The beat of the dhols can be heard loud and clear from afar as the malhakhrra wrestlers in their huge airy shalwars, twisted and rolled up at the belt, try to overpower each other in the middle of the muddy pitch. For some, this is plain dirty mud wrestling; but for the crowds gathered to see these men with heavily oiled, slippery bodies grab each other from the belt of their shalwars, it is quite an exciting sport.
Malhakhrro, malhakhrra or malh is a traditional sport of Sindh. The word malh is derived from the Sindhi ‘malah’n’, meaning to celebrate. Its matches are usually organised during festivals and urs (death anniversary) of Sufi saints. People coming to the shrines of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Hazrat Sachal Sarmast have seen the biggest malhakhrra events during their urs. In fact, there may be more people there to watch the matches than to pay tribute to the saints.
There are 83 locations in Sindh where malh or malhakhrra matches are held annually and all are associated with the shrines. These also include 17 very important annual malhakhrra events held on the urs of Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai at the fair of Bhit Shah, the urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, the urs of Sain Summan Sarkar and the urs of Hazrat Sachal Sarmast and others.
Although now it is known more as a sport of Sindh due to its origins in the Indus Valley Civilisation dating back some 5,000 years, this form of mud wrestling had also reached up to Afghanistan and to Gujarat in India. There are malhakhrra matches also held in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, though not as many as one sees happening in Sindh.
A malhakhrra event generally begins in the evening, surrounded by traditional pageantry. Manghanhaar fakirs and Sindhi folk singers render their voices to go with the rhythmic beat of the dhols. The music thus produced is called ‘malh kriji vajja’ or ‘music of the game’. It serves to buck up the wrestlers and attract the crowd during a match.
“The sport is all about power and strength,” says 61-year-old Maharam Ali Majeedano, a veteran wrestler from Khairpur. He adds that, to gain this power and make their body strong, the wrestlers must stick to a healthy diet of milk, butter, eggs, meat, dried fruit, etc.
Malhakhrra or mud wrestling is considered an indigenous and popular Sindhi sport. But changing times and lack of official patronage mean that it is slowly fading in its own landscape
“But most players are jobless. Many of them are peasants, who don’t really have the means themselves to buy these food items,” he says. “Usually, dole from rich feudal lords and influential persons or landlords help the malh wrestlers maintain their fitness. They are also the ones on whose wishes the matches are organised,” he adds.
“I have been wrestling since 1979. Malhakhrra is my passion,” says Majeedano. In order to maintain his fitness himself, he does lots of daily exercises and eats as well as he can afford to. “Malh is a part of our rich Sindhi culture and tradition. I can’t possibly lose ties with my culture, my identity,” he says.
When asked about the wrestlers’ garb, Majeedano says that the huge shalwars that they wear are also a part of their culture, just like Sindhi caps and ajrak. “Perhaps we are becoming too modern now so the shalwars seem strange but, earlier, the people of Sindh used to wear only these types of big shalwars. It used to be very comfortable daily wear,” he points out.
There are over 500 malh wrestlers in Sindh participating off and on in different competitions being organised in their respective districts. Still, Majeedano laments the fact that malhakhrra may be lost in history if Sindh’s youth does not take an active interest in the sport. “Due to the lack of facilities, our youngsters are not really interested in malh,” he says, adding that those who are involved in the sport are also worried about how they will survive without any jobs.
“Malhakhrra is a seasonal sport after all, and these wrestlers are not earning anything through their fights so they are often worried about how they are going to feed their families. Malhakhrra asks for time, money and hard work, although it has nothing to offer in return,” he says.
About how did he get interested in the sport himself? Majeedano says that he had made up his mind to be a malh wrestler when he was only a child. “Those were very different days and one didn’t expect to earn from one’s hobbies. Representing my district, Khairpur, later, I also won several medals and trophies at urs and melas [fairs] where other pehelwans [wrestlers] would also travel from all over Sindh to participate,” he says.
Abdul Ghafoor Mengal, another 60-year-old malh wrestler, who lives in Shah Mureed in Karachi’s Gadap Town, says that he has been mud wrestling since 1980 and has participated in several inter-provincial malhakhrra competitions to win medals and trophies for Sindh. “I have faced wrestlers from Lasbela, Khuzdar, South Punjab and upper Punjab,” he says.
Talking about the rules of malhakhrra, Abdul Ghafoor says that each match has two rounds. “It begins with the wrestlers trying to grab the belt of each other’s shalwar for the throw to the ground. You can compare their techniques to judo techniques,” he points out.
“Just like you need sturdy gis in judo, you also need sturdy shalwars in malhakhrra. The shalwar belts or cummerbund are traditionally made of the same cotton as the one used in making ajrak,” he says, adding that if a player losses the first round but still manages to defeat his opponent in the second round, he ends up the winner of the match. “The second round of the match is very important,” he points out.
Behram Baloch, a wrestling coach and trainer says that there are 32 basic techniques, which malh wrestlers use for defeating their opponents during tournaments and big events. “Of course, like in every sport, cheating is to be watched out for. If any player resorts to using wrong tactics during a match, he is banned for at least one year by the malh referees,” he explains.
Baloch also says that betting is prohibited in malh. “If any wrestler is found guilty of throwing a match, he will face a ban imposed on him by the managing committee of a festival,” he says.
Gul Munir, a 42-year-old malh wrestler from Jhando Marri in Tando Allahyar, says that he has been taking part in malhakhrra for the past 20 years, and that he has also been awarded with several medals during this while. “Sindh has lots of famous malh wrestlers such as Malar Sheedi from Bhit Shah, Muhammad Furqan, Rahib Jaggar, Manthar Bugti, Ghulam Hussain and Muhammad Khan Palh. Some of them are international. They have won several international awards while Asghar Ali Jagarani, Sain Muhammad Bugti and Muhammad Siddiq are famous local wrestlers from Sindh,” he says. He adds that, although malhakhrra is not financially rewarding, winning wrestlers still do receive cash prizes of 10,000, 15,000 and even 20,000 rupees from the rich landlords.
Asghar Ali, who serves as secretary of the Malh Association in Sukkur, says that malhakhrra is still quite a popular sport in the villages and small districts of Sindh, though inter-provincial competitions of malhakhrra have decreased. “There is a lack of interest of both the federal and provincial governments in this traditional sport. So now one just witnesses it at specific events such as the urs festivals,” he adds.
“The government should take serious measures to preserve this traditional form of wrestling by supporting the malh wrestlers,” he says. “Otherwise the sport may lose its identity and die a sad death soon.”
The writer tweets @Zafar_Khan5
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 26th, 2020