Introduction & History

Silambam Introduction & History


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Silambam(சிலம்பம் ) or silambattam (சிலம்பாட்டம் ) is a weapon-based Dravidian martial art from Tamil Nadu in south India but also practised by the Tamil community of Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In Tamil, the word silambam refers to the bamboo staff which is the main weapon used in this style. In Tamil, martial arts are known by the umbrella terms taṟkāppuk kalai (தற்காப்புக் கலை ) "art of self-defence".

The length of the staff depends on the height of the practitioner. It should just touch the forehead about three fingers from the head, although different lengths are used in different situations. It usually measures roughly 1.68 metres ( five and a half feet ). The 3 feet stick called sedikutchi can be easily concealed. Separate practice is needed for staffs of different lengths. The usual stance includes holding the staff at one end, right hand close to the back, left hand about 40 centimetres ( 16 inches ) away. This position allows a wide array of stick and body movements, including complex attacks and blocks.


Oral folklore traces silambam back several thousand years to the siddha (enlightened sage) Agastya. While on his way to Vellimalai, Agastya discussed Hindu philosophy with an old man he met, said to be the god Murugan in disguise. The old man taught him of kundalini yoga and how to focus prana through the body's nadi (channels). Agastya practiced this method of meditation and eventually compiled three texts on palm leaves based on the god's teachings. One of these texts was the Kampu Sutra (Staff Classic) which was said to record advanced fighting theories in verse. These poems and the art they described were allegedly passed on to other siddha of the Agastmuni akhara (Agastya school of fighting) and eventually formed the basis of the both silambam and the southern style of kalaripayat.

History (வரலாறு )

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References in the Silappadikkaram and other works of Sangam literature show that silambam has been practiced as far back as the 2nd century BC. Oral folklore traces it back even further, claiming a history of 3000 years. The bamboo staff - along with swords, pearls and armor - was in great demand with foreign traders, particularly those from Southeast Asia where silambam greatly influenced many fighting systems. The Indian community of the Malay Peninsula is known to have practiced silambam as far back as the period of Melaka's founding in the 1400s, and likely much earlier.

The soldiers of Kings Puli Thevar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Maruthu Pandiyar ( 1760–1799 ) relied mainly on their silambam prowess in their warfare against the British Army. Indian martial arts suffered a decline after the British colonists banned silambam along with various other systems. They also introduced modern western military training which favoured fire-arms over traditional weaponry. During this time, silambam became more common in Southeast Asia than its native India where it was banned by the British rulers. The ban was lifted after India achieved independence. Today, silambam is the most famous and widely practiced Indian martial art in Malaysia where demonstrations are held for cultural shows.


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Beginners are taught footwork ( kaaladi ) which they must master before learning spinning techniques and patterns, and methods to change the spins without stopping the motion of the stick. There are sixteen of them among which four are very important. Footwork patterns are the key aspects of silambam and kuttu varisai (குத்துவரிசை ) ( empty hands form ). Traditionally, the masters first teach kaaladi for a long time before proceeding to kuttu varisai. Training in kuttu varisai allows the practitioner to get a feel of silambam stick movements using their bare hands, that is, fighters have a preliminary training with bare hands before going to the stick.

Gradually, fighters study footwork to move precisely in conjunction with the stick movements. The ultimate goal of the training is to defend against multiple armed opponents. In silambam as well as kuttu varisai (குத்துவரிசை ), kaaladi is the key in deriving power for the blows. It teaches how to advance and retreat, to get in range of the opponent without lowering one's defence, aids in hitting and blocking, and it strengthens the body immensely enabling the person to receive non-lethal blows and still continue the battle. The whole body is used to create power.

The usual stance includes holding the staff at one end, right hand close to the back, left hand about 40 centimetres (16 inches) away. This position allows a wide array of stick and body movements, including complex attacks and blocks. As with some northern Chinese systems, the silambam staff is said to have "one head", meaning that only one end is primarily used for attacking. When the student reaches the final stage, the staff gets sharpened at one end. In real combat the tips may be poisoned. The ultimate goal of the training is to defend against multiple armed opponents.

