|Also known as||Silambattam, Chilambam|
|Country of origin||India|
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|Indian martial arts|
Silambam is a weapon-based Indian martial art from Tamil Nadu, but also traditionally practised by the Tamil community of Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It is closely related to Keralan kalaripayat and Sri Lankan angampora. It derives from the Tamil word silam meaning "hill" and the Kannada word bambu from which the English "bamboo" originates. The term silambambu referred to a particular type of bamboo from the Kurinji hills in present-day Kerala. Thus silambam was named after its primary weapon, the bamboo staff. The related term silambattam often refers specifically to stick-fighting.
There are numerous styles of silambam but the nillaikalakki discipline (from nillai meaning posture and kalakki meaning to disturb or shuffle) is the most widespread style outside India, and is most well known in Malaysia. The styles differ from one another in grip, posture, foot work, length of the stick, etc.1 Silambam may either be practiced for the purpose of combat (போர்ச் சிலம்பம் por silambam) or purely for demonstration (அலங்காரச் சிலம்பம் alangara silambam). Masters are called asaan (ஆசான்) while grandmasters are addressed as periyasaan (பெரியாசன்), iyan (ஐயன்), or annaavi (அண்ணாவி).
Oral folklore traces silambam back several thousand years to the siddhar (enlightened sage) Agastya. While on his way to Vellimalai, Agastya discussed Hindu philosophy with an old man he met, said to be the god Murugan in disguise. The old man taught him of kundalini yoga and how to focus prana through the body's nadi (channels). Agastya practiced this method of meditation and eventually compiled three texts on palm leaves based on the god's teachings. One of these texts was the Kampu Sutra (Staff Classic) which was said to record advanced fighting theories in verse. These poems and the art they described were allegedly passed on to other siddha of the Agastmuni akhara (Agastya school) and eventually formed the basis of silambam, siddha medicine, and the southern style of kalaripayat.
References in the Silappadikkaram and other works of Sangam literature shows that silambam has been practiced as far back as the 2nd century BC. The bamboo staff - along with swords, pearls and armor - was in great demand with foreign traders,23 particularly those from Southeast Asia where silambam greatly influenced many fighting systems. The Indian community of the Malay Peninsula is known to have practiced silambam as far back as the period of Melaka's founding in the 15th century, and likely much earlier.
The soldiers of Kings Puli Thevar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Maruthu Pandiyar (1760–1799) relied mainly on their silambam prowess in their warfare against the British Army.2 Indian martial arts suffered a decline after the British colonists banned silambam along with various other systems. They also introduced modern western military training which favoured fire-arms over traditional weaponry. During this time, silambam became more common in Southeast Asia than its native India where it was banned by the British rulers.4 The ban was lifted after India achieved independence. Today, silambam is the most famous and widely practiced Indian martial art in Malaysia where demonstrations are held for cultural shows.
Silambam's main focus is on the bamboo staff. The length of the staff depends on the height of the practitioner. Ideally it should just touch the forehead about three fingers from the head, typically measuring around 1.68 metres (five and a half feet). Different lengths may be used depending on the situation. For instance, the sedikuchi or 3-foot stick can be easily concealed. Separate practice is needed for staffs of different lengths. Listed below are some of the weapons used in silambam.
- Silambam: staff, preferably made from bamboo, but sometimes also from teak or Indian rose chestnut wood. The staff is immersed in water and strengthened by beating it on the surface of still or running water. It is often tipped with metal rings to prevent the ends from being damaged.
- Maru: a thrusting weapon made from deer horns
- Aruval: sickle, often paired
- Panthukol: staff with balls of fire or weighted chains on each end
- Savuku: whip
- Vaal: sword, generally curved
- Kuttu katai: spiked knuckleduster
- Katti: knife
- Kattari: native push-dagger with a H-shaped handle. Some are capable of piercing armor. The blade may be straight or wavy.
- Surul pattai: flexible sword
- Muchan / Sedikuchi: cudgel or short stick, often wielded as a pair.
