Brief History of Silambam
The Silambam art is said to have its origins in India 5000 years ago. The art traces its history back to the Krunji Mountains located in South India. Natives known as Narikuravar used the staff [known as silambamboo] to defend themselves against wild animals and other attackers. Silambam also incorporates empty hand techniques. The empty hand techniques utilize blocking-to-locking and blocking-to-striking.
There are not to my knowledge existence of accurate historical documentation, which can be used to research the origins and linage of Silambam (1) . There are however today many people around the world still training in different styles and systems of Silambam.
Silambam Weapon - Silambamboo
The weapon used in Silambam is a staff referred to as a Silambamboo. The staff is made from a yellow type of bamboo. Silambam is the abbreviated word for Silambamboo. Silambamboo is broken down into two words, ‘Silam’ known in Tamil as ‘mountain’ and ‘bamboo’ means ‘bamboo stick’. Although the length of the stick is normally1.68m it is usually cut to suit practitioners height and thus can vary in length. The diameter of the staff is 1 inch.
Some of the current practitioners of Silambam have stated that their earlier ancestors trained with a sharpened spear on the end of the stick. The purported different types of spear blades were the size of a person’s forearm (2) .
Silambam in Combat
A number of reports exist of the use of Silambam in combat. The veracity of some of these accounts have not been verified due to the lack of primary reference material.
As mentioned above, Silambam was used in India for combat. The soldiers of Veerapandia Kattabomman (1760-1799) relied mainly on their skill in Silambam in their skirmishes with the British army (3) . A person skilled in Silambam can allegedly keep a number of assailants at bay, or ward off attacks from bears, dogs, monkeys and someone throwing stones at them (4) . Target areas include, but are not limited to, eyes, ears, mouth, nose, throat and solar plexus.
Apparently the British banned the natives from using Silambam in skirmishes. The natives improvised and continued the practice of Silambam using sugarcanes, and if caught by the British authorities they would pretend to eat the sugarcane.
It is unclear as to what armour was used in the skirmishes. However, it is known that in contests combatants wore turbans to protect the head, leather chest guards, wrist bandages and in some cases they used ”wicker-work” shields to ward off blows.
Other uses of the Silambam
During religious festivals it was common for Hindu scholars and yogis visiting the Krunji Mountain area to view the highly skilled spinning displays of the Silambamboo. The scholars and yogies were attracted to the Narikuravar people and the Silambam Art and adopted the art into their lives. In time the scholars brought the art to the Royal Court during the reign of the powerful Indian rulers Cheran, Cholan and Pandian. Over the years Silambam became an exercise for physical and spiritual aspects of Hinduism.
Competitions were held to promote the art during royal birthdays, with handsome rewards paid to the Champions of Silambam. The winners of the competitions were honored with their selection as Kings guards. The staff also played an important part in early religious festivals amongst the Indian people when they would display their skills. Religious rites [refer to earlier part of the article] have to be performed to the goddess Sakthi (goddess of strength, courage and guidance) before a student seeks permission from the master to learn the art.
Nillaikalakki Silambam as passed on by Mahaguru Mariapakiam
During 1964 Mr Anbananthan became a student of the Nillaikalakki Silambam art. On the death of Mahaguru Mariapakiam (12 August 1986) Mr Anbananthan became master-teacher and authority in Malaysia for Silambam. He maintains the lineage from South India and is regarded as one of the few living Masters teaching the traditional aspects of the art.
The basic training of Nillaikalakki Silambam takes seven years to complete and consists of ten different stages.
The first stage ‘Otthai Vitchi’ focuses on physical fitness, with special exercises to strengthen the nerves and muscles within the body. During the second stage ‘Yiretthai Vitchi’ the student learns to spin the staff incorporating rotating movements using both the left and right arms. This stage builds up the student’s coordination skills. When twirling the silambamboo you must relax and breathe normally. The third stage ‘Silatgu Varusai/Silat Varusai is most difficult and involves spinning techniques and patterns in ninety-six different angles. Once the student has mastered the ninety-six patterns they are taught stage four ‘Sandai Marutham’ which uses the ninety-six patterns and incorporates striking movements based on four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four and ninety-six sets of attacking options.
After the first four stages the student is introduced to defence techniques known as ‘Othukal Murai’ where they are taught to evade attacks by rotating the staff. At stage six ‘Piruvugal, Adi Kambugal’ thirty-six movements are taught in which each set consists of twelve movements in a sequence. Striking of the vital points ‘Kurivaithu Adipethu’ with the focus on the target area is the seventh stage, followed by the ‘Kanthan’ eight stage, which are the difficult rhythmic movements of the art with the tactics applied. There is no ki-ai when striking, but you do breath out.
The ninth stage ‘Narikuru” is where the animated animal movements are taught. These movements are the most difficult and beautiful movements of the art. Only the most senior and dedicated students are taught these movements. The fox movement in the ninth stage is unique and extremely difficult to copy without years of training. On gaining mastery of the ninth stage the student is ready for the final tenth stage ‘Utchekattha Nillai’ where all the earlier skills are tested (5).
The techniques of Nillaikalakki Silambam also include three empty hand kata’s, which closely resemble karate katas. The empty hand kata’s are unique due to the openness of the hands when not actually striking the opponent and the execution of the foot strikes using the top part of the foot targeting the opponent’s ribs. Some researchers feel the origins of karate kata had their roots in India.
Silambam is an unique Indian art which was probably first developed by farmers as a self-defence combative system to protect themselves from attacks from people and animals. Mastery of Silambam requires learning the different stages and control of timing, distance and targeting. The twirling of the Silambamboo, combined with body movement, as taught at the higher levels is also used to lure the attacker into rhythm of movement as a distraction before an attacking. The Nillaikalakki Silambam art is still taught by Mr Anbananthan in Penang, Malaysia.
Special thanks are extended to Karunakaran s/o R. Chindan for sharing his personal experience with Silambam and introducing the author of this article to Mr Anbananthan.
Acknowledgement is also made to the assistance of Hunter B. Armstrong, Director of the International Hoplology Society, for providing access to research notes on Silambam taken during his research mission to India during June 2003
Acknowledgement is also made to Daniel Vickers who participated in May 2000 interviews with Mr Anbananthan, and more recent interviews with Mr Anbananthan during August 2006
Footnotes have been included to cross-reference material used in the preparation of this article.
1. The only known documented information I could locate was research by Mr J. David Manuel Raj, MA.,M.P.E., Lecturer Alagappa College of Physical Education Karaikudi-4, Ramanathapuram District, Tamilnadu, South India, wrote a thesis in 1967 “Silambam: Techniques and Evaluation”, which was submitted to the Jiwaji University, Gwalior and subsequently read a paper at the Second International Conference-Seminar of Tamil Studies in Madras in 1968 titled “Silambam: A Historical Review and Evolution”. Based on thesis and paper Mr j. David Manuel Raj subsequently wrote a book in 1971 “Silambam: Technique and Evaluation”.
2. My research to date has been unable to locate any current Silambam systems still training with spearheads on the end of the Silambamboo.
3. Refer to page 24 of the book “Silambam: Technique and Evaluation”.
4. Refer to page 34 of the book “Silambam: Technique and Evaluation”.
5. The information under the above heading “Nillaikalakki Silambam as passed on by Mahaguru Mariapakiam” was taken from notes prepared by Neil Phillips during an interview with Mr Anbananthan on 2 May 2000 – extracts of these notes have been published elsewhere.