Along with its diverse culture and ethnicities, the Indian sub-continent is also known for different martial art forms that developed across the ages. Since ancient times, these different styles of martial art have been used in warfare. In the subsequent days, Indian martial art forms underwent a period of decline after the British conquest of India. Some of the martial art forms were also banned during the British era, which only saw a resurgence post-independence. Nowadays, these art forms are showcased in rituals, celebrations, sports, and as means of physical fitness, along with self-defence. Many of these martial art forms are closely related to dance, yoga and, performing arts. Almost every state has had its own form of martial art. So, here are some popular martial art forms that add great value to India’s rich culture.
Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest and most renowned martial art techniques in India that has originated from Kerala. This martial art form is scientifically based in accordance with human anatomy. Recently it has widely spread and practised in many martial art schools in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The word ‘Kalari‘ is derived from the Malayalam word that means a ‘place’ or ‘battlefield’,. It first appeared in the Sangam Tamil Literature, where it was described as both a battlefield and combat arena. Similarly, the word ‘Payattu’ means ‘the action used by arms ‘. It was based on the Indian Guru –shikshya system, which was one of the finest means of teaching by ancient India. The Kalari trainers are known as Gurukkal, traditionally. Kalaripayattu is accepted as the father of modern kung-fu, another fine martial art technique that originated from China.
The teaching of Kalaripayattu is based on four stages of learning which are: Meipayattu (body movements), Kolthari (techniques of fighting), Angathari (use of combat weapons), and Verum kali prayogam (fight without combat weapons). In the first stage, Meipayattu enhances the fitness of students by engaging them with flexibility exercises. The second stage is Kolthari, where fighting techniques were introduced among students initially using sticks. In the third stage, Angathari , weapons like Vaal, mace, shield, urumi (flexible sword ), paricha, kuntham (spear ), bows and arrows , kattari ( dagger ) were introduced to specialize the students in these combat weapons. This stage also engages with learning target areas like head, back, chest, stomach, and the portion below the knee. The last stage, Verum kali prayogam, increases the ability to fight without weapons. Before the training sessions, the students are given oil massages to increase their agility and flexibility.
Kalaripayattu also enhances kineaesthetic awareness, and mostly engages with foot movement. Some foot movements are like chattom (jumping), ottam (running) and marichil (somersault), used in the fighting technique. However, it is not accompanied by any kind of drumming or songs. Today, this martial art form is showcased in festivals and other occasions. It also involves medicinal practice, which draws the interest of many people. Among these, the treatment of vital parts, ‘ Marmachikitsa’, remains the crucial one. It helps to restore body balance and mental peace.
Kalaripayattu is now included in the sports category, by Khelo India Youth games 2021.
The 4th century BC weapon combat form, which originated from Tamil Nadu in India, is Silambam. It is believed to be a modern and scientifically based martial art form, which finds its references in Silappadikkaram and other Sangam literature. The term Silambambu is derived from the Tamil word meaning hills. It particularly refers to bamboo found in Kurinjimala hills, now in present-day Kerala. The primary weapon here is the bamboo stave, which was earlier used for self–defense and to ward off animals in kurinjimala hills. The bamboo staves, swords, pearls, and armors were important trading goods during that period. Those were in high demand by foreign traders, especially of Rome, Greece and Egypt. This martial art technique was believed to gain acclamation in many foreign countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
The length of the bamboo stave measures according to the practitioner’s height, where it should touch the forehead about three fingers from the head. Different weapons are also engaged in this martial art technique, such as Maru, Panthakol, Aruval, Savuku, Vaal, Kuttukatai, Katti, Kattari, Surulkaththi, Sedikuchi. Other techniques which are also used include swift foot movements, use of different parts of the body, especially hand to wield staff, use of thrust, cut, chop, and sweep to master and develop momentum, strength and precision in the head, shoulder, hip and leg to be more efficient and swifter. In this martial art form, the martial artist gets trained in such a manner that he becomes able to diffuse uncontrollable mobs by different strokes like snake hit, monkey hits, hawk hits, and deflect stones thrown on them.
