Gatka is a traditional South Asian form of combat-training in which wooden sticks are used to simulate swords in sparring matches. In modern usage, it commonly refers to the northwestern Indian Martial Arts, which should more properly be called shastara vidiyā (ਸ਼ਸਤਰ ਵਿਦਿਆ, from Sanskrit sastra-vidya or “science of weapons”). In English, the terms gatka and shastar vidya are very often used specifically in relation to Panjabi-Sikhs. In actuality, the art is not unique to any particular ethno-cultural group or religion but has been the traditional form of combat throughout north India and Pakistan for centuries. Attacks and counterattacks vary from one community to another but the basic techniques are the same. This article will primarily use the extended definition of gatka, making it synonymous with shastara-vidiya.
Gatka can be practiced either as a sport (khel) or ritual (rasmi). The sport form is played by two opponents wielding wooden staves called gatka. These sticks may be paired with a shield. Points are scored for making contact with the stick. The other weapons are not used for full-contact sparring, but their techniques are taught through forms training he ritual form is purely for demonstration and is performed to music during occasions such as weddings, or as part of a theatrical performance like the chhau dance. A practitioner of gatka is called a gatkabaj while a teacher is addressed as Guru or Gurudev.
Gatka originated in what is now north India and neighboring Pakistan where the regional system of fighting is today most commonly termed shastara-vidiya, originally a classical Sanskrit word for armed combat. Its creation is attributed to the god Shiva and his devotees. The oldest manual on the northern Indian fighting system was said to have been the Shiva Dhanurveda, at present no longer extant. The sage Vasishastha is said to have based his own work, the Dhanuveda Samhita, on the aforementioned manual. Early Shaivite sages and Kapalika are credited as progenitors and disseminators of the art of combat, even the most peaceful of whom are recorded as being fierce when confronted by enemies.
By the 6th century BC, ten fighting styles were said to have already been in existence, developed in different regions for use in different terrain. Their convergence is traditionally traced to the city of Takshashila in present-day West Punjab, Pakistan. Held in high regard by the eastern janapada for its connection to the ancient epics, Takshashila quickly became a hub of trade and higher education. Known particularly for its schools of law, medicine and military sciences, the city attracted students from throughout South Asia. Takshashila provides the earliest tangible evidence of the teaching of systemized combat in the Panjab region, especially but not exclusively archery. But as a city built on scholarship with little in the way of natural defenses, Takshashila witnessed a string of foreign conquests throughout its history before finally being sacked by the White Huns in the 5th century AD. The rest of India was spared from the Huns in large part due to the efforts of various Indian kings who rose up against the conquerors.
Beginning in the 10th century Muslim raiders began invading northern India, resulting in violent confrontations which would continue for centuries. The dharma (duty) enjoined by the kyshatria caste gave rise to numerous warriors and communities regarded as heroes of the martial ethos, such as the Gurjaras and their Raiput successors. In one famous battle, Govinda-raja of Delhi dueled Muhammed of Ghor. Each on horseback, Govinda lost his front teeth to the Ghorid’s lance, but eventually won the contest by piercing his opponent’s arm with his spear. Ultimately, the increasing number of Mongol-Turkic adventurers from Central Asia brought most of north India under Muslim rule. Consequently, Middle Eastern weapons and armour were adopted by the Indians, such as the talwar and shamshir. The South Asian application of these weapons incorporated them into the indigenous techniques, making them unique rather than borrowing from the original Middle Eastern fighting style.
