Malh, challenging the equals

Malh, challenging the equals

The word malh is derived from the Sindhi malha'n, meaning 'to celebrate'. Contemporary linguists have accepted the word as a proper noun describing the ancient Sindhi form of wrestling that is today also played in Balochistan, NWFP and Afghanistan. Malh is thought to date as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation, and is said by some to have led to the internationally popular Greco-Roman form of wrestling.

Long before Pakistan became a separate country, malh was famous in Sindh, trumping other contact sports such as bilharo and wanjhavati. While all three were popular in the rural areas, British influence eventually led to cricket taking hold in the urban centres. After Partition, Pakistan's governments have displayed a tendency to mimic the colonisers, including in their support of certain games to the exclusion of others.

As such, the authorities in Islamabad have promoted hockey and football, and greatly pampered cricket players. Meanwhile, they have paid scant attention to the traditional games of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan, leading to the gradual decline of these pastimes. Bilharo and wanjhavati, for instance, are now virtually extinct in Sindh, while many worry that malh has been limited to being a traditional spectacle rather than as a popular sport. An exploration of these issues unpacks the story of the Sindhi nation, and of the suppression of its culture and aspirations.

Sandro Diann
Malh in Sindh is still played with traditional flair, with certain rituals performed before each game. The mood is set by Manghanhaar fakirs, Sindhi folk musicians, beating drums to a particular rhythm. Games generally begin in the evening, and the drumbeat serves to attract spectators. The fakirs are accompanied by a musician playing the shehnai, the reed instrument. The music they produce together is called malhkhri ji vajja, the music of the game.

Following the musical overture, the pehelwans, or wrestlers, ceremoniously bow and touch the soil with the index fingers of each hand. They then kiss these fingers, and touch their ear lobes. This ritual is meant to demonstrate the pehelwan's humility and the absence of undue pride in one's strength and skill. A more recent inclusion in this preparatory practice has been the players touching the feet of their ustad, their teacher, seeking permission to take part in the upcoming match.

Next, the pehelwans sit in individual baries, or squares drawn on the ground. They are now ready to engage in the last element of their preparations – the sandro diann, or 'challenging the equal ones'. The player chooses his equal from the various squares, a pehelwan who belongs to the same malh category as he does. Inclusion in any one of malh's three categories is based on mastery of the game's techniques and on physical strength, particularly of the wrists.

A malh match starts when a pehelwan ritualistically grabs at the sandro, or cotton cummerbund, worn by his opponent. These cummerbunds, traditionally made of ajrak, the block-printed cotton cloth typical of Sindh, are brightly coloured with crimson and indigo blue. Grabbing the sandro is known as sandro chhikinn, 'directly challenging the opponent'. Thereafter, the match's referee ensures that both pehelwans grip one another by the hand – and the match begins. There are ten moves and techniques that a malh player needs to know in order to compete on the field. These include various types of trips, pulls, pushes and other moves to throw an opponent off balance, as well as moves to counteract such attacks. The goal is to have the opponent fall, and to pin him to the ground. A match involves two rounds, or joree, and the winner is declared following the results of the second round.

There are 83 locations in Sindh where malakhro, or malh matches, are held each year, all of which are associated with religious shrines. There are also 17 events where malakhro are held, the most important of which is the annual Uris Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, the fair of Bhit Shah. This festival gives malh players an opportunity to prove their skills in public, and to fight for titles. The winners hold their titles until the next year's fair.

Malh and media 
Although the Sindhi media and the rulers in Islamabad have not generally enjoyed cordial relations, they have undertaken certain joint activities over the decades that have been good for the health of malh. Back in 1966, for instance, the Ayub Khan government organised a series of events in Sindh known as jashan, and the common feature of each was the malakhro. As a result, the Sindhi-language daily Ibrat began following malh. Readers, in turn, began to demand further promotion of the game, as well as the construction of malh stadiums.

Patronage is essential for malh wrestlers, who need not only to maintain families on their earnings, but also to sustain themselves on expensive, high-protein diets consisting of meat, ghee, butter, milk, almonds and pistachios, and to have enough time for extensive exercise.

During the late 1970s, Hilal-e-Pakistan, a Karachi-based Sindhi-language newspaper owned by the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP), began to publish its own sports page, devoted to coverage of malh. Shortly thereafter, PPP founder Zulifqar Ali Bhutto's government was toppled by Zia ul-Haq, and martial law was declared. S M Abbasi was subsequently appointed Sindh's martial-law administrator, and he continued the state's patronisation of malh. Meanwhile, amongst the majority of pehelwans from peasant backgrounds, a man named Ghulam Sarwar Jatoi became known as one of the few educated malh players. Jatoi was not only able to found and register the Malh Association, but was also able to foster additional links with government officials, continuing the revival of the game in Sindh.

Recently, the Karachi-based Fauji Fertiliser Company began promoting a new product through the medium of malakhro. The Kawish Television Network joined the campaign, and began to air live and recorded malakhro events. This was the first time in the history of electronic media in Pakistan that a channel was devoting a primetime slot to a non-big-draw game. Porreho Pehelwan, a top-ranked wrestler, remarked that malakhro had never before been broadcast with live commentary.

However, not all malakhro aficionados are pleased with what they perceive as marketing gimmicks to promote an aspect of Sindhi culture. Haji Khan Mangi, a veteran political activist, does not feel that culture can be preserved or salvaged through its commercialisation: "Social justice and equal distribution of resources is the only way to promote cultural activities, including malh," he says. Some observers believe that social stability is crucial to provide an environment in which the game can thrive, and that political turmoil is affecting social stability.

So we have the paradox of the preservation of Sindhi culture: the attempts to revive malh have mostly been initiated by non-democratic governments, from Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf. Perhaps this has been in the hope that this traditional form of wrestling will prove cathartic for a suppressed people – that it will help to relieve them of everyday frustration, or to shake off a collective disgruntlement with the regime. Whatever the motivation, the fact remains that malh is seeing a revival. The pehelwans and a growing number of malh supporters cheer.

~ Zaffar Junejo heads the Sindh-based Transformation Reflection for Rural Development
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