A Silambam performance is an unforgettable experience. As I watched it live at the Hyderabad Literary Fest, I was blown away by the grace, beauty and power of Aishwarya Manivannan’s performance with the bamboo staff (kambu) and other intricate weapons used in this practice. Silambam is a traditional martial art originating from Tamil Nadu that has been extensively used in warfare throughout history. However, it is the performance aspect that makes it so popular among the young generation. It is not an exaggeration to say, that after watching the live performance and eventually researching about it, I felt like running off to Chennai instantly and learn Silambam, such was its impact. Well, that is still on my wish list!
Several Tamil and Telugu films have been made entirely on Silambam like Thaikkupin Tharam, Periya Idathu Penn, Thevar Magan, Silambattam and the magnum opus Baahubali: The Beginning. Silambam has reigned over Kollywood for a long time as most fighting sequences was based on Silambam techniques popularised by MGR. Yet so long its popularity has been limited to the southern part of India. However, Silambam master Power Pandian Aasan (teacher) plans to revive it in full gusto through the trust he has established solely for this purpose. He has not only taught our favourite film stars Silambam for the last 32 years, but also dedicated his entire life in the study and research of this ancient art form. The good news is that he has been able to inspire both the ordinary youth and the elderly to take up Silambam seriously as their fitness mantra.
The reader at this point might ask- so what exactly is Silambam?
Silambam or Silambattam is a 3000-year-old weapon-based Indian martial art that is widely practiced in Tamil Nadu. The word silam means hill in Tamil and the word bam is a shorthand for a particular type of bamboo. Thus, the word Silambam translates as ‘bamboo from the hill’. It is believed that sage Agastya was traveling to Vellimalai and on the way he met an old man who is said to be lord Murugan in disguise, and from him he learnt about Kundalini yoga and how to focus prana through the channels of the body known as nadi. Enriched with this experience he wrote down all the teachings in palm leaf manuscripts of which Kampu sutra or staff classic is an integral part, where advance fighting theories are laid down in verse. This knowledge was passed on to other sages in Agastya muni’s akhara (or gymnasium) where it is believed that many practiced this martial art form. This formed the basis of Silambam. Kalaripayattu is a remarkably close cousin of Silambam as the nimble footwork of this art form from South India is said to have influenced it to a great extent.
There are frequent references of Silambam in Sangam literature the most notable one being Silappadikaram that states that this art form was practised way back in 4th century BC. In the short film on Silambam on Visual Bharat’s YouTube channel champion of this sport and art form Aishwarya Mannivannan points out that when early man was a nomad, he carried long staff or stick to walk long distances and to fend himself from wild animals and other human foes. This shows that not only a staff is a basic weapon of self-defence and the art of Silambam comes naturally to humans, but it needs to be sharpened with practice and dedication under a master. Aishwarya in an interview reveals that she started learning Silambam to improve her Bharatnatyam movements, but she ended up taking this martial art form seriously, going on to win gold medal in it. Practicing Silambam has helped her sharpen her creative skills and thinking capacity.
Silambam indeed has a rich historical legacy as it received patronage from great kings like Puli Thevar and Dheeran Chinnamalai who had a Silambam army named thadii pattalam apart from rulers of the famous Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties. At this time there were exercise centres known as silambak-koodams at the Dravida Nadu which is today's Tamil Nadu. It is among the sixty-four ancient artforms practised in Bharatvarshaa. Valiant rulers like Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Chinna Maruthu and Periya Maruthu relied on their Silambam skills to fight the British. The agile movements of the weapons took the British completely by surprise. Not being able to tackle the enemy the British banned Silambam and this is when the performance aspect of it became prominent. With guns and artillery replacing traditional weapons like the kambu or bamboo staff the warfare and martial art aspect of Silambam vanished till India got her independence. This artform has also taken the shape of a sport as one can see Silambam performances at the Pongal festivals and is a depiction of valour and chivalry when two men fights to win the bride. While Silambam as an art and sport is gradually picking up in India it has already received global recognition by international organisations. With more encouragement from the Central government the Silambam practitioners can continue to make India’s heritage proud globally.
