The Great Gama Pehlwan: The God of Wrestling
Wrestling for any average Joe these days means the gravity defying stunts pulled off by brawny, steroid-stuffed men plying their trade in the various professional wrestling organizations around the world, like WWE and TNA, which seem to have mushroomed up from nowhere down the years. But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when wrestling was more about technique than bulging muscles, more about being cunning than size and more about pride than pay-package.
And leading these Herculean breed of wrestlers were the legendary pehlwans of undivided India. Considered a hybrid variety of the ancient malla-yuddha mentioned in the great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Iranian wrestling form Varzesh-e-Bastani; pehlwani made wrestling stalwarts from all over the world sit up and take notice of the Indian subcontinent.
Although pehlwani was in existence since the inception of Mughal rule in India, it was not until the late 19th and early 20th century, that this wrestling form came to be recognised globally. While Karim Bux was the first Pehlwan to grab headlines worldwide by defeating the English wrestler Tom Canon in 1892, it was Gama Pehlwan, better known as “The Great Gama”, who announced the arrival of pehlwani in the world wrestling scene by becoming the World Heavyweight Champion in 1910.
This was the golden era of Indian wrestling led by legends like Gama himself, his brother Imam Baksh Pehlwan, Gobar Guha and the slightly older, Raheem Baksh Sultaniwala. But Gama left the others miles behind, with his conquests in the ring earning him the nickname of the “Lion of the Punjab”. So here is the story of the legendary pehlwan who has long been forgotten amidst our craze for everything western, from cuisine to wrestling, but whose tale will surely leave you enthralled like no other.
It was around 1878 that Gama Pehlwan was born in the province of Punjab in British undivided India as Ghulam Muhammad. A couple of years later, in 1883, his younger brother Imam Baksh was born and no one would have guessed then, that these two toddlers would change the face of wrestling the world over in the years to come. Like his wrestler father Muhammad Aziz Baksh, Gama and his brother were patronised by the Maharaja of Datia, and they showed great promise from the moment they stepped into the ring for the first time up until the moment they bade farewell to it.
The Great Gama won his first competition when he was around ten in Jodhpur which left even the Maharaja of Jodhpur mesmerised. But his formal inception into the world of wrestling came in 1895 when he wrestled against the then Rustam-e-Hind or “The Indian Wrestling Champion”, Raheem Baksh Sultaniwala. The 5’7’’ Gama looked like a midget in front of the 7 footer Raheem Baksh, but our David held on to a draw against the Goliath, which drew plaudits from wrestling aficionados all over the province.
In the years that followed, Gama shattered the Indian wrestlers one by one in the ring. He defeated all the behemoths of the day including Ghulam Mohiuddin of Datia in 1898, Partab Singh from Bhopal in 1902, Ali Baba Sain of Indore in 1904 and Hasan Baksh of Multan in 1907.
The only wrestler who could withstand the hurricane that was Gama was none other than his past rival Raheem Baksh. After their 1895 match, these two wrestlers met twice before Gama’s subsequent tour to London in 1910, but all the three bouts ended in closely contested draws.
In 1910, R.B. Benjamin, a wrestling promoter, arranged for a tour of England in which Gama was joined by his brother Imam Baksh and two more wrestlers, Ahmed Baksh and Gamu; and these individuals making up the dreaded quartet were hailed as the Champion of India, the Champion of Lahore, the Champion of Amritsar and the Champion of Jalandhar respectively.
It was the first time that Indian wrestling had caught the fancy of the world and the British fitness tabloid Health and Strength called the trip “The Invasion of the Indian Wrestlers”. Gama famously challenged all the champion wrestlers of that time including Frank Gotch, the father of American Wrestling; Stanislaus Zbyszko, the Polish legend; Georges Hackenschmidt, the Russian Lion; and Taro Miyake, the Japanese judo great. But none seemed to have the guts to face Gama and it was finally the lesser known Benjamin Roller aka “Dr. Roller” who accepted Gama’s challenge only to be vanquished inside 10 minutes with nothing but two fractured ribs to brag about.
