Indian Martial Arts

Hey, anyone know about Indian martial arts? One of the kids I tutor is from Tamil Nadu (a southern province in India where the dominant ethno-linguistic group is called Tamil) and told me about Kalari Payattu (described as a monk art, equivalent to Shaholin kung fu, he said it takes years to become a good fighter with this but you learn to use every weapon-40), Silambam (a Tamil martial art in which you use a stick from 1ft to 6ft long), Cheibi Gad Ga (1 and 2 war club fighting), thang-ta (sword and spear fighting, he described this as what the common man in India studied a few hundred years ago since the 2 weapons were always available), Thoda (a martial dance with lots of leaping and squating and weapon manipulation and archery), Inbuan (a form of wrestling), Mukna (a form of wresling), Archery, he also described a version of two person dodge ball but with tackles and throws (did not understand it) and he then wrote out for me Ciyin Adi Gilampathy- claiming it was a Tamil martial art involving sticks, swords and wrestling but I have found nothing on this on the net.

Any comments or ideas are welcomed.



Hi Martial_shadow,

I've read and heard about Kalari Payat. There are info on it along with a number of other different Indian martial arts in one of D F Draeger's books. I can't recall the title at the moment. It was a book about different martial arts around the world. There is also another book called 'Martial Way' or something like that. Again it was a book that provided an overview of different martial arts and Indian martial arts was one of the areas covered. This book had quite a few interesting photos of the practitioners.

Check out

Phillip Zarilli is probably the West's foremost authority on kalarippayattu. He wrote an excellent book about it: When the Body Becomes All Eyes

Good stuff guys- know anyone in Canada by any chance?

I have Phillip Zarilli's book, have not gotten around to read it yet. Did read his articles in Journal of Asian Martial Arts (they ran in the first couple of issues of JAMA).

Draeger and Smith's "Comprehensive Asian Martial Arts" also contain a section on Indian martial arts, focuses on wrestling.

Another book in print with a decent section on Kalaripayat/Kalaripayattu is Howard Reid & Michael Croucher's "Way of the Warrior." This is based on a BBC TV series on MA. I've seen it in Barnes & Noble, Border's etc.

There was a more recent JAMA issue with an article on Thang-ta.

Going back to wrestling, there is a pretty good book by Joseph Alter on wrestling in North India called: "The Wrestler's Body: Identity & Ideology in North India." More of an academic work than a technical manual.

Now the following is from what little I saw and picked up growing up in India.

There seems to be three areas in India where indigenous martial art forms are pretty well developed and organized:

KERALA and TAMIL NADU states (South India): where various forms of Kalaripayattu were developed. This art seems to have seen a resurgence of sorts in the last decade or two. Their public demonstrations show highly sophisticated, intricate, athletic and acrobatic movements, combined with a lot of weapons-work. Weapons training seems to precede empty-hand training. Some of their weapons are pretty unique.


(contd. from above)

MANIPUR (Northeast India): Thang-ta and other local martial arts practiced predominantly by the Meitei population of Manipur, weapons-based - sword and spear individually, or with a shield. Do not know if Thang-ta has any empty-hands training. Their demonstrations are high-energy affairs: lots of twirling, leaps and acrobatic move, all in two-person sets. Meitei wrestling is called Mukna. Neighboring people, such as the Naga tribes, Mizos, etc have their own forms of wrestling.

Manipur and the northeastern states are pretty isolated from the rest of India not only geographically, but also by ethnicity, culture and language so I don't know if you'd call Thang-ta as it is practiced in Manipur as what the common man in India would've studied some hundred years ago as the isolation was even more pronounced at that time.

Martial arts of all styles are very popular in northeast India, particularly in Manipur. Taekwondo, Karate, Judo, sport Wushu, etc. all have dedicated followings. Teachers of indigenous martial arts frequently lament that people seem to be more interested in these foreign martial arts than their own local martial arts.

PUNJAB (Northwestern India): The Sikhs have a weapons-based martial art, Gatka, which seems to be practiced mostly by the Khalsa folks (the more hardcore Sikh followers, Khalsa meaning "Pure Ones" I think). Again, lots of tulwar (sword), spear and shield training. In their annual gathering in Anandpur Sahib (the Sikh Temple where Sikhism took on its martial flavor about 300 years ago), there seem to be lots of martial arts display by the various Sikh groups that converege there, they also display horsemanship skills, handling weapons on horseback, etc. They also have some pretty unique weapons.

There was a documentary by National Geographic that I saw while I was last in India some years ago on the Khalsa and their martial training, pretty good.

In North Indian cities you'd see these Sikh guys with huge turbans, flowing robes, armed to the teeth with swords, daggers, spears, steel quoits, etc. stride down crowded streets and people quickly get out of their way! I remember crowded railway stations, waiting for the train and a group of these folks would turn up (probably on a pilgrimage to one of their Guru's birthplace) and again the crowd would part, these folks would settle down to wait for the inevitably late train and if you were lucky you'd be treated to an impromptu display of swordsmanship by one of their members, to the awe of bystanders and the frustration of railway authorities!

(contd. from above)

There is also various forms of stick fighting in parts of India. Tamil Nadu has Silambam, other forms of stick (Lathi) fighting in north India. Cold Steel (the knife company) has a video "Blow of the Rattan" which shows a haphazard collection of Indian martial arts demonstrations – mostly Kalaripayattu, Silambam and Lathi-fighting, interesting, but I think it could've done with better organizing and narration.