The Muslim rulers generally looked at their Indian subjects with contempt, regarding them as a “horrifying mass of uncultured infidels”. Increasing trends of Islamic exclusivity caused dissent among agrarian communities like the Jat people, and were met with outright defiance by the more martial Rajputs, Marathas and Panjabis. However, this was not always the case with some of the Mughal tribe who often adopted Indian traditions and weapons on a large scale, such as the katara (dagger) and gatka in general. This was epitomized by the Emperor Akbar who, unlike his predecessors, was born in an Indian village under Hindu protection and developed a lifelong interest in both indigenous and foreign spirituality. Akbar famously viewed Indians as his countrymen and during his half-century in power went as far as lifting discriminatory policies against Hindus and celebrating local festivals. In addition to this, he was an expert gatka practitioner who practiced with a sword and shield everyday
Because of its location, the Punjab has always been particularly susceptible to foreign conquest. Since the time of Harappa and Takshila, over a period of two millennia the region witnessed invasions by the Indo-Aryans, Muslims and Europeans. The Mahabharata epic is based on historical battles between the warring kings of Karnal. Sikhs and Panjabis in general were known throughout South Asia for their stature and comparatively large build. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born into a kyshatria family and according to Nihang tradition was taught the art of combat by sadhus of the Natha sect. His successor, Guru taught followers to train the body physically, mentally and spiritually, encouraging the practice of martial arts. One of Guru Nanak’s early disciples, Baba Buddha taught the boy who would eventually become the sixth Sikh patriarch, Guru Hargobind
Guru Hargobind founded the original Sikh fighting school, the Ranjit Akhara (lit. “Invincible training hall”) at Amritsar, with its armed force known as the Akal Sena or “immortal army”. He propagated the theory of the warrior-saint (miri-piri) and emphasized the need to practice fighting for self-defence against the Mughal rulers due to growing animosities. The Guru began the practice of laying out weapons in the form of a lotus flower for saluting and worshipping before a training session. The weapons were a straight khanda (sword) representing Mahakala and a curved talwar (sabre) representing Bhavani. These would be stuck to a plaque mounted with idols of Hindu gods and designated a chief’s rank. This symbol, known as a “rose-weapon”, was said to include “those weapons which everyone has”, indicating common arms. The Prem Sumārag tells that these are the katara (dagger), churi (knife), jamadār (poniard), kirpan (sword), kamān (bow), and dhāla (shield).
The tenth patriarch Guru Gobind Singh was a master of armed fighting who carried five weapons (pancha shastra): the karaga (sword), kamān (bow), chakram (war-quoit), katara and banduk (rifle). In 1699 he galvanized the martial energies of the Sikh community by founding the Khalsa brotherhood. Under his leadership, the Sikh community turned from a scattered movement of socio-religious reform to a prominent military force and quickly developed a reputation as a warrior people which would carry into the present day. Supporters of this more confrontational stance came from around north India. Addressing the Sikh community, he declared that they “will love the weapons of war, be excellent horsemen, marksmen and wielders of the sword, the chakram and the spear. Physical prowess will be as sacred to you as spiritual sensitivity.”
The Khalsa’s aims were to fight oppression, assist the poor, worship the one God, abandon superstition, and defend the freedom of faiths. This is symbolised by the kirpan or dagger, one of the five Ks which every baptised Sikh is required to carry. In regards to training the brotherhood, Guru Gobind Singh pledged that he would “teach the sparrow to fight the hawk”. Women faced no restriction from learning the use of weapons, due to the Guru’s teaching of gender equality. The Nihang, a strict warrior order of Sikhs, exemplified his principles of combining spirituality with combat training.
After the Guru and his sons were assassinated in the early 1700s, the disciple Banda Singh Bahadur began collecting arms and followers. Though poorly armed, Banda’s followers were well-trained in the martial arts and managed to systematically storm the region’s Muslim towns. The continued onslaught of the emperor forced Banda and his sympathisers to flee to the hills, and he was eventually captured and killed along with 700 other Sikhs. But by following his example, the Sikhs managed to subvert the foundations of Mughal power until the province was in total disarray by the mid-18th century.
Even from childhood, Sikhs would supplement their training with martial games or sonchi which were meant to develop physical fitness, endurance, flexibility and agility. The famous commander Nawab Kapur Singh is recorded as playing such a game during his childhood by organizing the boys into two armies who would engage each other in mock warfare. Their fights were aggressive and hardly less dangerous than real combat. During one training exercise Kapur Singh himself was struck in the shoulder with a blow so deep that the doctors believed he would not recover.
