A banker by profession, Salim Ansar has a passion for history and historic books. His personal library already boasts a treasure trove of over 7,000 rare and unique books.
Every week, we shall take a leaf from one such book and treat you to a little taste of history.
BOOK NAME: The Waterless Moon
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Balneaves
PUBLISHER: Lutterworth Press – London
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 1956
“This is an extraordinary book, written by an extraordinary young woman, a young woman of courage and grit, inspired with an avidity for adventure, the more dangerous the more attractive, and with all this that rare gift of close observation, and the faculty of describing what she sees in vivid language.
“The Punjabis are athletic and graceful; the men have always provided one of the main units of the defence forces, and are fine natural horsemen. The famous stud farms of Montgomery and Sarghoda have supplied both horses and mules for the Army and the surrounding districts, as well as the finest race-horses in India — actually, one of these from the Renala Stud has been exported and raced in Britain. For hundreds of years, dangal, or wrestling, has been the sport of the youth of what is now known as Pakistan and the cradle of its origin, the Punjab. Dangal is largely an inherited art, its secrets passed on from father to son. The wrestlers command tremendous honour and respect and ranked at one time among their patrons some of the richest and most influential of the Indian maharajahs. Trials of strength and skill have always delighted and impressed Islamic peoples, and dangal in Pakistan has never deteriorated into the brutality which has come to be associated with “all-in” wrestling in the West. It bears indeed a certain family resemblance to the Cumberland style, seen so often against the sombre background of fell and dale.
BHOLO’S SCHOOL OF WRESTLING
“While we were in Karachi, I was lucky enough to attend as a member of the Press-and, I may add, the only woman in about five thousand spectators-an exhibition of wrestling in the Y.M.C.A. grounds, and afterwards to receive a personal invitation to visit the wrestlers at the Akhara Bholu Pahalwan, Bholu’s School of Wrestling. The Prime Minister, Kwaja Nazimuddin, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan and the Khan of Kalat were among the spectators, while Major-General Akbar Khan acted as referee.
“The loudspeakers blared forth across the arena, flanked with excited crowds, turbans and lungis brilliant with colour, sprinkled like confetti amidst the starched white of shirt and shalwar. ‘Bholu Pahalwan, Rustem-i-Pakistan! Hamida Pahalwan, Rustem-i-Hindustan Achha Pahalwan, Rustem-i-PunJabV’ (Bholu the wrestler, Champion of Pakistan, Hamida, Champion of Hindustan, and Achha, Champion of the Punjab.) A wild surge of cheering greeted the champions as they advanced towards the ring, the sunlight seeming to magnify their great girth. Bholu leapt into the air, shouting ‘Allah Akbar!’ (God is great). Aslam, alias Achha Pahalwan, draws a specially admiring burst of applause, for he is tall, handsome and well-built, and so far has not seen fit to put on mere weight of flesh. The band of the 8th Punjabis marches and countermarches to the skirl of the pipes, and above the noise of cheering floats nostalgically the Scottish air, ‘Over the Sea to Skye’.
“I was shivering with excitement, not quite knowing what I had let myself in for, and quite alone. The only other occupant of the little ringed-off space in which I sat in state was a middle-aged imposingly upright figure, resplendent in purple turban, gold embroidered lungi and fine muslin shirt. He had long, fierce black moustaches, but the piercing black eyes heavily ringed with surama were kind, and even to my unprofessional eye he look as though he might know something about the game.
“Diffidently I sidled forward and essayed a shy ‘Assalau Aleikum?’ Slightly startled, he turned round and nodded pleasantly, ‘Waleikum, salaam!’ although he could not fail to have been a trifle disconcerted by the appearance of a European women at a wrestling exhibition. I asked him the names of the contestants and from that we drew up our chairs and I realized that somehow I was in on the ground floor, so to speak, for he knew all there was to know about Punjabi wrestling. It was only later in the afternoon that General Akbar Khan told me I had been talking to the great Gama Pahalwan, Rustem-i-Zaman, at seventy-five undefeated Champion of the World. This fine old man is a legendary figure! in the sporting world, and every Pakistani schoolboy knows h name. Wrestling is in his blood. Gama’s father and grandfather were wrestlers before him, and he has known no other life, nor would he wish to, for his heart is bound up in the game, and even to-day his strength is phenomenal.
“He told me that the finish of about is declared when one or other of the opponents is brought down with his shoulder-blades resting squarely on the ground. The actual platform where the wrestling takes place is a square of concrete about twenty-five feet in width and filled in with soft sand, the whole being raised about four feet or so off the ground and reached by four steps on either side. After each about, grounds men leap up and thoroughly rake and break up the surface. There are no ropes round the ring, and time and again a sudden move results in two bodies locked in an embrace toppling headlong over the edge. If the referee is quick enough, he can very often succeed in stopping the fight just before this point is reached and ordering the wrestlers back to the centre, where he places them meticulously in the precise position in which he found them. Usually dangal begins with bouts between comparatively unknown men who hope one day to make their names. Sometimes so anxious are they to get to grips with each other that they begin the bout before they reach the ring, and friends have to rush out and separate them. Invariably there will be a couple of young boys, thin, skinny little creatures with cropped heads and minute satin triangular pants, made all the more tiny in comparison with the enormous figures of the professionals. Throwing a few handfuls of sand at each other in the approved style in order to give each other a grip, they grapple like veterans, to the delight of the crowd.
“Dressing-rooms there are none. The wrestlers change in the open air on the edge of the arena. Although women are rarely, if ever, present, the rules of modesty are strictly observed. Each group of wrestlers squats in its own little circle surrounded by intimates and supporters, often complete with an attendant band of musicians who have accompanied their triumphal progress through the streets from their gymnasium. One of the most amusing names among the competitors, which threw me into fits of uncontrollable mirth, belonged to one Babu, nicknamed Pari Pekar, or Fairy Body. Needless to say, anything less like a fairy could scarcely be imagined.
“After the exhibition, I promised Gama to go and visit him at the wrestling school next day. Practice is held in the courtyard of a house in the Pakistan Chowk, where the wrestlers live and train in an atmosphere of almost monastic seclusion, in which my invasion was an unprecedented event. Discipline is rigorously enforced, and even wives have to be content with a brief visit perhaps once in two years, when their husbands are permitted to make the long journey north to their homes in the Punjab. They rise at five o’clock, and after washing, followed by morning prayers, an unfailing ritual, they begin their exercise, then bathe, massage and breakfast. They eat a tremendous amount of food, consuming between them about ten pounds of meat a day, and each accounting for more than five sers of milk. They posed for me in every conceivable attitude, but were more eager to have a “nice picture” than a realistic one of actual combat, and I was forced to use my puny strength to push and shove them into sufficiently active holds for a convincing shot.
“Gama sat enthroned in a corner like a venerable patriarch, beaming on us all and on myself in particular. He insisted on my drinking great tumblerfuls of thandiai, a thick, sweet, milky liquor, prepared from pure crushed almonds and sugar, a beverage to which they attribute much of their strength, and tasting to the, novice uncommonly like hand-lotion.
“At every gymkhana in the Punjab and even further north there are wrestling bouts, but so far few have arisen who can challenge the supremacy of Bholu or his younger brother, Aslam. Hamida has since died while on a tour of India, but Gama still sits and offers advice and remembers the days when he was Rustem-i-Zaman.