Presently, there is a World Silambam Association, which is an official international body of Silambam.
Thang-ta & Sarit Sarak
Thangta and Sarit Sarak, are ritualistic martial art which originated in Manipur during the 17th century. Thang ta involves using combat weapons like swords or spear against solo or multiple opponents whereas, Sarit Sarak is an unarmed technique where hand-to-hand combat skills are important. Both of them together are called as HuyenLanglon.
In Thang-ta, the word ‘Thang’ refers to a sword, while ‘Ta’ refers to a spear. This martial art technique is practiced in three different ways – the first includes absolute ritualistic practices related to tantrism. The second way includes demonstrations of spear and sword dances. The third or the last approach include the actual fighting technique.
The Manipuri kings mastered this combat skill to fight against the British, in which they were successful for a long period. However, with the increasing rule of the British, this technique was prohibited among the people. Nevertheless, in the post-1950s, this martial art technique saw resurgence again. Recently, Thang-ta and Saritsarak, are being promoted as a sport and self-defense technique all over India, but before, since 1976 it was an art of display in many festivals in and outside the country. Thang- ta is now included in the sports category under Khelo India Youth Games 2021.
Cheibi Gad-ga is one of the traditional martial art forms which originated from Manipur. Its combat technique was initially comprised of two types of equipment, a sword and a shield. Presently it has been modified to a stick encased in soft leather and a leather shield. The whole encounter between the martial artist occurs on a flat surface, within a circle having a diameter of 7 meters. The circle is divided into two lines of one meter each, and the space in between the circle is 2 meters. The ‘cheibi‘ stick measures 2 to 2.5 feet in length, and the leather shield measures 1 meter in diameter. In the dual encounter between the martial artists, victory goes to the person who scores the maximum points.
This martial art technique emphasizes using heavy combat weapons, especially swords and shields. According to the ‘Chhau’ tradition, in ‘Pari –khanda’, ‘Pari’ means shield and ‘Khanda’ means sword. The fighting technique in this combat form is integrated with the traditional Chau dance. Rajputs who settled in Bihar during the Mughal invasion gave genesis to this technique in this region.
Thoda is a martial art form, which has its roots in the age of Puranas. This martial art form originated from the Kulu region of Himachal Pradesh. Weapons like bow and arrow are required in this martial art form. The wooden bow measures 1.5m to 2m with respect to the height of the archer, and the wooden arrows are cut in proportion to the length of the bow. These types of equipment are prepared by skilled and traditional artisans. Here, the game technique includes a group of archers who shoot a blunt arrow towards the feet of the opponent team.
The word Thoda is derived from a round piece of wood fixed at the top of an arrow to blunt the wounding potential. Culture, martial arts and sports are a mere amalgamation of this art form. It is held on Baishaki day,with prayers and community rituals organized to implore the blessing of the principal deities, Goddesses Mashoo and Durga.
In this festivity, the groups are divided into roughly 500 people. Among them, most are just dancers, who come along to boost the morale of their groups. The archers are divided into two groups just before the contest takes place; one team is called Saathi and the other Pashi. To count on, both Saathi and Pashis, are descendants of the Pandavas and Kauravas. The contest aims to target the opponents but the most interesting fact is that the competitors have to target the defender’s leg, below the knee. On hitting any other part of the defenders’ body, points get deducted.
The word Gatka originates from the word ‘Gada’ (in Sanskrit, ‘Gada’ means mace), which refers to a wooden stick used in this martial art form. Gatka is an ancient martial art that originated in the 15th century when it was originally associated with the Sikh gurus, especially Nihang Sikh warriors. The original emphasis of this martial art is gained from the oldest version of ‘Shastar Vidya’. Wrist arm movements and the use of weapons like kirpan, talwar and kataar imbibes the effectiveness of this martial art. Although Gatka was adopted for self-defense, today, it is showcased on numerous occasions. Like Kalaripayattu and Thang-Ta, Gatka got its due recognition only after being included in the sports category under Khelo India Youth Games 2021.
