Far from the slopes of Pyeonchang, South Korea, and the buzz of the approaching winter Olympics, India and Pakistan for centuries have been hosting a sport few people have heard of today. A form of competitive mud wrestling known as kushti or pehlwani, its roots may date to as far back as the 4th century B.C., though interest in the sport has been declining for at least two decades.
That may be “because of the lifestyle and resources it demands” or because kushti is simply not as fashionable as it once was, says University of Oslo anthropologist Paul Rollier.
Rollier characterizes the sport—which he writes about in his book, Wrestlers, Pigeon Fanciers, and Kite Flyers—as “a way of life, almost a devotional practice” that does require discipline. Sex, alcohol, and tobacco are forbidden. And a specific, dairy-rich diet is meant to provide the proper nutrition to support the wrestlers’, or pehlwans’, rigorous training demands.
“Nowadays in urban Pakistan few people practice pehlwani,” says Rollier.
Still, devotees exist. In Lahore, for example, a group of men gather routinely at an outdoor pit called an akhara to train. There they engage in an intense workout that involves climbing, pushups, and digging and leveling the earth into a flat surface. Afterward, the pehlwans critique each others performance, massage their considerable muscles with oil, and prepare for the next time they'll need to put them to use.