Silambam prefers the hammer grip with main hand facing down behind the weak hand which faces up. The strong hand grips the stick about a distance hand's width and thumb's length from the end of the stick and the weak hand is a thumb's length away from the strong hand. The weak hand only touches the stick and to guide its movement. Silambam stresses ambidexterity and besides the preferred hammer grip there are other ways of gripping the staff. Because of the way the stick is held and its relatively thin diameter, blows to the groin are very frequent and difficult to block. Besides the hammer grip, silambam uses the poker grip and ice pick grip as well. Some blocks and hits are performed using the poker grip. The ice pick grip is used in single hand attacks. The staff is held like a walking stick and just hand gets inverted using the wrist.

In battle, a fighter holds the stick in front of their body stretching the arms three quarters full. From there, they can initiate all attacks with only a movement of the wrist. In fact, most silambam moves are derived from wrist movement, making it a key component of the style. The blow gets speed from the wrist and power from the body through kaaladi. Since the stick is held in front, strikes are telegraphic, that is, the fighter does not hide their intentions from the opponent. They attack with sheer speed, overwhelming the adversary with a continuous non-stop rain of blows. In silambam, one blow leads to and aids another. Bluffs may also be used by disguising one attack as another.

In addition to the strikes, silambam also has a variety of locks called poottu. A fighter must always be careful while wielding the stick or they will be grappled and lose the fight. Locks can be used to disable the enemy or simply capture their weapon. Techniques called thirappu are used to counter the locks but these must be executed before being caught in a lock. Silambam also has many different types of avoiding an attack like blocking, parrying, enduring, rotary parrying, hammering ( with the stick ), kolluvuthal ( attacking and blocking simultaneously ) and evasive moves such as sitting or kneeling, moving out, jumping high, etc.

Against multiple attackers, silambam exponents do not hold out their sticks as they do in single combat. Instead they assume one of the numerous animal stances which makes it difficult for opponents to predict the next attack.

An expert silambam stylist will be familiar with varma adi ( pressure-point fighting ) and knows where to strike anywhere in the body to produce fatal or crippling effects by the least use of power. In one-on-one combat an expert would just slide his stick to opponents wrist many times during combat. The opponent may not notice this in the heat of battle until they feel a sudden pain in the wrist and throw the stick automatically without knowing what hit them. When two experts match against each other one may challenge the other that he will hit his big toe. Hitting the big toe can produce crippling effects on the fighter, making them abandon the fight. This is called solli adithal which means "challenging and successfully hitting".

Silambam Styles of Play / Variation (சிலம்பாட்ட வகைகள் )

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There are two types or category of Silambam, such as :

• Azhangara Silambamஅலங்காரச் சிலம்பம் -as exhibition arts ** not effective for combat / fights **
• Por Silambamபோர்ச் சிலம்பம் -as combative purpose and useful for fighting.

There are numerous sub-sects, styles of play or variation used in silambam, such as :
(சிலம்பத்தில் பல வகைகள் உண்டு. அவையாவன )

• Thulukkanam ( Tuṭukkāṇṭamதுடுக்காண்டம் )
• Kuravanchi ( Kuṟavañciகுறவஞ்சி )
• Kalyanavarisai ( similar to quarterstaff )
• Marakkanam ( Maṟakkāṇamமறக்காணம் )
• Panaiyeri Mallu ( Paṉaiyēṟi Malluபனையேறி மல்லு )
• Nagam-16 ( cobra-16 ) ( Nākam Patiṉāṟuநாகம் பதினாறு )
• Nagatali ( Nākatāḷiநாகதாளி )
• Nagasiral ( Nākacīṟalநாகசீறல் )
• Kallanpattu ( thieves of ten ) ( Kaḷḷaṉpattuகள்ளன்பத்து )
• Kallankampu ( Kaḷḷaṉkampuகள்ளன்கம்பு )
• Kidamuttu ( goat head butting )

Each abovesaidஆகியனவாகும் sub-sects is unique and may differ from one another in grip, posture, foot work, method of attack, length of the stick, movement of the stick etc.

