Indian martial arts

Indian martial arts
Part of a series on
Indian martial arts
Wrestling: Malla-yuddha  · Pehlwani  · Musti yuddha  · Mukna  · Inbuan wrestling
Kalarippayattu: Silambam  ·
Marma ati  · Kuttu Varisai
Notable Practitioners
Phillip Zarrilli  · Jasmine Simhalan  · Gobar Guha  · Gulam  · Guru Hargobind  · John Will

The Indian subcontinent is home to a variety of fighting styles. In Sanskrit they may be collectively referred to as śastravidyā or dhanurveda. The former is a compound of the words śastra (sword, weapon) and vidyā (learning), meaning "knowledge of the sword" or "knowledge of weaponry".[1] The latter term derives from the words for bow (dhanushya) and knowledge (veda), literally the "science of archery" in Puranic literature, later applied to martial arts in general[2] The Vishnu Purana text describes dhanurveda as one of the traditional eighteen branches of "applied knowledge" or upaveda.[3]

In Tamil, they are either known under the umbrella of களரிக்கலை kalarikalai, meaning 'the art of the battleground', or தற்க்காப்புக்கலை tarkappukalai, meaning 'the art of self defence'.



Antiquity (pre-Gupta)

Indian epics contain accounts of combat, both armed and bare-handed. The Mahabharata describes a prolonged battle between Arjuna and Karna using bows, swords, trees, rocks and fists.[3] Another unarmed battle in the Mahabharata describes two combatants boxing with clenched fists and fighting with kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and headbutts.[4] Krishna Maharaja, whose battlefield exploits are alluded to in the Mahabharata, is credited with developing the sixteen principles of śastravidyā.

Many of the popular sports mentioned in the Vedas and the epics have their origins in military training, such as wrestling (maladvandva), chariot-racing (rathachalan), horse-riding (ashvarohana), boxing (musti yuddha) and archery (dhanurvidya).[5] Competitions were held not just as a contest of the players' prowess but also as a means of finding a bridegroom. Arjuna, Rama and Siddhartha Gautama all won their consorts in such tournaments.

In the 3rd century, elements from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were incorporated into martial arts.[6] A number of Indian fighting styles remain closely connected to yoga, dance and performing arts. Some of the choreographed sparring in kalari payat can be applied to dance[7] and kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Until recent decades, chhau was practiced only by martial artists. Some traditional Indian dance schools still incorporate kalari payat as part of their exercise regimen.[8]

Written evidence of martial arts in Southern India dates back to the Tamil Sangam literature of about the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam in the Sangam era. The word kalari appears in the Puram (verses 225, 237, 245, 356) and Akam (verses 34, 231, 293) to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. The word kalari tatt denoted a martial feat, while kalari kozhai meant a coward in war.[9] Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training[10] in target practice and horse riding. They specialized in one or more of the important weapons of the period including the spear (vel), sword (val), shield (kedaham), and bow and arrow (vil ambu). The combat techniques of the Sangam period were the earliest precursors to kalaripayat.[3] References to "Silappadikkaram" in Sangam literature date back to the 2nd century. This referred to the silambam staff which was in great demand with foreign visitors.[11][12]

References to fighting arts are found in early Buddhist texts, such as the Lotus Sutra (ca. 1st century AD) which refers to a boxing art while speaking to Manjusri.[13] It also categorized combat techniques as joint locks, fist strikes, grapples and throws.[14][unreliable source?] The Lotus Sutra makes further mention of a martial art with dance-like movements called Nara.[15][unreliable source?] Another early Buddhist sutra called Hongyo-kyo describes a "strength contest" between Gautama Buddha's half-brother Prince Nanda and his cousin Devadatta.[13] Siddhartha Gautama himself was a champion of swordplay, wrestling and archery before becoming the Buddha.[6]

Classical period (3rd to 10th centuries)

17th century mural of Balarama in a south Indian temple. Martial arts are often associated with Avatara in the Puranas.

Like other branches of Sanskrit literature, treatises on martial arts become more systematic in the course of the 1st millennium AD. Vajra musti, a grappling style, is mentioned in sources of the early centuries CE.[13] The Kama Sutra written by Vātsyāyana enjoined women to regularly "practice with sword, single-stick, quarterstaff, and bow and arrow". Around this time, tantric philosophers developed important metaphysical concepts such as kundalini, chakra, and mantra.[6]

The Sushruta Samhita (c. 4th century) identifies 107 vital points on the human body[16] of which 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.[6] Sushruta's work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda which was taught alongside various Indian martial arts, especially those that had an emphasis on vital points such as varma kalai.[6] With numerous other scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that India's early fighters knew and practiced attacking or defending vital points.[17]

