. It combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music. Recognized by UNESCO as among the world`s longest-running forms of such training, it fuses elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (particularly Zoroastrianism, Mithraism and Gnosticism) with the spirituality of Shia Islam and Sufism. Practiced in a domed structure called the zurkhaneh, training sessions consist mainly of ritual gymnastic movements and climax with the core of combat practice, a form of submission-grappling called koshti pahlevani.
The traditional gymnasium in which varzesh-e bastani is practiced is known as the zurkhaneh (also spelled zoorkhaneh and zourkhaneh), literally the house of strength.
These gyms are covered structures with a single opening in the ceiling, with a sunken 1m-deep octagonal or circular pit in the center (gaud). Around the gaud is a section for the audience, one for the musicians, and one for the athletes.
A portrait of Ali is hung on the wall of every zurkhaneh. An aspiring member may be a male from any social class or religion, but they must first spend at least a month watching from the audience before they can join.
Traditionally, the zurkhanehs demanded no payment from their athletes, and depended instead on public donations. In return, the zurkhaneh provided community services and protection. One example is the casting of flowers ceremony in which athletes held koshti matches and other displays of strength to raise funds for the needy.
There are today 500 zurkhaneh in Iran and each has strong ties to their local community. Zurkhanehs have commonly had strong political affiliations, either advocating or denouncing particular governments.
This type of sports diplomacy is said to be a natural extension of the patriotic nature of zurkhaneh training dating back to the days when pahlevans served in the king`s court.
Bastani rituals mimic the practices and traditions of Sufi orders, as evidenced by terminology like murshed or morshed (master), pishkesvat (leader), taj (crown) and faqr (poverty). The ethics involved are also similar to Sufi ideals, emphasizing purity of heart. Every session begins with pious praise to the Prophet Muhammed and his family.
The morshed dictates the pace by beating a goblet drum (zarb) while reciting Gnostic poems and stories from Persian mythology. As the most important member of the zourkhaneh, the morshed leads prayer sessions and spurs the athletes on with poems in praise of Shi`ite imams and excerpts from the Shahnameh. The singing itself once served as a form of oral education, passing down social knowledge, moral codes and religious teachings to the warriors in training.
The main portion of a varzesh-e bastani session is dedicated to weight training and calisthenics, notably using a pair of wooden clubs (mil), metal shields (sang), and bow-shaped iron weights (kabbadeh or kaman). This is followed by exercises like Sufi whirling and juggling, all of which are intended to build strength. The athletes move in unison to the drum beats of the morshed. Every session ends with bouts of koshti pahlevani.