Indian martial arts refers to the fighting systems of the Indian subcontinent. A variety of terms are used for the English phrases “Indian martial arts”, usually deriving from Dravidian sources. While they may seem to imply specific disciplines (e.g. archery, armed combat), by Classical times they were used generically for all fighting systems. Among the most common terms today, śastra-vidyā, is a compound of the words śastra (weapon) and vidyā (knowledge). Dhanurveda derives from the words for bow (dhanushya) and knowledge (veda), the “science of archery” in Puranic literature, later applied to martial arts in general. The Vishnu Purana text describes dhanuveda as one of the traditional eighteen branches of “applied knowledge” or upaveda, along with shastrashastra or military science. A later term, yuddha kalā, comes from the words yuddha meaning fight or combat and kalā meaning art or skill. The related term śastra kalā (lit. weapon art) usually refers specifically to armed disciplines. Another term, yuddha-vidyā or “combat knowledge”, refers to the skills used on the battlefield, encompassing not only actual fighting but also battle formations and strategy. Martial arts are usually learnt and practiced in the traditional akharas.
While it is only a theory as of now, Shaolin Kung Fu could be of Indian origin. It has been found in many historical scripts of the Gupta period, but still said as Bodhidharma third son of a king from pallava dynasty in southern India is founder of shaolin and kung-fu.
An Indus valley civilization seal show two men spearing one another in a duel which seem to be centered on a woman. A statue of a spear thrower was also excavated from an Indus valley site.
Dhanurveda, a section found in the Vedas (1700 BCE – 1100 BCE) contains references to martial arts. Indian epics contain the earliest accounts of combat, both armed and bare-handed. Most deities of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon are armed with their own personal weapon, and are revered not only as master martial artists but often as originators of those systems themselves. The Mahabharata tells of fighters armed only with daggers besting lions, and describes a prolonged battle between Arjuna and Karna using bows, swords, trees, rocks and fists. Another unarmed battle in the Mahabharata describes two combatants boxing with clenched fists and fighting with kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and headbutts.
The oldest recorded organized unarmed fighting art in the Indian subcontinent is malla-yuddha or combat-wrestling, codified into four forms in the Vedic Period. Stories describing Krishna report that he sometimes engaged in wrestling matches where he used knee strikes to the chest, punches to the head, hair pulling, and strangleholds. Based on such accounts, Svinth (2002) traces press-ups and squats used by Indian wrestlers to the pre-classical era.
Classical period (3rd to 10th centuries)
Like other branches of Sanskrit literature, treatises on martial arts become more systematic in the course of the 1st millennium AD. Vajra-musti, an armed grappling style, is mentioned in sources of the early centuries AD. Around this time, tantric philosophers developed important metaphysical concepts such as kundalini, chakra, and mantra.
The Sushruta Samhita (c. 4th century) identifies 107 vital points on the human body of which 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick. Sushruta‘s work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda which was taught alongside various martial arts. With numerous other scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that Indian subcontinent‘s early fighters knew and practised attacking or defending vital points.
Around 630, King Narasimhavarman of the Pallava dynasty commissioned dozens of granite sculptures showing unarmed fighters disarming armed opponents. This is similar to the style described in the Agni Purana.
Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries)
Kalaripayat had developed into its present form by the 11th century, during an extended period of warfare between the Chera and Choladynasties. The earliest treatise discussing the techniques of malla-yuddha is the Malla Purana (c. 13th century), unlike the earlier Manasollasa which gives the names of movements but no descriptions. The Italian traveller Pietro Della Valle wrote of cane-fighting in southern India. According to Pietro, it was the custom for soldiers to specialise in their own particular weapon of expertise and never use any other even during war, “thereby becoming very expert and well practised in that which he takes to”.
WEAPONS & ARTS
A wide array of weapons are used in the Indian subcontinent, some of which are not found anywhere else. According to P.C. Chakravati in The Art of War in Ancient India, armies used standard weapons such as wooden or metal-tipped spears, swords, thatched bamboo, wooden or metal shields, axes, short and longbows in warfare as early as the 4th century BC. Military accounts of the Gupta Empire(c. 240–480) and the later Agni Purana identify over 130 different weapons.
The Agni Purana divides weapons into thrown and unthrown classes. The thrown (mukta) class includes twelve weapons altogether which come under four categories, viz.
- yantra-mukta: projectile weapons such as the sling or the bow
- pāṇi-mukta: weapons thrown by hand such as the javelin
- mukta-sandarita: weapons that are thrown and drawn back, such as the rope-spear
- mantra-mukta: mythical weapons that are thrown by magic incantations (mantra), numbering 6 types
These were opposed to the much larger unthrown class of three categories.
- hasta-śastra or amukta: melee weapons that do not leave the hand, numbering twenty types
- muktāmukta: weapons that can be thrown or used in-close, numbering 98 varieties
- bāhu-yuddha or bhuja-yuddha: weapons of the body, i.e. unarmed fighting
The duel with bow and arrows is considered the noblest, fighting with the spear ranks next, while fighting with the sword is considered unrefined, and wrestling is classed as the meanest or worst form of fighting. Only a Brahmins could be an acharya (teacher) of sastravidya, Kshatriya and vaishya should learn from the Acharya, while a shudra could not take a teacher, left to “fight of his own in danger”.
Over time, weaponry evolved and India became famous for its flexible wootz steel. The most commonly taught weapons in the Indian martial arts today are types of swords, daggers, spears, staves, cudgels, and maces.
