The Great Gama Pahelwan

September 6, 2020

Gama’s forte was his great strength and amazing speed in the ring. He gained real recognition as a wrestler in 1904 when he triumphed in a tournament organised by the Maharajah of Rewa, recording many impressive wins on the way

Wrestling or Kushti is a sport with a long history in the Indian subcontinent. Wrestlers, or “pahelwans” as they are called, were patronised by princes and nobles. Specially built “akharas” were provided for them where there would be facilities for training as well as lodging and boarding.

The wrestlers were mostly from working class backgrounds but the upper class also dallied in this sport. The Jyesthimallas were a clan of Brahmins in Gujarat who established a school of wrestling in the 13th century that lasted for hundreds of years. The great Mughal emperor Akbar was himself a fine wrestler and kept a large number of wrestlers in his court who were paid regular salaries and provided all facilities for practice.

Wrestling was considered a manly sport worthy of the nobility and young nobles received lessons and training in this art under the supervision of a master or “ustad”. Regular wrestling contests took place in the court and winners were amply rewarded.

The great Gama pehalwan was born into this tradition in Amritsar in 1878. His real name was Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt and his father Aziz Baksh was a famous wrestler in the court of Raja Bhivani Singh of Datiya. He passed away when Gama was only six years old and Gama’s upbringing was taken up by his maternal grandfather Noon pehalwan, who was also a wrestler. He, too, died soon after leaving Gama in the care of his maternal uncle Idda pehalwan who personally trained Gama and taught him the intricate skills of wrestling.

Gama came into the public gaze when, at the age of 10 years, he entered a competition organised by the ruler of Jodhpur. This was a physical endurance contest in which the participants had to perform baithaks (sit ups or squats), a fundamental training exercise for all wrestlers. Four hundred wrestlers participated in the contest and after several hours only fifteen were left, including Gama, who had been allowed entry despite his young age, only because he was the son of Aziz Baksh. At this point the Raja of Jodhpur stopped the contest, declaring Gama the winner because of his ability to get this far despite his tender age. Gama had performed many thousand baithaks in these few hours and was bed-ridden for a week afterwards.

As Gama grew older his training became more rigorous. He would do 5000 baithaks (sit-ups or squats) and 3000 dands (push-ups) each day and run a mile with a 95 kg doughnut ring or hasli round his neck. He also consumed a prodigious diet that included six chickens or thirty six eggs, an extract of eleven pounds of mutton mixed with half kg of ghee, ten litres of milk, another half a litre of ghee, half kg of crushed almond paste made into a tonic drink, over 2 kg of butter and three buckets of seasonal fruits, along with fruit juices and other ingredients to promote good digestion. He would also grapple with forty of his fellow wrestlers each day.

Gama’s forte was his great strength and amazing speed in the ring. He gained real recognition as a wrestler in 1904 when he triumphed in a tournament organised by the Maharajah of Rewa, recording many impressive wins on the way. In 1906 he won a tournament arranged by Maharaja Pratap Singh of Orchaz and was appointed as a wrestler at the Maharaja’s court. In the following years he defeated many eminent wrestlers from other states and cities including the renowned Khalifa Ghulam Mohiuddin who was beaten in just eight minutes.

The one wrestler Gama had difficulty overcoming was the famous Raheem Baksh Sultaniwala. Of Kashmiri ancestry and based in Gujranwala, Raheem Baksh was a giant of a man with a height of six feet nine inches and weighing close to 300 pounds, while Gama was only five feet seven inches tall and weighed around 200 pounds.

There are discrepancies regarding the dates of their bouts but they met three times before 1910. The first contest was a short twenty minute affair which Raheem Baksh was expected to win easily against his much younger and smaller opponent, but Gama surprised everyone by holding the great Raheem Baksh to a draw. The second and third bouts were lengthy contests lasting for three and two hours respectively. Gama who had been defensive in the opening bout was the aggressor in both these matches but could not subdue his much larger and more experienced opponent. Both bouts were drawn.

An English wrestling promoter R.B. Benjamin had seen Gama fight and was sufficiently impressed to arrange for him to wrestle in England. The trip was sponsored by a Bengali millionaire Sharat Kumar Mishra and Gama along with his younger brother Imam Baksh, Ahmed Baksh and Gamu set sail, arriving in London in April 1910.

