Past General Interest Articles. 



Gama the Great Pahlewan

 I carry an indelible memory of a meeting with Gama, in the late 40's,  at a wrestling exhibition match at the Nairobi Arya Samaj and that of our Kenyan pehalwan Phuman Singh. Those were the days my friend........BhupinderMahal []  

Hereunder an excerpt for Gama fans from the writings of Joseph Alter who teaches Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

Gama in England and India

There is no figure who epitomizes the ethical, moral and physical ideal of wrestling more than Gama, a relatively low-class rural-born Muslim who became the court wrestler of the Maharaja of Patiala. Virtually every popular article on Indian wrestling pays verbal homage to Gama. He is often called - in an odd twist of religious identity - the "Krishna of the Kaliyug," and his strength was said to be simply incomparable. In another instance he is described as an incarnation of Bhim, the epic padava hero of the Mahabharata. At the age of twelve he impressed the Raja of Datiya by doing more bethaks (deep knee bends) than any other wrestler in the king's employ.

As a young wrestler Gama distinguished himself by winning numerous contests and by sticking arduously to his regimen of diet, exercise and practice. According to one writer (Atreya 1984) Gama was the perfect embodiment of wrestling virtues. He was devoted to god, perfectly self-controlled, humble yet self-confident and committed to physical fitness as a way of life.

In 1910 the John Bull Society of London organized a world wrestling championship bout to which wrestlers the world over were invited. A Bengali millionaire, Sharatkumar Mitra, sponsored Gama and three other wrestlers who went to London by way of Italy and Paris. Gama and the others were not the first wrestlers to fight in international contests. Gulam, a famous wrestler of the late 19th century as well as many others had been to Burma, Japan and Paris to compete in various tournaments. What is significant, however, is that Gama was going to fight with British champions in London, the very bastion of Imperial power.

Upon arriving in London, however, Gama and the others were disappointed for Gama, only 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing a scant 14 stone was regarded as too small and unknown to take on the world class athletes who had assembled. Undaunted, Gama signed up with a local theater at a salary of £25 per week, and put out a general challenge saying that he would give £5 to any wrestler who could throw him down in under 5 minutes.

On the first day of the challenge only 3 wrestlers came forward and they were all easily beaten. On the second day Gama succeeded in defeating 10 British wrestlers one after the other in a matter of a few minutes. On the basis of this success Gama's sponsors were able to arrange a bout with Stanley Zbyszko, the world champion Polish wrestler.

On September 12, 1910 Gama and Zbyszko met at Sheperds Bush Stadium. Although Zbyszko weighed 55 pounds more than Gama the Times gives the following descriptions of the bout.

Zbyszko, though in perfect health and the model of herculean strength, pursued a policy of passive resistance from first to last … [F]or nearly three hours he spread himself face down on the mat, evading his busy antagonist… [and] when in danger of being pulled over and pinned out, crawling laboriously to the edge of the mat. Thrice he got up and made a futile attack - when the Indan's vast superiority in open play was at once apparent - and he was only to glad to resume his prone position (Illustrated Weekly of India, February 7, 1960).  

On account of the lateness of the hour, the bout was postponed until the following day. However, Zbyszko did not show up and so the world championship belt was awarded to Gama.

As one can well imagine, the Indian press was quick to report on Gama's success. Tilak's Marathi newspaper the Kesari had created a fervent patriotic spirit in many parts of western India and Gama's heroics fed directly into a mood of growing national pride. Other patriotic newspapers in the Punjab, United Provinces and Bengal were quick to pick up on such quotes from the Times as "Gama rode gaily on Zbyszko's back and slapped him contemptuously…" In a word, Gama's triumph was India's triumph.

It is significant, however, that Gama's win did not represent a simple sporting triumph over the English. One must remember that Gama was the embodiment of wrestling as a moral, spiritual, and physical way of life. His success was, therefore, indicative of far more than mere skill and brute force. Gama proved that strength itself did not have to be construed in English terms. Although relatively small in stature Gama had a kind of energy and stamina which emerged, in equal parts, from his absolute moral self-control, his diet, and his strict regimen of uniquely Indian Exercises. The Times of Aug 9th picked up on this point, albeit somewhat obliquely, by contrasting Gama's "fluid physique" with that of the American wrestler Roller's pugilistic might. The contest, it was reported, would determine the relative merits of the "oriental physique" vs the occidental strong man.

