India’s Big Pahelwan : Gama Pahelwan

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School: Kotwala
Height: 5’ 7”
Weight: 200 pounds

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.

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’.

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.

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.

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