Martial Arts of India

The combative arts (Kshatriya Vidya) practiced in ancient hermitages were based on a comprehensive and interrelated body of knowledge. Eventually with time, their components separated into various independent schools of martial arts and weaponry. Today, India’s martial arts are divided by geographical regions, each characterized by the use of various weapons and empty-handed techniques. This article attempts to provide a bird’s eye view of the various systems and weaponry still in practice today. Therefore a brief description of each system is provided for the simple purpose of identification and classification. A detail analysis of India’s martial art system of the past and present is beyond the scope of this article.

Mallayuddha (Mallavidya) is commonly referred to as wrestling. But a closer look will show that although the grappling techniques are a major part of Mallayuddha it goes far beyond wrestling. In fact Mallayuddha was a major part of Kshatriya Vidya. Mallayuddha is divided into four categories. Jarasandhi (Limb Breaking techniques), Bheemaseni (techniques requiring strength), Hanumanti (Tricky techniques), and Jambuvanti (Locks). Intentional body throws (Danki) are practiced to learn to fall properly without injury. Various punches and Kicks are also utilized. Pushes and strikes (Baha) against the opponents body with legs, shoulders, forearms and various other parts is practiced for conditioning. Various push-up (Dands) on fingers and knuckles are practiced. To develop lower body a variety of deep knee bends (Baithaks) are performed. It is not unusual for an expert in mallayuddha to perform one thousand repetitions of Dands and Baithaks during a practice session.

Mallayuddha was the basis of body development for the Kshatriyas. Various ingenious tools and equipments were developed for the purpose of body conditioning and strength building. For instance, Malla-Khamb, a vertical pillar is used to train and strengthen the upper and lower body. By holding this pillar with either hand or leg locks a group of 12 postures are practiced. Stones dumbbells (Nal) and heavy wooden barbells (Sumtola) as well as various heavy clubs (Karela) are utilized for bodybuilding. Therapeutic healing practices and massage therapy is usually practiced by the master.

The highest stage in Mallayuddha is one of being a Pahlevan. Gama was among the twentieth century Pahlevans who was born in Kashmir in 1878. He was called the lion of Punjab. No one ever stood a bout of more than a minute with Gama before they fully surrendered.

Vajra-Mushti is an off shoot of Mallayuddha practiced mainly in the north. It employs a horned weapon that is worn on the fingers of the right hand and is used for punching (Mushti). It has five points. In this art the standing positions (Pavitra) has great importance. Punches and kicks in addition to Mallayuddha techniques are practiced. Vajra is one of India’s most ancient and highly honored weapons. It was the weapon of Indra the god of war. It is said that this weapon was made out of the backbone of the rishi Dadhici and was presented to Indra. Perhaps the ring found on the weapon lead to the belief that it was made of the backbone. Vajramushti warriors are deadly and ferocious fighters although at the present time their numbers are very few. The author had the privileged of meeting some of the last living masters (Jethis) of Vajramushti.

Bandesh is another off shoot of Mallayuddha. These are lock holds placed either on different parts of the opponent’s body or weapon. There are six stages during the process of Bandesh, they are Pavitra (stepping), Rokh (blocking), Lapet (twisting), Fekan (throw), Chheen (snatching), and Bandesh (lock-hold).

BIinot is the art of protecting oneself without any weapon. Its focus is mainly on the limb breaking techniques (Jarasandhi) and locks (Jambuvanti) portion of mallayuddha.

Mushtiyuddha fist fighting also called Muki, is the combative techniques mainly focused on hands and fists. Although it may appear as fist fighting, it is not similar to modern boxing. Fists are utilized for offensive and defensive purposes. The practitioners harden their hand and fist by beating them against stone, and various other surfaces. Shri Narayanguru Balambhat Deodhar and Shri Lakshmanguru Balambhat Deodhar were renowned Muki masters in the city of Benares. Both of them, singly, were more than a match for a dozen Muki fighters. It is not the stuff of legends to hear a Muki master killing a tiger with bare hands. In the 1800’s Sohong Swami of Bengal had fought and killed tigers. His last bout was in front of a large audience arranged by Prince Cooch of Bihar where he killed a ferocious Bengal tiger called Raja Begum known to be a man eater. After this incident he renounced the worldly life and was initiated into the monastic order of Sanyas.

Nagas are a large group of warrior ascetics. Although they have renounced worldly life and have given up all possessions in the pursuit of asceticism, they are extremely militant, fighting with rivaling sects, the Muslims and later even the British. Nagas wore no clothing even while living in freezing Himalayan caves. They smear their body with sacred ash (Bhasma) and wore a long matted hair (Jata) symbolic of their devotion to lord Shiva. They are ferocious fighters since they had no fear of death. They use staff, spears, swords and trident as their weapons. There is also a group of Nagas that follow lord Vishnu rather than Shiva and they are called Bairagis. Although they wear clothing nowadays, some groups are also naked. Although the Nagas are peculiar and unique, their arts of fighting is not exclusive to their group and most of it can be found in other martial arts of India. Historical references to the Nagas goes back several thousand years.

