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The legendary Gama is regarded by many as one of the greatest pahelwan of all time. A Muslim of Kashmiri heritage, hewas born Ghulam Mohammed in 1878 in Amritsar, into one of India’s premier wrestling families. His father, Aziz Baksh (1848-1886) was an accomplished court wrestler in the service of the royal house of Datia. He oversaw his son’s training from the age of five. When he died three years later, Gama’s training continued under the direction of his grandfather and uncle.

Gama first came to notice in 1888 when he won a strength-endurance competition held by Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur. Out of four hundred experienced wrestlers, the 10-year-old was among the final fifteen who performed the greatest number of baitaks. Impressed by the boy’s determination, the maharaja announced Gama the winner.

Gama’s professional career took off in 1893. In 1901, his considerable talents, particularly his characteristicly aggressive style, gained him a draw against the masterful Khalifa Ghulam Mohi-ud-din. A year later, he scored a draw against the indomitable Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala. The match that proved a turning point was his win in 1909 over the previously unbeaten Khalifa Ghulam Mohi-ud-din; it took Gama just eight minutes to snatch the coveted title Rustum-i-Hind.

The following year Gama scored his most spectacular win against his old adversary, Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala, in Allahabad. After defeating Biddo Pahelwan during the Shalimar Fair in 1912, he was recruited by the young Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala and granted a fabulous allowance.

With a lack of worthy challengers, Gama unofficially retired in 1918, transferring his title to his brother, Imam Baksh. But he made a celebrated return in 1928 to face Stanislaus Zbyszco in a rematch of their famous bout some eighteen years earlier. Despite both men now being well into their forties, the return match drew 60,000 fans to a specially-built stadium constructed by the Maharajah of Patiala. The Great Gama would embarrass the Polish legend, throwing him in just 42 seconds with his famous ‘dhobi-pat’ shoulder throw.

Having fought several hundred competitive matches, Gama officially retired in 1933 as India’s undefeated wrestling champion. Following the partition of Punjab in 1947, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ resettled in Lahore in Pakistan. He never competed once for the newly created country, and breathed his last in Lahore in 1960, a penniless man, after a prolonged period of illness.

One of Gama’s challenges issued in the British press in London, 1910 Anxious to establish his name further afield, Gama toured Europe in 1910 with a troupe of Punjabi wrestlers. He caused a sensation in England by defeating several of the world’s best grapplers: America’s “Doc” Benjamin Roller (pinned twice in less than ten minutes), Sweden’s Jesse Peterson (World Champion Greco-Roman style), France’s Maurice Deriaz and Switzerland’s Johann Lemm (the European Champion) all met with defeat. The 300-pound Polish champion, Stanislaus Zbyszco, was only able to force a draw by hugging the mat for three hours in front of 12,000 spectators at the Shepherd’s Bush Stadium in London. When he failed to show for the rematch the next day, Gama won by default and was awarded £250 in prize money. He returned to India as Rustum-i-Zaman (Rustum of the World), a title which earned him enduring acclaim among his countrymen.

Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala In their thrilling rematch in 1906, Gama forced another draw against his veteran antagonist, Rahim. Reminiscing on this bout, Rahim paid tribute to his adversary, who was fourteen years his junior and over a foot shorter: ‘At the end of that gruelling fight we were so exhausted that Gama put his turban on his head with trembling hands, but I could not manage doing even three rounds of layers.’

Ram Singh Pahelwan To hone the intricacies of their art, Gama and his brother Imam Baksh maintained links with many of the respected pahelwans of their father’s generation. They learnt from veterans like Ram Singh (died 1937) who was a court wrestler in the state of Jind in the late 19th century. It is known that the brothers stayed at his village Toosa near Ludhiana, East Punjab for several weeks at a time.

Mr Benjamin and his troupe of Punjabi pahelwans with and without their traditional dress, 1910 The tour to England was sponsored by a Bengali millionaire, Sharat Kumar Mishra, to show the world that Europeans could be beaten using distinctly Indian methods. On their arrival, Health and Strength magazine announced ‘The Invasion of the Indian Wrestlers’. The members of the troupe were listed as Gama, Champion of India; Imam Baksh, Champion of Lahore; Ahmed Baksh, Champion of Amritsar; and Gamu, Champion of Jalandhar. In an attempt to minimise any discrimination against the Indians, the article also noted that they were all British subjects.

Gama versus “Doc” Benjamin Roller at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London, 1910 Gama’s challenge was eventually accepted by Roller, an American champion who was the long-time holder of the World Light Heavyweight title. Roller was 34 pounds heavier and six inches taller than Gama, and was favoured to win the £200 prize. Gama stunned a sold-out crowd at the Alhambra Theatre when he threw Roller repeatedly and pinned him twice for the win. One spectator who witnessed Gama wrestle during the England tour thought he possessed ‘the strength of an ox and the quickness of a cat’.

Gama with his son Jalal-ud-din and a sadhu from Kashmir Gama married a daughter of the great Ghulam in 1905. When she died three years later, he married her sister who bore him several boys and girls. Tragically, all the boys died at a young age.

The Gama-Zbyszco rematch, Patiala, 1928 Among the crowd of this much anticipated rematch were many VIPs, including the Nawab of Bhopal, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, the Maharana of Dholpur, Sir Leslie Scott (a noted maritime lawyer), and Sir Harcourt Butler (then chairman of the Indian States Committee, and a former governor of Burma). The bout had hardly started when Gama sent Zbyszco crashing to the ground in barely 42 seconds. The maharaja came down and embraced Gama and gave him the pearl necklace he was wearing. Gama was paraded on the maharaja's prize elephant, and was awarded a silver mace, an annual stipend of 6,000 rupees and a village.

Akhara, Training & Diet

In their day, champion pahelwans were devastating because they trained hard, ate big and possessed superior technique, power and fighting hearts.

Many of the best professional pahelwans were born into wrestling families; a son followed in the footsteps of his father and started to wrestle as soon as he was able to walk. As Pahelwani was the child’s one and only pursuit, and as he learnt young and kept his body supple under good teachers, who were to be found in great numbers, the akhara system produced extraordinarily efficient and scientific wrestlers.

The pahelwan, though very much a part of society, considered himself a man apart. When he entered the akhara, he left behind him the mundane for a world of tranquillity and authority. He would adhere strictly to the moral principles of continence, honesty, internal and external cleanliness, simplicity, and contemplation of the Divine, an attribute that he shared with the ascetic fakir or sadhu of the Muslim and Hindu worlds respectively.

The diligent pahelwan strove towards the ideal of perfect health. To achieve this he had to release himself from the world. In this perfect state of self-realization (‘jivanmukti’), ignorance was banished as spiritual consciousness and wisdom developed. At this level, a pahelwan was unaffected by emotions of any sort; he had no concern with the sensory world of pain and pleasure, suffering and greed.

Central to the development of a pahelwan’s moral and ideological framework was physical training (‘virayam’), the focal point of his daily routine. This entailed the repetition of specific exercises and the continual practice in actual wrestling.

Stress was placed on stamina and strength rather than beauty. If a pahelwan became a very large man he was given additional exercises to improve stamina and to harden his body. For instance, he was made to turn the shaft of the Persian wheel (the traditional device used to draw water from wells), a task usually performed by a couple of bullocks or camels. This type of exercise done for a length of time was prodigious hard work.