27 Mar 2024

The Dazzle and Drama of India’s Ancient Martial Arts

India’s martial arts, dating back centuries, have created a fabulous legacy that has defied the wrath of conquerors and rulers over time, to survive to this day.

Nihang Military Prowess at Holla Mohalla

Venerated for their fearlessness and prowess as a military force the Nihangs stand out for their exceptional horsemanship and skillful use of weapons. The stands at the Anandpur Sahib mela grounds are simply blown away by their fantastic expertise in both. As an onlooker, during the Hola Mohalla festivities you cannot but be impressed by these ‘Holy Warriors’ or “Dare Devils’ who are adorned in their distinctive robes of blue and humongous turbans adorned with miniature swords and other bits of weapons at which they are reputedly expert.

Embedded in the upcoming Holi festival are Punjab’s amazing Hola Mohalla festivities, a fantastical treat for culture buffs around the world. Over three centuries of Sikh military traditions are captured in the dazzling theatrics on display by its legendary Nihang community.

It was Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth Sikh guru who established the Akal Sena, the Sikh military wing of Akalis, to confront the Mughal armies against the Sikh community. Tutored by his father in the military arts as a child, it was Guru Hargobind who initiated the ethos of the warrior saint; the Akalis carried arms and were ingrained in martial traditions. The two swords they carried, piri and miri, symbolized the spiritual and temporal world.

These two swords are the cherished symbols of the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh’s Khalsa sect with its dual role as the protector of the faith and the people. Spurred on by the martyrdom of his father Guru Tegh Bahadur, this skilled warrior-poet stepped up aggressions against the Mughals.

It was in the spring of 1699, on Baisakhi Day that Guru Gobind Singh ordained the Khalsa Panth (or the Guru’s Own) in his fortress Anandpur in the Shivalik Hills. The baptism of the Punj Piaras or ‘five beloveds’ of the Guru was to resonate down the centuries with its spirit of self-sacrifice and military endeavour for the community. The Akalis or Nihangs were at the heart of the Khalsa, a massive martial force directed to protect the Sikh faith and its gurudwaras, the community and its lands.

The military showmanship of the Nihangs is reflected in the mock battles which put the spotlight on their use of arms and equestrian and other soldierly skills. A warrior’s skills as a horseman were considered as equally important as being adept at using weapons. Marvel at how these warriors effortlessly ride two horses simultaneously; thrill to their splendid skills at bareback riding, tent pegging, archery, gatka etc.

Selfie time and Insta moments go into overdrive as you capture those towering blue dumalas (double layered turbans), which can even weigh up to 85 kg. Mark the adornments on this glorious headgear, which includes steel and iron miniatures of their weapons and the Sikh's coat of arms of the Khalsa.

Kerala’s Kalari Moves

Kerala Kathakali Center located close to Fort Kochi Beach offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy an immersive experience of one of the world’s oldest martial arts techniques in the heart of Kochi city. Discover here the fantastic acrobatic skills, graceful movements and the deadly wielding of some of the simplest of weapons by these expert practitioners. You’ll also understand why the movements of Kalari appear to be modelled on the movements of the horse, serpent, rooster, tiger etc.

Kalaripayattu, a personal combat training system is a precious legacy that’s over 3000 years old. It’s considered to be the oldest and most scientific of all martial arts in the world. You need five years of intense and totally dedicated training to master all its techniques of Kalaripayattu. Kalari centres are like a temple and the training, considered a sacred trust, requires all students to remain strictly celibate during this time.

The vibrant martial traditions of Kalaripayattu are copiously depicted in the Vadakkan Kalaripayattu, predominantly practiced in the Malabar region of Kerala. It focuses more on graceful body movement and weaponry. Thekken Kalaripayattu or Adi Murai, the Southern Style is practiced mainly in the Travancore region, involves more free armed techniques and powerful movements.

Strange as it may appear, it is the legendary sage Lord Parshuram (believed to have dragged Kerala out of the ocean to terra firma) who is said to have taught the art of Kalari to those first settlers on this land.

Unlike amongst the Sikhs, where it was their Gurus who ingrained in the community the skills of martial arts, in Kerala it appears that it was a divine entity, Lord Parshuram who gave the knowledge he had acquired from Lord Vishnu on the craft of military might to the first 21 Kalaripayattu gurus in Kerala to repel enemies. Parshuram is credited also for having set up the first 108 kalaris scattered across Kerala.

A quick history lesson reveals that as far back as the Sangam period (600 BCE–300 CE) warriors were expected to be experts in target practice, horse and elephant riding. Furthermore, they had to hone their skills in using the spear (vel), sword (val), shield (kedaham), and bow and arrow (vil ambu).

The clash with the Chola resulted in the disintegration of the Chera kingdom in the 11th century. It was around this time that art of Kalaripayattu found voice with military combat training becoming compulsory amongst the youth of Kerala, regardless of caste, community or sex, as ascertained by the historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. With kalaris popping up in villages across Kerala, it was a given that students ending their schooling would undergo military training in these units. This held particular significance for Kerala’s martial sects like the Nairs and Thiyyas.

With the growing use of guns and cannons around the 17th century the practice of kalari went into decline. Firearms became the weapons of choice as against traditionally used spears and swords, to combat the rise in European invasions on Kerala’s shores.

The ban by the British against Kalaripayattu in Kerala in 1804 initiated a secret resistance movement to keep the kalari gurukuls alive. By the 1970s the practice, having survived those trying years, was gaining ground once again. It’s interesting to note that Kalaripayattu was incorporated into dance styles like Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, as part of their training routine.

The Kerala Department of Tourism, since 2021, has been running the Kalaripayattu Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. Traditionally instructions have been passed on to pupils via ‘vaythari’ or oral commands. These were only documented in writing in 1936.

Students undergo expert training in techniques of attack and defence using the kettukari (wooden sticks), viada (two-headed club), cheruvati (short, heavy stick) and ottakol (curved wooden weapon, with a club at one end), the kattaram (dagger for duels at short range), sword and shield. The body itself serves as a weapon; also intrinsic to the practice is the knowledge about the vital parts of the human body or the marmas in attacking or defending; lessons are also given in medical treatment and massage in order to cure bruises, cuts, dislocations, breakage of bones etc. Also important are instructions on the different techniques of breathing and meditation, etc.

Women were not far behind in skilling themselves in the martial arts. Recipient of the Padma Shri in 2017, Meenakshi Amma, 80, a practitioner and teacher of Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest protectors of this precious legacy. Sikh women were also known to be experts in gatka as a force for self-defense.

When visiting India next you might want to delve deeper into India’s martial arts heritage. The country has a thrilling collection of some of the finest traditions of the martial arts that are worth exploring and experiencing, apart from Kerala’s Kalari and Punjab’s stick-fighting form of Gatka.

Kuttu Varisai, for example, is rooted in the Tamil Nadu region and is marked for its unique blend of unarmed combat, involving grappling, and diverse striking techniques. Silambam is also a Tamil martial art largely using wooden staffs apart from 30 other weapons that were originally introduced in the practice.

From the northeastern state of Manipur, you have the Thang-ta or huyen lallong, practiced by the Meitei community, requires the skillful wielding of swords, spears, and other traditional weapons. Mardaani khel, a martial tradition from Maharashtra involves untarnished ways of wielding swords, katyar (dagger), lathi-kathi (sticks), veeta (darts), bhala (javelin), dand and patta (long-bladed swords).

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