Thang-ta exponent holding spear and shield with serpent motif (pakhangba)
|Also known as||Huyen Langlon
|Country of origin||India|
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|Indian martial arts|
Thang-ta is a weapon-based Indian martial art created by the Meitei of Manipur.1 In the Manipuri language, thang means sword and ta means spear, referring to the art's primary weapons. The spear can be used in its non-missile form while in close or thrown from afar. Other weapons include the shield and the axe. Because of Manipur's cultural similarity, geographic proximity and ethnic ties with Myanmar, thang-ta is closely related to banshay.
Thang-ta can be practiced in three different ways: ritual, demonstration and combat. The first way is related to the tantric practices and is entirely ritualistic in nature. The second way consists of a spectacular performance involving sword and spear dances. These routines can be converted into actual fighting practices. The third way is the true combat application. Thang-ta is closely related to certain war-dances, often blurring the line between dance and combat forms, such as thangkairol (sword dance) and khosarol (spear dance). Many ritualistic dances in Manipur were traditionally performed by martial artists such as the spear dance for funerals or the sacred thengou dance.
All that can be gleaned of thang-ta's ancient history comes from hymns and legends. Folklore links the creation of thang-ta and its related dances with the native gods. Manipur was a valley protected from neighbouring Hindu, Burmese and Chinese kingdoms by hills. The tribal people of the hills were divided into seven related clans, known as yek or salai. These were the Moirang, Luwang, Mangang, Khuman, Angom, Khaba-Nganba and Sarang Leishangthem. Before their integration into a single unified Meitei community, these clans each ruled separate principalities over which they fought amongst each other. The earliest written record of thang-ta is the Chainarol-Puya which details the ethics of duelling. The fights took place under strict rules of conduct, and to violate them was both shameful and sinful. When a fighter is challenged, the day for the bout would be fixed to allow for time to prepare the weapons. Allowing the opponent the first chance to fire an arrow or hurl a spear was considered particularly courageous. The duel itself was not necessarily to the death, and usually ended once first blood has been drawn. However, the victor was still expected to behead the loser. Either before the duel or before the beheading, the fighters would share the meals and wine prepared by their wives. If it had been so requested beforehand, the loser's body may be cremated. Heads were taken as trophies, as was custom among the headhunters of northeast India. Various taboos existed such as not killing an opponent who runs, begs or cries out of fear, or anyone who pleads for protection.
Until this point, most of the fighters were commoners who also served as warriors. King Loyumba (1074-1122 AD) introduced an armed force or lallup, while King Punshiba (1404-1432 AD) created a permanent military department known as shingchep meira haijouroi. King Pamheiba (1709-1748 AD) upgraded the lallup system, making it the duty of every male above 16 to serve the state for 10 in 40 days. Therefore each individual person served the state some 90 days in a year, with martial arts as part of their training. Thus Manipur had no true standing army and relied on its individual warriors for protection.
From 1891-1947 British colonists prohibited martial arts, duels to the death and other violent customs among India's indigenous populations. The ban was somewhat difficult to enforce due to the region's isolation. The Naga people in particular have practiced headhunting within living memory of the present day. Nevertheless, modernization and adoption of Christianity killed off much of the native culture. The meditative practices of thang-ta were nearly lost before India achieved independence. Today thang-ta is the most popular of Meitei martial arts,2 practiced by both men and women. It is most often seen through demonstrations in cultural programs.2 In recent years thang-ta has been promoted as a sport all over India and also as a self-defence tactical subject. Every year thang-ta competitions are held at school, district, state and national level. The promotion of thang-ta as a sport helped in the cause of its promotion and spread from Manipur to the whole of India, particularly Jammu and Kashmir. Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir are currently the strongest contenders at the national level. In 2009 Gurumayum Gourakishor Sharma, a leading exponent and teacher of thang-ta, received the high Padma Shri honor award from the Indian Government for his contributions to the preservation and advancement of the art.34
Thang-ta training begins with basic sword strokes and stepping patterns. The main sword stance is the lion posture, in which the body leans forward with one leg stretched back and the other bent forward. The feet are about shoulder-width apart and form a 45 degree angle. This stance emphasises phidup or a coil, enabling a springing action. At higher levels, exponents slice pieces of watermelons on a person's body without causing any injury. This is eventually done blindfolded. Spear technique is considered more difficult and is therefore taught after the sword. The spear emphasizes phanba, an opening out of the body with two forms: nongphan to simulate the expanse of the sky, and leiphal emulating the expanse of the ground. Generally speaking, the spear demands more of the lower body while the sword uses more of the upper body.
Sparring matches are conducted in a 30-foot circular arena. There are two methods of sparring, phunaba ama and phunaba anishuba. In phunaba ama, competitors wield a 2-foot leather-encased cheibi (cudgel) paired with a leather chungoi (shield) measuring one metre in diameter. One match consists of two 3-minute rounds with one minute of rest in between. One central referee, six scorers, one time keeper and either one or two chief judges are assigned for one match. The other form of sparring, phunaba anishuba, is identical with the exception that kicks are allowed and there are no shields. These forms of sparring in which cudgels or cheibi simulate swords are referred to in Hindi as cheibi gatka.
When a student has gained competence in armed fighting, they are taught unarmed techniques (sarit sarak or sharit sharak) which incorporate hand strikes, kicks, and grappling (mukna). The physical side of thang-ta is eventually supplemented with breathing exercises (ningsha kanglon), traditional medicine (layeng kanglon), meditation (hirikonba), and the sacred dances (thengouron).
- Thang Ta - the martial art dance, India-north-east.com
-  Manipur Page
- "Manipur martial art guru gets Padmashri", Assam Tribune, 2009-01-28, retrieved 2009-07-24, "... Gurumayum Gourakishore Sharma, who is well-known for his invaluable contribution in the field of thang-ta, the traditional martial art, has been conferred the prestigious Padmashri award ..."
- "Guru G. Gourakishor, the master of Manipuri martial art form", AndhraNews.net, 2009-04-24, "... Guru G. Gourakishor Sharma was recently conferred the coveted Padamshree award for 2008-2009 to honour his lifetime contribution to Manipuri Martial Art, Thang-Ta ..."