Swings of Staff (சிலம்பாட்டச் சுற்று முறைகள் )

♦ Alternate Hand Swing ( Kai Maatru Veechu - Kai Māṟṟu Vīccu கை மாற்று வீச்சு )
♦ Armpit Swing ( Akkuḷ Vīccu அக்குள் வீச்சு )
♦ Back Swing ( Pin Veechu - Pin Vīccu பின் வீச்சு )
♦ Below the Feet Swing
♦ Bodyline Swing ( over-arm & under-arm )
♦ Center Grip Swing ( Matti Pidi Veechu - Matti Piṭi Vīccu மத்தி பிடி வீச்சு )
♦ Circle Swing ( Vattam Veechu - Vaṭṭam Vīccu வட்டம் வீச்சு )
♦ Crowd Press Swing ( Koottam Kalaikum Veechu - Kūṭṭam Kalāykkum Vīccu கூட்டம் கலாய்க்கும் வீச்சு )
♦ Display Swing ( Alanggara Veechu - Alaṅkāram Vīccu அலங்காரம் வீச்சு / Alagu Veechu - Aḻaku Vīccu அழகு வீச்சு )
♦ Disguised Flourishes ( Mayakamurai Vaikkum Veechu )
♦ Dog Swing ( Nai Veechu )
♦ Double Handed Swing ( Irukai Veechu - Iraṭṭai Kai Vīccu இரட்டை கை வீச்சு )
♦ Front Swing ( Mun Veechu )
♦ Guarded Move Swing ( Pammal ) -"coiling up method" to confuse opponent and trick in direction of attack / defence
♦ Leg Swing ( Kaal Veechu )
♦ Military Swing ( Padai Veechu - Paṭai Vīccu படை வீச்சு )
♦ Monkey Swing ( Kuranggu Veechu - Kuraṅku Vīccu குரங்கு வீச்சு )
♦ One Hand Swing ( Ottai Kai Veechu - Oru Kai Veechu / Oru Kai Vīccu ஒரு கை வீச்சு )
♦ Overhead Swing ( Talai Mel Veechu - Talai Mēlē Vīccu தலை மேலே வீச்சு )
♦ Pivot Swing ( Thulludan Veechu - Tuḷḷal Uṭaṉ Vīccu துள்ளல் உடன் வீச்சு )
♦ Round the Head Swing ( Talai Suttru Veechu - Talai Cuṟṟi Vīccu தலை சுற்றி வீச்சு )
♦ Spectacular Swing ( Kankavar Veechu - Kaṇkavar Vīccu கண்கவர் வீச்சு )
♦ Side Swing ( Pakka Veechu - Pakka Vīccu பக்க வீச்சு )
♦ Threatening Guise Swing ( Mirrattal )
♦ Wipe Guard ( Marruppu / Kattu - Kaṭṭu கட்டு )
♦ 10 Finger Swing ( Pattu Virral Suttru Vechu - Pattu Virral Cuṟṟi Vīccu பத்து விரல் சுற்றி வீச்சு )

Sweeps of Staff

♦ Hawk Sweep ( Parunthin Veechu )
♦ Monkey Sweep ( Kuranggu Veechu - Kuraṅku Vīccu குரங்கு வீச்சு )
♦ Sweep Hit ( Vega Veechu Adi - Vēkamāka Vīccu Aṭi வேகமாக வீச்சு அடி )
♦ Under-arm Sweep ( Keel Kai Veechu / Kīḻ Kai Vīccu கீழ் கை வீச்சு )

Chops of Staff

♦ Right Chops ( Valathu Aruppu - Valatu Aruppu வலது அருப்பு ) -Swings of staff like chopping trees side way.
♦ Left Chops ( Idathu Aruppu - Iṭatu Aruppu இடது அருப்பு ) -Swings of staff like chopping trees side way.