Gama returned to India as a national hero. He was recruited by the Maharaja of Patiala as the courts preeminent wrestler. Gama fought numerous bouts in India, one of the most spectacular being in Allahabad against Rahim Sultaniaa. In 1922 when the Prince of Wales visited India he honored Gama by giving him a 30 seer silver mace. One observer wrote "seeing Gama with this mace it would appear that the epic hero Bhim had been reincarnated" (Patodi 1984: 34).

In 1928 the Maharaja of Patiala organized an industrial and agricultural trade fair which, according to the Lahore Tribune of January 29th, was "designed to break down the barriers between the backwaters of Indian village life and the main currents of our existence in the state" (1928: 4). On exhibit were various indigenous products such as hookha bowls, shawls, rope, cotton cloth, silk, carpets and numerous other things unique to the Punjab. There were, apparently, also examples of improved agricultural methods developed by the Patiala state. The exhibition was clearly a demonstration of Indian technological prowess.

On the occasion of this trade fair, to which many royal persons and foreign dignitaries were invited, the Maharaja arranged a spectacular rematch between Gama and Zbyszko. A stadium to accommodate 40, 000 spectators was built and equipped with huge spotlights in case, as had happened 18 years previously, the bout was to go on into the night. The newspapers advertised the bout well in advance and Zbyszko's journey to India was charted in the columns of the Lahore Tribune and other papers.

On January 28 the bout was scheduled to start at 4:00 pm and it is reported that people had traveled from many parts of the country to witness the fight. Among the notables were the Nawab of Bhopal, the Maharana of Dholpur, the Majaraja of Kapurthalai, Sir Leslie Scott, Sir Harcourt Butler and numerous others.


Zbyszko was late arriving and the contest did not get underway until 4:15. The bout had hardly started when Gama grabbed the 300 pound Zbyszko by one foot and kicking out his other leg sent him crashing to the ground in 42 seconds. As one observer noted: "The stadium erupted in one voice cheering 'India has won! India has won!'" The Maharaja came down and embraced Gama and gave him the pearl necklace he was wearing. A parade was organized and Gama rode on the Maharaja's prize elephant. He was awarded a silver mace, and annual stipend of 6000 Rs and a village.

As in 1910, the newspapers were quick to report on Gama's smashing success. The defeated Zbyszko was quotes as saying "Gama, you are truly a tiger!"

While Gama was clearly the most well known wrestler of this period, the extent and nature of his fame makes sense only in the larger context of the political environment of the time. In the mid 1920s the Hindu Mahasabha sponsored wrestling tournaments as part of its appeal for Hindu revival. There are also indications that in Kohlapur and Sangli as well as in Bengal wrestling was being used as a medium through which patriotism was being expressed in local regional terms.

Gandhi's philosophy was also becoming firmly entrenched during the late 1920s. While the Simon Commission of late 1927 brought a strong reaction from nationalist leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Gandhi's appeal was for civil disobedience without violence. With growing Hindu-Muslim tension, increased police violence, and terrorist activities in both Bengal and the Punjab, wrestling came to represent if not the eminent climax and resolution of tension, at least the nature of the bitter struggle. Even for Gandhi who advocated passive resistance, the metaphors for political action were strength and courage. In a letter to the Lahore Tribune Nehru criticized those who referred to Gandhi as "effate and fossilized". "He is," Nehru wrote, "the supreme example of latter day India, of all that is good in youth - action and energy, courage and daring, perseverance and resolution" (1928: 9).


In spite of the fact that wrestling exemplifies martial combat and aggressive physical confrontation, violence is not its primary ideological referent. During the first quarter of this century wrestling was seen as a form of moral and ethical resistance cast in graphically physical terms. In the context of growing nationalistic sentiments, Gama's dramatic victories clearly exemplified the moral and physical primacy of wrestling as a way of life and as a form of protest.

Emerging form the era of the nationalist struggle, wrestling as a way of life has become codified as an ideology of ethical reform. Although imperialism is no longer perceived as a political threat, and freedom has long since been achieved, the wrestling ideology continues to be structured in opposition to the perceived threat of western values. In the rhetoric of a modern wrestling advocate one can hear the general nationalistic appeal which was embodied by Gama and other early 20th century wrestlers:

Now is the time, the demand of the hour, the appeal of history and the nations urgent call: go to the akhardas! We must denounce the path of delusion and insincerity and turn instead along the path of health and strength. There we will find shakti and our competence will grow. There we will realize our full potential (Akhardon ki Aur ND: 4-5).  