Around 630, King Narasimhavarman of the Pallava dynasty commissioned dozens of granite sculptures showing unarmed fighters disarming armed opponents. These may have shown an early form of varma adi, a Dravidian martial art that allowed kicking, kneeing, elbowing and punching to the head and chest, but prohibited blows below the waist. This is similar to the style described in the Agni Purana.[6]

Martial arts were not exclusive to the Kshatriya caste, though the warrior class used them more extensively. The 8th century text Kuvalaymala by Udyotanasuri recorded fighting techniques being taught at ghatika and salad educational institutions, where non-Kshatriya students from throughout the subcontinent (particularly from South India, Rajasthan and Bengal) "were learning and practicing archery, fighting with sword and shield, with daggers, sticks, lances, and with fists, and in duels (niuddham)".[3] Hindu priests of the Gurukullam institutions also taught armed and unarmed fighting techniques to their students as a way of increasing stamina and training the physical body.

Agni Purana

The earliest extant manual of dhanurveda is in the Agni Purana (dated to between the 8th and the 11th century),[17][18] The dhanurveda section in the Agni Purana spans chapters 248–251. It divides the art into weapons that are thrown or unthrown. 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-sandharita: 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: nine weapons of the body (hands, feet, knees, elbows and head), i.e. unarmed fighting

The duel with bow and arrows is considered the most noble, 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 kshatriya could be an acharya (teacher) of dhanurveda, Brahmins and Vaishyas should learn from the kshatriya, while a Shudra could not take a teacher, left to "fight of his own in danger".

There follow nine asana or positions of standing in a fight

  1. samapada ("holding the feet even"): standing in closed ranks with the feet put together (248.9)
  2. vaiśākha: standing erect with the feet apart (248.10)
  3. maṇḍala ("disk"): standing with the knees apart, arranged in the shape of a flock of geese (248.11)
  4. ālīḍha ("licked, polished"): bending the right knee with the left foot pulled back (248.12)
  5. pratyālīḍha: bending the left knee with the right foot pulled back (248.13)
  6. jāta ("origin"): placing the right foot straight with the left foot perpendicular, the ankles being five fingers apart (248.14)
  7. daṇḍāyata ("extended staff"): keeping the right knee bent with the left leg straight, or vice versa; called vikaṭa ("dreadful") if the two legs are two palm-lengths apart (248.16)
  8. sampuṭa ("hemisphere") (248.17)
  9. svastika ("well-being"): keeping the feet 16 fingers apart and lifting the feet a little (248.19)

Then there follows a more detailed discussion of archery technique.

The section concludes with listing the names of actions or "deeds" possible with a number of weapons, including 32 positions to be taken with sword and shield (khaḍgacarmavidhau),[19] 11 names of techniques of using a rope in fighting, along with 5 names of "acts in the rope operation" along with lists of "deeds" pertaining to the chakra, the spear, the iron club (tomara), the mace (gaḍa), the axe, the hammer, the bhindipāla or laguda, the vajra, the dagger, the slingshot, and finally deeds with a bludgeon or cudgel.[20]

Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries)

The earliest treatise discussing the techniques of malla-yuddha is the Malla Purana (ca. 13th century). Other old styles like varma kalai,[6] and kalaripayat had developed into their present forms by the 11th century, during an extended period of warfare between the Chera and Chola dynasties.[7]

Organised martial arts in ancient India included malla-yuddha, or combat-wrestling, codified into four forms,[21] 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.[6] Based on such accounts, Svinth (2002) traces press ups and squats used by Indian wrestlers to the pre-classical era.[6]

There are scattered references to dhanurveda in other medieval texts, such as the Kamandakiya Nitisara (ca. 8th c.[citation needed], ed. Dutt, 1896), the Nitivakyamrta by Somadeva Suri (10th century), the Yuktikalpataru of Bhoja (11th century) and the Manasollasa of Somesvara III (12th century) There is an extant dhanurveda-samhita dating to the mid 14th century, by Brhat Sarngadhara Paddhati (ed. 1888).[citation needed]

Mughal era (1526 to 1857)

The khanda, a native straight sword

After a series of victories, the conqueror Babur established Mughal rule in North India during the 16th century. The Mughals, Persians of Mongol descent, practiced martial techniques such as wrestling and mounted archery. By combining indigenous malla-yuddha with Turkic and Mongolian wrestling they created the grappling style pehlwani which has remained popular until today, particularly among Muslims. One of the Mughals' most enduring legacies on Indian martial arts was their introduction of the Turkish-influenced talwar (scimitar). Although curved blades had been used in India since ancient times, the straight khanda (double-edge sword) had enjoyed greater popularity until then.

The Ausanasa Dhanurveda Sankalanam dates to the late 16th century, compiled under the patronage of Akbar.[citation needed] There is also a 17th-century Dhanurveda-samhita attributed to Vasistha.

