South Asian wrestling terms

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Rudraneil Sengupta is preparing a book on the history of wrestling in the subcontinent, and is searching for the etymologies of certain common terms used in the sport.

He believes that some of the most common words in wrestling come from Iran & Turkey and that general region, and some are of Sanskrit origin.  For example, the old Sanskrit word (now rarely used) for wrestling is Malla-Yudh. Yudh means battle.  Now Malla, as far as his research tells him, was first used as the name of a tribe, then was the name of a kingdom, then became a derogatory term — a term to denote a despised "other" (dark-skinned, poor, tribal).  Apparently this same tribe was famous for their proficiency in wrestling, and thus the term Malla-Yudh came to be coined. He's not sure whether this is accurate, or if the etymology has ever been carefully considered.  But that's where he is starting from.

I myself recognized a few of the words as looking distinctly Persian (e.g., Pehelwani / Pahelwani / Pahlwani and kushti), and I remembered that there was a Malla dynasty in Indian history and a series of Malla kingdoms in Nepalese history, but wasn't sure or precise enough about their possible relationship to words for wrestling, so I asked some colleagues who are specialists in Asian languages if they knew more about them.

Here's a list of the words Rudraneil is looking for, followed by information I received from a number of respondents who are listed in the acknowledgements at the bottom of this post):

1. Malla (from which we get Mallayudh, Mallavir, Mallakhamb, etc.)

"Malla" is an ethnic term, so malla-yudh- would be the „fight(ing way) of the Mallas"; Malla is one of the ancient states mentioned already in the Mahabharata.

There actually is a slim Sanskrit text called “Malla-Purana” published by the Gaekwad Series in Baroda some decades ago, not a Purana at all of course, and with a few photos of modern Indian wrestlers.

Indeed, the earliest mention of Malla is in a Mid-Vedic text, the Jaiminiya Brahmana, then I think among Alexander’s companions, then as a tribe close to the Buddha’s homeland, in the Pali texts.

Then as a real life dynasty in some of the early Gupta time (Licchavi) inscriptions of Nepal (between 450 and 700 CE), and by 1200 the name of the western Nepalese Malla dynasty of Jumla, and starting in 1200 also of the various Kathmandu Valley dynasties (until the Gorkha takeover in 1767/8), and about the same time as names/titles of several Indian dynasties.

2. Kushti (the word for wrestling in the subcontinent, Iran and Turkey – is it related to the Zoroastrian Kosti? )

(What is ‚Zoroastrian ‚Kosti‘??) The Persian word is ‚kushtigir‘ = wrestler, lit.: one who wears a ‚kushti‘ i.e. a belt.

Kushti is Persian كشتى “fighting, wrestling”.

Koshti is modern Persian for wrestling (though koshtan = to kill).

Kushti is the standard term for "wrestling" in the Persian sources of the Middle Ages and is found in Juvayni, among others. Presumably, this entered South Asia during the period of the Delhi Sultanate or Mughals. I have a vague memory that Abu'l Fazl makes mention of wrestling.

"Kushti" is definitely related to the Zoroastrian word "koshti": both imply "girding". The wrestlers use a loin-cloth, the Zoroastrian initiates a sacred belt.  The origin of these terms, I believe, is to be found in the Avestan language, if not actually in PIE.

3. Pehelwani / Pahelwani / Pahlwani (used across the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, and some East European countries as well — it refers to the art of wrestling, and is derived from Pahelwan, which means "wrestler")

The normal Persian word for ‚wrestler‘, orig. ‚hero‘ (possibly ultimatly of ethnic orign = ‚Parthian‘ ?=

Pahlavan is champion or hero in modern Persian.

Pehelwani is Persian پهلوان (pahlawân/pahlavân) “hero, champion, brave warrior, strong athletic man” < پهلو (pahlav) “”hero, wrestler”.

Pehelwani/Pahelwani/Pahlwani is, of course, taken from the Pahlava (Parthian) tribe of Iran (and its Arsacide dynasty, c. 250 BCE-250 CE).

Pahlav, pahlavan in New Persian is "hero," "champion" and by extension "wrestler."  It is also the "name" of a Persian wrestler sent east to the Mongol court. This word is somehow connected with the Middle Persian pahlawig meaning Parthian and Pahlavi.

4. Akhada / Akhara (did it originally just mean "school", or "school for martial arts"?  A word of Sanskrit origin, in use for hundreds of years — it means wrestling ground, wrestling school, as well as the encampments of Hindu ascetics)

[VHM:  no suggestion offered yet]

5. Khalifa (from the Arabic caliphate, but how did it also come to mean "wrestling teacher"?)

Khalifa originally just means "successor" (in any lineage of authorities) so that the meaning as wrestling coach is actually not difficult to understand in a teacher-apprentice transmission.

Khalifa is caliph, successor, but the root has other meanings and in Afghanistan khalifa is used to mean the driver of a bus!

6. Dav/Dao — Means a wrestling hold in Hindi and various other Sanskrit-derived Indian languages — What is the origin of this word?

