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.
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".
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]