In Wushu, Kashmir makes quiet tryst with history

India's Bhanu Pratap Singh (in blue) fights against Indonesia's Abdul Haris Sofyan during the men's sanda 60 kg preliminaries of the wushu event. ARIEF BAGUS/AFP/Getty Images

While most of us weren't watching, Jammu & Kashmir had its quiet, historic moment in a sport that makes its way into our TV screens and viewing schedules only once every four years.

A martial arts form and a ragingly popular sport in Indian states like J&K and Manipur, Wushu won India four medals, all bronze, at the Asian Games on Wednesday. It's India's highest-ever haul in the sport at the Games. Before this edition, India had won two bronze medals at the 2014 Incheon Games.

For J&K, this is also an epoch-making first. Bhanu Pratap Singh, who lay at the heart of it, took a tumble midway through his 60kg semi-final Sanda (sparring) bout on Wednesday, injuring his leg, and then being carried off the ring after the match in a show of gallant sportsmanship by opponent Erfan Ahangarian of Iran. It wasn't the way Bhanu would've imagined to wrap up history.

But the celebratory parade back home, he knows, will still be waiting.

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally | Highlights

"For our state this is a big moment," 22-year-old Bhanu, who hails from Muthi town near Jammu, tells ESPN. A UFC junkie, Bhanu wilfully got into scuffles with boys in the neighbourhood, growing up.

"Maar thaad karna tha mujhe... fighter banna tha bas (I liked getting into fights. I just wanted to be a fighter). Son of Balkar Singh, a former Bharat Kesari wrestler, Bhanu had little love for wrestling. Around the time that he'd realised wrestling wasn't his sport, Bhanu ran into Wushu. Current chief national coach Kuldeep Handoo, a family friend who lived in the neighbouring village, had the sport Bhanu was looking for. "It had kicks, punches, wrestling moves, just everything I loved. I knew I had to do this. Today, all my siblings, cousins, and everyone who belongs to my generation in the family plays Wushu."

For the wider understanding of the sport, in the Sando form of Wushu, players use boxing gloves, headgear and chest guards, and combine throwing, punching and kicking. An 11-time national champion and medallist at both the 2010 & 2014 Asian Games, Handoo, 42, has been something of a pioneering force for the sport, particularly in his home state. "I was still going strong as a player when I was asked by one of mentors to switch to coaching. I will always be grateful to him for the advice. The sport has grown massively. In popularity, it almost matches football in J&K. You can run around any corner of our streets, but you wouldn't find any kid who hasn't heard of Wushu."

Though infrastructure isn't the best in the state, J&K, Handoo estimates, has over 20,000 players across 22 districts today, the highest in the country. "It is played in schools and colleges across the country. We had a camp in Baramulla a few months ago, which had 13,000 girls participating. That is the kind of craze there is for Wushu in J&K. People recognize it as a strong medal prospect. Girls in our state are drawn to the sport because it's a powerful form of self-defence. It makes them feel empowered."

For Bhanu, Wushu is more than just a sport he loves. It's a mad passion. In his bedraggled looks, overgrown mountain-man beard and ripped arms, Bhanu dreams of becoming a UFC star someday. Much like the ones he has blu-tacked to his walls at home. "Bas khelna hai, khelte rehna hai, rukna nahi hai. Phaad ke rakhna hai. (I just want to compete, keep competing, with no stops. I want to beat them all)."