Comparing Indian and Persian Exercise Traditions

November 26, 2008 – 9:01 am

The Zurkhaneh, or “House of Power”, was where the Pahlavani (which translates literally as “hero”) - the strongmen martial artists of ancient Persia - practiced their secret artform. Though its founders were Zoroastrian, it merged with other traditions to form “a unique institution having incorporated the spiritual richness of Sufism, traditional rituals of Mithraism, and heroism of Iranian nationalism.” However, the doors to the Zurkhaneh still remain predominantly closed to outsiders.

Historically, there is no clear-cut event which brought their art - Varesh-e Pahalvani - outside of the Zurkhaneh into the Indo-Pakistan territories to merge with Indian Hatha Yoga. However, there are two theories, although the likelihood of both being true is greater than either one individually:

  1. Trade: either traders from India brought their exotic wares to ancient Persia and came into contact with the Zurkhaneh, or Persian traders carried their precious artifacts (now illegal to leave the country) to ancient India.
  2. Wrestling: One of the indigenous style of wrestling centralized in Northern India - named Kushti - is also the name for the sacred belt worn by Zoroastrians. One of the Persian styles of wrestling is named Koshti.

The predominant style of Indian wrestling is named Pehlwani, a Sanskrit derviation of the Persian Pahlavani - which itself refers to literally - Parthia.

It is believed that the Mughals brought Persian wrestling from Southern Asia around 5 century B.C. Pehlwani is actual the mixture of Pahlavani with the indigenous style of Indian wrestling which predates exposure to the ancient Persians by several hundred years, called Malla-yuddha.

There are cultural differences between the Pahlavani and the Pehlwani which resulted from the inclusion of Hatha Yoga - the bodyweight gymnastics of ancient India originating approximately 10-11th century B.C. Having existed for several hundred years prior to the exposure to the Pahlavani, the cultural movements and beliefs intermingled.

Pahlavani

The Pahlavani are said to developed their martial art and strength conditioning as preparation for invaders.

The Zurkhaneh included a collection of combat specific strength conditioning tools:

  • Meel - the Club - a pair of wooden clubs that evolved from ancient weapon.
  • Kabadeh - the Bow - of heavy weight swung overhead and around the body, which influenced the creation of the Indian Sumtola or barbell.
  • Sang - the Shield - which was used in a rolling floor press fashion, alternating the press of one and then the other with a combined twisting motion of the legs. The Sang came to influence the creation of the Indian Nal dumbbell.
  • Takhteh Shena - the Bar, from which “Dands” or “Hindu pushups” derived. Performed on the bar, they were structurally sound - not like today’s commercial mutations - and included joint specific mobility exercises to compensate for their performance.

In addition, there were several bodyweight-only exercises included such as:

  • Spinning - for preparing to fight multiple attackers
  • Stomping - a dance of practicing kicks
  • Squatting - a specific style intertwined with the ritual dance as part of strengthening the legs for kicking. It is from this dance that Bethaks or “Hindu squats” derived, though they were not performed in very high volume, and only as part of the ritual dance.

Pehlwani

The Pahlavani intermingled with the predated Hatha Yoga and influenced the creation of a parallel though disparate discipline called Vyayam.

Vyayam is a system of physical training designed to build functional strength and muscle size. Though it is sympathetic to its counterpart of hatha yoga, unlike yoga, vyayam emphasizes physical strength. Where Hatha Yoga concentrates on the harmonization of all aspects of the body, vyayam builds on this harmonization through calisthenic and cardiovascular exercise.

As with yoga, a key concept in vyayam is the holistic, regulated control of the body. In yoga, however, the body is manipulated through the practice of relatively static postures. Vyayam disciplines the body through strenuous, patterned, repetitive movement.

Exercises that use the wrestler’s bodyweight include Surya Namaskar or the “Sun Salutation”. It is actually a hybrid or 10 flowing movements which incorporates hatha yoga asana (or postures) with vyayam calisthenics. While based on formal yogic principles, surya namaskar also serves to develop physical strength.