Then there is Kushti or wrestling which is very big in Northern and Western India. Regional styles seem to have their own names and variations, but the generic name is kushti. The wrestlers (Pehalwans) are held in awe by the common people and wrestling matches (dangal) always attract big crowds. It is also not uncommon to see ex-pehalwans being recruited by local politicians, landlords and gangsters to act as "strong-men" for those occasions when additional "persuasion" is required.

Here are some interesting sites:

Going back to wrestling, there is a pretty good book by Joseph Alter on wrestling in North India called: "The Wrestler's Body: Identity & Ideology in North India." More of an academic work than a technical manual.Available online at:


sta94- cool posts. Give us a review on Phillip Zarilli's book if you get around to read it pls? Thanx. =)

Excellent stuff!

Oh also, many thanx to Jason. That is the whole book online!!

martial shadow:

I trained in different regions of india with most of it
being in Kerala in Southern India(southern
kalaripayattu). As I stated previously there is no
books or websites that does justice to the research
that needs to be done on Indian martial arts. The scope
is unbelieveable. Zarilli broke ground and has done
substantial work in this area(kalaripayattu) (but he
really doesnt go too much into hardcore fighting and
combatics) though his research is very well rounded. I
like that the tradition includes all aspects of
fighting and healing. I will be returning at the end
of the year to continue my training and research.
Hopefully, Zarilli's work will spur others to go deep
inside the layers and histories(beyond kalaripayattu)
because there is a large story to tell there. Each
region seems to have an enormous amount of various
martial arts. Zarilli as well has his own traditional
kalari now in England. The Alter book on wrestling is
excellent and equally well written and researched. It
helped me understand the workouts and daily lives of
the wrestlers as well as the history and depth when I
trained in the North.

I will cover mushti yuddha and muki boxing in my first
book The Vanishing Flame: The bare knuckle fighting
arts of India, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Laos.

Pahuyuth1, you are absolutely rigt - a lot more research need to be done in order to present the martial systems of that part of the world in its proper light. I eagerly await your book! BTW, where in Kerala do you go for Kalaripayattu training? Just curious. Never been there myself. Oh, and where did you train in North India? As an army-brat, I've been to a lot of places in that area.

I kick myself now for not having paid more attention to the local martial arts while growing up back in India - the local martial arts were just not "cool enough" for a teenager growing up with a steady diet of kung-fu and ninja movies and training in sport-TKD :-(

Jason Couch, thanks for the link, yup, that's the entire book right there! I thought Alter's book nicely captured the atmosphere at wrestling competitions as well as giving a thorough background to the lifestyle of the wrestling culture in India.

And yes, as Pahuyuth1 noted, I wish Zarilli had given a more detailed look (at least in the JAMA articles) at the combative aspects of Kalaripayattu, but then who am I to complain?! Overall, I thought the articles were excellent and pioneering too. Gotta read the book now!

Gama seems to have been a bad dude...

Gama was considered one of the greatest wrestlers of
all time. Alter in his second book I believe devotes a
chapter to him.

One can also check the Mallapurana edited by BJ
Sandesara and RN Mehta.

I was in Delhi, Varanasi and in Kerala I was in
Kozhikode(Calicut). When I return at the end of the
year I will exclusively stay in the s

Pahuyuth1, I've passed by Varanasi, but lived in Delhi for several years - went to college there. Used to watch the wrestlers training at the DTC Bus Driver's akhara in Mall Road, Old Delhi, as well as the akhara behind Hindu Rao's Hospital on the Ridge just above my college, I used to go for TKD classes in the park across the street from this akhara. I think Guru Hanuman was still alive then (early 1990s) and was the most well-known wrestling teacher in India, never got around to stop by his akhara.

Alter had a second book? Could you tell me the title, or is this "The Wrestler's Body"? He did talk about Gama there if I remember correctly.

Never read Mallapurana, thanks for pointing it out.

Also, martial_shadow, you and others interested in Indian martial arts might want to check out the latest issue of Journal of Asian Martial Arts (Vol. 11, No. 2). There is an interesting article titled "War and Worship: Evolution of Martial Music and Dance in India." Haven't finished reading it yet, it's a look at martial arts influence in certain dance and music forms from all parts of the country. Their Website is

st 94:

Yes, I went to several akharas including hanuman akhara
as I documented the various workouts, it wasnt the main
thrust of my training and research but I did it as a
side project. I also went to alot of akharas in
Varanasi. Delhi was interesting but I really like the
South a whole lot better. TKD is all over the place
even in Cambodia, thailand, burma. The level of
training is quite low.

The second book by Alter I think is called Gandhi's
body and it includes alot of e

Man, I HAVE TO read your book now!!! Can't wait for it to come out! My dad's old army unit, the Gorkhas, were big into western boxing, but other Indian Army units had their kushti teams - I remember my first close contact with kushti was watching in fascination the Jat Regiment kushti team doing their dands and baithaks.

Yeah, the level of TKD over there leaves a lot to be desired, it's everywhere though, like you said.

Just found Gandhi's Body on Amazon, interesting, though I doubt I'd buy it, will probably read the section on Gama if I got my hands on the book.

Sta 94:
I was very into the workouts and how they worked the
gada, joris, clubs, stone rings, stone dumb bells, etc
along with the dands (often done on two blocks) and
other bodyweight exercises.
Baithaks and how the reps were broken up and handled
with that exceptional smoothness of the motion really
helped in my understanding of them.

You can email me at
I will put you on the email list for the upcoming book