Photo: Nathan G/Mint
Photo: Nathan G/Mint

Silambam: A moving meditation

From competitive sports to movie stars' fitness regimes, a look at the ancient Tamil martial art

The big black dog raises his head and looks suspiciously at me as I walk into an early morning silambam class being conducted at the YMCA grounds in Nandanam, Chennai. I hold out a hand. He sniffs it, and then, thankfully enough, deciding I pass muster, wags his tail and allows me to pat his head.

“Power" Pandian aasan (teacher), who has been watching this exchange, laughs. “We are very careful who we let into this space," he quipped. “If Karuppu (black) doesn’t like them, we are on our guard."

The warm-up drill has begun and beads of sweat have already appeared on the faces of the motley bunch of people twirling their kambu (staff). Other weapons lie in a large heap in one corner: more staffs (this is the primary weapon of the martial art); a large sword or vaal veechu; an unusual looking weapon composed of the horn of a black buck called madavu; an intimidating looking metal whip called surul vaal; and a pair of innocuous-looking slender bamboo sticks.

Photo: Nathan G/Mint
Photo: Nathan G/Mint

Pandian picks up the bamboo sticks and hands them to me. “The chedi kutchi is one of the most lethal weapons in the world," he says.

“The bamboo used to make this stick is different from the regular staff and the movements we employ when we brandish it completely fazes the opponent," the 50-year-old says with a laugh, and adds, “Only a privileged few will be taught how to wield this weapon, such is its potency."

A brief history

Silambam is an ancient martial art of Tamil Nadu. “I think it is one of the oldest martial arts in the world—it is over 5,000 years old," says Pandian. “It was put together by the sage Agastya Munivar; he is to martial arts what Patanjali is to yoga."

It is closely linked to the Kerala martial art kalaripayattu. Ganapathy Murugesan, a martial arts expert trained in silambam, kalaripayattu and karate, explains, “History is confusing. I have practised both and I don’t segregate between them. I don’t think the southern kingdom was divided into Tamil Nadu and Kerala when these arts came into being. There are two schools of kalari: vadakkan kalari, practised in the northern part of Kerala, and thekkan kalari seen in the south."

While vadakkan kalari is believed to have come directly from the mythical figure Parashurama, thekkan kalari, like silambam, is traditionally traced back to the sage Agastya. “There certainly is a linkage, but unfortunately we have no clear records of anything," says Murugesan.

There is also a theory that the famous Shaolin style of martial arts may have been derived from Indian stick-fighting. According to the book Cinasthana Today: Viewing China from India by P.S. Deodhar, the south Indian prince Bodhidharma, believed to be the father of Zen Buddhism, visited China in the 6th century.

“Bodhidharma arrived in Canton via sea in 526 AD and was invited to the court of Emperor Wu, founder of the Liang dynasty in the south. After leaving the court, he arrived at the Shaolin temple—a Buddhist temple at Song mountain near Zhengzhou city in Henan province. Finding that the resident monks could not face the menace of the local bandits, he taught them exercises and self-defence from which evolved the famous Shaolin style of martial arts," writes Deodhar.

Much of this is hypothesis and hearsay, of course: oral tradition and ancient palm leaves that have dissipated with time are unreliable witnesses; but there certainly are references to the art in Sangam literature. “The Tamil epic Silapathikaram, for instance, has references to silambam," says Pandian.

A document by the late J. David Manuel Raj, former principal of the YMCA College of Physical Education in Nandanam, supports this claim. According to it, during the Sangam period, there were a number of exercise centres called silambak-koodams all over the Dravida Nadu region, and the age-old art—patronized by the Chera, Chola and Pandya rulers—is recorded as one of the 64 art forms of ancient India.

Silambam was such a powerful martial art that it was employed in warfare by most rulers of south India, adds Murugesan. “The soldiers of the Tamil ruler Veerapandiya Kattabomman used silambam to wage war against the British colonists," he says, adding that there was a ban on it by the end of the 18th century.

Yet, it was still practised in secret. “Natives practised silambam fighting using sugarcane stumps and when caught, pretended to eat them," writes Raj.

However, the ban, coupled with the introduction of firearms, did affect the combative nature of silambam greatly. What was used primarily as a fighting technique began to be seen more as a sport to prove one’s valour, almost like jallikattu (bull-taming). It also increasingly began to transform into a performance art: the Pongal festival in some parts of Tamil Nadu, for instance, often includes a silambam performance.

It has even been used to win a bride. According to Pandian, the staff would be coated in two different coloured powders and the men—competing for a maiden’s hand in matrimony—dressed in white. Each time the staff made contact with the body, it left behind its mark. By the end of the session, the person who had the most marks lost the game and, presumably, the girl.

The sport today

Aishwarya Manivannan, an artist, designer and educator, has been learning the art for more than three-and-a-half years and has mastered many a weapon, including the deadly chedi kutchi and the flamboyant sural vaal. But she still nurtures a fondness for the instrument she first began training with—the basic kambu.