Cuts of Staff

♦ Top Cut ( Mel Vettu - Mēl Veṭṭu மேல் வெட்டு ) - Swings of staff from top to down
♦ Top Cut -Reversed ( Mel Matti Vettu - Mēl Māṟṟu Veṭṭu மேல் மாற்று வெட்டு ) - Swings of staff from top to down
♦ Low Cut ( Keel Vettu - Kīḻē Veṭṭu கீழே வெட்டு ) - Swings of staff from bottom to up
♦ Low Cut -Reversed ( Keel Matti Vettu - Kīḻē Māṟṟu Veṭṭu கீழே மாற்று வெட்டு ) - Swings of staff from bottom to up
♦ Arm-pit Cut ( Alai Vettu - Alai Veṭṭu அலை வெட்டு ) - Swings from under-arm-pit direct to opponent's head/shoulder

Other Types of Hits ( Variation )

♦ Monkey Hit
♦ Snake Hit
♦ Hawk Hit
♦ Spring Hit
♦ Straight Hit ( always used )
♦ Roundabout Hit ( always used )

Other Weapons (ஆயுதப் பிரிவுகள் )

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Silambam's main focus is on the bamboo staff. The length of the staff depends on the height of the practitioner. Ideally it should just touch the forehead about three fingers from the head, typically measuring around 1.68 metres ( five and a half feet ). Different lengths may be used depending on the situation. For instance, the sedikuchi or 3-foot stick can be easily concealed. Separate practice is needed for staffs of different lengths. Listed below are some of the weapons used in silambam.

•    Silambam ( silambamசிலம்பம் ): staff, preferably made from bamboo, but sometimes also from teak or Indian rose chestnut wood. It is often tipped with metal rings to prevent the tips from being damaged.
•    Muchan / Sedikuchi ( sedi kuchiசெடி குச்சி ) ; cudgel or short stick, often wielded as a pair.
•    Deer Horn ( maan kombuமான் கொம்பு / maduvu (maṭṭuvu)மட்டுவு / maru ) ; a thrusting weapon made from deer horns.
•    Panthukol: staff with fireballs on each end (sometimes weighted chains on each end with fireballs) ( tee panthamதீப்பந்தம் / panthukolதீ பந்துகள் )
•    Knife ( kattiகத்தி ),
•    Sword ( vaal / vāḷவாள் ), generally curved,
•    Spears ( vel kambuவேல்கம்பு / Eetiஈட்டி ),
•    Aruval: Machete, often paired ( aruval / aruvāḷஅருவாள் /வீச்சரிவாள் )
•    Stick ( kali or kaji ),
•    Dagger ( kuttuval / kuttuvāḷகுத்துவாள் ),
•    Knuckle Duster ( kuttu kataiகுத்து கட்டை ), spiked knuckleduster.
•    Kattari: native push-dagger with a H-shaped handle. Some are capable of piercing armor. The blade may be straight or wavy,
•    Whips with several flexible ( savukkuசவுக்கு ),
•    Metallic Blades ( surul pattaiசுருள் பட்டாக்கத்தி / surul kattiசுருள் கத்தி ) flexible sword used in Silambam.
     In the Malayalam it is called the Urumi as per the Northern Kerala System of Kalaripayattu and
     Chuttuval in the Southern Kerala System.


1. Raj, J. David Manuel ( 1977 ) . The Origin and the Historical Development of Silambam Fencing: An Ancient Self-Defence Sport of India. Oregon: College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Univ. of Oregon. m/s. pp. 44, 50, & 83.

2. Sports Authority of India ( 1987 ) . Indigenous Games and Martial Arts of India. New Delhi: Sports Authority of India. m/s. pp. 91 & 94.

3. Crego, Robert (2003). Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries pg 32. Greenwood Press.