Article by Sarakshi Rai and photographs by Bernie Debusmann
“Alhamdulillah! Badiya! Shahbash!” are just some of the words you can hear being yelled by a crowd of Pakistani expats gathered in a field in Deira at 5:30 PM on a Friday evening.
Citizens from Pakistan usually come together on Friday to battle it out on a small, obscure mud field in Dubai’s Deira area, fighting to be Dubai’s Kushti champion of the week.
For those not in the know, Kushti is an ancient form of wrestling from South Asia. It was developed in the Mughal Empire by combining India’s malla-yuddha fighting style with influences from Iran’s koshti pahlavani.
Every Friday, around five hundred Pakistani men gather to watch the latest round of traditional Kushti fighting, but on a recent weekend there was an unexpected twist— wrestlers from India were invited and flown to Dubai for the competition.
Fighters step up from among the crowd waving their hands above their head, dancing and hopping on one foot. They are then matched depending on their skill level, after which the men change into brightly coloured loincloths tied in the traditional way.
Each bout lasts for about 6 minutes, and if the wrestlers – called pehalwans – fail to best each other, the fight is extended to eight minutes, ten minutes and so on.
Before the match begins, each fighter covers the other with mud and sand across the chest and back, with the final aim being to pin him down on his back.
“I’ve been coming here for the last 32 years, I used to do Kushti myself now I come here and make the boys train,” said Pakistani referee Mohammad Illyas.
“I started learning Kushti when I was 10 years old, long before we used to practice Kushti near the fish market, in the recent years with the changing construction we’ve moved to this field,” he adds.
The competition opened with a traditional drum -called a dhol – being played, and spectators turned up armed with carpets and flat stones to form a circular perimeter around the wrestling pitch.
Like any big gathering this one too would have been incomplete without a scuffle breaking out between the rival spectators over the result of one of the fights.
Eventually though, Pakistan’s Goga Pehlwan won the bout against the Indian champion by moving from the underdog position pinned under his opponent to swiftly turning around, effectively stunning his sparring partner and pinning the Indian on his back with all his weight, leading to uncontained celebrations from the crowd, who rushed forward to hold up their champion and parade him around the field like a king.