Perhaps we’ve been thinking about this all wrong.
We place the modern (a time of global interchange) in opposition to the traditional (a time—we are taught—when we didn’t have any interaction with the outside world), and we’ve anointed certain beliefs, practices and objects as symbols of that tradition.
We don’t seem to realize that these local traditions are the result of a global exchange of goods and ideas that has been taking place since the dawn of time.
To take but one common example: the English Rose is the paragon of “traditional” English femininity. Except, the rose is endemic to the Himalayas.
Or, the “traditional” wrestler or pehlwan in India, who is the paragon of Hindu masculinity. Except, the practice of pehlwani has its roots in a melding between Brahminical high culture and Persian wrestling.
For the Hindu nationalist, the pehlwan is a son of the soil. The akhara or the wrestling gymnasium where the young pehlwan trains also has a literal connection to the earth, since the central wrestling pit is dug out of the ground.
A hundred years ago, the pehlwan‘s earthy masculinity was a traditional counterpoint to the colonial stereotype of the “effete oriental,” and today, it is a counterpoint to modern, consumerist notions of masculinity. The self-control, physical fitness and personal strength required of pehlwans are regarded as individualistic forms of national strength.1
In Iran too, the pehlwan represents an idealized Persian masculinity, known as javanmardi.2 Thus, he has, at various times, been co-opted by both Iranian nationalists and Shia Islamists.
The history of wrestling in Persia predates Islam even, its origin lost in the mists of time. The great Persian hero Rostam was given the title Pahlavan, closely related to the Indian pehlwan, and most of the epic Shahnameh is given over to celebrating his feats of incredible strength. At least one scholar has drawn a connection between Rostam and the Greek Hercules, bringing even more cultural influences to bear on this most nationalist of sports.3 (Nonetheless, Iranian wrestling is today considered distinct from the Greco-Roman sport of the Olympics).
The story gets more complicated. As nationalists/ religious fundamentalists in Iran and India have attempted to co-opt the pehlwani for their own political purposes, the pehlwans assert their independence by emphasizing the spiritual aspect of the sport.
Training to become a pehlwan is rigorous. Inside the wrestling gymnasium, all the hierarchies of the outside world are set aside, and the teacher has absolute authority. The process is transformative for the acolytes, like entering a monastery, and is regarded as a form of contemplative worship.
The god of the Indian pehlwans is Hanuman, the greatest bhakt or devotee of Lord Rama. The term bhakt comes from the Bhakti movement, a reformist movement in medieval India that liberated its practitioners from the burden of caste by emphasizing a close personal relationship with the divine, akin to romantic love.
In Iran, wrestling has close ties to Sufi philosophy. The lyrics of the songs to which the pehlwans perform their exercises are based on the classical love poetry of the Sufi mystics and draw parallels between the beloved and the divine. Wrestlers are encouraged to model their behaviour on that of the martyr Ali, to whom all Sufi orders trace their lineage.4
Historically, Bhakti and Sufism have also had a close relationship to each other. On the Indian subcontinent, they provided a neutral space where Hindus and Muslims could meet. So too with pehlwani. Gama, a Muslim wrestler from India who became the world champion in the twentieth century, had a Hindu guru.
For a group upheld as an ideal, pehlwans nonetheless lived on the margins of society. Pehlwans in Persia displayed their prowess to the residents of one town before moving on to another. There was little room for a traditional family life in this itinerant lifestyle.5
(Interestingly, yoga, too, was considered marginal in its homeland until its popularity exploded in the West. Once the opportunities for commercialization became evident, it was reclaimed as “tradition.”)
Perhaps the only thing traditional about pehlwani is the aesthetics of it all. The big, heavy physicality of the moustachioed wrestlers is truly from another era.