The story of the Indian Hercules begins at Veeraghattam, the ‘village of heroes’ in 1882 A.D. Kodi Rammoorthy Naidu, known to the world as the ‘Indian Hercules’ and ‘Kaliyuga Bheema’, holds a high position in the memory of Andhra Pradesh for being the first world famous wrestler from the state. His statue stands today in Vishakapatnam – depicting a broad-chested man with a handlebar moustache, his pecs bursting out of his tuxedo.
His father was a government official, and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Never could he have imagined that Rammoorthy would one day balance elephants on his chest, break chains with his bare hands and earn a living as a professor. But in those days Rammoorthy was not a good student at school. He was distracted by the growing signs of a freedom struggle, by the pleasures of the forest and the endless joys of play and sports.
When his father heard of Rammoorthy’s poor academic performance, he beat him black and blue. It made him run away from home, to spend a few days in the neighbouring forest. When he returned, it was alongside a tiger, casually strolling alongside him as if “it were his pet dog. Whether this is truth, or legend, is to be seen.
Worried, his father sent him to live with an uncle in Vizianagaram. It was here that he started working on his fitness. At the time, the government made physical education mandatory across all schools. It meant there was a chance not just to study but to teach as well. He returned to his studies, and delighted his father by getting a job as a drill master in the school. In 1901, he joined a college in Saidapet, Madras to teach Physical Education.
By the age of 21, Rammoorthy had spent his youth pursuing bodybuilding on a vegetarian diet. He became a renowned strongman – the most famous legend about him was that he could let an elephant balance its foot on his chest for a full five minutes! Through similar feats of strength, he managed to make a name for himself. So he capitalised on it. With the help of a friend, he started his own circus in Vizianagaram.
The circus attracted people from far and wide. Rammoorthy often performed a stunt where he would hold back a motorcar from driving away, with his own strength. One of their performances was attended by Lord Minto – the then Viceroy and Governor-general of India. Minto, amazed by what he saw, is reported to have asked Rammoorthy to perform a stunt with him in the driver’s seat. Minto got into his car, while Rammoorthy attached himself by a pair of chains to the back. True to his name, even with Minto flooring the throttle, Rammoorthy held the car back.
The incident made him famous, and caught the attention of Congress leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who invited Rammoorthy to perform across the country, and after that, the world. He also travelled to London On Tilak’s insistence. There, he had an audition with the royal family – in front of whom he had a pair of cars rest on his chest. Impressed, King George V gave him the title of ‘Indian Hercules’. To Indianize the name, he made it “Kaliyuga Bheema”.
Rammoorthy travelled around Europe for a while, famously participating in a bull fight in Spain. There too, he is said to have wrestled the bull to the ground with his own strength.
A curious tale emerges on his further travels, when he stopped over in Burma. Here, a conspiracy is said to have been plotted against his life. On suspicious grounds, Rammoorthy was invited alone to a dinner. On arriving, sensing danger, he dived out of a window and into his car – cancelling his trips to the United States and Europe.
In India, he took up charity and teaching. His circus had made crores, and he donated much of it to children’s charities and the freedom struggle.
Like many most passionate about their craft, he spent his final years as a teacher more than as an individual performer. As he wrote:
I have always been deeply pained to see the most deplorable physique and unhealthy state of body which is the lot of as many as ninety percent of them in India. Without a sound body there cannot possibly be a sound mind and sound intellect.
He espoused the virtues of Indian physical training regiments over all else – valuing it higher than intelligence or Swaraj. In his view, a strong Indian would not be oppressed by colonial power – and men and women alike needed to train to become strong.
Professor Rammoorthy died in 1942, and occupies a key position in Telugu identity today. His story is taught in schoolbooks, and mentioned in fiction. In Telugu writer K. Kutumba Rao’s novel, “Sundaram Learns”, an uncle describes Rammoorthy’s strength to a nephew:
More wonderful than his bearing the elephant was the sight of stopping the car. He would stand in the middle folding his hands across his chest. There would be ropes round his arms and at the other end they are tied to two motor cars. They start the cars and raise the engines to full speed but the cars could not move forward
Today, a statue and few notes keep his legacy alive. But for the Indian Hercules to truly live on, the government must keep to his dream of building a fit nation. Perhaps a scholarship or Olympic training camp could be named after the wrestler whose dreams would have come true had he witnessed Sakshi Malik’s bronze in the 2016 Olympics.
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