Traditonal wrestling in the Sub-Continental area of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has a heritage so old that its origins can only be found in mythology, which fortunately for us has a very rich pattern in Hinduism. All Hindu holy books give descriptions of the sport and the epic poem Mahabarata describes numerous events; one in particular is a 27 day contest between Bhima, Lord Krishna's most faithful follower and Rajah Jarasandha, the enemy of righteousness who was finally torn in half for his immorality. In the Ramayana it was the monkey god Hanuman who taught the art of wrestling to humanity so these skills could be used to assist Rama in his battles against the demon Ravana in his stronghold in Sri Lanka. Hanuman as the first Kushti Guru is still depicted in religious art carrying a ceremonial gada mace, the prize most often given to champion wrestlers. This close association with religious mythology means a strong set of moral values are indoctrinated into wrestlers and the term most often used to describe them is Pahelwan. This refers to someone with not just physical strength but also spiritual and this concept crosses many religious barriers; there are many Sikh, Muslim, Parsee and Christian Pahelwan as well as Hindu. The concept is also well known right throughout Central Asia, Iran and even Turkey with the word, or dialect variations of it, having a wide geographical dispersal.
Artwork on stone seals has been found in the remains of Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, Lothal and other cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation that have abstract depictions of what some interpret as a wrestling motif, indicating that the sport was very popular in the region over 5000 years ago. With the Aryan invasions at the fall of the Indus Valley Civilisation, many Central Asian concepts were brought to the Sub-Continent and this is why the word for wrestling, Kushti is shared between the Hindi and Persian languages. In the Ganges Valley from about the 8th century BC many smaller republics began to grow and it is recorded that wrestling was used a peace-keeping exercise in which champions were pitted against each other to avert war. The Hellenistic invasion lead by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, brought a revolutionary idea called samjya or inter-regional athletic displays and some speculate that this might explain the similarities between the traditional akhara wrestling gymnasiums of India and the palaestra or wrestling schools of ancient Greece. During the reign of Ashoka the Great (265-238BC) of the Magadha Empire, wrestlers could travel the length and breadth of virtually the entire Sub-Continent to compete in professionally organised championships; the official sporting record for Kushti therefore is amongst the oldest in the world.
With the end of the Mauryan Dynasty Kushti faced a major setback in its development; Indian history has seen the subsequent rise and fall of many states, kingdoms and empires but Kushti always maintained its essence as a method of warrior training and as a form of entertainment with strong ritual overtones. This was true in the 10th century when a special caste of Brahmin priest called Jyesthemallas started performing a type of combat called Vajramushti, which translates as 'grasping a thunderbolt'. Combatants were painted in red ochre and held a wooden knuckleduster in their right hands, inflicting vicious wounds on each other as a form of sacrifice to the gods. Vajramushti performances survived into the 20th century and the legendary Australian grappling instructor John Will trained with the old masters for a period in the 1980s. In the 13th century several publications were made about the art of wrestling and the book called 'Mallapurana' described four different versions from an all in MMA type of combat called yuddha to a simple toppling game called dharanipata. After the conquest of India by Babur in 1526 and the start of the Moghul Empire, many lavish wrestling festivals were sponsored by the Royal Dynasties and Kushti saw the start of a new golden era.
