Connection Between Persian Martial Art Zoor Khane And Indian Wrestling

The history of Iranian zoor khane is shrouded in mystery and legend. The only recorded evidence of its existence in Persian-speaking countries (i.e., most of the middle Asian countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, Iran, and Afghanistan) dates back no more than 150 years. There is, however, other evidence that places zoor khane among the oldest extant martial arts in the world.


[I]n the region that is now Uzbekistan and northwest Afghanistan, there was a small kingdom called Farghana, which was ruled by a man named Babur at the beginning of the 16th century. Because Babur became involved in a struggle for the throne and lost a battle against his enemy Muhammad Shaybani Khan, king of the Uzbek area of Mawarannahr, he had to flee to Afghanistan. After several conquests in Afghanistan, he took a big part of Northern India, where he established a dynasty called the Moghul Dynasty in references to his ancestry. (A direct descendent of Genghis Khan, Babur was considered a Mongol, or, in local dialect, a Moghul.) The Moghul Dynasty caused an influx of Iranian culture into India and thus had considerable influence on the country's art and philosophies. This included the introduction of zoor khane. In fact, there are still a number of traditional zoor khanes in northern India today. The logical conclusion that Moghul overlords were responsible for the introduction of zoor khane in India would indicate that zoor khane was an official institution in Iran at least by the start of the 16th century. Interestingly, it was at this point that northern India began to develop a strong wrestling tradition of its own, which produced world-famous wrestlers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There is other evidence from India, however, that might push the history of zoor khane back a bit further. In the south Indian state of Kerala, martial arts are part of the local cultural heritage. These traditional arts are called kalarippayat, and there are three main branches: the northern tradition, the central tradition, and the southern tradition. Local lore holds that the central styles were influenced by the Iranian art of zoor khane. According to some central-style teachers, this influence originated in the Iranian providence of Khorasan, which is renowned for its wrestling and is considered a hub of Iranian martial arts. Perhaps Khorasanian traders brought some of their culture when they brought horses to the ancient ports of Kerala in the 14th and 15th centuries. In studying the exercises of central-style kalarippayat, one can see that it differs structurally from the other two branches of the art. Whereas the northern and southern styles both teach complete forms, the central style teaches mainly steps, footwork patterns, and independent punches and kicks. The central styles also focus on developing physical strength through various kinds of push-ups, abdominal exercises, and so on. This is exactly the idea behind the training of zoor khane. The footwork taught in both the central-style system of kalarippayat and zoor khane is mainly necessary for holds, throws, and locks -- the basic exercises stressed in traditional wrestling. Also, in contrast to the other two martial branches of kalarippayat, central style weapon training is not taught in forms, but rather in practical drills, just as in zoor khane. Another peculiarity is that whereas northern- and southern-style kalarippayat are mainly taught by Hindus, the central-style teachers are almost exclusively Muslim. Since Iran has been an Islamic country since the fall of the Sassanid Dynasty in the late seventh century, this too points to a link between the central-styles of kalarippayat and zoor khane.

In summary, there are several reasons to believe that there is a connection zoor khane and the south Indian martial art of kalarippayat: First, in comparing the exercises of central-style kalarippayat -- particularly the so-called Lo Har exercises -- with the exercises done in zoor khane, one cannot deny the striking resemblances. Second, Indian lore itself holds that Iranian zoor khane influenced certain exercises of kalarippayat, a claim that is supported by the fact that there are the many historical trading connections between the Iranian province of Khorasan and the state of Kerala. Finally, there is the fact that most central-style kalarippayat teachers are Muslim.

-- D. H. Luijendijk

from "Zoor Khane: History and Techniques of the Ancient Martial Art of Iran"

Quoted on Sat Sep 10th, 2011