About Hinduism and India

In Hindu society, Martial Arts were popular and not exclusive to the Khashatryas alone. Vatsayana mentions in Kama Sutra that even women also practiced with sword, single-stick, quarter-staff, bow and arrow to retain their physical fitness.

Literature on Martial Arts

Like other branches of knowledge, Martial Art also have their origin in Vedas that, contain fundamental knowledge about eighteen arts and skills. Vishnu Purana, Agni Purana and Dhanurveda dealt with the skills of archery as one of the eighteen branches of applied knowledge. Dhanur Veda divides the art into five parts as below:-

  1. Vantra-mukta – projectile weapons such as the sling or the bow,
  2. Pāṇi-mukta – hurling weapons that are to be thrown, such as the javelin,
  3. Muktāmukta – weapons that can be used by hurling at the enemy or thrusting but remain within the reach of the user, such as spear and trident.
  4. Hasta-śastra – weapons that are to be used while held in hands such as sword, battle-axe and mace.
  5. Bāhu-yuddha – unarmed fighting.

Combat Training 

Like other branches of Sanskrit Literature, treatises on Martial Arts were also more systematic during 1st century AD.  The 8th century text Kuvalay Mala by Udyotanasuri recorded fighting techniques being taught at Ghatika and Salad educational institutions. Those included archery, fighting with sword and shield, with daggers, sticks, lances, and with fists, and in duels.

Competitions were also organized to assess the competency of the warriors. Rama had to display his physical strength by lifting Shiva’s bow. Mahabharata narrates one such event organized by Guru Dronacharya to test aiming proficiency of princes. All participants were required to hit the eye of a clay bird placed at some distance and finally Arjuna succeeded.

Similarly Arjuna won the hand of princess Draupadi in swaymber by hitting the eye of a fish placed on a revolving platform, while aiming through its reflection caused in an oil plate kept below. Another unarmed battle in the Mahabharata describes two fighters boxing with clenched fists and fighting with kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and head butts.

Unarmed Combat

Sushruta’s text Sushruta Samhita identified 107 vital points on the human body of which 49 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.  Indian fighters knew and practiced attacking and defending vital points.

Around 630, Pallava King Narasimha Verman commissioned dozens of granite sculptures showing unarmed fighters disarming armed opponents.

Combative Recreation

  • Wrestling was known as Mall-YudhaHanuman and Bhima, Jarasandha and Krishna’s elder brother Balram are associated with the art of wrestling and are revered by the wrestlers’ even to-day.
  • References to fighting arts are also found in early first century in Buddhist text of Lotus Sutra. It refers to a boxing art and combat techniques as joint locks, fist strikes, grapples and throws.
  • In the 3rd century, elements from Patanjili Yoga Sutrtra as well as finger movements in the Nata dances were incorporated into martial arts.

Some of the well-known martial arts of India since ancient times are Kalarippayat, Vajra-mushti, and Gatka.


Kalarippayat is said to be the world’s original martial art. It was developed more than 2,000 years ago by warriors of the Chola kingdom in Kerala. It is most violent. From unarmed kicks and punches, Kalarippayat warriors would graduate to sticks, swords, spears and daggers and identify the ‘marmas’ (the 107 vital spots on the human body), where a blow can kill.

Participants advanced from unarmed combat to the use of swords, sharpened flexible metal lashes, and peculiar three-bladed daggers. The Urimi – a double-edged flexible sword was the most extraordinary weapon used in Kalarippayat, and it is unique in the world. The old-time masters used to wrap it around their waist. It used to be kept coiled in one hand, and whipped suddenly at the opponent to inflict mortal blows. Training followed strict rituals and guidelines. Fighters took Shiva and Shakti, as their deities.

With the advent of Buddhism, Kalarippayat spread to Far East countries. Buddhist monks travelled far and wide, to spread the teachings of the Buddha. As they used to be mostly unarmed, they adopted this form of self – defense, against religious fanatics, since that suited to their philosophy of non – violence – no first use of weapons.


The name Vajra-mushti referred to the usage of the hands in a manner as powerful as the vajra (maces) of traditional warfare. Fighting on foot for a Khshatreya warrior was necessary in case he was unseated from his mount and found himself without weapons. Although the ethical code forbade the opponent from attacking him, but violators of the code could always be expected. When faced with an unscrupulous opponent, the Khshatreya defended himself, by using hand-to-hand combat, which combined techniques of wrestling, throws, and hand strikes. Tactics and evasion were formulated and passed on to successive generations.

