The art of warfare
Indian martial arts may have lost some sheen with the passage of time. But with encouragement from the government and individuals, they are being preserved and popularised
India has a long history of martial arts, with some forms going back thousands of years. While some of the east Asian martial arts have gained a wider acceptance, it is believed that many of these forms trace their lineage to Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist monk, who, according to a well-known legend, was said to have developed Shaolin kung fu and taught Indian yoga around the 6th century AD. An integral part of our heritage and culture, Indian martial art forms are now becoming popular, not just within the country but even internationally. In October 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his popular radio programme Mann Ki Baat, highlighted India’s indigenous sports, especially Mallakhamb and how it’s being promoted outside India. PM Modi had said: “Nowadays, our traditional sport of Mallakhamb is gaining popularity in several countries. In the US, when Chinmay Patankar and Pradnya Patankar started to teach Mallakhamb from their home, even they did not have an idea how successful they would be. Today, there are Mallakhamb training centres at many places in the US as the youth there are learning Mallakhamb in large numbers.” The following are a few Indian martial art forms that are finding new platforms.
Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport dating back to the 12th century. It is said to have originated in the Maharashtra region. The word “malla” means a wrestler and “khamb” or “kham”, in colloquial Marathi, means a pole. Therefore, Mallakhamb refers to a sport in which an athlete wrestles against a pole. Manasolhas, a text written around 1135 AD during the reign of the powerful Chalukya dynasty kings, who ruled over southern and central India, mentions a sport wherein a wrestler practices with a pole to maintain his agility and postures. In the 19th century, Balambhatt Dada Deodhar, the fitness and sports instructor to Maratha king Peshwa Bajirao II, revived this sport and introduced it to his army. The sport was used to enhance the fitness levels of soldiers and aid in guerilla warfare tactics. In this sport, the wrestler turns, twists, stretches and balances on a pole in a perfect blend of grace, agility and suppleness of body, combined with quick reflexes. There are two other Mallakhamb styles – rope Mallakhamb, where a rope is used instead of a pole, and hanging Mallakhamb, in which acts are performed on a hanging pole or rope. Today, this sport has got a new lease of life, having become popular not just in India but also across the world, especially in the US, where it is being practised to stay fit and agile. PM Modi, in his reference to the sport, had hailed the Pune-based couple Chinmay Patankar and Pradnya Patankar. Chinmay and his wife are among the new-age practitioners of Mallakhamb, who are spreading its knowledge internationally. Having shifted to the US to pursue his career, Chinmay, a national-level Mallakhamb athlete, started training groups of people in the backyard of his home. Later, he launched a federation for Mallakhamb in the US. Today, the Mallakhamb Federation USA is an official not-for-profit organisation that trains both adults and children in this traditional Indian sport.
In 2017, when the Indian government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, conferred the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in the country, to 76-year-old Meenakshi Amma, it was not just the septuagenarian who was applauded. The honour also recognised an Indian martial art form, Kalaripayattu, which the deceptively diminutive Meenakshi Amma has been practising and propagating for decades. She has been practising Kalaripayattu at Kadathanad Kalari Sangham in Kerala’s Kozhikode district since she was five years old. She trains around 150 to 200 students, including foreigners, free of cost. This ancient martial art form, which is said to have originated in Kerala, is considered among the oldest and most scientific in the world. The form’s primary aim is to let the kalari practitioner achieve perfect coordination between mind and body. But Kalaripayattu also focusses on wellness practices and includes medicinal oil therapies. The training of Kalaripayattu begins with an oil massage of the entire body until it is agile and supple. Feats like chattom (jumping), ottam (running) and marichil (somersault) are integral parts of the form. Lessons are also imparted in the use of such weapons as swords, daggers, spears, maces, bows and arrows. Other than centres in Kerala, the Kalari Kendram in New Delhi also conducts classes to train youngsters in this form. The centre, recognised by the Indian Council for Culture Relations (ICCR), also conducts online workshops to connect with students across the world.
Silambam is another traditional Indian martial art that is seeing a revival. One of the oldest self-defense techniques, it incorporates various types of weapons and movements. As per Sangam literature (earliest writings in the Tamil language), Silambam has been around since 4th century BC. It is said this martial art form was successfully used to provide stiff resistance to the British forces, as a result of which, it was banned in India and gained popularity in Southeast Asian countries, especially Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The word Silambam is derived from the Tamil word “silam”, which means hills, and the Kannada word “bambu” from which the English bamboo originates. Traditionally, the practice of Silambam included weapons made of bamboo of a special variety sourced from the Kurinji hills of modern-day Kerala. Today, however, with the passage of time, the art form has included the use of weapons like maru (made from deer horns), aruval (sickle), savuku (whip), vaal (sword), katti (knife), katari (blade), surul kaththi (flexible sword) and sedikuchi (short stick). Traditionally, soldiers would train in this art as Silambam increases flexibility and body coordination. It also increases a person’s ability to stay calm and concentrate. Today, the art-form is practised by enthusiasts across the world and is promoted by several organisations, including the World Silambam Association, which organises tournaments and workshops globally. The first Silambam World Cup was held in October 2019, in Keda, Malaysia.
Thang Ta or Huyen Lallong is an ancient Manipuri martial art that is characterised by the use of a thang (sword) and ta (spear). Developed by the Meitei community to protect their kingdom against invasions, Thang Ta dates back to the 17th century. It is practiced in three different ways. The first is ritualistic in nature. The second includes a spectacular performance involving sword and spear dances, while the third is the actual fighting technique. Thang Ta features the use of various weapons, including the sword, spear and dagger, with the sword being at the heart of the martial art form. There are hundreds of different sword drills used for training. However, Thang Ta is more than just a fighting skill. It is an austere and elaborate system that includes immense physical control and knowledge of breathing techniques. It also involves meditation and religious rituals. Today, Thang Ta is not only practised as a martial art but is also used in theatre and dance performances. Last year, to promote Thang Ta, the Union Government had announced that the martial art form would be a part of the Khelo India Youth Games 2021, scheduled to be held at Panchkula in Haryana. India is blessed with a diverse culture that has roots in the country’s rich history and mythology. Inspired by this treasure-trove is a plethora of traditional martial art forms that continue to exist in the remotest parts of the country. With encouragement from the government and individuals, these art forms have the potential to become a part of contemporary lifestyle not just within the country but across the world, teaching us the importance of physical strength and mental agility.