Mardanikhel is a typical armed Indian martial art, which originated from Maharashtra. It began its rise to prominence in the 1600s, during Maratha Hindu Padpadshahi (Kingdom). It uses Indian weapons like Patta (sword) and Vita (corded lance). This art form focuses on skills of weaponry, especially swords, swift movements, and the use of low stances suited to its originating place, the hill ranges. Some famous practitioners are Shivaji Raje Bhonsle, Tanaji Malusare, Baji Prabhu, Sarsenapati Umabai, Maharani Tarabai. Presently, it is widely practiced in the district of Kolhapur, Maharashtra.
Latthi is one of the ancient armed martial art of India, whose etymology derived from the Bengali word lathi, meaning stick. The lathi is mainly made of bamboo, which measures 6 to 8 feet. Lathi khela is divided roughly into two techniques, ‘Banethi’ and ‘Halwa,’ where the former shows the stick rotating techniques and the latter describes the fighting technique. It is now majorly practiced in the rural part of West Bengal and Punjab.
From the village of Dungtlang, the people of Mizoram gave rise to a new form of Wrestling, Inbuan, in the year 1750. Inbuan involves a strict set of rules like, it is held only on soft mud, carpet, or grass; stepping out of the circle is not allowed, prohibits kicking and even bending of knees. Recently, Mizoram accorded ‘industry’ status to sports where not only professional sports are included, but also indigenous games like Inbuan wresting are included to promote among people.
Kuttuvarisai is believed to be one of the oldest martial art techniques in India. Reference of Kuttu Varisai is found in Sangam literature during the period 2nd-1st BCE, where the term translates as “flow of punches “, from kuttu meaning punch and varisai meaning order. It is the unarmed combat component of Silambam and also a standalone martial art. The practice of this martial art includes kinaesthetic awareness, balance, speed, agility, and hand-eye- coordination. It is mainly practiced in Tamil Nadu in India. Outside India, this art form is also practiced in a few parts of Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Musti Yuddha developed in one of the oldest cities of the country, Varanasi. The term Musti Yuddha means “fist combat “, wherein generally we say it like boxing. The technique involves punches, kicks, elbows, knees and grabs. Mustiyuddha incorporates not only physical strength but also mental and spiritual strength. Its art of fighting is divided into four categories and named after Hindu Gods like ‘JAMBUVATI’ refers to forcing the opponent to submission; ‘HANUMATI ‘refers to technicality superiority; ‘BHIMASENA ‘means sheer strength and lastly ‘JARASANDHU’ means joint or limb breaking.
Paika Akhada has its origin in Odisha. The term Paika Akhada means ‘warrior school’. These combat schools served as an integral point to train people during peasant – militias in eastern India. This martial art form assimilates both dance and combat, where the performance starts with rhythmic movements and the use of combat equipment, accompanied by different musical instruments like a drum. Earlier, this combat was only used by paikas (warriors), but now practiced as a performing art. In addition, it encompasses acrobatic movements and equipment like khanda (straight sword), patta (guantlet-sword), and sticks. In earlier times, kings of Odisha relied on the strength of his paikas during any defensive activities or external aggression. Moreover, it helped them in the smooth running of the administration of the state.
This martial art technique has originated in Kashmir in India. In Persian, the word Sqay means ‘the knowledge of war.’ It includes weapons like a curved sword and a shield. While in unarmed combat technique, freestyle skills like kick, punches, choke, etc., are incorporated. Presently, this martial art is governed and maintained by the Sqay Federation of India.
Kathi Samu is one of the oldest martial art forms of Andhra Pradesh. The word Kathi Samu means ‘fighting with a sword’. This martial art form is organized in a place known as ‘garidi’. The royal armies of Andhra Pradesh are maestros of this martial art form. In Kathi Samu, dual combat takes place with long curved swords. The participant holds four swords, two in each hand is called ‘ gareja ‘ and other technical combat skills are called ‘Dal Farri Khadga’.