Following the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848 to 1849 and the establishment of the British Raj, the northwest Indian martial traditions and practitioners suffered greatly. Ever wary of the Sikhs, the British ordered effective disarmament of the entire community. The Nihang considered the keepers of all Sikh traditions, were regarded as disloyal to the colonists. More than 1,500 Nihang were killed by the British for plotting rebellion. According to folklore, some fled and spent the rest of their lives in the northern mountains.
During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sikhs assisted the British in crushing the mutiny. As a consequence of this assistance, restrictions on fighting practices were relaxed. The old method of sword training was used by the Khalsa Army in the 1860s as practice for hand-to-hand combat. Richard F. Burton describes gatka matches in which the swordsmen fight with a ribboned stick in one hand and a small shield in the other.
As Sikh colleges opened during the 1880s, European rules of fencing were applied to create what is now called khel or sport gatka. The European colonists also brought Sikhs from India to other British colonies to work as soldiers and security guards. Gatka is still practiced by the Sikh communities of former British colonies and neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Due to the large overseas Panjabi-Sikh community, it is has become a common misconception that gatka is practiced only by Sikhs
The traditional training hall for gatka is the akhara Sikhs may train in a religious or semi-religious situation, such as in a gurdwara (Sikh temple). Traditionally, drug addiction and alcoholism were considered among the worst of earthly evils, and masters refused to teach addicts or drunkards. Typical akhara still do not allow anyone to enter the training hall while intoxicated.
Like most South Asian martial arts, gatka begins with footwork and tactical body positioning (pentra). The foundation of the art is a movement methodology for the use of the feet, body, arms and weapons in unison. In the first and most basic stance, the feet are spaced about shoulder-width apart with the weight divided evenly between them. While walking from this position, the exponent spills their centre of gravity as they initiate any movement. This is done by stepping forward just before the front knee locks out, never hyper-extending the leg at any point. This gait is meant to be applied to daily life so that it becomes natural in battle where it allows one to quickly change direction. Gatka favors rhythmic movement, without hesitation, doubt or anxiety. The attacking and defense methods are based upon the positions of the hands, feet and weapon(s) during the dexterity regimen. Chanting of holy verses may accompany these exercises, and the three-beat-per-cycle played by a drummer adds to the coordination during practice.
By conception, gatka is defensive as well as offensive Instruction falls into the two main categories of sava-raksha (self-defense) and yuddha-vidiya (battlefield science). Sava-raksha takes into account the specific needs, strength and anatomy of the practitioner. Teachings include armed and unarmed fighting, defense against an armed opponent, defense against several opponents, escaping from grabs, and the psychology of combat. It also incorporates various battle chants, verbal formula, and general philosophical advice on fighting and defending oneself. Tactics and moves exist which are specifically tailored for women and children
In contrast, yuddha-vidiya is much more comprehensive. Fully mastering it is said to take a lifetime due to the fact that a master needs to learn the form, function, and theory of the art before being considered a gurudeva. This refers to the actual techniques, their application in combat, and memorising the oral tradition which includes various strategems. Like sava-raksha, yuddha-vidiya also teaches single combat, fighting in groups, defense against several opponents, etc. But as the latter was designed for war training, it also includes skirmishing, ambushes, battle formations, defense of a house (ger), and defense of a village (gao). Yuddha-vidiya further incorporates projectile weapons, seizing and disarming, strangling (thagi), and traditional medicine.
The concept of range is based on the principle that, no matter how strong or fast the opponent is, it means nothing if they can’t reach their target. The ideal range therefore is just barely out of reach of the opponent’s weapon, or the tip of their toe in the case of unarmed fighting. Side-stepping is used extensively, anticipating an opponent’s move before countering. Dodging is considered superior and more important than blocking, which necessitates agility and speed. As a person gets older and agile maneuvers become less practical, the exponent adapts their style to become what is traditionally described as “lazy”. This essentially means using fewer movements to win, applying superior tactical knowledge rather than physical prowess.
