CHENNAI : Two women sporting a panchakacham-style sari, twist and twirl a bamboo staff up in the air, rotate it in a different direction and defend themselves, showcasing a combination of movements. We’re at one of the Silambam classes in the city. The 3,000-oddyear- old martial art, perhaps one of the oldest has evolved from being an art employed in warfare, combats, competitive sports, performance arts to being a fitness regime.
Where it all began
Known as the pride of Tamil Nadu, Silambam was earlier used as self-defense by tribals and was eventually mastered by our ancestors to prove their vigour and masculinity. Power Pandian Aasan, city-based renowned stunt master and senior vice president of the World Silambam Federation, strives hard to keep the traditional form alive. He has taken the sport to an international platform through the World Silambam Federation along with his team.
Aasan has been taking lessons since 1983 under one of the best Silambam practitioners, Maadakulam Ravi. He now owns a Martial Arts and Cine Stunts Academy at YMCA Physical Education College. “Like how sage Patanjali is to yoga, sage Agastya is to Silambam. You can find information about the martial art in palm leaf manuscripts under the topic Kambusoothram. Silambam was practised predominantly during the period of Chola, Chera and Pandiyas. In the 8th century, freedom fighter Velu Nachiar practised it.
Eventually, through saint Bodhi Dharma, the awareness spread to other parts,” says Power Pandian Aasan. We’re told that the word ‘silam’ means hill and ‘bam’ means bamboo or ‘perambu’ out of which the staff (stick) is made. The length of the staff depends on the height of the practitioner. Ideally, it should just touch the forehead — measuring around 1.68 metres (five and a half feet). Weapons are modified for different purposes. For instance, the chedikutchi or threefoot stick can be easily concealed.
It is considered to be the most lethal. Commonly used weapons are maru (deer horns), savuku (whip), vaal (curved stick), and sedikuchi (short stick). The weapons are said to be inspired by animal movements — a hopping deer, a frog’s leap, and a jumping monkey.
Survival of the fittest
Tamil Selvan, a 20-something Silambam practitioner, has been teaching the art to 40 students for the past seven years. “The takers for the art form have increased over the years. Some are learning to revive it, some are here to make a mark in Silambam as a sport, while some have taken to it as a fitness activity,” he sharesFrom basic bamboo kambus (staff) of different lengths, madavu, spears, to metal whips, Tamil Selvan’s storeroom is stacked with equipment of different shapes and sizes. “Silambam is not just about twirling a ‘stick’. It has multiple variations and it takes close to two years to master the basics,” he says. He conducts weekend classes in Perambur and charges `300- `500 a month.
Moses, a Thiruvanmayur- based Silambam mentor tells us that the scope for the martial art form as a competitive sport has increased in the last few years. Tamil Selvan chips in saying, “The tournaments are competitive but safe. For instance, the edges of the stick are covered with foam rolls, and scores are calculated when the end(s) of the stick touches the other participant. Protective gear and guards are a must and it is conducted like any other sport. I am sure someday it will be a part of the Olympics,” he shares.
Silambam goes places
The martial art is registered under the Indian Sports Federation. The grading is based on a belt system like that of karate. There are a number of events classified based on age (5-35), weight and sex. There are individual, dual as well as group events. We have the Nedunkambu Veechu which is a single long stick, Alangarasutru which is the dramatic and decorative stunts, Maan Kombu (deer horns), Velkambu (stick with a spearhead) and Surulvaal which is a mental whip. Individuals are scored based on the number of stunts they perform and the variety they exhibit within two minutes of time. “Dual combat is the much sought after area.
Two people fight against each other using weapons like Vaalveechu (sword) and Kambu sandai (combat). The opponents are given one minute each to prove themselves. Touch system is considered crucial in all weapon fights. The participants are given a protective head and vest gears. Areas of abdomen, head, chest, groin and fingers are considered sensitive zones which when violated leads to disqualification. The event is monitored by three referees and judges, and participants are marked on a scale of 10.
The event concludes with a choreographed fight between teams as a group simultaneously exhibiting different stunts,” says Aishwarya Manivannan, international Silambam champion. Silambam has spread its roots globally. Participants across Asia, Portugal, Surinam, Taiwan, Philippines, China, Japan, Uzbekistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and Indonesia take part in the tournaments. Every country is said to have its own weapon, styling and adaptations but everything falls under the umbrella term Silambam.
“Taking up any sport depends on a person’s body type and weight. Silambam can also be practised for relaxation but demands perseverance, discipline and resolution. A slight miss can hurt your own body leaving you with serious injuries. And like any other sport, the body requires an equal amount of proteins and carbs to function effectively depending on an individual’s body type, fitness, stamina and health,” says Aishwarya. (With inputs from Roshne Balasubramanian)