It was finally in September 10, 1910 that Gama faced Stanislaus Zbyszko for the John Bull Championship belt where Stanislaus was so defensive that he spent almost the entire match holding on to the mat as if his life depended on it, and the match was called a draw.
A rematch was scheduled a week later but Stanislaus never showed up and the championship was awarded to Gama, thus making him the World Heavyweight Champion. Curiously, his name can no longer be found in the wrestling archives, and Frank Gotch is stated as the world champion between 1908 and 1913. Nevertheless, the win against Stanislaus led Gama to be crowned the Rustam-e-Zamana or “The Champion of the World”, a feat that even his brother Imam Baksh and the legendary Dara Singh couldn’t match. This only goes on to show the greatness of Gama.
Coming back to the tour, Gama defeated a lot many other wrestling champions in London including the European Champion and the Swedish World Champion, but his dream of defeating Frank Gotch was never fulfilled as Frank decided not to risk his champion status against the man who had slain all the giants of wrestling in London.
So the tour was cut short and the wrestlers returned to India. But the Rustam-e-Hind crown still rested with Raheem Baksh and in order to win it and establish his numero uno position in the wrestling domain once and for all, Gama faced Raheem Baksh for the fourth and final time in 1911 and defeated him to finally become the Rustam-e-Hind. So now Stanislaus remained the only wrestler that Gama couldn’t defeat yet.
But Stanislaus’s claim to fame was short-lived as in a match in 1928 held in Patiala, Gama defeated him in 42 seconds flat and Stanislaus left the ring red-faced in a huff.
Gama’s final professional bout came in 1929 against the Swede, Jesse Peterson and Gama gave him a sound thrashing to remain undefeated all throughout his career. Although Gama didn’t formally announce his retirement until 1952, he remained active only on paper as no wrestler dared to face him. After the partition of India in 1947, Gama shifted to Lahore, Pakistan where he spent the remaining days of his life until his death in the summer of 1963.
It is said that the only wrestler who could have defeated Gama Pehlwan was none other than his own brother, Imam Baksh Pehlwan, who was not only half a feet taller than his more acclaimed sibling, but was also hailed by experts as tactically more superior than Gama. But call it fraternal loyalty or mutual respect, but they never came face to face though Gama eventually did relinquish his Rustam-e-Hind title to his brother in a tournament in Kolhapur in which Imam Baksh destroyed Gama’s arch rival Raheem Baksh in the ring.
But the real dream match-up in wrestling would have been between Gama Pehlwan and the only other undefeated Pehlwan in the history of wrestling, the winner of the Rustam-e-Punjab and Rustam-e-Hind titles, the wrestling mammoth from India, Dara Singh. But sadly, the two belonged to different eras and hence the outcome of such a bout is all but a matter of conjecture.
So here ends the brilliant story of the life and death of Gama Pehlwan and his innumerable achievements in the ring. His physical dexterity was acknowledged by none other than Bruce Lee who closely studied and adapted many of Gama’s exercise routines, and his wrestling acumen was acknowledged by the Prince of Wales himself, who gifted Gama with a silver mace during his 1922 visit to India, the one that you will see Gama carrying in the now iconic photograph. But Gama’s era is now long gone.
Many pehlwans have since come and gone, and the world of wrestling has seen a great many revolutionary changes; but no one has ever been able to replicate what this unassuming guy, hailing from a country caught in the grip of Colonialism, achieved against all odds in that wonderful era.
“The Lion of Punjab” could never be tamed and his accomplishments have become a part of wrestling folklore. But Olympus has fallen and newer and less divine wrestling Gods have taken over the world, and “The Great Gama” has given way to the lesser mortal called “The Great Khali”. But his legend will live on no matter what, because Gama was the God of wrestling and Gods never die.