During the British Raj Kushti continued to thrive and due to the support of the local Maharajahs, Punjab in the northern part of the country became the best wrestling area; out of this region came the greatest of all Indian wrestlers, Gama the Lion of Punjab. In 1898 he won the title of Rustam i Hind or Champion of All India and in 1910 travelled to London with the Australian fight promoter Dr Benjamin and his Circus of Indian Wrestlers to ultimately win the John Bull World Championship for Catch as Catch Can Wrestling. On his return home he was given a heroes welcome and became the most famous celebrity in the whole country. Because he was thereafter sponsored by the Maharajah of Patiala he lived a fairly comfortable life as a full time professional athlete but he never became complacent with his own training regime and he was also quite tough on those that trained under him, producing many more Indian champions. In 1926 the Polish strongman Stan Zbyszco came to India to avenge his loss from the 1910 London Championship and at a specially constructed stadium, which according to press accounts was overflowing beyond capacity, an alleged audience of 200,000 people watched as Gama threw and pinned his adversary in the quick time of 47 seconds. This was during the early stages of the Indian Independence movement lead by Ghandi and by demonstrating his ability to beat the world's best, Gama restored pride to many people who had felt disempowered during the British Raj. Gama lived through the turbulent period of Indian Partition in 1947 and because of his Muslim Faith went to live in Pakistan but being neglected by the government in his old age, he was forced to sell all his trophies and inevitably died in poverty in 1960.
Being part of the British Empire, Indian people were setting up settlements in many countries with places like South Africa, Fiji, the Caribbean and even the United Kingdom having thriving communities, that were running dangals or tournaments in Kushti just like those in the Motherland. In Australia the Indian people were essential for commerce and the so called Ghan camel handlers helped to open up the dry central heart of the country. This was true in 1894 when the rich camel owner Tagh Mohammed sponsored a tournament on the West Australian goldfields, won by a strongman named Aesop, as reported by the Coolgardie Miner Newspaper. In Melbourne in 1900 two Pahelwan named Buttan Singh and Gunga Brahms began a series of challenge matches that grew into a professional championship. On January 1 1901 the six Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia and Melbourne became the capital city of a new nation. Naturally it wouldn't be long before a national title was arranged for wrestling and at Wirth's Park Circus on May 2 1903 Buttan Singh won the Australian Championship; the first wrestling champion of Australia was an Indian wrestler.
This was also however the era in which the "White Australia" policies were first being written and for all those people that admired Singh for his athletic ability there were probably many more that resented seeing a white man being beaten by a non white. This was certainly the case in 1904 at the Melbourne Exhibition Building when Clarence Weber accepted achallenge by Gunga Brahms to last just 15 minutes against him but was thrown and pinned in 13 minutes. A week later at a similar event Weber was strangled by Singh which enraged the predominantly Anglo-Saxon audience who chased Singh from the building where he jumped on a tram and sought police protection. This was even more evident when the World Wrestling Champion George Hackenschmidt visited Australia in 1905. He more or less dominated the local wrestling scene but his bouts against Singh & Brahms are more remembered in media reports by the booing and hissing directed against the Indians and when Singh met Weber for a rematch for the Australian title in November 1906 the level of publicity was at fever pitch. Clarence Weber won this after a bout that lasted nearly half an hour and Buttan Singh was conceding a 17kg weight disadvantage but the emphasis of publicity was placed on the fact that that an Australian had beaten a foreigner. Buttan Singh and Gunga Brahms continued to wrestle for another two years but nothing can be found of what happened to them after their retirement from the sport, they just faded into oblivion. The fact that these two men started an Australian Championship title and Singh held it for the first three years of its existence was ignored in Australian sporting records; it is time that something should be done about this.
Today Australia has a very vibrant Indian and Pakistani community scene; they constitute the fastest growing ethnic minorities in the country with over 350,000 people in every capital city and major regional centre, 90,000 of which are Indian students studying abroad. At the start of 2011 the great Australian Wrestling wrestling coach and now President of Wrestling Australia Inc, Kuldip Bassi, agreed to work with the Australian Society of Traditional Wrestlers to again promote Indian style dangals in Australia, forming the group Kushti Australia to help do this. Based in Melbourne at the United Wrestling Club, he will be organising for wrestlers of any ethnicity, to participate in traditional tournaments performed in open parklands at any of a number of Indian Festivals in specially prepared dirt pits, with wrestlers wearing traditional langot belts. If this is of interest to you please contact me at this site and I will relay any messages to Kuldip. If you would like to learn more about kushti wrestling in general, which is growing worldwide, especially after India's recent success at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, checkout these websites;