Maratha era (1650 to 1857)

The Marathas came to prominence during the 17th century due mostly to the efforts of Shivaji Rao Bhosle, his brother Ekoji, and later his son Sambhaji. Owing to the hilly geography of Maharashtra, the Marathas excelled in guerilla warfare. Favoured by the Mughal rulers as loyal commanders of the army, they were made official protectors of the throne between 1720 and 1740. By 1751 they had control of western Deccan and became the most important power in India. The Marathas created a fighting system called mardani khel which focuses on weaponry, particularly swords. Its movements are rapid and makes use of low stances suited to the hill ranges where it originated. Shivaji himself was trained in armed combat from an early age and was an expert in the use of various arms,[22] including the sword, bagh nakh, and bichawa (scorpion knife). His weapon of choice was a 4-foot sword named Bhawani, with a small handle and a spike upon the hilt for thrusting.

Paika Rebellion of Khurda (1817)

Paika is the Oriya word for fighter or warrior (Padatika Bahini). Their style of fighting, known as paika akhada, can be traced back to ancient Kalinga and was at one time patronised by King Kharavela.[23] In March 1817, under the leadership of Buxi Jagabandhu Bidydhar Mohapatra, nearly 400 Khanda of Ghumusar in Ganjam marched towards Khurda in protest against British colonial rule. Many government buildings were burnt down and all the officials fled. The British commander of one detachment was killed during a battle at Gangpada. The paika managed to capture two bases at Puri and Pipli before spreading the rebellion further to Gop, Tiran, Kanika and Kujang. The revolt lasted a year and a half before being quelled by September 1818.[24][25] With the rebellion put down, the colonists were more vigorous in their attempts to stamp out the martial practices of Orissa. Today, paika akhada has been preserved only as a performance art.

Modern period (1857 to present)

Indian martial arts underwent a period of decline after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century.[17] More European modes of organizing police, armies and governmental institutions, and the increasing use of firearms, gradually eroded the need for traditional combat training associated with caste-specific duties.[7] The British colonial government banned kalaripayat in 1804 in response to a series of revolts.[26] Silambam was also banned and became more common in the Malay Peninsula than its native Tamil Nadu. During this time, many fighting systems were confined to rural areas. A few became merely performance arts, such as karra samu (stick fighting) and kathi samu (sword fighting) from Andhra Pradesh. The resurgence of public interest in kalaripayat began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India which characterized the growing reaction against British colonial rule.[7] During the following three decades, other regional styles were subsequently revived such as silambam in Tamil Nadu, and thang-ta in Manipur.[27]


The katara (कटार), developed in Tamil Nadu is a weapon found only in South Asia, has gained some fame for its unusual design.
The urumi, a flexible blade that behaves like a whip, is unique to Dravidian martial arts.

A wide array of weapons are used in South Asia, 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 long bows 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, categorised into thrown and unthrown classes and further divided into several sub-classes.

Over time, weaponry evolved and India became famed for its flexible wootz steel. Armed forces were largely standardised and it is unclear if regular infantry were trained in any recognisable martial system other than standard military drills. More sophisticated techniques and weapons were employed by fighters trained in the warrior jati.


As in other respects of Indian culture, Indian martial arts can be roughly divided into northern and southern styles, more or less corresponding to the major ethno-linguistic grouping of Indo-European vs. Dravidian speaking populations. The main difference is that northern India was more exposed to Persianate influence during the Mughal period, while Southern India is more conservative in preserving ancient and medieval traditions. The exception to this rule are the northeastern states which, due to their geographic location, were closed off from most pre-European foreign invaders. Northeast Indian culture and fighting methods are also closely related to that of Southeast Asia. In addition to the major division between north and south India, martial systems in South Asia tend to be associated with certain states, cities, villages or ethnic groups.

North India

  • Gatka is a weapon-based style created by Sikhs of the Punjab.
  • Lathi is a style of cane-fighting originally practiced by village herdsmen.
  • Mardani khel is an armed method created by the Marathas of Maharashtra.
  • Musti yuddha is a style of kickboxing, popular in the Middle Ages but now confined to Varanasi.
  • Pari-khanda is a style of sword and shield fighting from Bihar.
  • Thang-ta or huyen lalong is an armed system created by the Meitei of Manipur.

South India

  • Kalaripayat has its roots in the combat training halls (payattu kalari) of Kerala's traditional educational system.
  • Paika akhada was a weapon-based system formerly practiced by the warriors of Orissa.
  • Silambam is a weapon-based style from Tamil Nadu which focuses on the bamboo staff.
  • [Kuttu Varisai]is the unarmed component of silambam, a Dravidian martial art from Tamil Nadu in south India but also practiced by the Tamil people of Malaysia and northeast Sri Lanka.