Kai silambam (lit. hand silambam)5 is the unarmed set of techniques in silambam, also referred to by its main component kuttu varisai (குத்துவரிசை). First attested to in Sangam literature of the 2nd-1st centuries BC, the term translates as "punching sequence", from kuttu meaning punch and varisai meaning order. Although kuthu will literally mean to punch, when colloquially used in conversational language kuthu will also mean to fight. Varisai literally translated will mean order or list, however in this context it will mean techniques, so kuttu varisai will also mean fighting techniques. Techniques incorporate striking, grappling, throws and locks. Partnered routines are between pairs at first before progressing to several partners at once. Preset forms gradually increase in complexity before students are allowed more and more freedom in their moves and counters. This is meant to teach alertness and how to quickly react to any situation in a fight, and is therefore used only sparingly at first. Over time, as such improvisations become more frequent, the students respond to each other with reversals and counters in a continuous unending flow, thereby naturally making the transition from arranged to free-sparring. Like many other Asian martial arts, patterns in kai silambam make use of animal-based sets including the tiger, snake, elephant, eagle and monkey forms. Advanced students are taught varma ati or the art of attacking pressure points,6 which can be applied to both armed and unarmed fighting. It was Bodhi Dharma the Buddhist monk who was exiled in Tamil Nadu, went to China through the sea route and taught the Chinese Kuthu Varisai. Over the last 1500 years the Chinese who could not pronounce the word kuthu properly have mispronounced the word Kuthu as Kungfu. That is the reason that Bodhi Dharma is considered the father of Shaolin Kung Fu. During British rule, the British who were terrified of Kuthu Varisai, banned it in Tamil Nadu. Only a small group of people traditionally belonging to the porkollar(goldsmith) community practiced it among their friends and relatives for the sole purpose of protecting their gold ornaments. They called it the Uyir pogum kalai or the art that takes away a person's life, as some of the moves are so dangerous that it can maim or cripple the opponent instantly. This is one of the reasons that it is never taught for fear it can be misused. Most of these people who traditionally belonged to the porkollar community for generations are today highly educated as Doctors and Software professionals and have given up practice of this ancient martial art. Bharath which was a very powerful form of stick fighting is almost dead. Unlike other martial arts like Karate or Judo or Kungfu or Tae kwon do or boxing where anyone can go and join a class, in Kuthu Varisai, they will not teach you, unless you win the Trust of the master.
Exercises in kai silambam include the following.
- Thattu padom: Sequences that can be practiced alone or with partners.
- Adi-varisai: Solo routines
- Kuttu-varisai: The main component, progressing from preset partnered forms to free-sparring
- Pede-varisai: Locking, tearing and breaking techniques, targeted at the joints, muscle and nerves
- Nelaygal: Holding a stance for long periods, even several hours at a time. This exercise is commonly compared to an idol or statue
The first stages of silambam practice are meant to provide a foundation for fighting and to condition the body for the training itself. This includes improving flexibility, agility, hand-eye coordination, kinesthetic awareness, balance, strength, speed, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular stamina.1
Beginners are first taught footwork (kaaladi) which they must master before learning spinning techniques and patterns, and methods to change the spins without stopping the motion of the stick. There are sixteen of them among which four are very important. Footwork patterns are the key aspects of silambam. Traditionally, the masters first teach kaaladi for a long time before proceeding to unarmed combat. Training empty-handed allows the practitioner to get a feel of silambam stick movements using their bare hands, that is, fighters have a preliminary training with bare hands before going to the stick.
Gradually, fighters study footwork to move precisely in conjunction with the stick movements. In silambam, kaaladi is the key to deriving power for attacks. It teaches how to advance and retreat, to get within range of the opponent without lowering one's defence, aids in hitting and blocking, and it strengthens the body immensely enabling the fighter to receive non-lethal blows and still continue the battle. The whole body is used to create power.
In the main stance, the staff is held at one end, right hand close to the back, left hand about 40 centimetres (16 inches) away. This position allows a wide array of stick and body movements, including complex attacks and blocks. When the student reaches the final stage, the staff gets sharpened at one end. In real combat the tips may be poisoned. The ultimate goal of the training is to defend against multiple armed opponents.
Silambam prefers the hammer grip with the main hand facing down behind the weak hand which faces up. The strong hand grips the stick about a distance hand's width and thumb's length from the end of the stick and the weak hand is a thumb's length away from the strong hand. The weak hand only touches the stick and to guide its movement. Silambam stresses ambidexterity and besides the preferred hammer grip there are other ways of gripping the staff. Because of the way the stick is held and its relatively thin diameter, blows to the groin are very frequent and difficult to block. Besides the hammer grip, silambam uses the poker grip and ice pick grip as well. Some blocks and hits are performed using the poker grip. The ice pick grip is used in single hand attacks. The staff is held like a walking stick and just hand gets inverted using the wrist.
In battle, a fighter holds the stick in front of their body stretching the arms three quarters full. From there, they can initiate all attacks with only a movement of the wrist. In fact, most silambam moves are derived from wrist movement, making it a key component of the art. The blow gets speed from the wrist and power from the body through kaaladi. Since the stick is held in front, strikes are telegraphic, that is, the fighter does not hide their intentions from the opponent. They attack with sheer speed, overwhelming the adversary with a continuous non-stop rain of blows. In silambam, one blow leads to and aids another. Bluffs may also be used by disguising one attack as another.