Gatka is the combative art developed in the northwest area of India known as Punjab for the protection of the Sikhs religious groups. Gatka started with Har Govind Guru in late 1500’s AD. Gatka has mainly been practiced in India by the Nahang Singhs, who believe in the importance of preserving the type of dress (Bana) and weaponry as was worn by the Sikh Gurus. Gatka is a basic and practical art. It is based upon a single movement called the “Panthra”. This movement is initially practiced using no weapons to help develop accuracy of footwork. It is practiced in circular motions, simple forward and backward motions and also more complex motions such as star shapes. Gatka is based primarily on the use of three types of weapons, namely staff (Marati), flexible weapons such as rope, belt and whip and mainly the sword (Teg). Saber (Kirpan) and dagger (Khanda) are also used.

Kalaripayat is the martial art that is practiced in the southern tip of India in the state of Kerala. The word Kalari is derived from Sanskrit term Khalorika which stands for combative training ground and Payat meaning the art of combat. According to Keralolpathi, the traditional chronicle of Kerala, it was introduced to south India by sage Parashurama. In 1793 Kalaripayat was outlawed by the British and became almost extinct, however its practices and traditions were saved by few masters (Gurukals). The empty hand combat of Kalaripayat is Verumkai Prayogam. It is the art of attacking and defending Marmans (vital points). Various types of chops, blocks and locks are included. The training begins with Meippayat or body control exercises with precise applications of the legs in different steps, turns and leaps. Various weaponry is used including, Kettukari (Quarter staff), Cheruvati (Three span staff), Kattaram (Dagger), Churika (sword and shield) Urumi (flexible sword), Kuntham (The spear) and finally Otta. This is a peculiarly curved weapon, made of wood, about eighteen inches long. Gaining mastery over the Otta ultimately means the complete mastery of blows to the vital points (Marma Vibhaga). In fact the highest stage of Kalarippayat is the Marma Adi (attacks to vital point), which is a near extinct science, practiced partially by a few masters.

Varma Ati is the fighting arts of the Tamil Nadu region focusing on attacks and defense of Marmans. It includes Ati Tata (hit/defend) and Ati Murai (law of hitting). It was imparted in Tamil area by sage Agasthya. Training is performed outdoor and not in a Kalari. At one point the practitioner were called Agasthiyars or Siddha Yogis referring to the fact that they were expected to practice a highly esoteric form of yoga meditation. Initial exercises include attacks and defenses aimed at the Marmans. Various empty hand techniques include those with fist, elbow, tip of the index finger, butt of the hand, joined finger tip, thumb, and extended knuckles are utilized. Big toe and forehead are also used.

According to the yogic text known as the Shiva Samhita there are 350,000 subtle interconnecting channels of energy (Nadis) within the body. When they interconnect near the surface of the skin they are called Marmans (Sanskrit: Marman, Malayalam: Marmmam, and Tamil: Varman). The earliest textual evidence of the marman dates as early as 1200 BC in the Rig Veda. The god Indra is recorded as defeating the demon Vrtra by attacking his vital spots with his Vajra.

Marmans are extensively described in the science of ancient Indian medicine (Ayur Veda) which can be found in Sushruta Samhita (c. 500 BC) and in Charaka Samhita (c. 200 AD). According to Susruta the human body contains 107 Marman points which, when struck or massaged, produce desired healing or injurious results. Susruta knew the importance of avoiding the vital spots in surgery. He identified illnesses caused by direct and indirect injury to them. He describes each vital spots location, size, classification, and symptoms of direct and full penetration and the length of time a person may live after penetration. Therapeutic treatment of Marmans (Marman Chikitsa) with piercing needles (Bhedan Karma) was practiced by Ayurvedic practitioners, however the finger (Adankal) and hand treatment is the most common usage today. There are 107 Marmas in a human body of which 64 are mainly used during combats (Kulamarmams). Hitting these Marmas can freeze and disable certain parts of the body or make one unconscious.

Silambam is another martial art practiced in south India in the area of Tamil Nadu. The training begins with mastery of the staff and the knowledge of which is then further developed for empty handed combat. Another closely related tradition to Silambam is Kuthu Varisai of Tanjore area.

Finally, Kshatriya Vidya (Science of combat) was born of the destructive power of Shiva. However, this power (Shakti) was revealed in order to remove obstacles and rebuild and develop. It is not meant to destroy people and property. The true understanding of the Kshatriya Marga (warrior path) is to destroy and eliminate one’s weakness, lower self and finally the demon of ignorance, in order to rebuild and develop a person who is physically powerful, emotionally and intellectually liberated and spiritually enlightened and perfected. Warrior training is therefore for crafting a powerful body and mind with all its associated emotions and thoughts.

True way (Marga) therefore, is not about seeing one’s self as an enemy. But seeing one’s self as a potentially expanded divine being who with proper method and application can reach its full potential in all areas of one’s life. This all-inclusive developmental approach affects every area of one’s life including the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, the spiritual and even the financial. The truly developed warrior will achieve Bukti (worldly success), Mukti (spiritual perfection) and Shakti (power).

In summary, the numerous Indian martial arts practiced today and cataloged in this article are derived from the Kshatriya Vidya that was practiced in ancient India. They are rich in techniques and diverse in their approach. However the methodology of warrior training as well as the practices that leads one to enlightenment is as unified and alive today as it was in the India’s ancient past. The study of Indian martial arts enriches one’s own practices and attitudes regardless of the martial art that one may be practicing today. From an academic view, the study of Indian martial arts may perhaps shed light on historical past and exchanges that occurred between various martial cultures of the Far East and India. However the true study of Kshatriya Vidya is the study of the essence of becoming a warrior and the process of spiritual perfection.