Wrestling arts are found throughout India and were generically referred to in Sanskrit as malavidya or 'science of grappling'. True combat-wrestling is called malla-yuddha, while the term malakhra refers to wrestling for sport. Malla-yuddha was codified into four forms which progressed from purely sportive contests of strength to actual full-contact fights known as yuddha.[28] Due to the extreme violence, this final form is generally no longer practiced. The second form, wherein the wrestlers attempt to lift each other off the ground for three seconds, still exists in south India. Malla-yuddha is virtually extinct in the north where it has been supplanted by Mughal pehlwani. Vajra-musti was another old grappling art in which the competitors wrestled while wearing a cestus-like knuckleduster. In a later variation, the duellists fought with a bagh nakh.

Numerous styles of folk wrestling are also found in India's countryside, such as mukna from Manipur and Inbuan wrestling from Mizoram.


  1. ^ attested in Classical Sanskrit only, specifically in the Anargharāghava.
  2. ^ attested from Epic Sanskrit; see Luijendijk, D.H. (2008). Kalarippayat: The Essence and Structure of an Indian Martial Art. Oprat ( ISBN 1581604807. 
  3. ^ a b c d Zarrilli, Phillip B. A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and Ayurvedic Paradigms. University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  4. ^ Section XIII: Samayapalana Parva, Book 4: Virata Parva, Mahabharata.
  5. ^ The Timechart History Of India. Robert Frederick Ltd.. 2005. ISBN 0-7554-5162-7. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i J. R. Svinth (2002). A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports. Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.
  7. ^ a b c d Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  8. ^ Luijendijk 2008
  9. ^ Suresh, P. R. (2005). Kalari Payatte – The martial art of Kerala.
  10. ^ Subramanian, N. (1966). Sangam polity. Bombay: Asian Publishing House.
  11. ^ Raj, J. David Manuel (1977). The Origin and the Historical Development of Silambam Fencing: An Ancient Self-Defence Sport of India. Oregon: College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Univ. of Oregon. pp. 44, 50, & 83. 
  12. ^ Sports Authority of India (1987). Indigenous Games and Martial Arts of India. New Delhi: Sports Authority of India. pp. 91 & 94. 
  13. ^ a b c Bruce A. Haines (1995). Karate's History and Traditions (p. 23-25). Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0-8048-1947-5.
  14. ^ University Martial Arts Association. History of Taekwondo.
  15. ^ Steinwachs, Tim.History of Karate.
  16. ^ G. D. Singhal, L. V. Guru (1973). Anatomical and Obstetrical Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery Based on Sarira-Sthana of Susruta Samhita.
  17. ^ a b c Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1992). "To Heal and/or To Harm: The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam) in Two South Indian Martial Traditions Part I: Focus on Kerala's Kalarippayattu". Journal of Asian Martial Arts 1 (1). 
  18. ^ P. C. Chakravarti (1972). The art of warfare in ancient India. Delhi.
  19. ^ (1.) bhrāntam (2.) udbhrāntam (3.) āviddham (4.) āplutaṃ (5.) viplutaṃ (6.) sṛtaṃ (7.) sampātaṃ (8.) samudīśañca (9.-10.) śyenapātamathākulaṃ (251.1) (11.) uddhūtam (12.) avadhūtañca (13.) savyaṃ (14.) dakṣiṇam eva ca (15.-16.) anālakṣita-visphoṭau (17.-18.) karālendramahāsakhau (251.2) (19.-20.) vikarāla-nipātau ca (21.-22.) vibhīṣaṇa-bhayānakau (23–24.) samagrārdha (25.) tṛtīyāṃśapāda (26.-28.) pādardhavārijāḥ (251.3) (29.) pratyālīḍham (30.) athālīḍhaṃ (31.) varāhaṃ (32.) lulitan tathā (251.4ab)
  20. ^ Parmeshwaranand Swami, Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Purāṇas, Sarup & Sons, 2001, ISBN 978-81-7625-226-3, s.v. "dhanurveda"; Gaṅgā Rām Garg, Encyclopaedia of the Hindu World, Concept Publishing Company, 1992 ISBN 9788170223764, s.v. "archery".
  21. ^ R.Venkatachalam (September 1999). Mallayuddha.
  22. ^ K. L. Khurana (1993). Medieval India. Agra: Lakshmi Narain Agarwal. ISBN 81-85778-15-9. 
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Reminiscences of Paika Vidroha". Retrieved 2010-07-28. 
  25. ^ "Welcome to". Retrieved 2010-07-28. 
  26. ^ Luijendijk, D.H. (2005). Kalarippayat: India's Ancient Martial Art. Boulder: Paladin Press. ISBN 1581604807. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith (1969). Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. Kondansha International Limited. 

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