[VHM:  no suggestion offered yet]

7. Pench — Used in conjunction with Dao, as in Dao-pench, to denote wrestling moves. What is the origin of this word?

Panj, as you probably know is 5, and gets used for anything related to five.

Pench means "twist" in Persian/ Urdu, and the word usually suggests a grapple-hold as dav-pench.

Bonus I

In the northern Deccan, all the traditional gymnasiums in which wrestlers trained were also called 'talim' derived from the Persian ta'alim, which means "instruction".

Bonus II

It is evident that wrestling was a widely popular sport in North, Central, South and West Asia throughout history. This explains how the Mongols in the 1250s were able to stage a "World Championship" bout between a Mongolian and an Armenian wrestler in Iran, which the latter won, at least according to an Armenian source.

Although these replies did not require extensive research, they may be helpful to Rudraneil in pointing the way to further investigations.


Extended comment from Christopoulos Lucas, who has devoted more than two decades to the study (in Greece, Europe, China, and Japan) of the eastward spread of Greek wrestling and physical training:

I had made some researches long ago below (would need to brush up on recent work)….  My concern was the link with the Hellenistic World, mostly obvious with the Kushana Empire and the Greco-Bactrians. What strikes me in that concern is that the word for Wrestler (Pehelwani / Pahelwani / Pahlwani) means the "Sports of the Heroes"  “varzeš-e pahlavānī” (in Persian; ورزش پهلوانی see below). It is coming from Arsacid times, well Parthia, after their contacts with the Greeks and the new custom of wrestling practice there in special buildings.

For the Indians, the earliest traces of combat sports professionalism comes from the Mahabharata, written during the time of the Greco-Bactrians and the Seleucid Empire clearly influenced by ancient Greek athletic professionalism as well. There are two chapters clearly describing professional fights that seems similar to Homer's description of wrestling and boxing.


-Greek influences on the Pazyryk-style wrestling bronze buckles motif of Keshengzhuang. Sino-Platonic Papers: University of Pennsylvania, USA. (2015)
Free pdf available at the site.

– Combat sports professionalism in medieval China (220-960 AD). Nikephoros:  Zeitschrift fur Sport und Kultur im Altertum; Graz University, Austria n.26 (2015)

Greek combat sports and their transmission to Central and East Asia. (pdf) Classical World Review: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. n.106.3 (2013)

– Hellenes and Romans in ancient China (240 BC-1398 AD). Sino-Platonic Papers:  University of Pennsylvania, USA. n.230 (2012)

– Early combat sports in China and the rise of professionalism (475 BC-220 AD)  Nikephoros: Zeitschrift fur Sport und Kultur im Altertum; Graz University, Austria. n.23 (2010)

– Le Greco-Bouddhisme et l'art du poing en Chine. Sino-Platonic Papers: University of Pennsylvania, USA. n.148 (2006)


-Palaestra; K. Latte, ed., Hesychii, Alexandrini Lexicon (Copenhagen 1953). [παλαίστρα]·  ὅπου οἱ παῖδες ἀλείφονται. (“Palaestra, where children rub themselves down [with oil]),” 3.138.  [VHM:  Penn's hallowed gymnasium is called the Palestra.]

– Pugmy (boxing); Latte  (πυγμή) γρόνθος. πυκτή. ἤγουν τὸ συγκεκλεῖσθαι τοὺς δακτύλους.  “Pugmy, or ‘fist’, joining the fingers together; Pygmachia or fighting with the fists.” (vol. III) -4283, 210.  [VHM:  cf. pugnacious, pugilist, etc.]

– Paly (wrestling); Latte (παλάμαι)· αἱ χεῖρες. καὶ αἱ τέχναι. ἐπεὶ δι’ αὐτῶν πολλὰ μαιόμεθα.  (πάλη)· ἀγών From the word palamai “palm,” also meaning “technique with the hand”; Paly, is an agon (athletic contest). (vol. III) 9.  [VHM:  zhǎng 掌 ("palm") is a key term in Chinese martial arts.]

-Pankration; Latte 19.

[Thanks to Michael Witzel, Thomas Allsen, András Róna-Tas, Maria Fasolo, Pushkar Sohoni, Stefan Georg, Mehmet Olmez, Peter B. Golden, Brian Spooner, Chris Atwood]


  1. CuConnacht said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

    All I can contribute is that Persian ta'alim = instruction is a borrowing from Arabic. You may know the English word ulema = the body of Islamic scholars and teachers, which is from the same root. (It's the plural of 'alim, scholar.)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

    From Christopoulos Lucas:

    Here perhaps…

    related to wrestling-religion the word "Khalifa" I thought perhaps similar to "διδάσκαλος" Didaskalos "Teacher" used as well in religious terms.
    of one who is fitted to teach, or thinks himself so: Hebrews 5:12; Romans 2:20.
    Φαρισαίων λέγοντεςΔιδάσκαλε θέλομεν ἀπὸ

    Διδάσκᾰλος, ου, ὀ,
    a teacher, master, Ro. 2.20, et al.; in N.T. as an equivalent to ῤαββί, Jno. 1.39, et al.

