So old, yet so cool

Karate and taekwon-do have been the mainstream martial arts for too long now, with every third boy aspiring to become the next Bruce Lee. But there's a twist to this dream for the younger generation of Indians in Singapore - they are becoming increasingly aware of martial arts that originated from their homeland.

Those martial arts include Kalari Payattu (from Kerala) and Gatka (from Punjab). They are the two most well-known among the many that used to exist in India - or rather, the ones that have prevailed over the ban on the practice of martial arts during British rule in India. The two forms are a major part of the culture in both the states but have transcended the regional boundary and are slowly spreading across the globe.

Kalari Payattu is possibly the oldest martial art in existence, dating back to the 6th century. It was practised by the warrior class in Kerala to defend their king.

According to scholars, it is said that young prince and Kalari Payattu fighter Bodidharma, who became a monk, travelled to China to spread the doctrine of Buddhism and taught it to some Shaolin monks who were unable to defend themselves.

These techniques then spread over the centuries to all over China and even to Okinawa and other parts of Japan, forming the basis of all martial arts. Today Kalari is mostly used for demonstrations and performances, and remains an important element of the south Indian culture.

Gatka is a weapon-based martial art and originated from north-west India.

It is said to have been imparted by the Rajputs (Hindu warriors) to the Sikhs in the 16th century. The 10th guru of the Sikhs encouraged them to train seriously in martial arts, which were used very successfully in battles during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, Gatka has always been associated with spirituality as well.

Just like Kalari, Gatka is nowadays used mainly for performances and demonstrations, especially during Sikh festivals.

Though their popularity is, for the most part, confined to people from those parts of India, there are no restrictions to others learning these martial arts. I myself, being a Punjabi, have been learning Kalari for the past 11/2 years and know many more Indians from other parts of India who are learning them too.

Both martial arts teach the use of weapons such as swords, sticks, a shield, a dagger or a spear, but they are enormously different.

Kalari Payattu is taught in the Fu Chun Community Centre in Woodlands by Master E. Edward a well-established Kalari master, and the man responsible for keeping Kalari alive in Singapore.

The member of the Singapore Martial Arts Instructors Association, who runs the Kalari Payat-Silambam Centre, began teaching in the early 1980s.

He developed a modified version of Kalari Payattu, by infusing it with the art of stick fighting called Silambam, which is considered a martial art on its own in Tamil Nadu.

The master of the art says: "Today, most masters of Kalari Payattu insist on incorporating Silambam as part of the regular syllabus."

The long bamboo stick is one of the first weapons students learn to use, after they are considered adept at earlier exercises. Master E. Edward also introduced the belt system (similar to karate and other martial arts) to Kalari Payat-Silambam in Singapore to make it a little more mainstream and to attract more people. His students have also taken part in martial arts championships, where students from all over the world compete.

He told tabla!: "If I hadn't made an attempt to bring Indian martial arts into Singapore, no one would have known about it."

But why did he decide to teach Kalari- Payattu to people in Singapore? He replied: "I wanted at least the Indian students to know about their culture and heritage, otherwise they would have known only about the Chinese or Malay martial arts." He himself grew up in Singapore, and wanted to pass on his family's teachings to others.

Gatka is taught in the Sikh Temple in Silat Road by Mr Gurpreet Singh, who has been practising Gatka for the past 20 years. He began teaching in Singapore only six months ago, but Gatka has been taught here for eight years now.

Mr Singh told tabla!: "Gatka is an inherent part of Sikh culture and in Punjab it is even taught for free, as we believe it is essential for self-defence." He added: "We have students who sometimes start learning at the age of six. Anyone is more than welcome to learn."

The beauty of these martial arts is not only do they teach one self-defence, they also help improve one's health. They also help to instil discipline, develop concentration and spiritual growth. They are so much a part of the Indian culture that while the youngsters are learning a "cool" martial art, they are also embracing their ancient culture and keeping traditions alive.

Get a copy of tabla! for more stories.