by Ayesha Javed Akram
They stand tall - brown, brave, greased up, and ready to fight.
Pehlwans train twice a day
But perhaps the battle has already been lost for Lahore's pehlwans, or wrestlers.
Twenty years ago at the famed Bamma Pehlwan's akhara (the pit where pehlwans practice), there used to be several hundred men training in the sport at any one time.
But now their numbers have dwindled to barely 20 as no more than a few loyalists struggle to keep the sport alive.
"Pehlwani is fast heading towards extinction," says the presiding Pakistan champion, Bashir Bhola pehlwan.
"The ones left are becoming disillusioned with the sport."
No more than two dozen stalwarts make it for the four-to-six-hour training sessions that begin at 0500 when it is a relatively cooler time of day.
This akhara located behind the Lahore Fort is the largest wrestling pit in the city and can lay claim to having produced many a Pakistan and Asia champion.
On this summer morning, a huge variety of pehlwans have gathered here.
Some of them are 14, the ideal age for joining the profession while others are as old as 45, like Bhola pehlwan.
But no matter what their age, they are all attired in what can best be described as local briefs.
But even if these few pehlwans take their sport seriously it would be difficult to say the same of the government.
"We don't even have a stadium where pehlwani competitions can take place in this city," says Bhola pehlwan.
"There used to be a proper stadium here in the 1980s but it was converted into a hockey stadium."
The pehlwans have made repeated appeals to the government to allot them a stadium of their own but little has come of it so far.
"Pehlwani is the only national sport that does not have its own stadium," says Abdul Majeed Chaudhary, who has won both the Pakistan and Asia competitions.
Training is an expensive business
"The sport gets more patronage in India where even women have started entering the profession.
"Pehlwani is one of the oldest sports of this region but our government just doesn't seem bothered about its bleak future."
A lack of financial support means that the pehlwans are eking out an existence.
"In India, pehlwans are supported on a stipend from the government and they can train without worrying about making ends meet," says Chaudhary.
Training to be a pehlwan is actually extremely expensive.
It costs a pehlwan between Rs500 ($8.5) to Rs700 ($12) per day just to stay fit: their regimen includes protein-rich meals, frequent massages and exercising with a trainer.
"Since the government gives us no money, we turn to organizations like WAPDA (Water And Power Development Authority), the Railways and the Army for support, says Chaudhary, who is now a grade 18 employee at WAPDA.
Other pehlwans, who are not fortunate enough to get support from any of these organisations, try balancing pehlwani with daily jobs.
Eighteen-year-old Shahzad works at a shop from 1100 to 2300.
He trains early in the morning and on weekends but says that his work tires him out and his training is not going well.
Sixteen-year-old Raghal and 14-year-old Bashir are stuck in similar predicaments.
Hundreds used to come to training sessions, now it's barely 20
They dropped out of school to become pehlwans but soon realised that they needed to support themselves by other means.
Their coach agrees that it is impossible to work and train simultaneously.
"Pehlwani is a full-time job and one needs to be completely focused on it in order to succeed," he says.
In theory, the pehlwans could earn their keep through the ticket sales from their competitions.
"This is why it is so important for us to have our own stadium," says Bhola pehlwan.
"In the absence of proper facilities, Lahore has not hosted any major competition in the last five years and as it is, no more than two to four competitions take place across the country every month," answered Achaya pehlwan.
He has strongly discouraged his son and nephews from entering the profession because he thinks there is no future in it.
"It's actually the nation's loss," says Muhammed pehlwan.
"Pehlwani is actually one of the healthiest sports known to the subcontinent.
That's why pehlwans rarely have heart trouble or stomach problems."
But while they may be fit as a fiddle, Lahore's pehlwans are definitely having trouble keeping body and soul together.