Iranian Wrestling which is called Koshti in Persian has a very long tradition and history in Iran. It has been practiced since the ancient times in different parts of greater Iran in various styles among which Pahlavani wrestling is the most popular one.
Varzesh-e Pahlavani, widely known as Varzesh-e Bastani by mistake for the past seventy years, was originally an academy of physical training and a nursery for warriors against foreign invaders similar in purpose to Korean, Japanese and Chinese martial arts.
However, throughout the last three thousand years it acquired, and was enriched with, different components of moral, ethical, philosophical, and mystical values of the Iranian civilization. As a result, Varzesh-e Pahlavani emerged as a unique institution having incorporated the spiritual richness of Sufism, traditional rituals of Mithraism, and heroism of Iranian nationalism. The heroes of this academy are called Pahlavans.
Many of these Pahlavans were greatly responsible for revolting against Greeks, Arabs and Mongol invaders throughout the history of Iran. Yet the word Pahlavan has been misused throughout centuries, either by the scholars hired by regimes who misrepresented facts to appease the regimes they worked for, or unqualified writers who were not familiar with the institution of Varzesh-e Pahlavani, or simply the masses who did not have access to reliable and accurate sources.
The history of Varzesh-e Pahlavani can be traced back to the Parthian Empire of Iran (132 BC – 226 AD). Even the word Pahlavan comes from Parthia (according to one of the most reliable sources on history of the ancient Iran, “History of Ancient Iran” by Hasan Pirnia). According to Pirnia, there is a good chance that even Ferdowsi (935?-1026? AD), the greatest Iranian mythical poet and historian, was referring to the Parthian Period in his “Book of Kings” (in Persian Shah-nameh) when he wrote about the mythical period of the Iranian history. Mithraism reached its peak in this period and eventually spread from Iran to the Roman Empire. There are striking similarities between rituals of Mithraism and Varzesh-e Pahlavani. Even Mithraic temples are similar in structure to Zoorkhaneh’s, the place where the rituals of Varzesh-e Pahlavani are practiced. We will allocate some space to cover these similarities in detail.
Unfortunately with the invasion of western values into Iran at the turn of the century and the ignorance, as well as poorly designed policies, of the Pahlavi regime towards this tradition, Varzesh-e Pahlavani has lost some of its popularity and there exist a lot of misconceptions about this institution. The goal of this series is to present Varzesh-e Pahlavani and its history in several articles to the worldwide audience, including Iranians living in Iran and abroad, who might not have a clear idea about the subject. Hopefully, we can correct some of the misconceptions associated with Varzesh-e Pahlavani.
Also, many heroes of Varzesh-e Pahlavani such as Pahlavan-e Bozorg, Haj Seyyed Hasan Razaz, also known as Pahlavan Shoja’at (~1853-1941), are almost forgotten and instead heroes of the new generation of Iranians are superficial Hollywood characters of the kind of Arnold Schwartzenegger. In my recent trips back home, I was sad to see posters of these socalled supermen (Sylvester Stallone, Van Damm, etc.) in sport shops and newsstands in Tehran. Yet I could not find any poster or printed material about so many Pahlavans who have appeared in the Iranian plateau.
The Iranian wrestling styles can be divided into two major categories; in one category lifting and throwing the opponent is considered victory, whereas in the other types bringing the entire or part of back or knee or arm to the ground is considered victory. Some of the styles of Iranian wrestling are as below:
- Pahlavani (or Zurkhaneh) style (Iran-wide)
- Bachoukheh style (Khorasan province)
- Chukha style (Khorasan province)
- Gileh-Mardi style (Gilan, Mazandarann and Golestan Provinces)
- Check-Chisht (Mazandaran province)
- Loucho style (Mazandaran province)
- Tourkamani style or Kurash (Golestan Province)
- Ashirma style (East Azarbaijan Province)
- Kamari style (Azerabijan region, Ghezel Bash Turks)
- Baghal-be-Baghal style (Qazvin province)
- Zouran Patouleh and Zouran Machkeh styles (Kordestan province)
- Catch Gardan style (Sistan and Baluchistan Province)
- Zhir-o-bal style (Kordish regions; Kordestan, Kermanshah, Ilam provinces)
- Jang style (Lurestan and Chahar Mahal va Bakhtyari Provinces)
- Maghli style (Chahar Mahal va Bakhtyari Province)
- Lori style (Lorestan province)
- Dasteh Baghal style (Fars province)
- Lashgarkeshi style (Yazd province)
- Kamarbandi style (Esfahan province)
- Kaviri style (Kerman province)