Varzesh-e Pahlavani

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(varzeš-e pahlavani ???? ???????) meaning the “Sport of the Heroes”, also known as Varzesh-e Bastani (Persian varzeš-e bastni ???? ???????), meaning the “Sport of the Ancients”, or simply as Pahlavani, is a traditional discipline of gymnastics and wrestling in Iran, which was originally an academy of physical training for military purposes.

Varzesh-e Pahlavani combines elements of the pre-Islamic Iranian culture with the spirituality of Sufism. Participants are expected to be pure, truthful, and good tempered and only then strong in body. The principles of unpretentiousness are exemplified by a verse recited at many meetings: “Learn modesty, if you desire knowledge. A highland would never be irrigated by river.” (Kanz ol-Haghayegh)

Varzesh-e Pahlavani is said[1] to be traceable back to Arsacid Parthian times (132 BCE – 226 CE). Following the development of Sufi Islam in the 8th century CE, Varzesh-e Pahlavani absorbed philosophical and spiritual components from it.

Varzesh-e Pahlavani was particularly popular in the 19th century, during the reign of the Qajar king Nassar al-Din Shah (1848-1896). Performances inspired by Persian mythology were held at the Shah’s court every 21 March (the Iranian new year[nowruz]). The sport declined following the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920s and the subsequent modernisation campaigns of Reza Shah, who saw the sport as a relic of Qajarite ritual.

Reza Shah’s son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi attempted to revive the tradition and practiced it himself, and during his reign, the last national competitions were held. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the tradition has lost popularity.

In recent years, the sport appears[2] to be gaining popularity in the countries adjacent to Iran, including Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan.

The traditional gymnasium in which the Varzesh-e Pahlavani is practiced is known as the Zurkhaneh or Zourkhaneh (Persian: ???????), literally “house of strength”. These ‘houses of strength’ are covered structures with a single opening in the ceiling, with a sunken octagonal or circular pit in the center (gaud).[3] Around the gaud is a section for the audience, one for the musicians, and one for the athletes.

The Varzesh-e Pahlavani rituals mimic the rituals and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like murshed “master” (beating the drum and reciting poetry), pish kesvat “leader”, taj “crown” or faqr “poverty”. The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise of prophet and his family. In less religion-oriented Zurkhanehs, these elements are replaced by the recital of stories from Iranian mythology, such as those of the Shahnameh.

The main part of a Varzesh-e Pahlavani session is dedicated to gymnastics or calisthenics, notably using a pair of wooden clubs (mil) and metal shields (sang), and bow-shaped iron weights (‘kaman). The exercises also involve acrobatics like Sufi whirling and juggling. The sessions end with submission wrestling known as the Koshti Pahlavani.[4]

The lowest rank is that of nowcheh or novice, followed by the nowkhasteh or advanced student, and finally the pahlavan or champion. There are several champion grades:

Renowned Pahlavans include:

Iranian Olympic wrestling medalists include:

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