In addition to the strikes, silambam also has a variety of locks called poottu. A fighter must always be careful while wielding the stick or they will be grappled and lose the fight. Locks can be used to disable the enemy or simply capture their weapon. Techniques called thirappu are used to counter the locks but these must be executed before being caught in a lock. Silambam also has many different types of avoiding an attack like blocking, parrying, enduring, rotary parrying, hammering, kolluvuthal (attacking and blocking simultaneously) and evasive moves such as sitting or kneeling, moving out, jumping high, etc. Against multiple attackers, silambam exponents do not hold out their sticks as they do in single combat. Instead they assume one of the numerous animal stances which makes it difficult for opponents to predict the next attack.
An expert of silambam will be familiar with varma adi or marma adi (pressure points) and know where to strike anywhere in the body to produce fatal or crippling effects by the least use of power. In one-on-one combat an expert would slide the stick to opponents wrist many times during combat. The opponent may not notice this in the heat of battle until they feel a sudden pain in the wrist and throw the stick automatically without knowing what hit them. When two experts match against each other one may challenge the other that he will hit his big toe. Hitting the big toe can produce crippling effects on the fighter, making them abandon the fight. This is called solli adithal which means "challenging and successfully hitting".
Traditional masters still encourage students to live a "pure" life through daily meditation and abstaining from drinking, smoking, and meat consumption. Students who have completed the training syllabus by learning every form are considered qualified to teach. The time it takes to complete differs from one style to another. For example, the nillaikalakki style requires around seven years of training while other styles may have no articulated syllabus.
There are about 18 different styles of silambam practiced today. They are:
- Nillai Kalakki (The most popular style outside India, practiced mainly in Malaysia and Singapore)
- Karnatakan (Practiced mainly in southern Karnataka)
- Kuravanji (Practiced mainly in Kerala)
- Kuthu Kuravanji
- Komberi Mookan
- Paniyeri Mallan
- Minnal Veeran
- Minnal Vettu
- Nagam-16 (lit. Cobra-16)
- Naga Pasanam
- Kalla-Pathu (lit. Thieves-10)
- Thuluk Kanam
- Kida Muttu (lit. Goat headbutt)
- Kalyana Varisai
- Tomman Kuthu
- Paarvai Vilayaatu
The appearance of silambam in film can be traced to the Tamil actors MGR, M.N.Nambhiyar, and Jaï Shankar who learned the art during the training phase of their careers in the 1930s and incorporated it into some of their fight scenes during the 1950s and 60s. In subsequent decades silambam has featured in other Tamil films such as MALAIKALLAN, PADAGOTTI, THAALI BHAGYAM, MAATTUKARA VELAN, RICKSHAWKARAN, PATTIKADA PATTANAMA, CHAKRAVARTHI, THANIKATTU RAJA, SAKALAKALA VALLAVAN, KARAGATTAKARAN, DEVAR MAGAN and KOVIL.1 For the most part, silambam in film is confined to the staff. Tamil film-makers prefer rougher and more aggressive choreography for bare-handed fights, making it easy for actors with no martial arts experience to perform. But silambam techniques are sometimes included even in fights such as these, particularly kicks and leg movements.
As is often the case with Indian cinema, most of these were neither action nor martial art movies but typically romantic drama-comedies featuring only a single fight scene. Because silambam's portrayal was not a high priority, actors cast in these roles rarely have any experience in martial arts. Movies like Thooral Ninnu Pochchu and Badhil Solval Bhadrakali suffered from poor choreography and execution for this reason, while others like the much-hyped SILAMBATTAM barely showcased silambam technique at all. More professional and authentic silambam can be seen in films such as PERIYA IDATHU PENN, VIVASAYEE, ANNA MITTHA KAI, UZHAIKKUM KARANGAL and MUNDHANAI MUDICHU. Other examples of silambam in cinema include the following.
- The 1995 action film Villadhi Villain featured a blend of silambam stick-fighting and European sword-fencing.
- Silambam is often showcased on Malaysian documentary series about martial arts like Gelanggang and Gerak Tangkas.
- The historical film Kochadaiiyaan is the first CG-animation to feature silambam.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Silambam.|
- Master Murugan, Chillayah (20 October 2012). "Silambam Fencing and play variation". Silambam. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
- Raj, J. David Manuel (1977). The Origin and the Historical Developlment 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.
- Sports Authority of India (1987). Indigenous Games and Martial Arts of India. New Delhi: Sports Authority of India. pp. 91 & 94.
- Crego, Robert (2003). Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries pg 32. Greenwood Press
- Ken Fude Ryu
- Malay Fighting Arts