Silambam: An unlimited martial art form faces uncertain future

Players learn much more than just competitive sport

Culture

June 24, 2021

/ By / Gurugram

Silambam: An unlimited martial art form faces uncertain future

Many Silambam players learn to perform the complicated art of fire blowing (Photo: N.Silambarasan)

Martial arts have existed in India since the Vedic period and have been documented in Sanskrit texts, each regional form known for being used in different wars throughout history. Silambam is an ancient Indian martial art of fencing that originated in Tamil Nadu.

Karthik Ajay, a self-defence trainer from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, had first thought of Silambam as simply an old tradition that did not hold any value in modern times. But after going through some difficult times in his personal life and feeling lost, it suddenly came into his life and inspired him towards on the right path again.

“I felt like I didn’t have any identity. I thought of consuming alcohol and even tried to smoke like many other boys over here, but luckily my friends were very supportive during this tough phase. And there I found a golden gem amongst my friends who was a Silambam player. He was the one who taught me the beauty of Silambam as a sport and martial art rather than just a forgotten piece of the past,” Ajay tells Media India Group.

According to Sangam literature, the history of Silambam dates back to 4th century BC, when it was used for self-defence and to ward off dangerous animals with the sport’s main weapon, a 3-foot-long bamboo staff, known as “Silambambu” in Tamil.

Later, it evolved into present-day martial art and was notably used by Tamil kings and their armies to successfully fight the British army from 1760 to 1799, causing severe losses. Before the British period, awareness about Silambam had spread internationally, throughout southeast Asia and some parts of Europe and North Africa, and the staves, along with pearls, swords, and armour were in great demand while trading with these kings. Eventually, when the colonists triumphed, they banned Silambam and other martial arts and traditional weapons in India during the British Raj, instead focusing on modern military training with firearms. After the end of the British rule in 1947, the ban was lifted and silambam was revived in India.

Although the main focus of the martial art is the bamboo staff, there are some variations. One type of staff that is very popular as well as weighted or lighted balls of cloth on each end of the stick, called ‘torch Silambam’ or ‘Panthukol’. This is the weapon mostly used by fire dance performers at events or festivals that showcase Silambam.

Originally a martial art that was taught by the guru to the student and practiced without formal levels, Silambam has now transformed into a competitive sport. As this was only a recent development, it could be one of the reasons why Silambam hasn’t received as much attention as established martial arts like karate. Players compete in state and nationwide competitions, and a Silambam match is usually three minutes long with two 90-second fights.

Footwork techniques, 16 positions in the sport in total, are vital in the sport, and practitioners must learn how to maintain a proper fighting stance while simultaneously employing various moves with the stick and continuously blocking attacks. Flexibility, hand-eye coordination, kinaesthetic awareness and a combination of balance, strength and speed are crucial skills learned during fighting.

A variety of weapons are used in Silambam (Photo: Arunachalam Mani)

“The very first time I held the stick in my hands, everyone made fun of me and discouraged me, but I have never thought of giving up on this since it has turned into my life’s passion. At my first state level tournament, I was scared but I managed to win a gold medal! The medal was awarded in my own college, which was truly a moment of pride. It was a really remarkable and unforgettable memory and with it I was able to create a new identity for myself,” says Ajay.

Ajay went on to win more gold medals in three consecutive state matches and then won another at his first national-level match. It was a turning point in his life and further inspired him to become a coach so he could pass on his dream to other aspiring players.

Although Silambam has become a lifelong passion for many players, some agree that it lacks proper recognition as a sport in India. In 2019, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognised Silambam Asia and the World Silambam Association and gave it Special Status in the United Nations. Silambam has also been approved and recognised by other international sports organisations such as TAFISA (The Association for International Sport for All) and ICSSPE (International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education), but strangely, despite being such an ancient Indian martial art form, it has not received its due from the Central government.

In 2020, the Sports Ministry approved the inclusion of four indigenous sports – Gatka, Kalaripayattu, Thang-ta, and Mallakhamba in Khelo India Youth Games 2021, but Silambam was left out. Situations like this make it difficult to procure funding for matches and Silambam is often seen as more of a performance art rather than a competitive martial art form.

N. Silambarasan, a 4-time National Gold Medalist, participates in a touch and take match

This is why players like Ajay find it important to spread the message. Some players have started popular Instagram pages to promote the sport, such as @silambam_vicky_ which has more than 20,000 followers.

In particular, Ajay emphasises the idea that there should be more female Silambam players, because aside from being a competitive sport, it also teaches self-defence techniques, which is a necessity especially in India.

“My utmost thought is that young girls and women should show more interest towards this self-defensive art which will be highly beneficiary for them. It will increase their level of self-confidence and they will be able to go around places at any time without fear. I have witnessed my female students possessing these features and the variations within them after getting proficient and many of them have won in National level tournaments too! So, I think it is very important to introduce girls to martial arts right from their schooling, because it’s something apart from sports that is highly helpful in maintaining a coherent brain functionality level and staying fit and healthy,” explains Ajay.

Silambam has also been heavily encouraged by Tamil movies, such as M G Ramachandran’s films from the 1950’s and 1960’s which featured Silambam in an attempt to popularise the sport, and was most recently highlighted in the martial arts film 7aum Arivu (2011). Nowadays, it is often a training mandate for aspiring action heroes in Tamil cinema and those preparing for stunt scenes, as its range of techniques are perfect for performing fight sequences and improving agility and strength.

Ajay aims to expand his knowledge of techniques in Silambam, and take it to the next level by incorporating skating as well. He hopes that Silambam will eventually become more accepted, as this would greatly encourage and improve opportunities for aspiring players.

“Silambam should be recognised in India and as well in the world and I hope that eventually, it can be added in the list of Asian and Olympic tournaments, where people all over the world might come to know about this energetic sport!” says Ajay.

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