The Great Gama: The Legendary Wrestler Who Inspired Bruce Lee

For over 50 years, the Great Gama was India's mighty and indomitable wrestler.

In 1890, over 400 bodybuilders gathered at the national physical exercise competition of the Rajah of Jodhpur. All at once, they started performing free squats known as Bethaks. Sometimes called the Hindu Squat, it’s a variant of the regular squat exercise, where you swing your arms to the rhythm of your motion. A standard regimen involves doing one hundred or more of these.

At the Raja’s contests, grown men performed thousands of these squats for hours on end. One by one, they dropped out due to fatigue. By the time there were just 15 athletes remaining, the Raja called off the contest. It was clear that one of them had earned both the crowd’s attention and the prize of the contest – ten-year-old Mian Ghulam Muhammad.

Ghulam would later be bedridden for weeks. But his legendary training regimen is just one of the reasons the Punjabi lion went undefeated in wrestling for 50 years, under the name ‘The Great Gama’.

Among his fans, he can count Bruce Lee, who mentions Gama’s regimes in “The Art of Expressing the Human Body“. Gama’s regimes were creating takes on classical Indian wrestling traditions; like the cat stretch (also known as the Dand) where you perform a push-up like a cat stretching elegantly, or the Bethak, which Gama performed without end. Bruce Lee had saved an article describing this aspect of Gama’s regimen, attributing the Dand and Bethak to Gama’s legendary 56-inch chest.

A British wrestling journalist, Percy Longhurst, described what it was like to see Gama train in the flesh.

To watch him doing the dipping exercise was a revelation. There was power put into every movement, up and down… It was easy to understand, watching the regular rise and fall of the smooth brown body, the bending and straightening of the rounded limbs, to what extent not only the arms and the shoulders, but the muscles of the chest, abdomen, back and loins participated in the vigorous execution.

Gama was also famous for his diet. In some accounts, it was “six chickens or an extract of eleven pounds of mutton mixed with a quarter pound of clarified butter, ten litres of milk, half a litre of clarified butter, a pound and a half of crushed almond paste made into a tonic drink, along with fruit juice and other ingredients to promote good digestion….This expensive high fat, high energy, high everything diet helped to drive Gama’s daily training, which in maturity consisted of grappling with forty of his fellow wrestlers in the court, five thousand bethaks, and three thousands dands.”

As he aged, he was known to also consume Yakhi, “a glutinous extract of bones, joints, and tendons, which is regarded by many Muslim wrestlers as being a source of great strength.”

His diet notwithstanding, it was Gama’s confidence that drove him to success. He built up a name as a wrestler in the Raja’s court. In 1907, he challenged the reigning wrestler of the Indian subcontinent, Rahim Sultaniwala. He is said to have been nearly seven feet in size, in contrast to the five foot seven Gama. According to most accounts, Gama wrestled with Sultaniwala to a draw in two matches; one held in India and the other in England.

Gama’s 1910 match against the Polish wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko is the defining moment of his career. He travelled to England on the sponsorship of a Bengali millionaire, to fight in the John Bull International World Championship Competition. But once he arrived, he was found to be too short to compete. A local theatre offered him £250 a week to set up a sideshow bout, from where he challenged the wrestlers personally. Anyone who lasted five minutes against Gama was promised five pounds.

It’s said that after beating 15 contestants, Gama caught the attention of the tournament’s organizers and was admitted. However, not all accounts paint such a clearcut picture. In Graham Noble’s biography, he details many days spent with no challenger emerging. A local sporting magazine even printed a story titled “Gama’s Hopeless Quest [to find a genuine opponent].” Noble describes Gama’s many fights prior to the one with Zbyszko, including bouts where he beat 30 Japanese wrestlers under an hour, as well as a match with Benjamin ‘Doc’ Roller – a medical doctor and American football player who was a reputed wrestled. Whatever the account, Gama won all of his fights.

There, he faced off with Zbyszko. An intense three-hour duel followed, most of which was spent with Stanislaus clinging to the mat to avoid being knocked for a fall by Gama, who held him there. As nightfall approached, the match was called off for the day. But the next day when it was to reconvene, Stanislaus was nowhere to be found. Gama was declared the victor.

The arrival of Indian wrestlers to the tournament had attracted much attention. It was declared as an international free-for-all, and for Gama to beat one of the greatest wrestlers at the time was a phenomenon. Back in India, the growing nationalist sentiment picked on Gama’s win as a strike for the nation. British reports even worried that if Gama continued to win, morale would be affected across the colonies.

Gama returned home a hero, the ‘Rustam-E-Zamani’ or Champion of the World. In 1922, the Prince of Wales gifted him a 30-pound silver mace; the sight of which in Gama’s hands led to comparisons with the mythological Bhim.

In his later years, he fought his old opponents again on home turf – Sultanwali and Zbyszko and won, even though he had lost weight.

As he aged, he started to develop health problems – but kept up his diet and fitness regime, challenging anyone who would dare to fight. After partition, he settled in Pakistan, where his health problems forced him into penury. Luckily, he was saved by an anonymous donation – which turned out to have come from the industrialist G.D. Birla, who had nurtured childhood dreams of becoming a wrestler.

Gama died in 1960, ending one of the longest unbeaten streaks in wrestling history. Whether it was his diet, his spirit, his technique or a combination of all three that made him such a successful wrestler will be for wrestling historians to decide. The legacy of the Great Gama was to put the Indian Pehelwaan on the global stage. To this day, bodybuilders and martial artists remember the mighty wrestler from Amritsar.

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