Whether you like it mild (Gatka) or strong (Shastar Vidya), Sikh martial arts will floor you, and how!
ANU GULMOHAR | Issue Dated: June 7, 2009
The indomitable spirits of the lion-hearted Sikhs are known to have instilled fear into the hearts of many a soul. Their power even helped the nation retain its cultural and religious identity. The secret to their martial prowess was Shastar Vidya. When the Britishers finally managed to constrain the Sikh army in 1849, they immediately did all they could to dilute the tenacity of Shastar Vidya. Yet, in the following years, the art that re-emerged was a watered down version that came to be called Gatka, but there were people who quietly continued to practice Shastar Vidya in its original form…
Hardeep Singh Khalsa belongs to the oldest Gatka group in Amritsar. He says, “Many Sikh communities have changed the style of practicing Gatka. It used to be Shastar Vidya – hand-to-hand combat, basically fight to kill – but it’s now changed. Shastar means weapons and vidya – knowledge; Gatka was what it was called by the British. They saw that the Sikhs were fearless warriors who used guerrilla tactics. They changed a lot of things in our Indian culture and they made changes in Shastar Vidya too because in the army they didn’t want their officials to face such great fighters going at them. They made it look like a game so people start enjoying it. But it is still practiced in the old tradition in the older groups till now.” So the style that one learns depends on where he/she learns Gatka from. The milder version that was allowed to flourish under the British Raj has more practitioners and is thus more popular too. Shastar Vidya practitioners in UK, taught by Nihang Niddar Singh, believe that it is a myth that Gatka and Shastar Vidya are similar. “Gatka and Shastar Vidya are worlds apart,” asserts Nihang Teja Singh who has been learning Shastar Vidya for the past 5-6 years.
Practicing Shastar Vidya helps a person stay fit, as well as fearless and tranquil from within. Back in time, women too were proficient at Shastar Vidya and several bibis are believed to have fought shoulder to shoulder with men in the battlefields. Says Teja Singh, “My main aim was to just keep up the heritage because I realise that the art is dying out… This art has been there for many thousand years and it’s our responsibility to keep it going, to keep it alive.”
Wondering how difficult would this art be to master? “The basics are very easy to pick up but as you advance up the levels of Paenthra (footwork), it becomes more difficult. Once you’ve learnt the basics of different styles, it’s a matter of refining it, and that takes many many years,” says Niddar Singh. “We mainly use tiger step, Lord Shiva step, Hanuman step, bull step, crane, monkey, etc. Just as in Kung-fu, there are different kinds of steps,” explains Hardeep Singh Khalsa.
The similarities in Shastar Vidya and other martial arts lead many to wonder if they have common origins. “In Punjab it is believed to be the grand daddy of all marital arts. The Chinese and the Japanese believe that in the 5th or 6th century, Bodhidharma took the Indian martial arts over to China and Japan. In most of Punjab, especially among the Nihangs, the traditional belief is that it is from Taxila where, after it was plundered around 6 AD by the Huns, the Buddhists took over the art. Instead of crediting Bodhidharma the individual, there is a word ‘Bodhidharm’ in Punjab that translates into ‘Buddhist faith’.” While many proponents of the art also attribute its origins to Sikh gurus, Niddar Singh has a theory which he has developed after extensive research, “The art can be traced back to Shiva. From Shiva it came to the Pashupatis (master of animals, the cavemen) then to Kapalikas, then to Taxila where Kshatriyas trained in it, and from them to Yogis and Sikhs. Sikhs are just the latest custodians of this art.”
Niddar Singh recently demonstrated Shastar Vidya to masters of martial arts from China and Japan. “We showed the highest techniques, the Mahakal and Shiva Paenthra. The Chinese and Japanese from Jujitsu schools and Katori Shinto identified in the techniques, secret techniques that they themselves don’t teach anybody unless they’ve been with them for 40 odd years!”
“If the Chinese, Japanese and Europeans can appreciate the quality of our classical arts, there should be no reason why Indians can’t,” says Niddar Singh. The Sikhs speak of the exploits of their ancestors with a lot of pride. Shastar Vidya was at the heart of their power. It is up to our generation now to ensure that this ancient art form does not join the lost and the forgotten…