Historians state that even when Silambam was banned by the British their Tamilian subjects turned rebel and kept practicing the art with sugarcane stumps, and whenever they came face to face with their white masters, they were seen eating sugarcane stumps. Such was their love and dedication towards Silambam. Many martial art forms in Southeast Asia has been influenced by Silambam including the Shaolin Style of martial arts and the credit for this really goes to Bodhidharma a Buddhist monk of Indian origin who established and popularised the Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism. He is believed to have spread the teachings of Silambam far and wide. Now it is practised in many Southeast-Asian countries with different names.
Master Power Pandian states, “There are different weapons in Silambam and it takes many years to master it.” Apart from the kambu or the bamboo staff there are other weapons like a large sword or Vaal Veechu, Vel Kambu or spear staff, Madavu or Mann Kombu weapon carved from the horns of the black buck, a staff with flames at the end and a flexible three blade metal whip known as Surul Vaal. The most lethal weapon in Silambam is the Chedi Kutchi which only a privileged few can learn in much advanced stage of the practice. What makes Silambam different from other martial arts is that it has several foot movements and hand rotations informs teacher Power Pandian who has been teaching this art form for the last 27 years. He is a stunt master during the day in the South Indian film industry and many a celebrity has learnt Silambam from him. For him, a regular day looks like- teaching Silambam from 6am to 9am in the morning at his academy then working as a stunt master during the day and in the evening, he again takes classes from 6pm to 9pm. He also spreads awareness about Silambam through books, videos, and discussions through the trust he has established. He also imparts the training free of cost to students who is eager to learn through the trust. It is the rules and regulations that will prevent traditional Silambam to stay relevant in the contemporary times.
Master Power Pandian further adds, "In Silambam, both hand and foot work together and each part of the body gets stimulated simultaneously." In Silambam the stick is used in both the hands, single and double hand and different foot work is used depending on whatever weapons is used. The prime importance is given on learning the footwork. In fact, before even teaching a new student how to use the weapons he or she is taught freehand and leg movements. Since, Silambam is a traditional art form initially there was no grading or belt system like in karate here. However, the belt system has been introduced recently to keep the learners motivated. Master Power Pandian teaches the Madakulam Ravi Aasan style as learnt from his guru. He states that in traditional Silambam the fundamentals remain the same even though the style or techniques as taught by the master can be slightly different. Even though today Silambam is a registered sport and there are several tournaments, still it requires the recognition it truly deserves which is at par with Kalari or other ancient art forms and karate.
He points out, “In ancient days Silambam was taught in the guru’s ashram which was sacred as a temple and the students would leave their shoes outside to show respect to their teacher. While performing Silambam men used to wear kachai and women donned the sari. But the only change that has been made here is that all students wear pants and T-Shirts and perform to a music. Unlike other Olympic sports or other martial arts there are no rules and regulations in traditional Silambam practice. My aim is to formulate proper rules and regulations and form proper syllabus for Silambam and spread it worldwide. This is my next step.”
The benchmark of success for a Silambam practitioner is his or her knowledge in all the three aspects of Silambam- the traditional Silambam, the cinematic (performing art) Silambam and the sport Silambam. Moreover, his passion to learn and resilience counts as much as his confidence, agility, and control.
If one practices the hand and foot movements slowly it feels like meditation and this exercise helps to reduce stress and at the same time strengthens both mind and body. It develops muscular coordination and improves the concentration power. He strongly believes, “Self-defence is not only protecting yourself from enemies but also protecting your health from illness. It should never be used in a wrong way.”
The biggest lesson one takes away from Silambam is treating all genders as equal and with respect. As Aishwarya states, “‘The grace of a woman comes from confidence of deadly strength. It makes her more than equal.” It is as graceful as dance and as powerful as yoga. It can and it has changed lives for many.
Surela Chakraborty is a senior feature journalist with a deep passion for research. She is also a history buff, foodie and an avid traveller.