Of honour in combat and the Great Gama

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 3, 2013

They stood there for over 14 hours in the rain. A crowd of over 200,000 persons, mostly poor farmers, in a village of Kohlapur district in India’s Maharashtra, to watch this year’s international ‘desi kushti’ match. The rumour was that a grandson of the Great Gama was coming.

In India such reverence is probably reserved for the Indian cricket megastar Sachin Tendulkar, but even for him 200,000 would not stand in the rain for over 14 hours.

“The grandson of the God of Wrestling is coming”, said a farmer to an Indian newspaper correspondent, “and it is a dream we might never see again”. For miles around the ‘maidan’ of Kohlapur entire families had walked for a whole day and waited under trees.

The Pakistani ‘pehlwans’ from Lahore had had a torrid time getting visas. In the end threats from Maharashtra’s top politicians paid dividends. Politics or no politics, the great ‘desi kushti’ match had to go on.

In Lahore the new generation is now getting to learn that ‘Desi Kushti’ is an acknowledged sport even in faraway England, whose national team can now, probably, take on the best. It will soon be part of the Olympics as the world wakes up to the clean and beautiful sport of ‘desi kushti’.

Lahore has always been its acknowledged centre, and it was here that the great ‘dangals’ have taken place over the centuries.

But before I dwell on the Great Gama, let me dwell on a famous ‘dangal’ in the early days of the reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. In the grounds just opposite the Lahore Fort, a young man from Gujranwala challenged all the known ‘pehlwans’.

His sheer strength amazed everyone, for he would throw away even the finest wrestlers. On seeing him the maharajah recruited him as his personal bodyguard. That man was to grow up to become the commander-in-chief of the Khalsa Army, the immensely brave, yet very kind, Gen Hari Singh Nalwa.

It is said that Ghulam Muhammad, known by his family by the pet name ‘Gama’, was a man for even greater strength. In the Baroda Museum at Sayajibaug, India, lies a massive 1,200kg stone which has the inscription: “This stone weighing 1,200kg was lifted by the Great Ghulam Mohammad, known as ‘Gama Pehlwan’, on December 23, 1902, at the age of 22, who lifted it up to his chest and walked around over a fair distance. In his life he remained undefeated and is acknowledged as the greatest wrestler ever born”.

While the entire world acknowledges this great Pakistani, with hundreds of thousand willing to wait for an entire day to get a glimpse of his grandson, in Lahore he died in abject poverty.

The funds to survive in his old age he received from the rich and famous of India, like the industrialist G.D. Birla, who sent him one lump sum and a monthly stipend. The Maharajah of Baroda also assisted. The way Pakistan treated their greatest there is no need to repeat the painful episode.

But who was this great man, and why is he still celebrated all over the world while our young know nothing about him? Let me briefly go over his life story and the ethic by which he lived.

It is part of our heritage, which I am sure the world is benefitting from while we wait for glory to flow our way. It is almost like the sleeping drug addict who wished that the ‘bair’ fruit fallen from a tree would by some miracle fly and land in his mouth.

Born Ghulam Mohammad to a Kashmir family in Amritsar, now in India, on the 22nd of May, 1880, he belonged to a family of wrestlers. His father was the famous wrestler of his age, Muhammad Aziz. His younger brother was the equally versatile Imam Bakhsh.

In a career then spanned 50 years, he remained unbeaten in not only undivided India, but also in England and Europe. His amazing strength earned him the title of ‘Rustam-e-Daman’ – Champion of the Universe – and to him the title remains still half a century after his death in Lahore in 1960.

His first appearance in a wrestling match was at the age of ten, when he out-foxed 200 wrestlers in a ‘dangal’ arranged by the Maharajah of Jodhpur. A few he even floored with lightening speed, shocking the huge gathering. The acknowledged champion he managed to pin down, and such was the strength of the ten-year old, that the bulky champion was not able to move. The maharajah immediately declared him the champion. Gama was never to look back and never be defeated, ever.

At the age of 19 he met the Indian champion Karim Bakhsh (Sultaniwala) of Gujranwala. Standing over seven feet tall and immensely strong, the five feet seven inch Gama looked as if he would be floored within minutes. But this famous match went on for over three hours and was declared a draw.

A rematch followed and an aggressive Gama went on the attack. Within minutes he prevailed. Now he was the undisputed champion of India. A few challengers followed, only for all of them to be floored within minutes, if not within seconds.

Such was his strength and speed that he was invited to the Champion of Champions series in England. For England he sailed with his brother Imam Bakhsh in 1910, and there he was not allowed to compete because at 5 feet 7 inches he did not qualify.

An angry Gama threw a challenge to the top contenders offering huge cash prizes. The greatest of them was Stanislaus Zbyszko, who initially ignored him and offered an American wrestler Benjamin Roller, who at seven feet three inches was known as ‘the man of steel’. At the first grapple Gama pinned him down with a speed never seen before in England.

In the second round Roller changed his tactics resorting to kicking. Gama had never seen such ‘rude’ tactics. “How dishonourable” is how he described it later. He avoided initial contact, but then like lightening he went for his leg, twisting and holding on to it. Poor Benjamin had never encountered such strength. He conceded defeat.

Gama then challenged the 12 top wrestlers of Europe and America to a fight on the same day. The few who did take him on were all floored within minutes. The time had come for the greatest of his age, the mighty Zbyszko, to meet this match.

On the 10th of September, 1910, this great and famous match took place, and within minutes the pride of the western world was floored. He clung to the mat to avoid being defeated, only to get up time and again, each time to be thrown down and floored. The great Gama had prevailed, but denied victory on a technical matter. One English newspaper ran the headline: ‘Can an Indian really be so strong – trickery feared’. But it goes to the credit of Zbyszko that he agreed to a rematch a week later to settle the matter.

On the 17th of September, 1910, Gama reached the arena and waited for his challenger. The great Zbyszko failed to turn up. The crowd booed. Newspaper reporters ran to his hotel room, where he declared: “The man is too strong for me”.

Next day the headlines screamed: ‘World Champion by Default’. Four newspapers carried the same headline. Gama would comment on this with the remark: “To lose in combat is a far greater honour than avoiding a clean fight”.

It was with honour that this greatest ever wrestler always lived. When he moved to Lahore early in 1947, he lived on Mohni Road, where even today his family live. He promised his neighbours, all Hindus, that he would defend them with his life if mobs came their way. And the mob did come one day. The entire family of wrestlers stood in line. As the first raging arsonist came, a sound Gama slap sent him flying. The rest is history. Not a single incident took place on Mohni Road.

In tears he took all his neighbours to the border, giving each family enough food for a week. This was one fight without honour, and one he did not like. No wonder they all stand, even half a century later, by the hundreds of thousands, for a whole day just to have a glimpse of the off-spring of the greatest wrestler of all time, a man we did not honour enough.




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