Silambam fencing from India
David Manuel Raj
This is the first historical book written in english by David Manuel Raj in 1975, and nearly the only one on the subject. It is unfortunately very short (about 180 pages), and does not describe precisely any technique. Very few pictures, and a few and barely understandable drawings. You won't learn Silambam with this book, but still it is a valuable document. Also worth mentionning is that the book is actually a digest made from the analysis of returned questionnaires sent by Mr Raj to about a hundred of teachers in Silambam.
What I may add, is that the majority of the material found on the web about Silambam is directly taken from this book. I mean, without citations nor quotations. I therefor put here the most interesting parts of it, first to pay my tribute to Mr Raj by correctly citing him, and second to help you, dear reader, to make up your mind when you read again some of these lines on sites that have allegedly copied it (by the way I don't sell this book! please do not send any request to me but rather try the DK Agency to order this book).
Finally, I also remind you that this book does not reflect the perspective of the Silambam Nillaikalakki style.
CHAPTER III - A HISTORICAL REVIEW OF SILAMBAM FENCING
Etymologycal research on the Tamil word 'Silambam' denoting the staff-play which has been very popular in Tamilnadu since the dawn of the Sangam era, is highly interesting. 'Silambam' is an onomatopoeic term from the swishing sound produced when an elastic cane staff or a staff of soft wood, fairly uniform in cross section and of a length which is little less than that of the performer, is brandished with power and vigour and hit against another in the process of the play or duelling.
Silambam Fencing in the 16th Century
Even as early as the sixteenth century, the sport of Silambam seems to have developed a sophisticated technique and attained a high degree of popularity as indicated by the description that Paranjothimunivar gives in his Thiruvilayadal Puranam of the Gymnasium (Silambakoodam) wherein this sport was practised and the use made of this by his characters in their mutual fights. A synopsis of the technique of Silambam is given in Kalai Kalanjiam with reference to Thiruvilayadal Puranam.
An English translation of the passage given under 'Silambam' in Kalai Kalanjiam (Tamil Encyclopedia), Colume IV, pages 699-700 (Madras: Tamil Valarchi Kazhagam, 1956) is given below:
(end of the Kalai Kalanjiam citation)
Ziegenbalg (New Testament, Tranquebar Mission, 1715) and Fabricius (Old Testament, Tranquebar Danish Mission, 1782) in rendering the New and Old Testament of the Holy Bible in Tamil [..] have used the word 'Silambam' in translating 'fight' and 'play' respectively. This indicates that by that time Silambam had become a well-established combat activity and was also used as a recreational pursuit in Tamilnadu.
The method of staff-play that is in vogue in Kerala State, India, is given in the book Kalaripayat (Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair, 1963). However, the techniques described therein are not so exhaustive and varied as to how a high degree of integration of many physical skills into a unitary form of play with the long-staff (as the main weapon) as we find in Silambam.
CHAPTER IV - RICH TRADITIONS OF SILAMBAM FENCING IN ANCIENT TAMILNADU, INDIA
Other versions of the origins of the word 'Silambam':
Apart from the onomatopoeic origin of the word Silambam given in Chapter III, the practice of wearing jingling anklets called Silambu in Tamil while participating in the activity and the practice in vogue among Tamil Kings of presenting anklets filled with perals and diamonds to the greatest masters in this art are also said to have contributed to this name.
It is significant that in Tamil dictionaries Silambam is given the meaning of cunning and terrorising besides playing with the staff. It suggests that the use of clever and aggressive manoeuvres typified in this practice has given this name to it.
Origin and development
In keeping with the tradition of Indian culture, the origin of this art is traced to a divine source, namely, Lord Muruga, as he is otherwise known as Silamban in Tamil.
In the mythological background of Tamil civilization, Sage Agasthiya is credited with the first compilation of Tamil Grammar, codification of principles of medicine and in fact with the initiation of many aspects of civilization; hence it is no wonder that many have attributed the beginnings of Silambam to him.
The origin is also traced to the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings (when they were at war) by many. It is quite evident that this was patronised by all the kings of Tamilnadu beginning with the early Sangam era. In fact, this seems to have been the primary mode of fighting in the armies of the Sangam kings. This royal patronage was taken over by the Zamindars and Palayakars in later times when the kingdoms had broken up.
The value of Silambam:
Evolving from the crude wielding of the staff by the primitives in self-defense against wild animals and human foes, Silambam has developed into a highly sophisticated art with numerous skill components that find aesthetic expression in art forms for recreation. Agility and skill in feint are developed by the practice of Silambam. Silambam, as we learn from certain works of Tamil litterature, was believed to have definite therapeuttic effects. This belief has survived to this day. Besides developing strength and increasing appetite, it is also stated to increase sex prowess, improve appearance, promote alertness and prevent many diseases.
CHAPTER VI - TECHNIQUE OF SILAMBAM
Even though the wielding of a staff is said to be universal, and the evolution of the wielding techniques is difficult to determine, Tamilnadu is regarded as the cradle of modern and scientific staff fencing popularly known as Silambam in Tamil language.
The object of foot-work is not only to facilitate wielding staff as required in any given situation for advance or retreat but also to facilitate quick movemements within a specified area preventing the opponent from entering the territory in his sphere of control. Hence, the foot-work is not only for bringing about shifts of body weight to exert force in hits and speed of movememnts but speed and agility combined to be constantly moving around in a limited are.
(First edition from 1971?)
Second edition from 1975.
Printed at Fatima Printing Press, Palayamkottai, Tamilnadu, India.
©Denis Brunet and the article's author, if specified. Last modified: 12 January 2005
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