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History of wrestling in India: From an entertainment sport to Olympic glory

Wrestling began as a way for men to keep fit. It was a way of entertainment for royal families but has now emerged as a robust professional sport that brings India international fame.

7 min By Rahul Venkat
Bajrang Punia.
(Picture by Getty Images)

Combining raw power with agility and technique to create a fascinating spectacle, wrestling, as a sport, has constantly grown in popularity in India over the past decade or so.

Wrestling in India, however, traces its origin way back to the fifth century BCE. In the global context, the martial art form is said to have existed, in a primitive form, since 7000 BCE.

In India, the early form of wrestling was known as ‘malla-yuddha’ (hand-to-hand combat) and several references to it can be found in ancient epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In fact, Bhima - the second of the five Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata - was considered the strongest man in the epic and was known as an accomplished wrestler.

Wrestling was also widely practised across most parts of modern-day north India, with kings and princes often organising wrestling competitions as means of entertainment.

This was in line with how wrestling was perceived across the world, with the societal elite often practising wrestling during the middle ages.

Over the years, wrestling came to be known by different names - like dangal, pehlwani and kushti - in native languages in north India. The stage for indigenous wrestling were mud patches, more popularly known as akharas, as opposed to soft mats popularised in the European variant.

Wrestling in India was seen as a way to keep fit and strongmen were often accorded great respect.

Professional wrestling came into being in the world in 1830, with wrestlers travelling around Europe to showcase their talent and forming troupes. The Greco-Roman style came into being courtesy French influence on the sport around the same era.

Freestyle wrestling was included in the Olympic programme for the St. Louis Games in 1904 and also at the London 1908 Games.

It was around this time that India got its first wrestling star.

The legend of Gama Pehlwan

India’s first wrestling superstar was Ghulam Mohammad Baksh, better known as Gama Pehlwan or the Great Gama.

Introduced to wrestling by his uncle Ida, a wrestler himself, Gama Pehlwan, as legend has it, was declared the winner of a strongman competition at the age of 10 after which he began formally training as a wrestler.

The diminutive Gama Pehlwan rose to fame in 1895 when he engaged in a bout with the famous Raheem Baksh Sultaniwala, who towered over him by more than a foot, for several hours. The bout was eventually declared a draw.

Raheem Sultaniwala was the Indian wrestling champion and Gama’s feat established him as the next big thing in Indian wrestling.

Gama Pehlwan’s finest moment came in 1910. Already recognised as the best wrestler in India by that time, he travelled to London for the John Bull world championship but was denied entry due to his small stature.

The great Gama Pehlwan, though, threw down an open challenge on the spot. Benjamin Roller, a popular American wrestler at the time, took up the dare and the Indian responded by pinning him down twice.

The next day, up against world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko, Gama Pehlwan took his opponent down and with Zbyszko staying in that defensive position to nullify the Indian’s strength, the bout was declared a draw after a marathon two hours and 35 minutes.

Gama Pehlwan beat several wrestlers of repute on that tour and when he returned to India, he beat the famed Raheem Sultaniwala and was crowned the champion of India.

After partition in 1947, Gama Pehlwan lived in Lahore in modern-day Pakistan and died in 1960 due to illness. In his almost five-decade long career, it is said he did not lose a single bout.

KD Jadhav makes history

Wrestling continued to exist in pockets of north India - namely the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra - all of which enjoyed rich legacies of their own in the sport.

India’s next big wrestling superstar was crowned in 1952, when Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav or KD Jadhav, won bronze at the Helsinki Olympics.

Hailing from Maharashtra, KD Jadhav had made his Olympic debut at London 1948 but wrestling on mats overwhelmed him, as he had only practised on mud till then.

Four years later, after rigorous training and running from pillar to post to gather funding for his trip, KD Jadhav made history by winning the Olympic bronze in the bantamweight category at Helsinki.

It was India's first individual Olympic medal post independence and remained so until Atlanta 1996, when Leander Paes won bronze in tennis.

Following in KD Jadhav’s footsteps, Indian wrestlers slowly started coming into their own in the international arena.

Udey Chand became the first Indian wrestler to win a world championship medal - bronze in the 67kg category - in the 1961 edition.

India’s Bishambar Singh then won the 57kg silver at the 1967 world championships at home in New Delhi.

More success followed at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburg, Scotland. India won five golds, three silvers and one bronze medal across weight categories to emerge as the most successful wrestling team in that edition.

Indian wrestlers consistently won medals at the Asian Games since 1954, with the first Asiad gold coming in 1962. Maruti Mane, Ganpat Andhalkar and Malwa Singh won in different categories.

India’s wrestling pedigree continued its upsurge with Kartar Singh, Rajender Singh and Satpal Singh all winning medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Games until 1986.

The retirement of the prominent generation of grapplers, though, pushed Indian wrestling on the backfoot. Over the next two decades, the country barely made an impression on the international arena.

An Olympic revival and women’s revolution

Wrestling finally returned to the fore again in India after Sushil Kumar won the 66kg freestyle bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics to break a 56-year Summer Games medal drought.

Sushil Kumar followed it up by becoming the first Indian wrestler to win the world championships gold medal in 2010, beating the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC)’s Alan Gogaev in the 66kg final. He is the only Indian to become a wrestling world champion till date.

Sushil Kumar is India's only wrestling world champion. 
Sushil Kumar is India's only wrestling world champion.  (Getty Images)

All this while, the wrestling discourse in India was largely restricted to the men. Alka Tomar did buck the trend in 2006 by becoming the first Indian woman to win a world championships medal, a bronze in the 59kg category.

It was the first world championship medal for India - by a male or female - since Bishambir Singh’s silver in 1967.

However, women’s wrestling in India finally made headlines at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi when Geeta Phogat made history by becoming the first female Indian wrestler to win gold. Her sister Babita Phogat won the 51kg silver medal.

India also won 10 golds at the 2010 Commonwealth Games - including three by women - becoming the most successful team. Indian wrestling thus got a massive boost.

Over the next decade, Geeta and Babita Phogat won world championship medals, Sushil Kumar added an Olympic silver to his name at London 2012 while Yogeshwar Dutt won Olympic bronze in the same edition.

India’s Sakshi Malik made history at Rio 2016, winning Olympic bronze in the 58kg, to become the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal.

In the latter half of the decade, Vinesh Phogat emerged as the next big thing in Indian wrestling, winning Asian Games and Commonwealth titles, a world championship bronze and rising to world No. 1.

At Tokyo 2020, Indian wrestler Ravi Kumar Dahiya won silver while Bajrang Punia won bronze. Wrestling is the only sport in which India have won at least one medal at each of the last four Olympics.

In October 2021, Anshu Malik became the first Indian woman to make the final of a world championship and also the first Indian woman to win a silver at the world meet.

With the constant stream of success at various competitions, including the Olympics, popularising the sport massively, India’s wrestling pipeline is stronger than ever with several youngsters breaking through consistently.

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