Indian Martial Arts — Will they survive?

How the Science became an Art


As with any skill, the practice of the Martial techniques calls for immense focus of mind and body. To learn even the seemingly simplest of techniques (say a side kick) takes weeks (or month even) of practice and dedication. As a corollary, great discipline and focus of the mind follows naturally. The early practitioners of these techniques must have spent countless hours throughout their lives, practicing and honing the skills they saw/learnt/developed. In due course, possibly, the phenomena of learning, analyzing and executing these techniques took on a meditative and expressionistic aspect for them. After a certain level of proficiency was attained, the practitioner would begin to express his/herself through the practice. This is how, the Martial Sciences became the Martial Arts.


So what are the implications of the Martial Arts?


The practice of Martial Arts is a very important facet of various Cultures. I have already mentioned the disciplinarian, expressionistic and meditative aspects of the Martial Arts. There are also the philosophical and ethical underpinnings unique to each Culture that is carried forward with its Martial Arts. While Martial aspects seem to deal with idea of self-defense and self-preservation, there are also valuable social, moral and philosophical lessons one might learn from the practice of Martial Arts.

The Japanese have two categories of their Martial phenomena – Bu-Jutsu and Budo. Each of these has overlapping techniques, but the underlying philosophies differ greatly. Bu-jutsu deals with the effectiveness of Warrior techniques (which can be used in the battlefield as tools of war). Budo deals with the “Way” of Warriors (Budo translates as the “Way of the Warrior”) and deals with the socio-ethical and moral aspects of using Martial techniques. The techniques are identical, but their underlying significance is as disparate as the earth and the sky.

Similarly in Indian Martial techniques there were the “Jutsu” aspects and the “Do” aspects (albeit not so much in nomenclature as in spirit). While I believe is that the “Jutsu” aspects have been lost because of various external (outside influence) and internal (within India/Indians) reasons, the “Do” aspects are still alive (though they might be slowly dying out due to neglect). The great Indian treatise of “Natya Shastra” (techniques invented and taught by Lord Shiva) reveals the 108 Karanas (combined movement of hands and feet in dance) and 32 Angaharas (sequential arrangement of various Karanas to gain mastery over mind, body and Prana) that constitute ‘Tandav’ – Lord Shiva’s Dance-form. Of these, the 108 Karanas (according the Bharata Muni’s narration of Lord Shiva’s revelation) “might be employed in dance, fight, personal combats and other special movements like strolling” (9). What this signifies is that Martial Techniques were codified into Classical Dance forms and Dance treatises since the Vedic period. It is reputed that just like the systems such as Hatha Yoga, Pranayama, Tai Chi and Chi Kung, the practice of the 108 Karanas also were excellent methods of training and cultivating the internal energy (known as Prana or Chi). It will be interesting to find out whether there are any living teachers of this aspect of Indian Classical dance (most of the modern day Dance Gurus seem to be too engrossed with the external facets of dance as opposed to the more internal, energetic/yogic aspects of it).

A few relatively well-known Indian Martial Arts styles are Kalari Payattu (1), Thang Ta (10) and Gatka (4) (a relatively newer system – practiced by Sikhs).

Now, before I continue, I must admit that a lot of what I have written thus far (and will write further) is based on my personal inference/research, rather than any direct practical knowledge (Although I have learnt/practiced Goju Ryu Karate and still practice Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan). In fact, what drove me to write this essay is my quasi-knowledge about something that should have been more prevalent knowledge in India but unfortunately is not.

This might sound a tad clichéd, but centuries of Colonial rule have rendered yet another family of treasure-worthy Indian knowledge system (or a group of such systems) almost completely dysfunctional, in fact almost extinct.

History has it that The British outlawed practice of Indian Fighting Systems (especially after the First War of Independence in 1857) and those who dared to practice and were caught, would be subjected to punishments such as amputation of various body parts. According to the “Kalari” schools (and teachers), British Raj cracked down hard on the teachers and practitioners of this system of Martial Arts (and Medicine). Only by grace of the then King of Kerala, did the Kalari schools manage to retain their knowledge and traditions, in secrecy.

