Exploring Chennai, one might notice locals wielding bamboo sticks at one another that look much like fencing or samurai fighting. Do not be mistaken though. You are witnessing Silambattam, also known as Chilambam or Silambam, a traditional martial art that originated in Tamil Nadu. It is even said that the Olympic sport of fencing may have owed its origins to this less famous sport of Silambattam.
The Dravidian kings in Tamil Nadu promoted Silambattam during the Sangam period around third century BC to third century AD as a form of sport as well as self-defence. During the regular sea trade activities between the Dravidian kings and foreigners such as the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, the silambam bamboo staffs were of great interest among the visitors.
Aside from the staffs, which are customized to the height of the practitioner, a number of other weapons are also employed in the practice of Silambattam. The maduvu or deer horn, vaal or sword, kali or stick, and kathi/knife are a few of these weapons, as are the knuckle duster called a kuttu katai, dagger called a kuttuval, and whips with several flexible and metallic blades called surul pattai. However, students must master the footwork before handling any of the weapons especially the staff or stick. When practicing footwork, one must have bare hands but move as if holding the stick as well. The techniques taught to students were derived from natural defensive strokes of animals such as the monkey, snake, and hawk.
As with fencing, much of the power in blows basically rests upon wrist movement. Counting “touches” on the opponent serves as a contest in Silambattam as well. Protecting a pouch containing money between one’s feet is also a contest as well as fighting to disarm an opponent. Unlike in fencing though, Silambattam trains the student to defend himself against multiple armed opponents. Placing a mark on the opponent’s forehead makes one a winner.
Unlike most of other martial arts training, Silambattam only has two levels – student or discipline and master or guru. Only when the master presents the student with a red scarf does the student become a master. Learning Silambattam usually takes around seven years to hone each of the techniques and incorporate one with the others. This equates to fluid footwork and fighting strategies. Valuable virtues such as discipline, humility, and peace must also be successfully realized by the student.
Similar to any sports endeavor, Silambattam promotes a healthy body in accordance to a healthy mind. It builds up strength, promotes concentration and alertness, and proper breathing. Furthermore, Silambattam improves one’s sense of timing, keen observation, and intuition.
Indeed, building a strong body takes a lot of time and tons of dedication. Attaining a sound mind though requires much more commitment to discovering one’s own potential by going to great lengths and achieving immense skills. However, there is a way to have the best of both worlds all at the same time. Why not challenge yourself when visiting Chennai by learning Silambattam?