Weapons are linked to several superstitions and cultural beliefs in the Indian subcontinent. Drawing a weapon without reason is forbidden and considered by Hindus to be disrespectful to the goddess Chandika. Thus the saying that a sword cannot be sheathed until it has drawn blood. It was a mother’s duty to tie a warrior’s sword around his waist before war or a duel. In addition, she would cut her finger with the sword and make a tilak on his head from a drop of her blood. Weapons themselves were also anointed with tilak, most often from the blood of a freshly-decapitated goat (chatanga). Other taboos include looking at one’s reflection in the blade, telling the price or source of acquisition, throwing it on the ground or using it for domestic purposes.
Staffplay (Lathi khela)
Stick-fighting (lathi khela) may be taught as part of a wider system like Gatka, silambam or on its own. In the Kama Sutra the sage Vātsyāyana enjoins all women to practice fighting with single-stick, quarterstaff, sword and bow and arrow in addition to the art of love-making. The stick (lathi in Prakrit) is typically made of bamboo with steel caps at the ends to prevent it from splintering. Wooden sticks made from Indian ebony may also be used. It ranges from the length of a cudgel to a staff equal to the wielders height. The stick used during matches is covered in leather to cushion the impact. Points are awarded based on which part of the body is hit. Techniques differ from system to system, but northern styles tend to primarily use only one end of the staff for attacking while the other end is held with both hands.
Southern styles like also make use of this technique but will more often use both ends of the staff to strike. The latter is the more common method of attacking in the eastern states and Bangladesh, combined with squatting and frequent changes in height.
Yudhishthira is said to be a master in spearplay warfare in Mahabharata, while Shalya was also noted to be an excellent warrior in the field of spearplay. Also according to Indian Hindu myths, Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, is said to be skilled in spear-fighting, by holding his divine spear called Vel. The Indian spear is typically made of bamboo with a steel blade. It can be used in hand-to-hand combat or thrown when the fighters are farther apart. Despite primarily being a thrusting weapon, the wide spearhead also allows for many slashing techniques. By the 17th century, Rajput mercenaries in the Mughal army were using a type of spear which integrated a pointed spear butt and a club near the head, making it similar to a mace. On the other hand, the longer cavalry spear was made of wood, with red cloth attached near the blade to prevent the opponent’s blood from dripping to the shaft. The Marathas were revered for their skill of wielding a ten-foot spear called bothati from horseback. Bothati fighting is practiced with a ball-tipped lance, the end of which is covered in dye so that hits may easily be confirmed. In solo training, the spear is aimed at a pile of stones. From this was eventually developed the uniquely Indian vita which has a 5 feet (1.5 m) length of cord attached to the butt end of the weapon and tied around the spearman’s wrist. Using this cord the spear can be pulled back after it has been thrown.
Archery is noted to be one of the noblest form of defense within Indian cultural heritage. As mentioned in Vedic literature, the bow and arrow is the most applauded weapon among Kshatriyas. Siddharta Gautama was a champion with the bow, while Rama, Arjuna, Karna, Bhishma, Drona and Ekalavya of the epics were all said to be peerless archers.
Dhanurveda is an ancient treatise on the science of archery. It describes the practices and uses of archery, the craft of bow and arrow making, training of the army, and enumerates the rules of engagement. The treatise also discusses martial arts in relation to the training of warriors, charioteers, cavalry, elephant warriors, infantry etc. It was considered as a sin to shoot a warrior from the back and fight more than one warrior at a time. The bow used in the Vedic period were called danush, and were described in detail in the Vedas. The curved shape of the bow is called vakra in the Artha Veda. The bowstring was called jya, and was strung only when needed. An arrow was called an iṣu, and a quiver was called an iṣudhi which was slung on the back. Archers wore a hastaghna, which was an arm guard or shield usually worn on the left forearm and was used to protect the wearer from friction caused by the bowstring.
A dhanushkara was a bowyer, or the profession of bow crafting and arrow making, and it had become a regular profession by the early Vedic period. Others called jyakara specialized in making bowstrings.
Composite bows made of horn, sinew, and wood were invented in the Asian Steppes and would have been an integral part of the armory of the Aryan people. As in other civilizations such as the Hittites and Persians, the use of composite bows coincides with chariot warfare. Additionally the smaller size was of the compound bow would have made it preferable on mounted warfare.
A type of Indian longbow was five to six feet long and fired a long cane arrow with metal or bone arrow heads. The Cretan chronicler Nearchus who accompanied Alexander the Great into India, had noted that the warriors would use a bamboo bow, which had to rest on the ground and steady with the feet to draw to its full length. The arrow fired from this bamboo bow could penetrate any armor used in antiquity. The Indian long bows were described as the height of their users by Arrian, and Deccan bows in 1518 as “long like those of England”.
Traditional archery is today practiced mainly in the far northern states of Ladakh and Arunachal. One sport which has persisted into the present day is thoda from Himachal Pradesh, in which a team of archers attempt to shoot blunt arrows at the legs of the opposing team.
With expansion of Indosphere cultural influence of Greater India, through transmission of Hinduism in Southeast Asia and the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism leading to Indianization of Southeast Asia through formation of non-Indian southeast Asian native Indianized kingdoms which adopted sanskritized language and other Indian elements such as the honorific titles, Sanskritised naming of people, Sanskritised naming of places, Sankritised institutional mottos, Sanskritised educational institute names, as well as adoption of Indian martial arts, Indian architecture, Indian music and dance, traditional Indian clothing, and Indian cuisine, a process which as been also aided by the ongoing historic expansion of Indian diaspora. The martial arts influenced by the Indian martial arts include Angampora, Ankam, Bokator, Eskrima, Krabi krabong, Kbachkun Dambong-Veng, Khmer traditional wrestling, Pencak Silat, Silambam, Silat, Thaing (Burmese), Võ thuật Bình Định, etc.