Martial arts have, for centuries, featured as some of India’s most interesting and popular sports. There is a wide variety of styles, differing according to region, religion and preferences. The first records of martial arts can be found in the Tamil Sangam range of literature, which dates back to the second century BCE (Before our Common Era).

Ancient martial arts are referred to in many of the tales, legends and epics of India. Weapons such as rocks, swords, shields, spears, bows, trees, and even fists are recorded. Unarmed battle meant that fighters attacked one another using their fists to punch and pull hair while they kicked, kneed and head-butted one another. When yoga and similar disciplines were introduced into the culture, elements of these techniques began to infiltrate popular martial arts, which focused on discipline, control and internal management. This leant the art form a sense of control and, sometimes, even grace and beauty.

During the Middle Ages, which extended from the 1000’s to the 1400’s, combat wrestling became a popular sport. It was called malla-yuddha and included punches to the head, strangleholds and hair-pulling. This is also believed to be the origin of warm-up and training exercises, such as push up and squats, which strengthened the wrestlers and helped them to build muscle mass, creating formidable opponents.
Image of a Rajput Khanda,an Indian sword
A Rajput Khanda,an Indian sword

The Mughal era lasted from 1526 to 1857 and saw the surge in mounted archery, in addition to the age-old styles of wrestling. The old curved swords continued to be used, but straight blades became more popular during this time of innovation. Wrestling also evolved as Turkish and Mongolian influences affected the styles.

Since 1857, the advancement in technology and weaponry has seen a decline in the popularity of traditional art forms. Swords were replaced by the far more accurate and efficient gun in warfare, and focus was shifted to this tactic of defence. This movement was exacerbated by the British colonialism that took place, as these soldiers introduced the locals to outside influences and trends. Today, martial arts continue as an art form, sparked once again by the rebellion against British rule during the time that India was fighting for its independence.

Northern India was the area that was more exposed to the influence from Persia. This had major implications on its development on many levels. Southern India remained committed to keeping ancient traditions alive, and this is particularly evident in the martial arts of these regions. So, while Northern India favours Pehlwani, Gatka and Thang-Ta, Southern India is characterised by its preference for Kalaripayat, Varma ati and Angampora (most popular in Sri Lanka). Individual tribes have also developed their own martial arts, creating an extremely varied smorgasbord of combat techniques across this relatively small subcontinent.

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