Now, to add to the distinction between various types of Martial Arts, let me introduce you to two more. Based on the reliance on different aspects of the human body, Martial Arts are also categorized into:

a) Hard/external Martial Arts, and

b) Soft/internal Martial Arts

Various Martial Arts in the world today fall in various shades of the Gray Scale between these two categories. To be very succinct, Hard Martial Arts rely purely on strength, technique, joint manipulations, striking etc (External aspects), while Soft Martial Arts tend to focus more on the “Internal aspects” – specifically dealing with the life-force energy varyingly called “Prana” (12), “Chi” or “Ki”. The Soft Martial Arts deal with sensitizing the mind and body to the subtle nuances of firstly one’s own Prana-flow and then of the Prana-flowing in the environment (in an opponent). Preliminary training deals with learning how to feel and control the flow of Prana within oneself. The higher levels of training deals with how to “project” this energy externally to subdue an opponent in combat or to modify the flow of Prana in another person’s body, in order to cure a particular disorder/illness (according to Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, all ailments in the human body (or for that matter in the larger macrocosm) arise from imbalances in the flow of this Energy).

The flow of Prana in the body happens via meridians (or channels) that run throughout the body (like the nervous system). This complex system of Prana-channels form certain vital plexuses called “Marma” (11). According to Ayurveda (and the Marma Shastra as practiced by Kalari Payat practitioners) there are 108 vital Marmas and almost any major ailment can be cured by manipulation of these Marmas. According to some traditions of Kalari Payat, the knowledge of only 64 of these 108 Marmas remain. Even the knowledge that is available today is shrouded in mystery and passed on in the Guru-Shishya system by the Kalari Payat experts in Kerala. I have heard from a friend of mine (who learnt Kalari Payat for a few years), that one has to dedicate 12-14 years of his/her life towards the Art, before the Guru (after considering the mental, ethical disposition of the student) even thinks about imparting this deadly knowledge to his student.

The ideal practitioners of the Martial Arts have been (since antiquity) ethically bound to learn to undo whatever damage they can inflict upon another. These ethical obligations (and perhaps a great compassion generated by deep meditative states attained during practice of these Martial Arts) led the great men and women who practiced these arts (Kalari Payat is but one derivative of the Dhanur Veda) to learn how to undo any damage inflicted by striking a Marma point. As a natural extension of this, it also led to the science of Marma Chikitsa, in which the expert manipulates the Marma points to cure ailments.

Growing up in India, I had always encountered raving proponents of some Japanese or Korean Martial Arts. I even knew of a few Chinese Martial Arts schools, but very rarely had I heard of these traditional Indian schools. I heard of Kalari Payat at least a decade after I heard of Kung Fu. There has never traditionally been any attempt by the Indian Government (or any social body for that matter) to try and preserve or spread the knowledge of these arts. The traditional schools of Kusti (Akhadas) lie in dismal states. There was always an element of condescension while the topic of pehelwans (the practitioners and heirs of the Malla Purana) came up. The negative image (of "lack of sophistication" immediately springs to mind when considering men in loin-cloths (langotis) wrestling in the mud) has been (admittedly) a great shortcoming on our part rather than the pehelwans’. I remember how some boys in my college would be jeered at because they chose to go to a traditional “Akhada” instead of a modern “Gym” to “workout”. Soon, disgusted with the ridicule they faced, they gave up their Guru, Akhada and started flexing their biceps in the new “sophisticated” gym.

The biggest problem with us Indians (as a result of those centuries of Colonialism) is that we do not appreciate anything that isn’t first considered appropriate (or even worthwhile) in the West. Ayurveda wasn’t cool (and was flogged as being a Quackery) before the West started moving en-masse towards it. Ditto with Yoga – which is now slowly gaining re-acceptance in the Indian minds.

Will the (already very bleak) future of Indian Martial Arts have to suffer the same neglect and lack of consideration that Yoga and Ayurveda faced in the past? Aren’t we as a nation and an unbroken Culture and heritage obligated to keep this wonderful tradition alive? Only time will tell – but we might start giving greater thought to these martial arts because they are becoming “cool” in the West these days…


So let me ask you this, dear reader…Can we help Indian Martial Arts survive?



  8. (The Dhanur Veda)

More posts by this author:

Please follow and like us:

Co Authors :

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.