In May the magazine “Health and Strength” announced their arrival in an article titled “The Invasion of the Indian Wrestlers”. A prize of £5 was offered to any competitor who could wrestle for five minutes in the ring with any member of the Indian quartet without being thrown on the mat. In Gama’s case the claim was that he could throw three men inside thirty minutes, irrespective of their size and weight.

Unfortunately they found very few takers and by July the lack of response led the “The Sporting Times” to carry an article called “Gama’s Hopeless Quest”. The famous wrestlers of the time like Frank Gotch, the father of American wrestling, Stanislaus Zbyszko, the Polish legend, George Hackenschmidt, the Russian lion, and Tato Miyake, the Japanese martial arts great, were all reluctant to fight Gama.

It was a lesser known American wrestler, Dr. Roller, who eventually took up Gama’s challenge. A qualified medical practitioner, Roller was also a skilled footballer and field events athlete, who had taken up wrestling and trained with Frank Gotch. Roller was much taller and heavier, but Gama demolished him. In front of a packed Alhambra theatre crowd, Gama won his first fall in just one minute and forty seconds, and had Roller on the mat for a second fall in nine minutes and ten seconds. Gama’s prize money was £200 and Roller was left with two broken ribs as his reward.

In September, Zbyszko also agreed to fight Gama for prize money of £250 and the John Bull Belt. Zbyszko was fifty pounds heavier than Gama and trained hard for the contest. The fight was held in Shepherds Bush stadium before a crowd of 12000 people. Zbyszko was dropped to the mat within a minute of the start of the contest, following which he adopted a defensive posture, lying prone on his belly, for most of the bout. Gama repeatedly tried to turn him over so that he could pin Zbyszko’s shoulders and win, but was unable to do so. The fight was halted after two hours and thirty five minutes and rescheduled for the following weekend. However, Zbyszko failed to show up for the rematch and Gama was declared the winner by default.

Gama returned from England as a hero but he was still not the official Indian champion. That title still belonged to Raheem Baksh Sultaniwala. Gama fought him for the fourth time in a tournament in Allahabad in 1912. For inexplicable reasons Raheem Baksh had covered himself in red ochre for the bout. Gama immediately went on the offensive and his aggression and pace twice forced Raheem Baksh to leave the pit. After the second break-away Gama attacked relentlessly and bodily lifted up Raheem Baksh and held him in a head down position. Though Raheem managed to extricate himself from this hold, he soon left the arena totally exhausted and did not return. Gama was crowned Rustam-e-Hind. He had finally overcome his nemesis.

In the meanwhile the Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh had lured Gama to his court on a salary of Rs250 per month. In 1916 Gama fought Pandit Biddo who was the leading Hindu wrestler of the time. Gama won easily in five minutes.

In 1922 The Prince of Wales visited India and Gama was presented a silver mace by the future Edward VII.

From 1916 to 1927, Gama had no opponents. In 1928 a rematch was arranged with Stanislaus Zbyszko. The bout was held in Patiala in conjunction with a trade fair and the Maharaja had a special stadium with a capacity of 40,000 people built for the occasion.

Many VIPs including the Nawab of Bhopal and the famous cricketer Ranjitsinhji were present for the occasion. Within a few moments of the start Gama released his hold on Zbyszko’s neck and quickly took his left ankle instead, pulling it forwards while simultaneously sweeping away his right leg. Zbyszko was felled to the ground and Gama immediately pinned him to win by a fall. The contest was over in just 42 seconds. Gama was presented with a gold and silver mace and pronounced Rustam-e-Zaman or Champion of the World.

Gama’s last professional fight was in 1929 against a Paris based Swedish wrestler Jesse Peterson. Held in Patiala in front of a large crowd that included princes and nobles, Gama won comfortably within a few minutes. Gama did not wrestle again professionally though he still regarded himself as the World Champion and maintained an open challenge to all comers to come and fight him.

Gama fought and defeated over two hundred opponents in his time. His final days were difficult; he had five sons and four daughters and all the sons died young. When his youngest son Jalaluddin died in 1945 at the age of just thirteen, Gama was heartbroken and lost the power of speech for some days. He migrated to Pakistan at partition and tried his hand at different unsuccessful ventures including a bus service in Karachi called the “Gama Transport Service.” He finally settled in Lahore and was granted land and a monthly pension by the government. He died of heart failure at the Mayo Hospital in May 1960. An interesting footnote is that the late Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of Nawaz Sharif, was Gama’s grand-daughter.

Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.

The Great Gama Pahelwan