The ancient Indian sport of mallakhamb or mallakhamba (a type of Indian gymnastics on a vertical pole) first gained widespread international attention on the sidelines of the Berlin 1936 Olympics. Mallakhamb was among the several indigenous Indian sports, including kabaddi, which were demonstrated at Berlin before the Olympics began and drew applause from the locals as well as the international community attending the Games. Since then, the sport has spread all over the globe and the first-ever mallakhamb world championships were held in 2019, with more than 150 athletes from over 15 countries travelling to Mumbai to participate. The new-found prominence, however, doesn’t quite fully reflect the rich history of mallakhamb.

At first glance, mallakhamb may come across as a form of aerial yoga or gymnastics performed on a vertical pillar (traditionally a sheesham or Indian rosewood pole polished with castor oil). However, at its core, mallakhamb is a form of ancient martial arts intended as a training aid for wrestlers and ancient warriors. ‘Malla’ literally means wrestling and ‘khamb’ translates to pole. Together, mallakhamb means wrestling on a pole. Wrestlers and warriors used to use the pole as a training apparatus to perfect martial arts moves which they could later use on opponents in the ring or the battlefield.

Mallakhamb, often lauded as the mother of ancient Indian sports, boasts elusive origins, with references found in the Ramayana, Chandraketugarh pottery (2nd-1st century BCE), and accounts of Chinese pilgrims. The 12th-century text Manasollasa marks its earliest literary mention, penned by Chalukya king Someshvara III.

After a dormant period from the late 1600s to early 1800s, mallakhamb's revival came through Balambhatta Dada Deodhar, fitness instructor to Maratha king Peshwa Bajirao II. Maratha luminaries like Lakshmibai and Tantia Tope embraced it for its balance, dexterity, and discipline—a fit for guerrilla warfare.

The Maratha empire elevated Maharashtra as a mallakhamb hub. At Berlin 1936, the Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal showcased mallakhamb and other Indian sports. Its competitive debut was at the 1958 national gymnastics championships in Delhi, followed by the first national championships in Gwalior (1962).

Formalization came in 1981 with the Mallakhamb Federation of India. Despite being slated for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, COVID-19 thwarted its appearance. Demonstrated at the Festival 2018, preceding the Commonwealth Games 2018, mallakhamb stands as a testament to India's rich sporting history, blending ancient roots with modern acclaim.