Kunjarani Devi, the first superstar of Indian weightlifting

Seven world championship silver medals and two Asian Games bronze make Kunjarani Devi one of the most decorated women weightlifters in India.
By Rahul Venkat

India’s ‘Iron Lady’ Karnam Malleswari gave hope to the girls in the country and raised the profile of Indian weightlifting with her historic bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Karnam Malleswari is rightly touted as being the inspiration for many a sportswoman in the country.

However, even she was motivated by someone who is arguably Indian weightlifting’s first superstar - Kunjarani Devi.

The former Manipuri weightlifter may stand at a diminutive 5’3” but her achievements stand much taller. The 52-year-old was also known as the Hercules from Manipur for her amazing grit and strength.

Incidentally, Kunjarani’s interest in sport emerged from another legendary Indian sportswoman: PT Usha.

Inspired by PT Usha

The 1982 Asian Games was PT Usha’s claim to fame.

Having barely entered adulthood, the Indian track queen sprinted her way to two silver medals at home in New Delhi. The entire country took notice of PT Usha but for a 14-year-old Kunjarani Devi, this was a pivotal moment.

“That event made me feel like even I could excel at sport,” Kunjarani Devi told the Olympic Channel. “I started playing a lot of sports then – be it hockey, football or running.”

However, her diminutive build meant that Kunjarani was not able to succeed at the high-intensity sports. This was when she discovered something called powerlifting. Kunjarani’s small frame, and the consequent low centre of gravity she stood at, made her an ideal candidate for the sport.

Kunjarani Devi, along with her close friend Anita Chanu, took up powerlifting as their sport of choice and the former’s talent was soon apparent – she broke the national powerlifting record just a few months into the sport.

The name Kunjarani Devi is associated with Indian weightlifting.

There remained one small issue though. Kunjarani dreamed of participating in the Olympic Games one day but regrettably, powerlifting was not a part of the Olympic programme.

It necessitated another shift in the sport for Kunjarani Devi.

Making her mark at the National Games

In 1985, the first edition of the National Games was held in India. It was modelled on the style of the Olympics, which meant that weightlifting was added to the roster for both men and women. Women’s weightlifting was only added to the Olympic roster in 2000.

Kunjarani Devi saw an opportunity to realise her Olympic dream and decided to switch from powerlifting to weightlifting. It was not a simple decision.

“Powerlifting had three formats (squats, bench press and deadlifts) while weightlifting only had the snatch and clean and jerk. Moreover, there was a lot of emphasis on your strength in powerlifting while weightlifting was more to do with your technique,” explained Kunjarani.

However, the former Indian weightlifter puts her smooth transition – she won three gold medals at the National Games - down to her adaptability.

“Playing so many sports helped me get into that mindset quickly,” Kunjarani reasoned. “I had already made a switch from hockey, football and athletics to powerlifting earlier, so the leap to weightlifting was not a new thing.”

Another factor that made her more determined was reading about Chinese and Russian weightlifters in sports magazines.

“I could see that the world record was not too far from the weights I was lifting. My coaches always told me that if I kept working hard, my dream of representing India would be realised soon,” the Indian weightlifter recalled.

Kunjarani Devi would get that opportunity soon enough.

A slew of silvers and the Chinese challenge

Kunjarani Devi’s first international exposure came at the 1989 World Weightlifting Championships in Manchester, England.

The stage may have been intimidating for a youngster who was making her first trip outside India for a competition but Kunjarani was quietly confident in her abilities. And it helped her create history.

Participating in the 44kg final, Kunjarani Devi lifted an aggregate of 132.5 kg – 57.5kg in the snatch and 75kg in the clean and jerk – to win a silver medal, India’s first-ever podium at the World Weightlifting Championships.

The silver was a phenomenal achievement but it was also important to Kunjarani for personal reasons.

“That medal finally convinced everyone at home that this could be a viable career for me. Before that, my family was supportive but I could tell they were sceptical,” revealed Kunjarani. “I got a job offer from the government, which also gave me financial stability.”

Her opponent that day, China’s Xing Fen, lifted a world-record 165kg to win the gold. It wasn’t the only time a Chinese weightlifter proved to be a challenge for the Indian.

Kunjarani Devi went on to win an incredible seven silver medals at the world championships from 1989 to 1997, only missing the 1993 edition through a last-minute injury.

The Indian weightlifter also won two bronze medals at the 1990 and 1994 Asian Games, and each time Kunjarani Devi would inevitably lose out to a Chinese counterpart.

“They were just better prepared than us, to be honest. My goal was always to take the fight to the Chinese. India was just discovering weightlifting as a sport while they already had all the systems in place and the blueprint for success,” Kunjarani Devi lamented when asked why it was the case.

Moment of glory at Commonwealth Games

Kunjarani Devi had a lean period after 1997 – she was unable to step on the podium at the world championships or at the Asian Games. Her Olympic dream did not materialise either when women’s weightlifting was added to the Games for the first time in 2000.

Never one to give up, Kunjarani Devi rose through the lull once again in 2002, this time at the scene of that iconic first world championship silver. The Indian weightlifter won three gold medals in the 48kg - overall, clean and jerk and snatch - at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

“I wanted to better myself every single day and improve my game on a daily basis. That’s what helped me earn that gold,” Kunjarani said.

Kunjarani Devi won three gold medals at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Two years later, her lifelong dream was finally realised. Kunjarani Devi was part of the Indian weightlifting squad at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

She eventually finished fourth in the 48kg category as Thailand’s Aree Wiratthaworn lifted 200 kgs to clinch the bronze. Kunjarani could only manage 190. “I think the Olympic medal was just not meant to happen,” she admitted.

The Olympics heartbreak healed after a bespectacled Kunjarani Devi successfully defended her Commonwealth Games title in Melbourne, Australia in 2006 at the age of 38.

Jumping for joy: Kunjarani Devi after claiming Commonwealth gold

Between her first and last medals, Kunjarani Devi’s career lasted an astonishing 17 years, something rare for a woman in power sport. 

En route, Kunjarani Devi was conferred the Arjuna Award in 1990 and then in 1996, shared India’s highest sporting honour - the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna - with Leander Paes. Kunjarani was also awarded the Padma Shri, a civilian honour, in 2011.

Her journey gave Manipur the platform it needed to produce more sporting stars like the legendary MC Mary Kom and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who has cited Kunjarani as an inspiration.

So, what does Kunjarani Devi think of Mirabai Chanu’s chances at the Tokyo Olympics?

“I would want her to win that coveted Olympic medal, something that I could not achieve. I have spoken and trained her before, so I know what she is capable of. My blessings will always be with her,” Kunjarani Devi signed off.