The Indian subcontinent is home to a variety of fighting styles.
Sanskrit terms for "martial art" include dhanurveda (from dhanus "bow"
and veda "knowledge", literally the "science of archery" in Puranic
literature, later applied to martial arts in general) śastravidyā (from
vidyā "learning , knowledge" and śastra "sword, weapon"), literally
"knowledge of the sword". The Vishnu Purana text describes dhanurveda as
one of the traditional eighteen branches of "applied knowledge" or
upaveda. The historical form of wrestling is called mallayuddha in the
north and malyutham in the south.
In contemporary India, major martial arts styles practiced are
Kalaripayattu in Kerala, Southern India (an umbrella term for diverse
armed and unarmed styles), and Pehlwani wrestling in Northern India.
Notable regional styles include thang-ta from Manipur and gatka from the
Further information: History of martial arts and Military history of
Further information: Asian martial arts (origins)
Indian epics contain accounts of combat, describing warriors such as
Bhima. The Mahabharata describes a prolonged battle between Arjuna and
Karna using bows, swords, trees, rocks and fists. Another unarmed
battle in the Mahabharata describes two fighters boxing with clenched
fists and fighting with kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and
headbutts. 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.
Written evidence of martial arts in Southern India dates back to the
Tamil Sangam literature of about the 2nd century BC to 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. Each
warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training in target
practice and horse riding. They specialized in one or more of the
important weapons of the period including the vel (lance or spear), val
(sword), kedaham (shield), and vil ambu (bow and arrow). The combat
techniques of the Sangam period were the earliest precursors to
The word kalari is mentioned in Sangam literature from the 2nd century
BC. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the martial arts of ancient
Tamilakkam including forms of one-to-one combat, and the use of spears,
swords, shields, bows and silambam. The word "kalari" appears in the
Puram and Akam to describe both a battlefield and combat arena.
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.
References to fighting arts are found in early Buddhist texts. The Lotus
Sutra (ca. 1st century AD) refers to a boxing art while speaking to
Manjusri. It also categorized combat techniques as joint locks, fist
strikes, grapples and throws. The Lotus Sutra also referred to a martial
art with dance-like movements called Nara. Another early Buddhist sutra
called Hongyo-kyo describes a "strength contest" between Gautama
Buddha's half-brother Prince Nanda and his cousin Devadatta. Siddhartha
Gautama himself was a champion of swordplay, wrestling and archery
before becoming the Buddha.
Some authors contend that the 4th century BC invasion of the borders of
India by Alexander the Great laid the foundation of Indian martial arts
by dispersing pankration techniques throughout the subcontinent, but to
what extent parallels between Indian and Greek martial arts might also
represent cases of parallel development is a subject of debate.
Classical period (3rd to 10th centuries)
17th century mural of Balarama in a south Indian temple. Martial arts
are often associated with avatars 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
Mushti, a grappling style, is mentioned in sources of the early
centuries CE. Indian military accounts of the Gupta Empire (c. 240-480)
identified over 130 different classes of weapons. 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.
The Sushruta Samhita (c. 4th century) identifies 107 vital points on the
human body of which 64 were classified as being lethal if properly
struck with a fist or stick. 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. 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.
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.
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-ksatria 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)".
The earliest extant manual of dhanurveda is in the Agni Purana (dated to
between the 8th and the 11th century), The dhanurveda section in the
Agni Purana spans chapters 248-251. It divides the art into five parts,
* yantra-mukta (projectile weapons such as the sling or the bow),
* pāṇi-mukta (hurling weapons such as the javelin),
* mukta-sandharita or muktāmukta (weapons that can be used for either
hurling or thrusting, such as the spear),
* hasta-śastra or amukta (melee weapons that do not leave the hand, such
as the sword),
* bāhu-yuddha (unarmed fighting).
The duel with bow and arrows is considered the most noble or manly,
fighting with the spear ranks next, while fighting with the sword is
considered unmanly, and wrestling is classed as the meanest or worst
form of fighting. Only a Brahmin could be an acharya (teacher) of
dhanurveda, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas should learn from the Brahmin
teachers, while a Shudra could not take a teacher, left to "fight of his
own in danger".
There follow nine asanas 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
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), 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 tomara or iron club, the gaḍa or mace, the axe, the hammer,
the bhindipāla or laguda, the vajra, the dagger, the slingshot, and
finally deeds with a bludgeon or cudgel.
Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries)
Further information: Origins of Kalarippayattu and Malla-yuddha
The earliest treatise discussing the techniques of malla-yuddha is the
Malla Purana (ca. 13th century). Other old styles like Varma Kalai, and
kalaripayat had developed into their present forms by the 11th century,
during an extended period of warfare between the Chera and Chola
Organised martial arts in ancient India included malla-yuddha, or
combat-wrestling, codified into four forms, 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. Based on such accounts, Svinth (2002) traces press ups
and squats used by Indian wrestlers to the pre-classical era.
