varzesh e pahlavani

Exercise Daily – How many traditional sports do you think have made it to the UNESCO list of martial arts? Just a few, right? One of them is Varzesh e Pahlavani from ancient Persia.

In its original form, Varzesh-e Pahlavani, which a lot of people incorrectly know as Varzesh-e Bastani for the last seventy years, was a school of physical training and a nursery for fighters against foreign invaders in Persia, modern day Iran. 

It’s a goal that was comparable to that of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese martial arts.

Where Did Varzesh e Pahlavani Come From?

A thrilling blend of martial arts and physical training, Pahlavani allows participants to read certain verses or musical spells along with the drumbeats vibrations. It further improves their devotion while engaging in combat. A musical session complements all of this.

In 637 CE, when Arab armies marched into Persia, the zoorkhaneh were used as secret gathering places where knights could practice and maintain a sense of national unity and loyalty among the population.

Wrestling as we know it now stretches back to ancient Persia. The initial purpose was to prepare soldiers who would enter battle with a feeling of patriotism and a sense of national pride. Shahnameh, the legendary Persian epic mythical hero, was a practitioner of it.

From the mid-19th century through the 1980s, it was also popular in Azerbaijan and Iraq, among other places. It has also recently grown increasingly prevalent in adjacent nations as a result of this. Hence, we can say, it’s the oldest aerobic exercise with roots going as far as Ancient Persia.


It is possible to split the history of traditional Iranian martial arts into four distinct epochs. There are epochs in between which there are gaps. Varzesh e Pahlavani is not significant at all at some periods of time. Dr. Nekoogar, in his research, divides these eras as:

Mythical Era

In accordance with Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Mythical Era began in 1065 BC and continued until the Achamenid Dynasty came into being.

Parthian Empire

The Parthian Empire spanned the period from 238 BC to 224 AD, during which the Aryan Parthians ousted the Greeks from Iran for all time. During this time period, it is said that the term “Pahlavan” originated.

Islamic Era

The Islamic Era is the time period during which Islam came into Iran. It forms an intrinsic component of Iranian culture. The faith and philosophy of Persians throughout this time period supplemented Pahlavans’ physical strength.

Contemporary Era

The contemporary era is the time beginning in the early nineteenth century and ending in the current day. The sheer abundance of historical information and papers makes this the most instructive time period.

Performance of Varzesh e Pahlavani 

In a circle of athletes, they practiced gymnastics to the accompaniment of drums. They made their way to the middle, one by one, and did gymnastic warm-up routines.  They whirled very fast gaining all the benefits associated with Sufi whirling.

Significance of Sufi Whirling

Sufi spinning or whirling has a lot of health advantages. It stimulates the functioning of the pineal and pituitary glands, resulting in the release of endorphins and serotonin. These hormones are responsible for the happy feeling and are happy hormones. 

After that, they would grab heavy wooden rackets, metal shields, and bow-shaped iron weights in their hands. They swung them high over their heads to the beat of the drum in perfect unison with one another. 

varzesh e pahlavani

Singing ancient Persian poetry from Rumi, Hafez, and Sadi with the help of the hand drum and live drum artist leading the Pahlavans and soldiers. These artists were usually Morsheds. A Morshed would beat a goblet drum (zarb) while reciting mystic poetry and tales from Persian folklore.

It took a significant amount of physical strength to swing from one side to the other above the heads. It is a stunning prelude to the main sport, which is nothing more than wrestling itself. 

Exercises such as Sufi spinning and juggling aimed to help gain strength. Synced to the rhythms of the morshed, the athletes move in synchrony. After every session, there are a few rounds of Koshti, “Pahlavani wrestling” to finish things off.

It is similarly comparable to Sufi principles in terms of ethics, with a focus on purity of heart.

These are several reasons why Iranian wrestlers and weightlifters have achieved such great success in international events. The athletes were required to enter the arena barefoot and with their upper bodies exposed. It represented the fact that there is no hierarchy or distinction between them. 

Until the 1920s, they only exercised in the morning. Evening training has been more prevalent since then, as well.

The Venue: Zurkhaneh or House of Strength

The Zurkhaneh is the location where the Varzesh e Pahlavani training takes place. They do ceremonial gymnastics exercises in a dome-shaped edifice known as the Zurkhaneh, which means “House of Strength.”

There is a 1-meter deep circular or octagonal sunken section in the center of the arena. All guests are required to enter via a little door and instantly bow as a symbol of respect for everyone in the room while practicing becoming humble as they get bigger and stronger also to learn to refrain from violent behaviors.

An audience of spectators and musicians surrounds the arena. Throughout its history, the House of Strength has been entirely funded by public contributions, with no fees charged to the athletes. There are around 500 of them scattered across Iran now.


Sang: The Shield

Each and every activity in this sport has a certain significance and purpose. This exercise is what experts call as ‘Sang’ (which means ‘stone’ in Persian). The name comes from the fact that it was originally performed using real stones in ancient times. 

Later, the stones were removed and replaced with wooden panels. The goal of this exercise is to replicate the act of holding a shield in one’s hands. When engaged in hand-to-hand battle in ancient times, fighters used to raise a shield to protect their bodies and faces. 

