History of Martial Arts - India


The classical Sanskrit epics contain accounts of combat, describing warriors such as Bhima. The Mahabharata describes a prolonged battle between Arjuna and Karna using bows, swords, trees and 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. Other boxing fights are also described in Mahabharata and Ramayana.

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.

A martial art called Vajra Mushti is mentioned in Indian sources of the early centuries AD. Indian military accounts of the Gupta Empire (c. 240-480) identified over 130 different classes of weapons. The Kama Sutra written by Vātsyāyana at the time suggested that women should regularly "practice with sword, single-stick, quarterstaff, and bow and arrow."

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 martial art that allowed kicking, kneeing, elbowing, and punching to the head and chest, but prohibited blows below the waist.

Martial arts were not exclusive to the Kshatriya warrior caste, though they used the arts more extensively. The 8th century text Kuvalaymala by Udyotanasuri recorded martial arts being taught at salad and ghatika educational institutions, where Brahmin 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 Indian marital arts is contained as chapters 248 to 251 in the Agni Purana (c. 8th–11th century), giving an account of dhanurveda in a total of 104 shlokas. These verses describe how to improve a warrior's individual prowess and kill enemies using various different methods in warfare, whether a warrior went to war in chariots, elephants, horses, or on foot. Foot methods were subdivided into armed combat and unarmed combat. The former included the bow and arrow, the sword, spear, noose, armour, iron dart, club, battle axe, discus, and the trident. The latter included wrestling, knee strikes, and punching and kicking methods.

The earliest description of wrestling techniques in Sanskrit literature is found in the Malla Purana (13th century).

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