There are scattered references to dhanurveda in other medieval texts,
such as the Kamandakiya Nitisara (ca. 8th c., ed. Dutt,
1896), the Nitivakyamrta by Somadeva Suri (10th c.), the Yuktikalpataru
of Bhoja (11th c.) and the Manasollasa of Somesvara III (12th c.) There
is an extant dhanurveda-samhita dating to th mid 14th century, by Brhat
Sarngadhara Paddhati (ed. 1888).
Mughal era (1526 to 1857)
The khanda, a native straight sword is a classical Rajput and Sikh
After a series of victories, the Muslim 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 Persian-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. There is also a
17th-century Dhanurveda-samhita attributed to Vasistha.
Maratha era (1650 to 1857)
Marathas used their own form of war art called "Mardani khel" Maradni
means manly and khel means game. This martial art suits maharashtras
hilly region where it was originated. It involves deep stance rapid
movements.Use of double edged pata swords known as dand patta is
Modern period (1857 to present)
Indian martial arts underwent a period of decline after the introduction
of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British
colonial rule in the 19th century. 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. The British colonial government
banned kalaripayat in 1804 in response to a series of revolts. During
this time, many martial arts were confined to rural areas. 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. Since then, other regional styles were
subsequently revived such as silambam in Tamil Nadu, and thang-ta in
As in other respects of Indian culture, Indian martial arts can be
roughly divided between Northern and Southern India, more or less
corresponding to the major ethnolinguistic grouping of Indo-Aryan vs.
Dravidian speaking populations.
The main difference is, again as in Indian culture in general, that
Northern India was more exposed to Persianate influence during the
Mughal period, while Southern India is more conservative in preserving
In addition to this major division, there are numerous styles of folk
wrestling particular to individual tribes or castes.
The typical form of martial art in Northern India is Pehlwani or "Indian
wrestling", adapted from the Persian Varzesh-e Pahlavani during the
Mughal period. Gatka is a style of śastravidyā associated with the Sikhs
of the Punjab in particular. Thang-Ta is an armed style associated with
the Meitei of northeastern India in particular.
Typical martial arts of Southern India are Kalaripayat and Varma ati,
which developed into their extant forms from around the 11th century,
during the extended period of warfare between the Chera and Chola
dynasties. A traditional martial art of Sri Lanka is Angampora.
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.
In Andhra Pradesh, there is Kathi Samu ("sword fight"), especially
patronized in the principalities and Zamindaris of Vizianagaram in the
northern most coastal Andhra and Karvetinagaram in the southern Chittoor
district. The swords used for Kathi samu are of various types. Besides
the long, curved sword, they also use a Limcha and the Pata, a sword
with a wooden cover. A shield (daal) or the horn of a lamb is also used
as a shield. While the leaders (Senapathis) use a shield, the ordinary
soldiers use a horn. As practiced today, Kathi Samu is purely a
performance art and not competitive. The performance starts with the
skilful display of stick fight (Karra Samu) as a prelude to the sword
fight demo and the skills shown in the use of the sword. The stick fight
is called vairi. The starting is called pataka or ettubadi. A sword
fight demo follows this. Each time two members of the team come into the
garidi (fighting place) and show their skill in sword fight, using each
time one particular type of sword. At the end comes the pair using two
swords, one in each hand. Other important aspects of the sword-skills
are noteworthy. The first among them is the Dal Farri Khadga - a display
of two people with swords and shields. Another skill is Gareja: a man
holding four swords, two in each hand and move them to protect himself
and to strike at the foe. During the village festivals and also in the
marriage processions of some communities in the Guntur, Krishna, East
and West Godavari districts, Karra samu is a necessary attraction. When
the marriage procession or the temple procession stops at a centre where
four roads meet, the karra samu experts come forward and show their
skills usually to the beating of the dappu. The performance starts with
the showing of individual talents. A fighter comes into the arena (Garidi)
and points out his stick in different angles to the beats of dappu. In
some areas Tasha, an instrument, which gives fierce inspiring noise, is
also used. Sometimes a whistle called Bigil is used. Then the fighter
holds the stick in the middle and shows his mettle by moving it in all
directions as though he is protecting himself against several opposing
fighters. All the other team members also show similar skills.
The Sanskrit term for a wrestling match is malla-yuddha. It is today
applied to indigenous traditions of folk wrestling in South India, while
wrestiling in North India is dominated by the Persian-influenced
Mukna is a style of folk wrestling from Manipur. Inbuan Wrestling is a
folk style of Mizoram.