From Gama Pehelwan to Sakshi Malik: The tale of Indian wrestling

This sport has given the nation considerable Olympic success over the years

By Saurabh Shankar ·

One of the oldest sports in India, wrestling could even be traced back to Hindu mythology where the Mahabharata’s Bhima was considered as a great wrestler of the land. The discipline was also celebrated by most Indian kings and emperors through the middle ages, with many tournaments being held for the entertainment of the royals.

In more contemporary times, wrestling has been one of India’s stronger suits at the international stage, with many of its athletes bagging medals at the Olympic or Commonwealth level. With the World Wrestling Championships scheduled to begin later in the week, here’s a look back at India’s association with the sport through the ages.

Pre-Independence Greats

The first renowned wrestler to emerge from the nation was Ghulam Mohammad Baksh, better known as Gama Pehelwan. Despite his relatively diminutive stature, the grappler fought toe to toe with the nearly seven foot tall Raheem Baksh Sultaniwala, with neither one giving up even after hours and the match being declared a draw.

Following that win, Gama’s legend grew and in 1910, he travelled to London to participate in an international championship. He openly challenged all at that competition and dismantled any opponent he faced within a matter of minutes. So feared was the grappler that the reigning Polish champion Stanislaus Zbyszko didn’t show any attacking intent when he faced Gama, staying on the mat for more than two and a half hours of their fight. In a career spanning nearly five decades, Gama Pehelwan remained undefeated throughout.

India’s next wrestling sensation was the lanky Rashid Anwar. The welterweight grappler bagged the nation’s first ever medal at the Commonwealth Games, winning a bronze in 1934, when it was still called the British Empire Games. Anwar’s accomplishment really stands out for its time as India struggled to replicate such success at an international tournament for almost two decades.

Olympic Bronze

In the 1952 Helsinki Games, a certain Khasabha Dadasaheb Jadhav defied the odds to win independent India’s first ever Olympic medal for an individual sport. So unfancied were the Indian’s chances at the Olympics that he was denied any monetary funding from the government and had to finance his trip by himself. Jadhav’s college principal had to mortgage his house in order to support the grappler’s Olympic dream in 1952.

The wrestler from Maharashtra could not participate in the subsequent Olympics due to an injury and soon retired from the sport and became a sub-inspector for his state’s police force. India’s wrestling baton was then passed on to Haryana’s Udey Chand, who created some history of his own by winning the nation’s first ever medal at the World Championships, a bronze, in 1961. He also participated in three Olympic Games since making his debut at the Rome Games, with his best ever performance being a sixth place finish. Chand also won three Asian Games medals for the nation and also nabbed a gold in the Commonwealth Games of 1970.

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Hanuman Akhada

A watershed moment in Indian wrestling occurred in 1923 when the Hanuman Akhada for built in New Delhi. The prestigious Akhada has been the training ground for several of India’s top wrestlers in the past who were given their initiation to the sport at the hands of the veteran Guru Hanuman. Two of the most prodigious alumni from the place were Kartar Singh and Satpal Singh, both of whom bagged Asian Games gold for the nation in 1978 and 1982 respectively.

Kartar added another Asian Games gold medal in 1986 to that list, while also winning two medals at the Commonwealth Games. Satpal also shone during that period in his weight category, winning three silver medals at the Commonwealth Games between 1974 and 1982. 

After these two grapplers retired, Indian wrestling faced a lull for the next couple of decades as they failed to win a single gold medal at the Commonwealth or Asian Games. 

Olympic Revival  

After a 56-year drought, Sushil Kumar put Indian wrestling back on the map by winning a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games. He followed that up four years later with a silver in London, while his fellow statesman Yogeshwar Dutt ended up claiming an Olympic bronze.

Yogeshwar Dutt won India’s fourth Olympic medal for wrestling

Sushil also has three Commonwealth gold medals to his name, winning it on three consecutive occasions since 2010, getting Indian wrestling to new heights. Dutt also won two golds at the Commonwealth Games, before deciding to hang up his boots and mentor India’s next bright wrestling prodigy, Bajrang Punia.

Babita Kumari won a silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games

The Phogat Sisters

The 2010 Commonwealth Games proved to be historic for Indian grapplers as it gave the nation its first ever gold medal for women’s wrestling. Haryana’s Geeta Phogat defeated Australian Emily Bensted in the final to usher in a new era for the nation’s female grapplers to dominate on the World stage.

Geeta’s sister Babita Kumari also achieved great success in global tournaments, winning two golds and a silver at the Commonwealth Games. Their cousin Vinesh Phogat is an Asian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist and remains one of India's top grapplers of the current generation.

The Phogat household helped India’s female wrestlers break past rigid societal norms and make it big on the global stage. While they helped shine a spotlight on Indian women's wrestling, it was a certain Sakshi Malik who helped put Indian eves on the Olympic map with a bronze at the 2016 Rio Games.

Malik would now be looking to add to her medal tally at the World Wrestling Championships later in the month, with several of India’s young wrestlers like Divya Kakran and Deepak Punia joining the fray.