Gatka emphasizes having something in both hands, e.g. two sticks, a stick and a sword, a sword and a shield or any other combination. Training with “both hands full” is believed to be an excellent exercise for coordinating the two halves of the body, a concept also found in Filipino martial arts. Ambidexterity is thus a highly valued quality, and such a fighter is known in Hindi as doh-baha. Students are taught stances (asana) and forms (yudhan) before they progress to free sparring. The individual’s preference for weapons, combination of weapons, and movement patterns leads to the development of individual fighting methods.
A basic concept of the north Indian martial arts is that of chatka meaning a quick kill. The traditional Hindu method of slaughtering an animal for food was by beheading swiftly with a single blow of the sword, so as to inflict as little pain as possible. Conservative Sikhs today abstain from any meat unless the animal was killed in this way. In battle this means finishing the fight as soon as possible, either by killing or otherwise rendering the opponent incapable of continuing by knocking them unconscious, disarming them, or disabling a limb.
To condition their bodies, practitioners may also engage in meditation, yoga, martial games (sonchi), and traditional weight training similar to that used by wrestlers. Together with the dietary regimen this is intended to increase stamina, maintain a healthy digestive system, improve quality of sleep, increase hand speed, improve mind-body coordination, and keep the mind calm even under pressure
Khel (meaning sport or game) is the modern competitive aspect of gatka, originally used as a method of sword-training (fari-gatka) or stick-fighting (lathi khela) in medieval times. Competitor’s spar using sticks called gatka, from which the sport derives its name. The gatka are about three hand spans long, made from light wood or bamboo and covered in leather. It may be used on its own or paired with another stick but for official matches, the gatka is paired with a leather shield called a pari. The fixed distance of sparring was introduced from British fencing during the colonial era. Points are scored for hitting or touching (shu) the opponent with the stick, but hits to vital points are forbidden. Victory by touch is known as shubaj.
While khel gatka is today most commonly associated with Sikhs, it has always been used in the martial arts of other ethno-cultural groups as well such as Rajputs and Mughals. It is still practiced in India and Pakistan by the Tanoli and Gurjara communities. In Manipur, thang-ta practitioners refer to their own sword-practice as cheibi gatka, wherein the players spar with a two-foot leather-encased cudgel which may be paired with a leather shield measuring one metre in diameter. In some arts today, the sword-fighting is more akin to a dance than a form of combat. For example, the daal fari khadga of Andhra Pradesh is usually choreographed, but is performed with real swords and shields rather than wooden ones.
The correct use of weapons is central to gatka, with techniques depending on the nature of the weapon.
Swordsmanship is known as asiyuddha or karaga-yuddha. Ancient swords (assu or khadga) were mostly of the straight variety, their form preserved in the khanda. The most common type of sword today is the Central Asian-derived talwar, but a wide variety of other swords are also incorporated. The more traditional katti is used for advanced forms, in particular those styles based on the Hindu gods. Sword-belts were in general broad and handsomely embroidered. On horseback they were worn on a belt hanging over the shoulder. Otherwise warriors carried their sword by three straps hanging from a waist-belt. The sword may be paired with another sword, an axe, a spear, a katara, a maru, or any other one-handed weapon, but its most typical pairing is with a shield.
Aara demonstration at Sirhind
Types of swords include the following;
Khanda: straight double-edge sword with a broad blade four feet long and a cross hilt
- Talwar / Prak: curved one-sided sword, measuring about 3 feet long
- Katti: lightweight single-edge sword with a slight curve
- Kirpan: originally synonymous with the talwar but today usually refers to a dagger worn by baptised Sikhs at all times
- Kroli: small straight sword or knife
- Kroti: serrated talwar
- Gupti: straight sword concealed in the sheath of a walking stick
- Kora: Nepalese sword with a heavy inward-curving single-edge blade that broadens toward the point
- Aara: flexible sword
A shield always accompanied a sword as part of the swordsman’s equipment. Carried on the left arm, or when out of use, slung over the shoulder, shields were made of steel or hide and were generally from 17 to 24 inches (430 to 610 mm) in diameter. If made of steel they were often highly ornamented with patterns in gold damascening while hide shields bore silver or gold bosses, crescents, or stars. Shields were made of deer, buffalo, nilgai, elephant, or rhinoceros hide, the last being the most highly prized. Brahmans, who objected to leather, had shields made from forty or fifty folds of silk painted red and ornamented, lined with velvet or snakeskin. While shields can be used to block sword attacks, in South Asia they are more often used offensively as an impact weapon or pushed against the opponent to prevent them from attacking, in addition to deflecting projectiles. A dagger is often held in the same hand, protruding from under the shield. Coupled with the fact that most indigenous swords have little defensive capability, swordsmanship in gatka relies heavily on avoiding and outmaneuvering an opponent’s attack.