Vajra-mushti was practiced in peacetime by means of regular physical training sessions and these utilized sequences of attack and defense technically termed in Sanskrit Nata. In ancient Hinduism, Nata was acknowledged as a spiritual study representing the awakening of wisdom through physical and mental concentration.

After the Muslim invasion of India and its brutal destruction of Buddhist and Hindu culture, the Khshatreya art of Nata vanished and many of its teachers were slain. In 1804 the British banned it following series of revolts.


Gatka is a popular martial art from Punjab. It is played between two teams of either singles or doubles participants. The participants are armed with canes or swords, Khandas and also carry small circular shields. Generally it is played on the pattern of fencing, and is very popular sport with Nihangs – a martial sect among Sikhs.

Export of Indian Martial Arts

Some of our martial art forms traveled to China, Korea and Japan. Judo and Sumo wrestling was one of the many techniques spread in the Far East by Buddhist pilgrims from India.

The Japanese samurai also had similar traits to the traditions of sacred Swords, of honorable self-sacrifice, and service to one’s Lord that are found first in India.

The idea that man enters into harmony with the five elements, through the science of breathing, is to be found in the most ancient records of Indian history. If mind and body are one, the possibilities of development of one’s physical and mental capabilities are limitless, provided they are united and controlled. Using this as the foundation, Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk started a new trend in the Shaolin temple in China, from which stemmed most of the rules and precepts, which governs all martial art forms.

  • The relationship between a student and teacher in the disciplines of Judo and Karate could trace its roots to the ‘guru shishya’ tradition of India.
  • Similarly the technique of Pranayama (breathing control), also emerged as a prominent feature of Tae Kwan do, Karate.


Boddidharma was a Brahmin born in Kacheepuram in Tamil Nadu. He arrived at the courts of the Chinese Emperor Liang Nuti, in 522 A.D. He taught the Chinese monks Kalarippayat, so that they could defend themselves against the frequent attacks of bandits. In due course, the monks became famous as experts in bare handed fighting, later known as the Shaolin boxing art. He introduced the concept of vital energy or chi (prana), which is the basis acupuncture.

When Buddhism came to influence India (circa 500 BC), the Deity Nataraja was converted to become one of the four protectors of Buddhism, and was renamed Nar (y)ayana Deva (Chinese: Na Lo Yen Tien). He is said to be a protector of the Eastern Hemisphere of the Mandala.

Vallamkali Boat Race

Vallamkali literally means boat race in Malayalam. It is the traditional boat (paddled war canoe) race in Kerala. This colorful spectacle of the race is performed on the banks of the river Pamba at Aranmulla where a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna.

Nearly 30 chundan-vallams or snake boats participate in the festival. Singing traditional boat songs, the oarsmen, in white dhoti and turbans, splash their oars into the water to guide their boats to cruise along like a fish on the move. The golden lace at the head of the boat, the flag and the ornamental umbrella at the center make it a spectacular show of pageantry too.

Each snake boat belongs to a village along the banks of the River Pampa and is worshipped like a deity. Every year the boat is oiled mainly with fish oil, coconut shell, and carbon, mixed with eggs to keep the wood strong and the boat slippery in the water. The village carpenter carries out annual repairs lovingly and people take pride in their boat, which represents their village and is named after it.

The one end of the boat is shaped like cobra’s head and it is from this shape that boat has derived its name. Skilled craftsmen and a lot of patience meticulously craft each boat. The boat is about 100 feet long and usually made of anjili or sometimes teak and kadamb wood is also used.

Legend is that The King of Champakesari had one boat to be made that would require about hundred boatmen to row. By using the same he defeated his rival King of Kayamukham. The vanquished king sent his spies to find the secret of mysterious boat. They spy emotionally involved the daughter and wife of the manufacturer and learnt the art of boat making and returned to Kayamukham.

The race unites boatmen in a team to win the race. It has now turned out to be a big tourist attraction. Likewise almost every state in India has one or more martial games like peg picking or taming violent animals with bare hands as a show of their masculine powers.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 50/72 – Aerial Warfare in Ancient India)


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