We arrived in Esfarayen at about noon, on April 2, the thirteenth day of Farvardin, when people take to the fields on the festival of Sizdah Bedar. About a year ago I had heard that chookheh wrestling is held in the town's Zeinolkhan arena. Matches start on April 1 and those who advance to the semi-finals and finals compete the next day. Photos
For many years the arena has been used for chookheh contests in front of 12,000 plus people, including women and girls, who are usually barred from watching other male sporting events. Entrance is free and there's live music during intervals. Musicians, playing kettledrums and oboes, sit in the middle of the field, singing songs based on Ferdowsi's Shahnameh.
As wrestlers enter the ring and test each other's strength, the spectators and veteran wrestlers offer prizes for the winners. These include gold, cash, furniture, sugar and even sheep, horses, or chicken.
But the ultimate champion wins the highest prize: his future bride. It is customary for the chookheh champion to court the girl of his desire. In essence, when a revered champion defeats a rival from a neighboring village, he wins the heart of his sweetheart.
Chookheh wrestling became popular during the Safavid period some 300 years ago. It is popular in Shirvan, Qoochan, Torghabeh, Bojnoord, Mashhad, Ashkhaneh, Esfarayen, Chenaran and Darehgaz in the north of Khorassan Province.
Chookheh is actually the name of the wool jacket (white, red or blue) worn by the wrestlers. Victory comes when the rival wrestler is lifted in the air and spun in a circle, or when his shoulder touches the ground — or by jury decision. Photos