Some Iranians believe that the stones also contain Islamic symbolism, which they claim to have discovered. This view is supported by those who think the song is connected to the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

On their trip to Mecca, Muslims hurled stones at the devil after they have returned from walking seven times around the Ka’ba, which is the holiest site in Islam. 

The stones are being flung at a person’s own ego, which is also regarded to be the devil who resides inside them, according to tradition. There are two enormous planks that are shaped like a heelpiece of an old shoe, square at the top section and curled at the end. 

Two boards generally help in the construction of the Sang. A hole and a handle are present in the center of each Sang, on each side of which a piece of carpet adheres in order to avoid athletes’ hands from scratching. 

Sang does not have a set weight, and the amount ordered is determined by the size and preferences of the individual placing the order.

Takhteh Shena: The Bar

When ancient warriors went to combat, they would wield a sword. This is what Takhteh Shena represents in the form of a push-up board. Just before the push-ups, the singing of a lyrical poem is a common practice in the preparation for the exercise. The theme of this poetry is often religious or moral in nature.

The athletes positioned the push-up board in front of themselves and placed their palms on it to begin. They would do a series of exercises while keeping their heads up.

The push-up board is a four-legged board, allowing it to remain elevated above the floor. Because it is possible to complete the four exercises with the hands on the ground and without the use of a push-up board, the Zurkhaneh does not rely on it as a primary piece of equipment.

Meels: The Persian Club

Clubs, of course, are historically considered meel weapons. The main reason individuals used to practice with them was to better their combat performance. However, it wasn’t until later that trainers and physical therapists realized how effective they may be.

Meels originally belonged to Iran centuries earlier than they came to India. They come in a variety of sizes and forms and were known by several names, including Ekka, Karela, Jori, and Gada. Some clubs even feature razor-sharp nails or blades embedded in the sides of the shafts. 

varzesh e pahlavani

Today, therapists suggest boosting the performance and recuperation of strong athletes with Persian clubs, or “Meels”. The training relies largely on various types of swings!

At first appearance, you would believe a Persian Meel or Persian Club is nothing more than an overly complicated kettlebell with a handle. A lengthy lever, an uneven weight distribution, and many planes of motion imply that clubs provide several advantages.

Pa Zadan (Footwork)

Pa Zadan, culminates in Sufi whirling which is an ancient kind of active meditation also practiced by Sufi mystics. Beyond the transcendental attributes, spinning improves balance, stability, steadfastness, and clear-headedness.

Kabadeh: The Bow

Kabadeh is a bow getting inspiration from the previous war bows and, in fact, looks quite similar to them. It consists of an enlarged iron rod in the middle to make a handgrip. It then attaches to a chain that has 16 links, each of which contains six discs. 

The grip is made out of an iron rod to which the string of links is fastened. To begin, the practitioners hold the bow with both hands and kiss it as a symbol of respect. They then hoist the bow above the head at arm’s length and balance to the beat of the drum before shaking in all directions.

Koshti: Wrestling

Like the Sang and Kabbadeh exercises, Koshti is a one-time event. When it comes to Koshti, the style is very similar to Greek-style wrestling. Only the wrestler’s upper body engages in the technical pins and grips that are used throughout the combat.

Zarb & Zang: Bell

It is a giant wooden drum with a skin of deer over the larger end of it. Zarb is a traditional instrument from the Middle East and Africa. It is employed to provide the essential rhythm and cadence for all of the activities that take place over the duration of the session.

It is a bell that Morshed can grasp with his hand if he gets close enough. For example, Morshed will play the Zang to signal the start or end of an exercise, attract attention for the purpose of making an announcement, honor the presence of a Pahlavan, guest, or social personality.


Historically, if there is one practice in Iranian sports that has been misconstrued the most, it is Varzesh e Pahlavani.

The author of Zen Combat and the Secret Power Called KI translated Zurkhaneh, as the “House of Deception.” Zoorkhaneh is a Persian word that literally translates as “House of Strength.” 

The misunderstanding is because people often confuse the Persian term “Zoor” for the Arabic root of the verb “Zavara.” It signifies deceit, leading to the translation “House of Deception” in the first place.

Contrary to common misconception, Varzesh e Pahlavani is an old Iranian practice that dates back hundreds of years or more. Historically, the first academy of martial arts came into existence during the Parthian Dynasty. This was when the first school of martial arts was established.

There’s a common misconception about Pahlavans tattooing their hands and bodies, which is incorrect. The fact that a genuine Pahlavan is a complete mystery. Bodybuilders and thugs were the first to adopt the procedure, believing that it would give them a distinct identity.

Another misconception says that Zoorkhanehs are totally off-limits to women. During the Pahlavi dynasty, particularly during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, it was customary for government officials and their wives to visit the Zoorkhanehs of Tehran.

The main purpose would be to demonstrate different Pahlavani traditions.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, it is one of the longest-running kinds of physical training. Now when physiotherapists and fitness trainers speak for Varzesh-e pahlavani, it is high time that we revive it, and adopt it formally!

Where to Learn Varzesh e Pahlavani?

Being native to Iran, many people would consider it out of their approach. However, the good news is, you can learn Varzesh e Pahlavani from professionals now – no matter which part of the world you are currently in.

It’s certainly the practical and rational approach since vitality has a significant connection with both general physical and mental health. However, the connection is not straightforward. The vast majority of things that have a negative impact on physical health or mood also have a bad impact on vitality as well.