Subaltern Bodies and Nationalist Physiques : Gama the Great and the Heroics of Indian Wrestling

Joseph S. Alter University of Pittsburgh, USA

Body & Society Volume 06 Issue 02 - Publication Date: 31 August 2000

Born into a poor, Muslim family at the end of the 19th century, Gama became World Champion wrestler by defeating the reigning Polish champion in London in 1910. By focusing on the life of Gama, the heroic representations of Gama that appear in the Hindi language literature, and the transformations in wrestling regimens that have occurred over the past several centuries, I locate the discourse and practice of wrestling within a context of intersecting concerns with nationalism, class identity and embodied consciousness. To articulate the way in which subaltern identity is embodied in relation to nationalist ideas about masculine fitness, and in relation to the state as a political institution, I provide an analytic interpretation of the heroic body that focuses on themes of nervousness and obsession

The great GAMA   


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Traditional Indian wrestling (some western points of view)

"One of the most religion and ancient forms of wrestling that exist is Indian wrestling from India. Traditional Indian wrestling has been around since 11 AD and is integrated with the religion of Hinduism. Indian wrestling known as Pahalwani or Mallavidya is a form exercise that defines the essence of wrestling and man. Through the eyes of Indian wrestling one achieves not only self discipline through physical fitness but achieves identity and purity of the body, mind and spirit. Training resides at the Akharas (temples, gyms). When one enters the temple he leaves behind him the civilization that he is part of and enters a world of tranquility and acknowledgment. Akharas are equipped with fine grit dirt floors to bring one closer to natural elements of the earth. Dirt floors that cover the training have been shifted and saturated with essential oils to supple the skin of the wrestler when he is wrestling. The oils also keep the dirt clean and compressed for body's to tumble upon. Natural light and fresh air impact the training area as well to keep it in harmony with the surrounding atmosphere. Strength training is performed religiously. Indian wrestler are well known for there flexibility and power. This is achieve through several types of exercises done with ones own body weight. Performing exercises such as Yogi (posture stretches), Bethak (in place squats), Dand (push ups), Jori (swinging weighted wooden clubs) Gada (swinging weighted ball and mace) and body massages gives the wrestler a complete regiment. A well known champion from India in the 1930's known as "The Great Gama" performed several thousand of Bethak (squats) daily for routine training. "Gama" like many Indian champions are noted for there size, strength and knowledge. Other forms of wrestling that have appeared out of India is Vajra-Musti wrestling. Contestants face each other with claw daggers in one hand while using wrestling techniques. This form of wrestling was banned because of frequent fatal wounds to the opponent. It can still be seen today at fairs and gatherings for demonstration purposes."

I'll tell you briefly about Indian wrestling: it's a huge, huge subject. Basically, it's dying out, but until very recently it was the most popular, and really, the only sport there. Wrestling was huge. I spent most of my time interviewing the old guys about the good old days. They had ridiculously tough exercise schedules. Typically they would rise at around four in the morning, dig the earth akhara (arena) with a heavy hoe, which is a hard job in itself - some of them weigh thirty kilos or so - do two thousand squats (they call them bethaks over there, and they are slightly different from squats: they stand on the balls of their feet and go up and down very quickly, which makes it a lot harder) or so (the better, bigger, more well-known wrestlers would do around five thousand a day, and I've heard of one guy, who also killed a lion, who did ten thousand, but often in India you don't know what to believe is really true and what is exaggeration), and then do anywhere between a thousand and two thousand five hundred dands (alternatively they would do the dands in the evening), and only then would they start to wrestle. 

The really good guys would spar with everyone at the akhara, say twenty five men. In the evening, they would do more exercise, or go for a long run. So you can see they trained very hard. Of course a lot of them had knee problems from doing so many squats, but there you go. They also have some unique training equipment - the gada and jori. Gada are like huge lollipops, a bamboo stick attached to a ball of stone, which you swing behind your back; jori are sets of two cylindrical clubs, again, often huge, up to sixty kilos each, often richly decorated, which they swing behind their backs. Both exercises I guess were originally done to improve the shoulder-based motion of wielding a sword. Interestingly, in Iran they have a similar exercise to jori, with smaller clubs. There must be some kind of Mughal crossover connection, something to do with cross fertlisation when the Mughals invaded India. There really aren't any wrestlers left in India of the calibre of the men who were active fifty years ago. You have these beautiful akharas, with histories that go back hundreds of years, being bulldozed and turned into shopping complexes. It really is sickening. Wrestling is still strong in the villages though. The have competitions called dangals, which I visited a couple of times and which reminded me of Thai boxing matches in the villages in the North of Thailand. They don't have alcohol or betting in Uttar Pradesh, but apart from that it was the same - you have a stream of local dignataries going up onto the wrestling akhara to receive respect by being given a garland or having a turban tied around their head. If a wrestler wrestles very well, he goes through the crowd picking up money; the best wrestler of the competition gets a money garland. 