Exercise regimens may also employ the following weight training devices:

  • The Jori is the decendent of the Persian meel. However, the Indians created several other club designs named after territories and peoples such as the Ekka, Karela and Mughals. There is also:
  • The Gada - a mace associated with Hanuman - the Indian god of strength. An exercise gada is a heavy round stone attached to the end of a meter-long bamboo stick. The gada can be considered the hallmark tool of the Pehlwani as it honors Hanuman. Trophies take the form of gadas made of silver and gold.
  • The Mallakhamb or wrestler’s pillar was a club so large that it was embedded deep into the ground. The yoga gymnastics initially converted for performance on climbing ropes was performed swinging from these giant pillars.

However, the Indians were less traditional than the Persians and devised a wider array of exercises. This grew during the British East India Company’s occupation of India after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. These included the mixture of British “strongman” culture - the proto-bodybuilders who adopted the tools of the Indian Pehlwani:

  • The Sumtola is a log with hollowed out grips, which resembles a modern barbell, though is still used in strongman competitions.
  • The Nal is a hollow stone cylinder with a handle inside, which resembled a dumbbell.
  • The Gar Nal (literally “neck weights”) is a circular stone ring worn around the neck to add resistance to dands and bethaks.
  • Sawari (the passenger) is the practice of using another person’s bodyweight to add resistance to such exercises.

Tradition ways - the way things were taught by the guru (India) or ustad (Persia) - are not always the optimal. Because over years of copying errors, just like in genetics - like copying a copy of a copy of a copy produces flaws, one cannot always trust tradition.

My background in tactical gymnastics with special operations units allowed me to maintain a pragmatic, context-free approach to absorbing physical culture from around the world. And in typical American fashion, I feel comfortable learning from all cultures, since my own is still very young. However, it’s important to understand the origins of one’s activities so as to maintain proper perspective, to keep the research updated and to enjoy the long heritage of practice which you may unknowingly participate.

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Scott Sonnon

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  1. 10 Responses to “Comparing Indian and Persian Exercise Traditions”

  2. Good scholarly article, coach. Thanks for sharing.

    By Bao Tran on Nov 26, 2008

  3. Yep, very informative. Never knew about Vyayam and am now intrigued to learn more.

    By AF1 on Nov 26, 2008

  4. hello,

    coach sonnon, this article is appreciated. in response to your article “malaysia bans yoga for muslims”, had asked you if yoga descended from iran. this article answered that rather thoroughly.

    thanks

    By lorenzo damarith on Nov 26, 2008

  5. Very interesting article. Is there any indication that Indo-Iranian physical culture influenced Central Asian and from there Russian approaches to physical culture? I’ve seen some speculation about this, but never from anyone who had a broad enough background to provide a reliable answer.

    By Glenn on Nov 26, 2008

  6. Glenn,

    In Russia, I was apprised from several reliable sources that the lore of Zdorovye’s heritage comes from Indian yoga traveling North along the trade routes encountering tribes such as the early Cossacks.

    By Scott Sonnon on Nov 26, 2008

  7. Thanks, Scott. One more question, or perhaps a request. I’ve seen pushup boards, which you mention in your article. Would you be able to explain how you use them and what they do to make hindu pushups safe?

    By Glenn on Nov 27, 2008

  8. Sure, I’ve addressed this in Forward Pressure, but I’ll work on something when I return from Europe.

    By Scott Sonnon on Nov 27, 2008

  9. hi scott,

    interesting read, but can i ask, where do you get your information on the confluence of yoga and the pahlavani (i.e., “The Pahlavani intermingled with the predated Hatha Yoga and influenced the creation of a parallel though disparate discipline called Vyayam.)?? can i get a source?

    thanks,
    sundari

    By sundari on Sep 21, 2009

  10. Sundari: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520076974

    By Scott Sonnon on Sep 21, 2009

  11. There are too many people out there engaged in practices that they don’t understand the cultural context and roots of–in its worst form, this ignorance is manifested as a disrespectful attitude toward the culture and practice itself. For this reason, it is always encouraging to see/hear of practitioners who promote a respect for these ancient and valuable lessons we have inherited from the world’s traditions. Thanks for posting.

    By NM91 on Oct 15, 2009

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