India is an ancient land where civilization started developing many thousands of years ago. The ancient culture of India supported teachings of religious scriptures, various forms of arts, and also different techniques of fighting, which are now termed as Indian martial arts.
Several ancient Sanskrit literary pieces mentioned some specific forms of Indian martial arts, which were very popular in those days.
The oldest writings that have come down to us are those of the Buddhist writings of the Lotus Sutra and are from the 3rd century AD. A form of bare-handed boxing, called Vajramushti, practised by the Kshatrya, a caste of Indian warriors is described.
In Zen Buddhism, it is said that a woman Vajramushti master has instructed Bodhidharma in martial arts. Unfortunately, there are no writings that confirm or deny these stories.
Many renowned sages of the Vedic era preached these martial art forms to their disciples, for further spreading these fighting skills among the princes and warrior classes.
Several legendary heroes mentioned in the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were known to be experts in these traditional war techniques. Later, many Indian kings and religious leaders had encouraged the practices of these Indian martial arts among the common people.
Silambam, Kalaripayattu, Huyen langlon, Paika, and Gatka are the prominent varieties of Indian martial arts that are still popular in many parts of India.
Moreover, ancient Indians knew boxing as Musti-yuddha; while wrestling was known as Malla-yuddha in those times in India. Pehlwani and Vajra-musti are also popular forms of wrestling that still exist in some parts of this country.
Silambam – It is an ancient martial art form that was practised in South India, thousands of years ago. It is commonly believed that it originated in Tamil Nadu, by Lord Murugan and the famous Vedic sage Agasthya.
Silambam is a weapon-based martial art. This ancient martial art is mentioned in the Tamil scriptures of 400 B.C.. (Sangam Literatures)
This war technique was practised with long bamboo sticks or swords, while sickles, whips, and armours were also used. Later, Silambam was promoted by the Pandya rulers of Tamil region.
It also spread in many other countries of Southeast Asia, mainly in Malaysia, where it is still popular. It is an effective self-defence technique that needs swift body motions and forceful movements of hands and feet, for mastering this fighting art.
Kalaripayattu – This is believed to be most ancient among all the Indian martial arts, though there is evidence of older martial art forms being practised in India.
It originated in Kerala and believed to be started by the legendary sage Porshuram. However, historians believe this art started on 4th century AD and also fondly called as Kalari.
It was very popular among the warriors of Kerala and Tulu Nadu, a region in South Karnataka.
In the Malayalam language, the word ‘Kalari’ means ‘gymnasium’ or ‘training school for martial arts’. This fighting technique was used for self-defence, even in unarmed condition.
There are three definite styles of Kalaripayattu, which were later incorporated in the training of using various weapons, like swords, shields, bow, and arrows. However, accurate attacks on some vital points on the body for defeating or even killing the opponents comprise the main feature of this ancient martial art form.
Now, it is used merely for maintaining physical fitness and also practised in some traditional celebrations, without any musical instruments.
Huyen Langlon – This martial art was originated by Meitei tribe in Manipur, the northeast state of India. It is also categorized into Thang-Ta or armed fight, and Sarit Sarak or the unarmed combat.
According to Meitei dialect, the word ‘Huyen’ means ‘war’ and the word ‘langlon’ means ‘knowledge’ or ‘art’. Thang-Ta involves the use of sword and spear, as ‘Thangta’ means ‘sword’ and ‘Ta’ means ‘spear’.
Manipur kings used this war technique for fighting their enemies until their defeat in the hands of British forces in the 17th century.
Now, this Indian martial art is used as sword dance purely for entertainment and it is also practised in some local rituals by the religious priests, to ward off evil spirits.
It is connected to other forms of sword and spear dances as well, which are performed in other adjoining areas to Manipur.
Gatka – This martial art originated in Punjab and especially associated with the Sikhs, as well as with Gujjar and Tanoli tribes of Afghanistan.
It is believed that the word ‘Gatka’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Gada’ that means ‘mace’, a weapon of ancient India. Earlier, it was practised with swords, Kirpans, and Kataars or daggers.
However, now long wooden sticks are used while performing this martial art as a sport or as part of any local ritual.
Sometimes, wooden shields are also used with these wooden staves that are now termed as Gatkas, while performing this martial art form with suitable music.
Paika akhada – In Odia language, the word ‘akhada’ means ‘gymnasium’ or ‘training school’, and the word ‘Paika’ is the name of an ancient Indian martial art form that originated in Odisha.
In earlier times, these training centres served for imparting war training or martial arts to the peasants of this region, to increase the strength of state military force.
However, now it is used as a local dance form that is performed with different kinds of swords and sticks, with the beats of music.
The performers show a rhythmic mock fight over a ground that is softened with water and oil, mainly during the Dusserah festival.
Musti-yuddha – also called Mukki Boxing. This specific ancient Indian martial art is the foundation of modern boxing, which literally means ‘fist combat’.
In Sanskrit, the word ‘musti’ means ‘fist’ and the word ‘yuddha’ means ‘war’ or ‘combat’. It originated in Varanasi and it is a totally unarmed form of combat.
It is believed to increase the physical, mental, and spiritual strength of the people who practice it regularly. This art form is categorized as ‘Jambuvanti’, ‘Hanumanti’, ‘Bhimaseni’ and ‘Jarasandhi’, in the name of four mythological characters of Indian epics.
Unlike modern boxing, no protective gear is used while practising this art form.
Malla-yuddha – It is the Indian form of wrestling and the ancestor of many current Indian wrestling arts, like Kusti and Pehlwani.
It is unknown exactly from which part of India this martial art originated, as it was similarly popular all over ancient India.
Like Musti-yuddha, this old wrestling combat was also categorized into four types, named as ‘Hanumanti’, ‘Jambuvanti’, ‘Bhimaseni’, and ‘Jarasandhi’, based on the different techniques used in each category.
There are many other forms of Indian martial arts prevailing in various parts of India, as local folk arts of combat and dance.
Mukna from Manipur, Thoda from Himachal Pradesh, Lathi from Bengal, and Inbuan wrestling from Mizoram are few other examples of Indian martial arts, which show the rich contribution of India in the field of martial art forms.
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