All the competitions are open: anyone can compete. You can issue a challenge by walking around the perimeter of the wrestling area. Then someone will come, if they fancy themselves, and shake your hand, and the bout is on. Thinking about it as I write this, you'd probably love competing there yourself: it's for money, not huge money, but they would give good money to a foreigner and probably palm you off as an Olympic champion. The problem is that you win only by pinning the shoulders, which isn't easy. No subs of course. Their current wrestling, by international standards, is a bit naive. They don't really know much about leg takedowns; they do a lot of standing throws, standing grapevines, the sort of thing you find in folk styles all over the world. I didn't get to Pakistan, but I presume, from what I've been told, that the wrestling culture there is currently stronger - though it's far more interesting culturally in India. In India, wrestlers were trained to be superman and to wrestle hours if need be. I suggest that you read Asian Fighting Arts by Donn Draeger. This gives a sketch of the herculean preparation of the Indo-Moslem wrestler. If anything can be concluded, it's that those conditions to produce such dominant grapplers can never again be truly duplicated because Gama, like the other top Indo-Moslems, was a pet of a state maharaja. They wrestle in a loincloth - a have a couple myself now - called a langota. One of the most interesting aspects of traditional wrestling in India is the concept of brahmacharya. In the Indian spiritual traditions, there is the belief that you must retain your semen and sperm, and through doing so the fluid is transformed into a sort of spiritual energy. 

This is a central concept in ayurveda. In India wrestling they have the similar idea that to lose your sperm and semen is to lose your strength - and they are and were incredibly serious on this point. It's not just a case of celibacy and not masturbating, you have to avoid thinking about women, looking at women, thinking about sex in any way whatsoever; you have to eat sattvic food that doesn't inflame sexual desire (no garlic or onions) - there's a lot to it. They have an expression for brahmacharya, or to be celibate, 'To keep a tight langota', and I would hear wrestlers say things like, 'Of course when he loosened his langota, his wrestling declined.' A lot of the best wrestlers in India never married. However I interviewed an ayurvedic doctor who told me that a lot of wrestlers had problems bearing children because wearing a literally tight langota, as they do (when I myself wore a langota for the first time, I had tied it too loose, and I just stood there as three boys redid my underwear - very bizarre) does not allow the genitals to swing freely as they should and creates heat which disrupts the creation of sperm. Actually, the same doctor quoted a study done in the US which showed, apparently, that women athletes who had had sex the day before an event performed better in their sport. What he meant was that the sperm in their body gave them more strength and stamina. You can see how bizarre some of the material I got is. It was quite a shock for me, during my first interview with a wrestling journalist in Varanasi, to find myself being told about sperm within the first five minutes. Of course Indian society is still very segregated and marriages are still largely arranged, so there's an element of social control in stressing celibacy among the young wrestlers - but I also have the feeling that the Indians are probably right and that if you do lose your semen you lose strength. But anyway, I was told about a wrestler who died in 1942 called Bishember Chobe by that journalist. He said that Bishember was so piously brahmacharya that sperm started to spontaneously emerge from his body and doctors advised him that he had to get married soon or he might die. I went over to Mathura, which is where Bishember Chobe lived. The Chobes of Mathura are a book in themselves. 