- Dala/ Khetak: small circular shields of cane or bamboo
- Atak: buffalo-hide shield
- Charm: rhino-hide shield, regarded by Indians as the superior form of shield
All pole weapons begin with the staff, known as a dang. The dang’s ideal length is either equal to the height or the arm span of its wielder. Gatka typically uses a bamboo staff, which may be steel-tipped and encased in leather. This type of dang is held with both hands on one end and used for swinging techniques. The light weight of the bamboo allows for great speed and a variety of twirling maneuvers. This style of fighting was often used by peasants and commoners for whom the staff was a domestic tool and a convenient implement of self-defense. For warriors who used the dang as a training tool for edged weapons, a different method was employed. In this style, the dang is held diagonally with the hands far apart. The butt end of the weapon is held with one hand, while the other hand is further down the middle or just above the other end. This grip lends itself to thrusting attacks aimed at the vital points (marma), done by pushing the weapon forward with the back hand through the front hand, though it also incorporates barta, techniques in which both ends are used to attack. This thrust-based method can be easily adapted to edged weapons such as spears, tridents and battle-axes. In the case of the axe, thrusts hit with the weapon’s head, which can also be used defensively to stop an opponent’s attack or to break their fingers. The barta method can also be adapted to edged polearms, most of which have a weighted or spiked back end. When wielding a heavy polearm in close-quarters, the fighter may hold a katara on one hand.
Gandasa with bhui
Pole weapons include the following.
- Dang/ Lathi: staff of wood or bamboo measuring one to three meters in length
- Naga dang: lit. “snake staff”, a wooden staff with a head like a cobra’s hood
- Chakri dang: bamboo staff with a chakram attached at one end
- Lohangi: metal-capped staff
- Shula: spear
- Trisula: trident used to cut at a horse’s legs, typically with a spiked back end
- Pinakha/ Bisekh: trident with an iron shaft and a bronze head
- Barsha/ Barcha: heavy spear made entirely of iron or steel and used by infantry
- Barshi: short spear or lance
- Ballam: short spear with an almond shaped blade
- Pandi-ballam: hog-spear with an iron leaf-shaped blade at the end of a bamboo shaft
- Bhala: spear with a ridged or grooved blade, sometimes forked
- Bhima pala: heavy spear named after the hero Bhima
- Grar: thorned spear
- Kumbareh: spear used to pierce through the head of war-elephants
- Bijeh: a spear with three stabbing points
- Marhati: 4-foot bamboo spear with blades at both ends. During war, the spearheads would be replaced with flaming cloth balls and used to frighten enemy elephants.
- Sang: Rajput lance made entirely from iron and wielded by cavalry. The long slender head may be 3 or 4-sided and the grip is covered in velvet
- Tasria: bamboo spear with a length of cord attached
- Gandasa: bill-hook or pole-axe with a steel chopper attached to a long pole. Used by the chaukidar or village watchmen
- Gajakati: short poleaxe for cutting at the legs of elephants
- Dhodhara gati: double-edged sword blade attached to a five-foot wooden staff
- Danga: polearm with a crescent shaped blade
- Krapa: polearm with a 3-foot double edge blade on the front end and a spiked metal ball at the back end
- Nagni: snake-head spear
- Neja: Panjabi cavalry lance with a small slender steel head and a long bamboo shaft
- Ankusha: elephant goad. The head of the weapon (ankusha sira) can be wielded on its own in close-quarters
- Nachak: northern forked spear
- Panjamuka: lit. “five-faced”, a Gujerati five-headed spear
Stick-fighting or danda-yuddha employs either the single or double stick. The stick or danda is generally the length of three hand spans and made of Indian ebony. They are often capped with steel on one end. Sticks are used as an implement of instruction for small weapons such as axes (kuhara), but were also used during war to beat down armoured opponents. The danda is traditionally worn on the right side and drawn from underneath the belt, in contrast to swords which are worn on the opposite side and drawn from above. Stick fighters generally employ a single-hand grip but the double grip is also commonly used for certain techniques. When attacking, the fighter hits their opponent with only the rim of the danda’s tip, thereby focusing all the power into a small point. One stance is the angaraksha or bodyguard position in which the feet are placed slightly more than shoulder-width apart and the arms are placed across the chest, as if crossed, while the danda is held in the right hand. This stance was once used by armed guards who relied on their peripheral vision to watch for attackers. Modern exponents still use this form of training to develop surti or awareness so that they can anticipate an attack from behind or from the side without having to look directly at the attacker.