Bandesh is an Indian origin martial art form. This martial art technique emphasizes disarming the opponent without taking his life. According to the Hindu philosophy, to keep the sanctity of human life, Bandesh disregards killing and non-lethal usage of power and strength to reduce the risk of one’s life. Combat weapons like swords, daggers long staff etc. are used. In this martial art form, the winner is the one who takes the weapon from his opponent.
Malla Yuddha is a combat–wrestling art form that originated in India. It can be said to be a formidable ancestor of ‘kusti’. Some techniques like grapping, choking, punching, etc., are incorporated in this combat form. A few famous practitioners of this art form are Siddhartha Gautama, Krishna Deva Raya, Deva Raya II.
This traditional sport includes aerial yogic postures and wrestling grips that hold the vertical stationary wooden pole. Mallakhamb , had its genesis from the Indian subcontinent. The word itself refers to the pole which is used in the sport. The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh declared Mallakhmb as its state sport. Around 20 states followed this traditional gymnastic sport. Mallakhamb has now been included in the sports category by Khelo India Youth games 2021.
Insu-Knawr is an indigenous sport that originated in Mizoram. It is also known as Rod pushing sport. Here the game takes place within a circle, and the players push the rod. This martial art technique checks the resistance capability of the combatants.
Kirip is another combat-wrestling technique popular among the people of the Nicobarese tribe in India. It is the same as wrestling, where different body parts are used to defeat the opponent and thrust them down in the ground. It is still famous in many Nicobar villages in India.
Saldu is a combat wrestling form that is also popular among the Nicobarese tribe. This sport is quite the same as kabbadi. The only difference in this is that it does not require a court, instead a vacant land. There are no boundary lines, just one line in the centre to divide the two sides. A maximum of 20 players can be allowed on each side. This game demands not only strength but also stamina, speed, and endurance as well.
Varma Ati or Varma kalai is one of the traditional combat techniques that originated at Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. It emphasized the vital points of the body, especially nerves and veins. This combat art is also used for healing.
Martial art exists in India in various other forms and for a long time, but we do not have adequate knowledge about it. However, a section of the informed citizenry and few civil society organizations have been trying to revive these Indian martial art forms by teaching these techniques to the youth. This will eventually lead to the rediscovery and reconnection of India’s unique martial art history.
China and Japan have their own martial art forms, such as kung-fu, ju-jitsu and karate. The world has given these art forms a lot of significance in history and they still are so prominent in various places of the world that these art forms have their own national institutions in different countries in the world. For India, deterioration occurred in its ancient combat techniques because of the popularization of the Chinese and Japanese martial art techniques.
In this 21st century, the youth is more indulged in technology, which has bound them indoors. However, they need to be encouraged for outdoor activities for healthy physical and mental development. Practicing martial arts can be highly beneficial as it improves a child’s psychological and physical well-being. It provides good health, improves emotional well-being, increases self-esteem and self-confidence, and decreases tension, stress, anxiety, and depression.
These days self-defense has become the sole purpose for which people decide to learn martial art. It instills us in defending ourselves and avoids potential dangers. Therefore, Indian schools have not only started introducing martial art forms like Karate or Kung Fu but also are gradually including Indian martial art forms in their curriculum to resurrect and reinforce the art forms through the youngest citizens of India.
Recently, the Sports Ministry introduced four indigenous martial art forms –(1) kalarippayattu of Kerala, (2) Mallakhamb of central India, (3) Gatka of Punjab and (4) Thang-ta of Manipur into Khelo India Youths Games 2021. It is a huge step towards promoting these indigenous Martial Art forms. Till now, only games that are a part of the curriculum of Olympic games were given eminence. Piece by piece, the indigenous games are getting their due respect. Earlier, these art forms were only performed to give various demonstrations and occasional public shows, although today, combined efforts are being taken to streamline them. Hopefully, the Indian Martial Art Forms would get popularity, due recognition and be identified in line with the Chinese and Japanese Martial Art Forms using the newly created platforms by India.
- Singhania Nitin. Indian art and culture. Chennai: McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2020.