They are a priest caste who have lived in Mathura for thousands of years (so they say, but there are about 30,000 of them there). Mathura is the birthplace of Krishna, and the Chobes love wrestling, Krishna, cows and taking large amounts of bhang every afternoon. Basically, their lives consist of showing pilgrims around the temples and places where Krishna supposedly did this and that during the morning, and then in the afternoon, they get stoned. I have never seen so much bhang in all my life. In many houses, you would see them grinding away to make thandai (a milk-based, almond and saffron concoction) with which they mix their bhang. As for cows: I was interviewing a wrestling guru, and a cow put its head through the door of his room. The guru looked the cow in the eye like a mother might look at a child who is about to run in the kitchen with shoes that could be muddy, and then he pointed to a far room - and the cow obeyed the command, walked through the room, across the courtyard and lowed (I think that is the right term) in a far room, flicking its ears back and forward. That guru's own guru, it turned out, had been imprisoned for a month for demonstrating against cow killing. I traced Bishember Chobe's nephew and spoke to him about his uncle, and the sperm story. I was looking for the spiritual connection with wrestling in India, and in Bishember Chobe, I think I found the ideal person. He was a great wrestler who was patronised by the maharajah of Khadipur (he kept a hundred wrestlers at a time). I won't go into all the details, and to cut a very long story very short, we got onto the subject of the sperm emerging from his body (this was a popular myth in Indian wrestling circles, from what I could see - they said the sperm had come out of the bottom of his feet, a sort of sperm stigmata). 

It turned out that Bishember was woken one morning to be told that his brother had died. He got up - he was sleeping outside on stone steps next to the river - and put his foot on a stone, which cut his toe badly. He saw a doctor. White fluid and blood was coming from the wound. The nephew had held the foot while the doctor operated on Bishember and cut off part of his toe. So I said to the nephew, who was now about 70, so this white fluid coming from his toe, how could you be sure it was sperm? He said, 'Well, it looked like sperm.' So I said, but are you sure it wasn't pus? He said, 'Well, sperm and pus, they're the same thing, aren't they?' 

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Wrestling in Uganda james walker contributing editor february 9 1999

Ever wonder what some of the great names of yesteryear's professional wrestling are doing today? Well, some of them are still at it, as I recently found out in Kampala, Uganda. 

"Judgment Day is Coming," screamed the headlines in the city's newspapers, and every available billboard was festooned with photos of the stars of the WWWA, whatever that acronym was supposed to represent. For $10, Ugandans could indeed face "Judgment Day" on the grounds of the Nile Hotel, infamous for its role as a torture center for former president and wrestling aficionado Idi Amin. Headliners from professional wrestling's lunchbox days included Nicolai Volkoff, the former bad guy from the USSR; Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka; King Kong Bundy; Abdullah the Butcher; Koko B Ware; Jack Hammer; Blue Thunder; and in his "return to his native land," Kamala, the Ugandan Giant.

My Ugandan friends, who watched WWF matches on television anyway, were starting to get interested, and when the wrestlers formed a procession of pickup trucks and wound their way through Kampala city center, the resulting flotilla of motorbike outriders and street boy hangers-on slowed down traffic to political rally levels.

Several things stood out to this Westerner about the reaction of many Ugandans -- for one, their earnest reaction to the wrestlers' disregard for protocol. It was reported that King Kong Bundy and Kamala had scuffled earlier in the week, and that the Ugandan Giant would not arrive until the day of the bout. And Ugandans take the press, which was stifled for years, rather seriously as a watchdog to curb excesses of government; so they were shocked when, at the press conference two days before the main event, the physically imposing wrestlers smashed furniture, threw cameras around, and threatened television reporters in time-honored fashion. The Uganda reporters looked quite worried, and there was much tut-tutting on the news that night about the actions of the "Western giants." Also, the sheer weight and size of the wrestlers were a topic of morbid curiosity for the Ugandans. In a country where abject hunger and poverty have been experienced by many over the last 30 years, a fat man is looked upon with respect by some and with distaste by others. With wrestlers weighing in at close to 500 pounds (particularly Bundy), the emotion tended towards the latter. As a result, Tony Atlas, "Mr. USA," became the darling of the would-be spectators. At the popular Rhoades Bar, I asked a friend about the Ugandan reaction to the wrestlers. John, a university student at Makerere, said that Atlas, a compact 250-pounder who at least looked like an athlete, was the people's choice. "We've even given him a nickname, Musoke, which means rainbow in Luganda," he explained. "But if Kamala comes home ... forget the Rainbow."

Ah yes, Kamala. I remembered him from Saturday morning TV. About 6'6", dressed in a leopard skin and white face paint, complete with spear and a suspiciously Brooklynite accent. I told my Ugandan friends about this and they failed to see the insult inherent in the depiction of the African wrestler - they only wanted him to win. (But would he show?) Meanwhile the debate was heating up on radio and TV over the giant's origins. Some said his stage name was a debasement of the Bahima name of Kamara, others that his size and stature meant he came from the Buganda tribe, and ... you get the idea. The promoters had played the trump, but if and when Kamala arrived, and was patently not Ugandan, what would happen to the attendance? Not surprisingly, no Kamala appeared for his grudge match with Bundy. The matches went ahead, including a female bout which deeply offended many in attendance on Easter weekend. The crowd at the Nile was fairly sparse, and again lower than expectations the next day at Nakivubo Stadium. The pulled punches, false body slams, liberal use of fake blood and obvious lack of fitness of the participants soon had people near me catcalling. The next night, at Nakivubo, two power outages and the standard "double knockout" ploy had many around shouting for their money back.