Photo: Nathan G/Mint
Photo: Nathan G/Mint

“The staff is the very first weapon that is taught to a silambam practitioner and forms the basis for all other weapons and techniques," says Manivannan, 27, who has won a series of medals at national and international levels. “The stick almost becomes an extension of oneself and a wide range of movements can be achieved with it."

Raj describes the stick as a cured and flexible cane bamboo cut to a uniform size, usually around 1-1.25 inches in diameter and almost as long as the silambam exponent’s height.

During a tournament, the proximal and distal edges of the stick are covered with a red or blue foam roll: scoring takes place when the ends of the stick touch the other combatant on the permitted parts of the body (striking the face or the groin is prohibited).

Like boxing, both the combatants need to weigh approximately the same and are generally in the same age group and gender. Also, since it is a contact sport, participants are clad in protective gear, including a helmet with a face mask, a chest guard and an abdominal guard, over their jersey or vest.

Competitive silambam takes place on a circular, hard surface, which is 20-25ft in radius. The duration of a match is around three minutes, with a 30-second break in between two 90-second fights. There are three referees with counters to register the points, one umpire on the mat with a stick to conduct the combat and a timekeeper.

However, it is only recently that the martial art has entered the arena of competitive sport. “Silambam was originally taught in the typical guru-sishya tradition where students would train with their master for years. There was no specific levels that were set in format," says Manivannan.

This lack of standardization of the sport is one reason why it lags behind when compared to other martial art systems such as karate or tae kwon do. “Karate is recognized by associations world over and they can issue certificates and belts. That hasn’t been happening with silambam," says Murugesan.

But Manivannan begs to differ. “True, many masters have still not taken up the grading system as it is not the traditional manner of learning, but that is changing and a lot of practitioners today have adapted the belt system," she says, adding that she holds a green belt in silambam. Like karate, it starts with a white belt and ends with a black—ash, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple and brown come in between.

Today, there are several organizations at the state, national and international levels regulating the sport, and the World Silambam Federation, founded on 17 August 2010 is one of them.

According to P. Selvaraj, co-founder and president of the World Silambam Federation, “We are a registered association but there is no recognition from the central government. Most of the recognition comes from outside the country like the TAFISA (The Association for International Sport for All), ICSSPE (International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education), even Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)," he says, adding that the World Silambam Federation is approved and recognized by all these bodies.

But not by the central government. “There are too many martial art forms in India for the central government to take note of one form," says Selvaraj, ruefully. “Even though it is such an old art form, few people know about it."

This lack of recognition affects player participation to a large extent, says Manivannan. “All the participation expenses are borne by the individuals, making many good practitioners unable to compete due to lack of funds," she says. “It is ironic that silambam being a traditional Indian martial art form has not gained considerable recognition and support from its own country."

The goal, chips in Selvaraj, should be the Olympics. “If wushu can go to the Olympics, why can’t we? All we need is a little support from the centre—a child needs to be patted on the back by its own parents before an outsider can appreciate it."

Silambam for the stars

In the 1964 Tamil film Padagotti, the legendary M.G. Ramachandran plays Manickam, the leader of a small fishing community, at war with a rival community in the same region. Star-crossed love, betrayal and drama aside, one of the most riveting spectacles in this movie is the sight of MGR wielding the kambu. “Any actor who watches that movie will want to do this," says E. Kumaravel, actor, scriptwriter and founder of theatre-group Magic Lantern.

“I am one of the few people who is learning silambam for the sake of the art itself," says Manivannan. “Most of my classmates are learning it to get into the stunt industry."

Watch a class in progress and you will understand why. The complex moves push your body to the limit, testing not just strength but flexibility, reflexes and endurance—essential to perform stunts in a film.

National Award-winning actor-director Samuthirakani agrees. “Many of the action heroes in Tamil cinema start training in silambam as it helps tone the body, enhance confidence and helps master the fight sequences in movies," he says. “I first began to learn it for a film and I hope to make a movie about it someday."

Pandian comes from the same teaching lineage as the man who taught MGR the art. “My teacher, Madakulan Ravi aasan, was the son of Alagar Sami, who was MGR’s teacher," he says, adding that he was 16 when he was first introduced to silambam.

“I would practise with Ravi aasan in the night under the streetlights of a temple courtyard," he says, adding that since his teacher was a member of the South Indian Cine Stunt Directors and Stunt Artists Union, he had a chance to train actors too.

Silambam is firmly entrenched in Kollywood—MGR, M.N. Nambiar and Jaishankar were all exponents and used it in their fight sequences in the 1950s; more recently, it has been used by Suriya in 7aum Arivu and Kamal Hassan in Thevar Magan.

Tamil actor Dhansika is another enthusiast who swears by silambam. “I was always fit, but silambam made me so much fitter. Besides, I became calmer, happier, more focused. It is moving meditation for me—I would even go so as far to say that silambam changed my life," she says.

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