Champion of India in Hindustani. Imam Baksh Pahalwan and Hamida Pahalwan held the Rustam-I-Hind title in the past.
  • Rustam-e-Punjab : (also spelled Rustam-I-Punjab) Wrestling Champion of Punjab in Hindustani. Pehalwan Salwinder Singh Shinda becomes six times Rustam-e-Punjab
  • Rustam-i-Zamana: World Wrestling Champion in Hindustani. For example, the Great Gama of India became known as Rustam-I-Zamana when he defeated Stanislaus Zbyszko in 1910.
  • Bharat-Kesri: Best heavyweight wrestler of India in Hindustani. Recent winners include Rajeev Tomar (Railways) and Palwinder Singh Cheema (Punjab police).