Every culture and every zone of our diverse country has its very own martial arts and war traditions. Many ceased to be martial forms as they were no match for the British who arrived with guns blazing, quite literally. Some were then turned into dance forms, as a cover-up for their martial nature once the English rulers started a crackdown on anything and anyone carrying arms. Today, after decades of negligence, loss in time and delegation to remote corners of India, many martial art forms are making a comeback, either as a sport or as a dance movement.
One such weapons-based form is the Silambam which originated in Tamil Nadu. It’s got a 3000-year-old history but today, at the forefront of its revival as a sport is a woman — Aishwarya Manivannan — who has brought home three golds from the first South Asian Silambam championship held in Colombo, Sri Lanka in October 2017. An artist, designer and educator by profession, Aishwarya started training in Silambam only five years ago and today she’s an inspiration, representing India.
Unlike Kalaripayattu, the 5000-year-old martial art form from Kerala which burst onto the scene with movie stars to health trainers swearing by its benefits, Silambam is yet to capture the romantic fascination among the current generation. The name Silambam is a form of onomatopoeia, derived from the sound of weapons clashing during a fight. One can trace back the history to Agastya muni. It uses several types of swords, shield and bamboo staff, and was used to oppose British invaders. After British crackdown, Silambam almost disappeared in Tamil Nadu, but thrived in other parts of Southeast Asia.
Then came Tamil cinema which mostly stereotyped this martial form as a typical masculine feat performed by well-built men in traditional attire. It was only in 2016 when Manivannan uploaded a YouTube video of herself performing Silambam that the public started to develop an interest and true awareness of the art form. Since then, Manivannan has not looked back, breaking stereotypes and gender ceilings.
How did Silambam happen? “By profession, I am an artist and a designer. Previously, I used to learn Bharatnatyam and my guru was once talking about how martial arts can help improve body language for dance. That’s when I started looking up traditional martial arts classes in Chennai and was introduced to Silambam,” says Manivannan.
When she started training, she did not know much about the depth and dynamism of Silambam. “Since I have been pursuing various forms of physical activities — tennis, cycling, trekking, dance, gym training — I realised that Silambam is a complete full-body activity. Other forms target specific areas of the body and propagate certain types of fitness, but Silambam is holistic in terms of physical activity.
It is very effective for people living in an urban setting. The way the activity unfolds, it takes care of everything from muscle strengthening, agility, flexibility, core strengthening, footwork, balance to breathing. You don’t need a special area, court or equipment to train. Once you pick up the basics, which is with a staff or stick movements, you can easily practise in your backyard or on the terrace.
Silambam has become an integral part of my everyday life. Recently, on a backpacking trip to Italy, I carried a folding staff and would practise in any open spaces, campsite and hostels.
A lot of ancient art forms may not be relevant to present day, but Silambam retains its viability. It not only takes care of our physical well-being but one also needs concentration to perform it. It’s holistic because it helps develop mental orientation as well.
One of the biggest advantages is that there’s no age bar and does not require any prior fitness level. The activity or art form by itself has a way of conditioning the body so one can start learning at the age of five or six. “I know of sexagenarians without any background of physical activities, who have started learning Silambam. I believe that this is one activity you can do throughout your life,” she concludes.