Sticks and club-type weapons include the following.
- Danda: short stick, sometimes with a steel tip
- Kuhara: axe
- Safa jang: small axe
- Mogri: small club
- Mutri: short heavy club or staff
Katara: push-dagger with a H-shaped handle
Kara: iron bracelet worn on one wrist by all Sikhs, removed and wielded like a
Knuckleduster. Some variations may include one or several spikes.
Chakram: circular edged weapon that can be thrown or used in-close
Gada: mace made entirely of steel
Kaman/ Chap/ Khatanga: Bow and arrow, either traditional steel recurve bows or true composite bows made of wood, horn and sinew. Fletched reed arrows with tanged steel points are typically used. Bamboo bows are known as garia
Baneti: two thin chains with blades attached, connected together by a single thick chain
Bindapala: originally a wooden throwing stick, the word also refers to an iron arrow thrown with the hand
Chakari: a wooden ring from which hang cloth or steel balls connected by string or chain. When the balls had been lit with fire, they were twirled in the face of enemy elephants.
Gajagah: originally a title given to a warrior who single-handedly defeats a war-elephant, it now refers to the arrow- and crescent-shaped weapon worn as an ornament by Nihang in their turbans
Kukri: bent dagger which broadens towards the point
Krora: flail consisting of a shaft connected to one or more chained balls. The balls are sometimes spiked
Nagni barcha: javelin
Naka angusht: claw-like weapon worn on the thumb
Pashi: lasso made of plant fibre or metal wire
Samha vali dang kmandi: flail consisting of a ball and chain attached to a metal-capped staff of bamboo or hardwood
Treh kon chura: a knife with two blades protruding from a central handle with their edges facing opposite to each other. A third blade extends from the guard above the handle
Vajra: a type of club said to be able to break sword blades.
Bagh naka: “leopard claw”, a spiked weapon worn on the hand
Maru: a defensive stabbing weapon inspired by deer horns
Ain-i Akbari weaponry
Weapons and armour of Central Asian and Middle Eastern origin were introduced by the Mughal tribe. Most of these are used primarily by Muslim and Sikh practitioners. Some – like the talwar and gurj – were adopted even by Hindus and became so common that they are hardly considered uniquely Mughal today. The Mughals commonly used Arabic or Persian terminology for Indian weapons. The words talwar (Hindi), shamshir (Persian) and tegh (Arabic) were often interchangeable, while the Arabic term sef was occasionally used for the Indian katti. The generic Mughal word for spear was sinan.
- Khanjar: poignard-type dagger with a hilt like a sword of which most had doubly curved blades
- Gurj: Persian gurz, a flanged or spiked mace made out of steel. The head may also be connected to a chain
- Karud: Persian kard, a type of knife resembling a butcher’s knife
- Gupti-karud: a karud inserted into a stick
- Qamchi-karud: whip-shaped knife
- Peshkaj: Persian pesh-kabz, a pointed one-edged dagger generally with a thick straight back to the blade and a straight handle, though at times the blade was curved, or even double-curved.
- Shamshir/ Shamsher: Persian scimitar
- Zaghnal: lit. “crow’s beak”, a battle-axe with one or two curved blades