Silambam - About & History
Bahasa Melayu : Silambam / Malayalam : not_available / Telugu : not_available / Français : Le silambam
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.
There are numerous sub-sects in silambam like nagam-16 ( cobra-16 ), kallapathu ( thieves ten ), kidamuttu ( goat head butting ), kuravanchi, kalyanavarisai ( similar to quarterstaff ), thulukkanam, and so on. Each 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.
History ( வரலாறு )
The references to Silappadikkaram in 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 during the period of Melaka's founding in the 14th century.
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 well-known and widely practiced Indian martial art in Malaysia where demonstrations are held for cultural shows.
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, sliambam 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 )
Kai silambam ( lit. hand silambam ) is the unarmed component of silambam, also known as kuttu varisai ( Tamil : குத்துவரிசை ). First attested to in Sangam literature of the 2nd-1st centuries BC, the term translates as "punching sequence", from kuttu meaning punch and varisai meaning order. Techniques incorporate striking, grappling, throws and locks. Like many other Asian martial arts, patterns in kuttu varisai make use of animal-based sets including the tiger, snake, elephant, eagle and monkey forms. Advanced students are taught varma ati or the art of attacking pressure points.
Various styles of play / variation used in silambam, such as ( சிலம்பத்தில் பல வகைகள் உண்டு. அவையாவன ) :
• Thulukkanam துடுக்காண்டம்
• Kuravanchi குறவஞ்சி
• Azhangara Silambam அலங்காரச் சிலம்பம்
• Por Silambam போர்ச் சிலம்பம்
• பனையேறி மல்லு
Swings of Staff ( சிலம்பாட்டச் சுற்று முறைகள் )
♦ Alternate Hand Swing ( Kai Maatru Veechu )
♦ Armpit Swing
♦ Back Swing ( Pin Veechu )
♦ Below the feet Swing
♦ Bodyline Swing ( over-arm & under-arm )
♦ Center Grip Swing ( Matti Pidi Veechu )
♦ Circle Swing
♦ Crowd Press Swing ( Koottam Kalaikum Veechu )
♦ Display Swing ( Alanggara Veechu / Alagu Veechu )
♦ Disguised Flourishes ( Mayakamurai Vaikkum Veechu )
♦ Dog Swing ( Nai Veechu )
♦ Double Handed Swing ( Irukai Veechu )
♦ 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 )
♦ Monkey Swing ( Kuranggu Veechu )
♦ One Hand Swing ( Oru Kai Veechu / Ottai Kai Veechu )
♦ Overhead Swing ( Talai Mel Veechu )
♦ Pivot Swing ( Thulludan Veechu )
♦ Round the Head Swing ( Talai Suttru Veechu )
♦ Spectacular Swing
♦ Side Swing ( Pakka Veechu )
♦ Threatening Guise Swing ( Mirrattal )
♦ Wipe Guard ( Marruppu / Kattu )
♦ 10 Finger Swing ( Pattu Virral Suttru Vechu )
Sweeps of Staff
♦ Hawk Sweep ( Parunthin Veechu )
♦ Monkey Sweep
♦ Sweep Hit ( Vega Veechu Adi )
♦ Under-arm Sweep ( Keel Kai Veechu )
Chops of Staff
♦ Right Chops ( Idathu Aruppu ) -Swings of staff like chopping trees side way.
♦ Left Chops ( Valathu Aruppu ) -Swings of staff like chopping trees side way.
Cuts of Staff
♦ Top Cut ( Mel Vettu ) - Swings of staff from top to down
♦ Top Cut -Reversed ( Mel Matti Vettu ) - Swings of staff from top to down
♦ Low Cut ( Keel Vettu ) - Swings of staff from bottom to up
♦ Low Cut -Reversed ( Keel Matti Vettu ) - Swings of staff from bottom to up
♦ Arm-pit Cut ( Aalai Vettu ) - 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 )
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: 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: cudgel or short stick, often wielded as a pair.
• Deer Horn ( maan kombu மான் கொம்பு / maduvu மட்டுவு / maru ) ; a thrusting weapon made from deer horns.
• Panthukol: staff with fireballs on each end (sometimes weighted chains on each end with fireballs)
• Knife ( katti கத்தி ),
• Sword ( vaal வாள் ), generally curved,
• Spears ( vel வேல் / eeti ஈட்டி ),
• Aruval: sickle, often paired
• Stick ( kali or kaji ),
• Dagger ( kuttuval குத்துவாள் ),
• Knuckle Duster ( kuttu katai ), 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 ( savukku சவுக்கு ),
• Metallic Blades ( surul pattai சுருள் பட்டாக்கத்தி ) 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.