Gatka -The Traditional Sikh Martial Art

Gatka performances are a delight to witness!...

Gatka performances are a delight to witness! Visit the Hola Mohalla festivities in Anandpur in March to see Gatka in all its splendor. Or you can go to some of the top Gatka akharas to see this Sikh warrior martial art form in action. Watching these players train is nothing less than watching a theatrical performance that enthralls you with its charisma. Thanks to their quick movements while wielding a sword or stick in one hand and a shield in the other. The rhythmic motions of the Gatka display mesmerize one and all. The sword moves quickly in easy circles to the beat of the drum, swords and shields collide, fast dhol or drum beats resonate, and jaikare (war cries) are welcomed enthusiastically by the martial artists and the Sangat !

Gatka embodies the perfect rhythm of life. It preserves the Sikhism tenet that "When all other means have failed, it is but lawful to take to the sword.”

An amalgamation of acrobatics and sword fighting, Gatka is an ancient martial art that has been battle-tested for many thousands of years in northern India. It consists of stick-fighting with wooden sticks that simulate swords. In Punjabi, gatka refers to the wooden stick used, and the term might have originated from the Sanskrit word gada, meaning "mace". 

Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, introduced Gatka to the Sikhs. It is thought that the Guru would salute the weapons before beginning the practice. And why not? When the weapons were the means to fight oppression, assist the poor, and defend righteousness. He propagated the notion of Miri-Piri (temporal power-spiritual power) as well as the necessity to defend dharma (righteousness). As a result, it is commonly seen as both a spiritual and physical practice.

The styles and techniques of Gatka are taught in many akharas (arenas) throughout the world and passed down through an unbroken lineage of ustads (masters). Gatka was used in the Sikh wars and has gone through extensive combat testing. 

Due to the ongoing oppression, Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh spiritual leader, established the Sikh warrior community Khalsa in 1699. Khalsa Sikhs were given the name Singh, which means "lion," and vowed to fight against all atrocities. And so Gatka, the Sikhs' ancestral fighting technique, became a sacred obligation for all Khalsa Sikhs.

During the British colonial rule in India, the British rulers eventually prohibited Neja (now known as Javelin), Gatka, and the Sikh custom of carrying a Kirpan (sword) to avoid revolt and anti-colonial sentiments. During that time, Sikhs had to practice 'Shastar Vidiya' in secret and were frequently confined to remote areas.

Following the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the art was outlawed by the new British authorities of India in the mid-nineteenth century. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sikhs aided the British in suppressing the mutiny. The British offered them many relaxations in return for their allegiance against mutineers. Restrictions on fighting practices were lifted, but the Punjabi martial arts that resurfaced after 1857 had changed significantly. The new style applied sword-fighting techniques to a wooden training stick. It was referred to as gatka, after its primary weapon. In the 1860s, the British Indian Army primarily used gatka as a training tool for hand-to-hand combat.
Shastras

This martial art has progressed from bare-handed combat to the use of swords, kirpans, lathis, axes, wooden poles, and other weapons. One begins by learning the fundamentals with a wooden bamboo stick. In the later stages, kirpans are used. All shapes and sizes are available to meet individual needs. The shields are introduced next. They, too, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from simple and basic to bulky and spikey. To ace this art form, one uses other Shastras after mastering these basic weapons. Handling and using these weapons can be dangerous, and therefore they must be handled with discipline, concentration, and proper technique. 

Shastras such as the Dastar (turban) or the Kamar Kasa (belt) are not used in warfare but are worn by the Nihangs to adorn themselves. Ranjit Nagara (the victory drum) and reciting Gurbani are used to lift the morale of the Sikhs and help them battle valiantly. Both of them are regarded as Shastras in Gatka. In Gatka, these are also considered Shastras.

Today Gatka is practiced as two subdivisions; Khel, i.e., sport and rasmi, i.e., ritualistic. The primary weapon used for training is Gatka, i.e., the stick, and Farri, i.e., the shield. Some of the other Shastras or weapons used during this practice are Barcha, Chakar, Chakram, Gurj, Katar, and Dahl or Shield.

The Gatka training does not involve technique and skill, this art form unites the body, mind, and soul. This art form teaches discipline, dedication, and a balanced mind.

The Technique

Gatka is primarily based on a variety of paitarās and asanas, which are forms for coordinating the entire body as well as weapons in harmony. The first is the Mūl paitarā, a basic four-step pattern that serves as the foundation for all subsequent forms. The movement requires equal and simultaneous use of both hands and develops ambidexterity. It is a balancing and coordination exercise that should be repeated. Then there are other paitarās based on the tiger, monkey, bull, snake, eagle, etc., that can also incorporate weapons.

Following the Ardās, the warriors bow before the weapons and salute the weapons, either approaching or circumambulating them. Shastra Nām Mālā, Tribhaṅgī Chhaṅd, Bhagautī Astora and Chaṇḍī dī Vār. There are also the war cries like Sat Sirī Akāl and Gurbār Akāl. Before sparring, both players must perform the fatehnāmā, or salute each other, by crossing and striking each other's weapons twice.

The practice of Gatka in modern times

Gatka was a forgotten and dying art, but many efforts have been made to revive it. It has been declared a national sport of India and international exposure is also playing its part in attracting the new generation.

Gatka has become an important and entertaining feature of many Sikh festivals, processions, and Gurdwaras, particularly since its revival and formalization by the International Gatka Federation in 1987. Today, it is a legitimate sport that is played at the national level. According to the Gatka Federation of India, which was founded in 2008, it is a symbol of the preservation and advancement of dying yet fine form of martial arts dying but fine type of ancient martial arts, encasing, upholding, and conserving our rich culture and history.

The best places to witness Gatka

This sport is taught at several academies in India, but the best place to witness it is at one of the main Sikh festivals. Amidst the procession, hymns, and scrumptious food, trained experts perform Gatka. Whenever a Sikh festival is around the corner, make sure to enjoy the gatka performance!

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