    Lucian Didaskalos "wrestling teacher"

    λέγω πρὸς τὴν Παλαίστραν ἅμα ἐπιγελάσας, Ὦ διδάσκαλε, ὁρᾷς μὲν ὅπως

    for another Arabic example the word Sufi comes from Sophia (σοφία) "wisdom" according to Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī 973-1050 AD.


    VHM (the following article reviews several theories about the origin of the word "sufi"):

    "The Origin of the Word Tasawouf"

    Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha

    This article is taken from the journal Sufism: An Inquiry.

  3. Catherine Lincoln said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    I had a Pakhtun acquaintance in New Delhi who addressed his male friends as "Pehliwan", as an American might say "buddy" or "pardner" or an Australian might say "digger."

  4. Sean M said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 2:44 am

    Has he looked at Manouchehr Khourasani's books on the subject? He writes amazingly Plinian books which collect sources and scholarships in six languages, and he is always happy to talk about Iranian martial arts.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 7:03 am

    From Fred Smith:

    The bibliography must cite Joseph Alter’s book, The Wrestler’s Body.

    I don’t think he has additional terms in it, but it should be checked all the same. It’s the authoritative book on wrestling in India.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

    From Philip Lutgendorf:

    Akhāṛā is widely used in pre-modern texts to mean an enclosure/space/school for a great variety of activities, including music and dance performances. In Book 6 of the Tulsidas Ramcaritmanas (which I am presently translation), Ravana attends a musical soiree in an akhāṛā on the highest summit of Lanka, as Ram and his forces watch from a neighboring hilltop. Elsewhere in the text the word is used in contexts that clearly imply martial clubs or wresting gymnasia.

  7. cameron said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    It's interesting that the term for gymnasium is borrowed from Persian (ultimately from Arabic) but that the term borrowed is not the usual Persian word for a gymnasium. In Persian a gymnasium is called a زورخانه‎‎ (zoorkhana), which we can gloss as "house of strength" or "house of exertion".

    I think in India they used to use the term "gymkhana" to refer to a gymnasium (that word is still in use but with a different meaning). That's obviously a combination of Persian and English. Perhaps Persian zoor has an unfortunate homophone in Northern Indian languages?

  8. cameron said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

    Another Persian term related to wrestling (or at least to the traditional training regimens used by wrestlers) is "meel", also called an Indian Club in English. This comes directly from Persian میل .

  9. Shanth said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    दाव (dāv) also means a stake as in betting, in contemporary Hindi and a few other North Indian languages. The closest Sanskrit cognate (?) I can find is this . Ajit Wadnerkar of this Hindi etymology blog might be a good person to ask.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    Thanks to all who contributed. We now have suggestions for each of Rudraneil's seven terms.

  11. Chris C. said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

    The Persian word is ‚kushtigir‘ = wrestler, lit.: one who wears a ‚kushti‘ i.e. a belt.

    I wonder if it's possible to trace the spread of belt-focused wrestling styles like ssireum and sumo, and apparently related styles like kurash and bokh, by looking at the spread of terms for them?

  12. Piyush said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

    I am not sure which two "chapters" of the Mahabharata Christopoulos Lucas is referring to (perhaps the ones depicting fights between Bhima and Keechaka and Jarasandha, respectively), but wrestling is probably not the most important combat sport to appear in the epic. Much more importance is attached in the text to the "combat sports" of mace-fighting, and several important characters are listed as formidable practitioners (Bhima, Duryodhana, Balrama, Keechaka. and Shalya). Even the final scene of the battle ends in a controversial mace fight between the first two.

    I am not sure if mace fighting has any potential Greek/Homeric sources. I also did not now that the dating of the Mahabharata was settled enough to allow a clear ordering in time with respect to Homeric epics (I thought the consensus was that different parts of the epic clearly date to widely different eras, ranging from 10th century BCE to 5th century CE, so that the relative ordering of Mahabharata and Homeric epics in time would be highly problematic, but then I am not an expert).

    Also, malla is not the only Sanskrit derived term used for wrestling in Hindi, dwandwa is also commonly used. It also has other derivatives, such as antardwandwa (an internal conflict of thoughts or emotions).

  13. Rudraneil said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 4:07 am

    Dear all,

    A very very big thank you to everyone who has commented on this post, and to Professor Mair for putting this up. This is of invaluable help, and I am so very excited that there are multiple leads/recommendations to follow from here. I am delighted to see here a post from Philip Lutgendorf, whose book Hanuman's Tale has been of great help to me in my research into wrestling (and not to mention wildly entertaining and illuminating) – I look forward to your translation of Tulsidas.
    Soon after I sent a mail on this, I was out in a rural area for research, and had no access to the internet. I came back last night to find this lovely surprise. So, apologies for the late response, and thank you again.

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