Lonely Planet Writer

India says fond farewell to Pocket Hercules (104) the nation's best loved bodybuilder who did shows up to the age of 99

Manohar Aich, India’s best-loved bodybuilder, has died aged 104, after a fascinating life that mirrored the trials and tribulations of his beloved home nation. Mourned by millions of fans, the diminutive muscleman measured just four feet and eleven inches (1.5m) in height, but he rose to become India’s first Mr Universe, becoming a national hero in the process.

India's 'Pocket Hercules' Manohar Aich.
India’s ‘Pocket Hercules’ Manohar Aich. Image by DIBYANGSGU SARKAR/Getty Images

Born in 1912 in the town of Comilla, in what is now Bangladesh, Manohar was afflicted as a child by black fever, a deadly disease spread by biting sandflies, leaving him with severely atrophied muscles. To rebuild his strength, he began a rigorous regime of exercises – push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and squats – and soon attracted attention for his impressive physique.

Aich’s first professional engagement was as an assistant to the stage magician PC Sorcar, touring India performing feats of strength such as lying on sword blades and bending steel with his teeth. However, it was only when he joined the Royal India Air Force that he was introduced to the sport of weight-lifting and became instantly addicted.

KOLKATA, INDIA – MARCH 20: Manohar Aich who recently celebrated his 100th birthday showing his biceps at his gymnasium at Baguihati resident on March 20, 2012 in Kolkata, India. Popular as Pocket Hercules for his short frame of 4 feet 11 inch, he won Mr Universe in 1952 and was three times Asian Gold Medalist for Body Building. (Photo by Ramkrishna Samanta/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
KOLKATA, INDIA – MARCH 20: Manohar Aich who recently celebrated his 100th birthday showing his biceps at his gymnasium at Baguihati resident on March 20, 2012 in Kolkata, India. Image by Ramkrishna Samanta/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

By the 1950s, Aich had 46cm biceps and measured 1.2m around the chest, but the most important phase of muscle gain came when he was jailed after punching a British officer for making offensive remarks about India. In prison, Aich worked out daily, and on release, he traded coconuts on the streets of Kolkata while he trained for his successful bid for the Mr Universe title in 1952.

In later life, Aich launched a brief political career, but he continued to perform public shows of strength until the age of 89 and lifted weights daily until the age of 99. India’s Pocket Hercules passed away peaceful on 5 June in Kolkata, surrounded by close friends and family.