Nearly 70 years old, he now sits on a charpoy laid out for him in the verdant fields of his hometown, Kahror Pakka. The past may be another country but, in his mind, it is still as vibrant as the lush green around him. “Traditional wrestling or desi kushti and pehelwani was my passion since I was a child. I have won many gold and silver medals at the national and international levels in wrestling,” says the former Rustam-i-Kahror Pakka, Allah Wassaya Baloch, also known as Wasu Pehelwan.
Born in 1951 into a poor family in Tehsil Khairpur Tamewali of District Bahawalpur, Wasu left his education soon after passing the exams for class five. “I had just got admission to class six at the Government Middle School in Lal Suhanra near Bahawalpur, when I quit school. My father, Sardar Mohammad Khan Baloch, was a daily wage labourer and I joined him to supplement our family income. After work, I would indulge in kushti for fun. At the time, we were living on the southern bank of the Sutlej River, an area with a large Seraiki population,” says Wasu Pehelwan.
Later his father moved the family from there to Tibbi Waddan, a village near Kahror Pakka in District Lodhran. “There, my father got a little portion of agricultural land on contract and life improved somewhat.
“I started taking part in kabbadi and desi kushti, very common and popular sports in the remote areas of Punjab of the 1960s,” says Wasu Pehelwan, adding that he turned professional in kushti in 1973 and won several matches in District Multan.
“I had got my regular training in kushti from Ustad Ghulam Mohammad, who also lived in Tibbi Waddan. He taught me good skills. I used to take part in kushti competitions held every Friday evening in the town, where I defeated many good wrestlers to become known at the town and district levels as a good wrestler myself,” he says.
Wasu Pehelwan, a traditional wrestler once known as a Rustam-i-Kahror Pakka, shares memories from his good old days with Eos
“I prepared a soft muddy akhara [wrestling ring] for practice at my friend Mian Farooq’s house in Mohalla Buxi Wala in Kahror Pakka. During this time, I used to receive several offers for participation in dangals [competitions] of kushti from different cities. Once I participated in three kushti dangals in Dera Ghazi Khan within one week,” Wasu says.
“A good diet is very important for wrestlers, but I couldn’t afford things such as desi ghee [clarified butter], milk, almonds and meat all the time. But after winning matches and getting a bit of fame, I was also able to eat healthy, thus improving my performance even further,” he says.
Wasu Pehelwan says that whenever there was a kushti dangal being held at the city or district level in Punjab, the organisers used to put up impressive posters of the participating wrestlers on city walls, electric poles, tea stalls and inside dhabas and eateries. There also used to be announcements about the competitions on loudspeakers fixed on rickshaws, vans and tongas (horse carriages).
Traditional wrestling was very popular in Pakistan and India. Cities such as Lahore, Gujranwala, Multan, Faisalabad, Bahawalpur, Kahror Pakka and Sialkot in Pakistan have seen a large number of famous traditional wrestlers who have, in their day, won many medals for their country at the international level. Similarly, in India, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Kolhapur, Gujarat and parts of East Punjab have been known to produce good wrestlers.
Wasu Pehelwan says that, after the Subcontinent’s partition, Pakistani wrestlers were at the peak of their form, especially between 1954 and 1970. “Pakistani wrestlers won 18 wrestling gold medals in the Commonwealth Games, five at the Asian Games and one bronze medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics,” he says.
By this time, Wasu had earned the title of Rustam-i-Kahror Pakka. “I fought several top Pakistani wrestlers during my time, and also defeated them at different tournaments held in various cities of Pakistan. I was defeated by Lahore’s Akram Pehelwan in Bahawalpur during this while but then, after only four months, I defeated him in a match held in Dera Ghazi Khan,” he says.
“I have also defeated Bholu Teli Pehelwan of Gujranwala in Dera Ghazi Khan just like I was defeated by Shahid Pehelwan Attay Wala in Jalalpur, though again I defeated him when we met again in another match after six months,” Wasu laughs. He adds that among his opponents were Pappu Pehelwan Lahoriya, Mushtaq Pehelwan Lahoriya, Saladu Pehelwan Lahoriya, Billo Pehelwan Lahoriya, Saeed Pehelwan Clutchian Wala, Makha Pehelwan Multani, Peer Pehelwan Multani and Hafeez Pehelwan Multani.
But the ones he defeated — namely, Shaikh Javed Pehelwan Faisalabadi, Tinda Pehelwan Faisalabadi, Rustam-i-Bahawalpur Taj Mohammad (alias Tajja Jhiddo Pehelwan), Pappu Bhara Pehelwan, Jindwada Pehelwan, Rabnawaz Larka Pehelwan, Raju Rocket Sialkoti Pehelwan, Manzoor Faqir Pehelwan and Moodha Pehelwan — happen to be his favourites. “I defeated the famous Raju Rocket Sialkoti and Manzoor Faqir Pehelwan in different matches,” says Wasu Pehelwan. “Both these wrestlers were very sharp. Their way of fighting was very different from the rest.
“I also beat Moodha Pehelwan, who happened to be the grandson of Feroz Din known as Goonga Pehelwan, the Rustam-i-Hind [champion of India],” says Wasu Pehelwan. The list of wrestlers whom Wasu Pehelwan defeated also include Azam Pehelwan and G.G. Pehelwan, who belonged to the family of the great Gama Pehelwan, and his nephew Bholu Pehelwan.
“I was only a child when the great Gama Pehelwan passed away, but I loved hearing stories about him. I have always looked up to that family of wrestlers. I got to fight Jhara Pehelwan, the grandson of the great Gama,” he says, adding that the fight was held on February 19, 1984 in Bahawalpur, and that he was able to overpower Jhara within a few minutes.
“The family still has huge potential with good wrestlers who, along with some other wrestlers of Lahore, Gujranwala and the Seraiki belt of southern Punjab, who are also keeping kushti alive in Pakistan. Manzoor Hussain, better known as Bholu Pehelwan was the first Pakistani after Independence to take the title of Rustam-i-Zaman [world champion] during the time of President Ayub Khan,” Wasu Pehelwan remembers.
In 1983, Wasu Pehelwan joined the Pakistan Army. He represented the army in wrestling for some seven years. “During this while, I also participated in international competitions of desi wrestling held in Los Angeles, California, in 1984 where military teams of 23 countries from all around the world were participating. Of course, the ring was not muddy, something that I was used to. They had a padded foam wrestling mat instead,” he says.
“But despite this, I defeated wrestlers from many countries, to find myself in the second position at the event. My silver medal from that time was a great source of pride for me,” he says.
Wasu Pehelwan won seven gold medals during his service in the Pakistan Army. He says that he also took part in kabbadi competitions during this time and represented the Pakistan Army in kabbadi in Tehran, London and New York as well.
He reminisces that in 1988, his area was hit by massive floods. “We were still living near the Sutlej River and the flood destroyed our home. All my medals and certificates got lost in the water,” he says, adding that he stopped wrestling after two years of this incident, in 1990. But he made a spontaneous came back in 1996, although for just one match — to defeat Bashir Bhola Bhalla Pehelwan in a match. “I did it without any practice,” he says with some pride.
Wasu Pehelwan says that in Pakistan there is, unfortunately, no government support for desi kushti. “Unemployment and poverty is a big challenge for our wrestlers. The government should provide jobs in government institutions to them. There should be a fixed allowance for them, too, because the lack of support for this traditional sport is making it fade away,” he says.
You can almost physically feel the former champion’s regret.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @Zafar_Khan5
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 13th, 2020