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Zoorkhaneh: Physical strength through moral purity


Source: Tehran Times

From the beginning of the human civilization many forms and methods of physical training, with consideration to some spiritual or religious believes, social values and/or political exigencies have emerged and some of them for somehow the same reasons have vanished in the course of time. Zoorkhaneh (home of physical strength) and Varzesh-e-Bastani (special kind of physical training) are some of these historically precious legacies of the ancient Iran.

Photo: Isfahan's historic Kamal Zourkhaneh before it was demolished

The term of Varzesh-e Bastani refers to a traditional sport unique to Iran whish combines elements of the pre-Islamic Iranian culture and spiritual values imbued with human virtues that are still, more or less, surviving in some parts of the country.

Is a rigorous and comprehensive physical exercise session of 60 to 90 minutes, consisting of different kinds of physical activities appropriate for the homogeneous age groups of 16 to 60-70 year old. These exercises have been practiced under special customs and rituals established over hundreds of years. 

The goals and objectives of the Zoorkhaneh, similar to any other of its counterparts in different parts of the world, were to promote the physical prowess of the citizens and to contribute to their health and bodily skills, as well as training of the human beings, physical qualities with their mind and spirit behind it.

Participants are expected to be pure, truthful and good tempered, and only then strong in body.

The sport reached its peak of popularity during the Safavid dynasty (1502 - 1736).

Varzesh-e Bastani was particularly popular in the 19th century, during the reign of the Qajar king Nassereddin Shah. Performances inspired by Persian mythology were held at the king's court at the onset of Norouz (Iranian New Year).

It declined following the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920s and the subsequent modernization campaigns of Reza Shah. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, attempted to revive the tradition and practiced it himself. During his reign, the last national competitions were held.

Today, it is associated with nationalism and supported by private subscription.


Varzesh-e Bastani's rituals mimic the rituals and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like morshed (master who beats the drum, recites poetry and guides the rituals), pish kesvat (leader), taj (crown) or faqr (poverty).

The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with praise for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his family, especially the first Shiite Imam Ali (AS), and recital of stories from Iranian mythology, such as those of the Shahnameh.

The main part of a Varzesh-e Bastani session is dedicated to gymnastics or calisthenics, notably wielding of wooden clubs (meel) and metal shields (sang), pulling of bow-shaped iron weights (kaman), lifting various types of weights, pushups, whirling and juggling. The sessions end with wrestling between two champions.

 Main instruments

The main instruments used in Varzesh-e Bastani are as follows:

1. Kabadeh (the bow)

The kabadeh is inspired from the former war bows and, in fact, resembles it. It is a rod of iron, widened in the center to form a hand grip, and connected to a chain, generally with 16 links each containing six discs. The string of links is attached to an iron rod which is the grip.

Photo: Seminaries Students Zourkhaneh Competitions in Qom, Iran

The bow is gripped with both hands, kissed as a sign of respect, then raised above the head at arms length and balanced to the rhythm of the drum and shaken in all directions.

The athletes shake the bow while turning on the spot. Then they pass the chain around their neck and, while completely letting go of the bow, turn once again dragging along the bow that descends in this turning movement, from the shoulders down to the hips. Then the turner picks up speed and bends down in such a way that when the bow reaches his ankle, he jumps over it by throwing himself sideways. 

The bows can weigh from 10 to 50 kilograms. The most experienced gymnasts work with the heavy bows while they novices use lighter ones.

 2. Sang (the Shield)

The two shields are made of walnut wood and with a long parallel piped form. The edges are rounded and the center is pierced with a heart-shaped hole through which a horizontal iron bar is passed, which serves as a handle. For this portion, the athlete lies down and holds the shields at arms length in such a way that the curved upper portions meet. He turns alternately from one side to the other.

When he leans to the left, he raises his right arm as high as he is able and vice versa. The shields can weigh 60 to 120 kilograms, are generally more than a meter long and approximately 70 centimeters wide.

 3. Meel (the club)

Earlier the clubs were made of wood and iron-like maces, but today they are cut of elm wood. They are characteristically symmetrical around the axis and bulge towards the top. There are two types of clubs: those reserved for training exercises and those for juggling. A pair of the former weighs from 5 to 40 kilograms and those for juggling from 4 to 6 kilograms.

The handles of the heavy clubs are shorter than those of the juggling clubs. While holding the clubs, the athletes swing one club to the back while holding the other club upright in front. He then brings it back to the straight position in the front and repeats with the other club. The swinging is done in a rhythmic fashion guided by the drum of the morshed.


Membership at the zoorkhaneh is by rank. The lowest rank is that of nocheh or novice, who is being trained by a designated champion. The next rank is nokhasteh or advanced student who is a nocheh that has made a substantial degree of progress. Finally, there is the pahlevan or champion. The uniform of the champions consists of either a loin cloth or a pantaloon, or a tight pair of short pants made from leather or some durable material. The pants are usually decorated with beautiful embroidery.

In 2008, Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization inscribed the term of Varzesh-e Bastani on its National Heritage List as the country's ninth National Spiritual Heritage.

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