In a week when rebel bombs rocked Kampala, cattle rustlers were on the move, Uganda signed a momentous debt relief program with the World Bank, and President Museveni hosted a massive investment conference, the wrestlers had dominated the news. But the Western circus had been found wanting by Africans. As the B-team slunk off to Entebbe Airport, it seemed certain they would not be back in the near future. And we had had enough bogus Western fare at suspiciously Western prices to last us a while. The next two nights, the L.A. rap star Coolio was appearing at the same arena with his own credibility problems in tow. So I almost got punched in the head when I asked, "Anybody want to go see Coolio?

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Hockey Revival Underway In Uganda By STEPHEN OUMA

HOCKEY IS undergoing a revival in Uganda following the donation of equipment from India in 1998.

As result, the Uganda Hockey Association (UHA) was able to send a team to the All Africa Cup of Nations championship in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in May. Egypt, Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, Ghana and Zimbabwe also took part.

Although Uganda lost all her matches, the tournament served as a wake-up call for the sport.

To keep up the momentum, Uganda will later this year host a six-nation tournament to which Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Denmark and India have been invited. The association also plans to send Uganda's top club, Wanainchi, to the All Africa Cup of Clubs championship to be held in Alexandria, Egypt, in October.

Willy Mukasa, the UHA organising secretary, told The East African that the association is also planning to introduce the sport in leading primary and secondary schools and will soon stage a national schools tournament.

However, more pitches are needed if hockey is to be restored to its former status as one of the leading sports in Uganda. The country has only one murram pitch at Kampala's Lugogo sports centre and the KHA has no funds to refurbish it or upgrade other grass pitches around the country.

But by far the biggest problem faced by the association is the high cost of equipment. Hockey sticks cost between Ush40,000 and Ush100,000 each, while a complete set of a goalkeepers' protection gear costs around Ush1.3 million.

Currently, the game is concentrated in and around Kampala, where it is played socially. Competitive hockey is played by the Uganda Veterans Club, Wanainchi, Weatherhead, Sadolin Rockets, Makerere University, Nabumali and Namasagali. Of these, the most active is the Lugogo-based Wanainchi, headed by Italian diplomat Angio Damian.

Introduced by Ugandan Asians in the 1960s, hockey was by the early 1970s one of the best developed sports disciplines in the country. Uganda was a force to reckon with, qualifying to represent Africa at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. The East Africans put up a good performance, beating big names like the then West Germany, to finish ninth.

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First Wahindis in East Africa as early as 3000 B.C.?

East Africa Circle - 

To further quote from Rasna's brief but informative book: "Asian contact with Africa, however, did not only begin in the last century. Archeological remains indicate that the ancient Indians were a sea-faring people. As early as 3000 B.C. the people of what is now known as the Indus Valley Civilization had begun trade with Mesopotamia and Egypt. The first historical account of Indian trade in the Indian Ocean can be found in 'Periplus of the Erythrean Sea', which was written by an anonymous Greek pilot in the first century A.D. It describes in considerable detail the trading voyages between the East African, Arabian and Indian coasts, and the nature of the commerce carried on from the Red Sea and the coast of the East Indies. It appears that Indians exported a considerable amount of cloth, oil, sugar and grain to these regions in exchange for cinnamon, fragrant gums, tortoise shells and ivory. 

According to Professor R. Gregory, the respected historian and author of India and East Africa, examination of Indian literature lends credence to the observation that '… the ancient Hindus had a significant knowledge of the East African coast and perhaps the interior.' When Vasco da Gama arrived in Mombasa in the 15th Century, Indians had already established strong trading position in the area. After the Portuguese conquest in the 15th and 16th centuries many Indians joined the service of the Portuguese as bankers, accountants, clerks and masons. In neighbouring Zanzibar, Indian presence had become so pervasive in the 18th and 19th centuries that the island began to acquire a distinctly Indian character. It is estimated that the middle of the 19th century the island's Indian population of about 5000 controlled most of the trade in Zanzibar.

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