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THE MARTIAL ARTS TRADITION OF MANIPUR
      By : IAP_MHA_CTL      [The Internet Association for the Promotion of Manipur History Art
Culture Tradition and Literature]


TOPICS
 
1. THANG-TA
2. THANGKAIROL
3. ELIMINATING VIOLENCE
4.MARTIAL ARTS OF INDIA:THANG-TA



 

1. THANG-TA:

Thang Ta--"The Art of the Sword and Spear"-- is the  traditional martial art of Manipur in Northeast India.   It integrates various external weapons - the sword, spear,  dagger, etc. - with the internal practice of physical control through soft movements coordinated with the  rhythms of breathing.  It is part of the great heroic  tradition of Manipur.
Its origin lies in the timeless  creation myths where, according to local legend, all movements of the Manipuris originated from Thang Ta. -  AIKIKAI OF PHILADELPHIA, USA.

The proper name for Thang-Ta is HUYEN LALLONG ("method of safe-guarding"). As the name implies, Huyen Lallong is more than just the training of fighting skills.  It is an elaborate system of physical culture that involves breathing methods, meditations, and rituals. Some of the sword and spear forms are entirely ritualistic, although they are composed of material techniques.  They are to be performed only at special occasions or under special circumstances. For example, there is a spear form that is performed at funerals.  Perhaps the most famous form is the ritual spear dance done by King Bhagyachandra (ruled 1759-1798) on a mountain top during his exile due to the Burmese invasion in 1762.  The Manipuris believe that the ritual was instrumental in driving the Burmese out of Manipur.

The heart of Thang-Ta is the "sword". There are literally hundreds of different sword drills for training the basic strokes and stepping patterns.  Many are two person sets, but others may be practiced solo, at least initially.  The Thang-Ta spear forms are more complicated and must be seen to be appreciated.  "Many are the warnings given by the old
teachers to their students who, they say, may seriously injure their limbs by incorrect stepping according to the design - PAKHANGBA, a coiled serpent motif",  wrote Louis Light foot (1958) in "Dance Rituals of Manipur".  Thang-Ta is almost completely unknown today outside Manipur.  In India itself, the art is not well known, although a
documentary was broadcast on Indian television in 1994. "Unfortunately, opportunities for Westerners to study Thang-Ta are very limited. Travel to and from the region is restricted  - few, if any, people outside of Manipur are able to study the art because of the Indian Government's entry restriction. To our knowledge, Khilton Nongmaithem (of HULA SINDAMSANG, IMPHAL) is the only Manipuri teaching Thang-Ta outside of Manipur."

Three warriors  - Paona Naol Singh, Ningthoukhongja Poila, Loukrakpam Sana Mityeng each founded a distinct style within the art of THANG-TA. Paona died fighting the British and is still regarded as a hero in Manipur.

At the start of the sword drill, stand with feet shoulder width apart; turn to the left, pivoting on the balls of both feet.  The feet should form an approximately forty-five degree angles. Lean forward until the toes of the left foot are aligned with the knee and the chin.  Your body should form a straight line from the back of the head down to the right heel.  This is called the "Lion's Posture" or basic stance.

The unarmed aspect of Thang-Ta is named SARIT-SARAT. Traditionally, it is taught after competence in weapons was gained.  It uses footwork and handwork form the weapons forms, with a liberal dose of the native wrestling style (MUKNA) thrown in.

[Khilton Nongmaithem and Dainis Jirgensons (1998): Thang-Ta, The Martial
Art of Manipur India, JOURNAL OF ASIAN MARTIAL ARTS, vol. 7, no. 4.,
page 46-59].

Khilton Nongmaithem is one of the foremost exponents of  Thang Ta, having studied since the age of six under traditional gurus who were responsible for rediscovering and propagating this nearly lost art.  He has represented  India in international festivals throughout the USA, Sweden, Italy, Germany, China, and England. Both he  and Henry Smith
worked together in the Festival of  Dance, Theater and Martial Arts held in Calcutta in 1987,  and also performed together in "Body, Breath and Blade"   at the South Bank in London in 1995.  Together they  recently presented performances and workshops in the "way of the Warrior" Festival held in London and  Dusseldorf in 1998.

[ http://www.libertynet.org/solaris/Aikido/Events.html ].  He is also
associated with NRITYA RANGAM (Manipuri Dance School)  of Washington,
D.C.



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2.  THANGKAIROL (also, THANGHAIROL) - The Art of Sword Fighting:

Although the Manipuri Agricultural communities were in contact with great civilizations of India, China and Southeast Asia for thousands of years, the relative isolation of the region allowed the development of a unique cultural tradition that includes a distinctive form of martial arts using the sword and spear.  Originally, training in the martial arts was essential for the overall survival of the community, as well as for initiating the youth into the subtleties of religious knowledge and practice. However, over time, the martial arts were separated into two schools for training, one for actual combat and the other as ritual dances that served to reinforce Manipuri cultural identity and played an important role in the physical and spiritual growth of  the students who studied it. Traditionally, most Manipuris were agriculturist, but the kingdom of Manipur did not have any need for a standing army as every able bodied man (and if necessary woman), was a warrior and most were skilled in swordsmanship or spear fighting.

- "The most memorable performance with the sword involved in a blindfolded swordsman and a man lying on his back with five pieces of melon balanced on various parts of his body.  A wedge of melon was place on each knee, as well as in each hand, and a single wedge was precariously balanced between his chin and his chest,  directly above the throat.  The swordsman was blindfolded using a piece of cloth filled with sand, so that everyone could see that there was no way for him to peek through the cloth.  After being blindfolded, the swordsman would begin a rhythmic chopping and prancing in place, while a third person took up a position directly opposite the swordsman.  In the middle was the man lying with melon slices balanced on various parts of his body. Drumming and cymbals accompanied the whole act and the third man would begin chanting, in order to provide the blindfolded swordsman a
directional cue.

Suddenly, the swordsman would surge forward, leaping and chopping in a very precise pattern.  As he leaped over the man lying in his path, his sword deftly cut each piece of melon, including the piece directly over the  man's throat.  Every spectator was tense with expectation until the man lying on the ground would jump to his feet and the swordsman would rip off his blindfold.  As people shouted their approval and clapped their hands, many would throw coins and currency notes into the stage in appreciation of this spectacle."
 

[Jonathan Mark Kenoyer (1997): "Thangkairol; Manipur Sword Fighting of
Eastern India", in PERSONAL GROWTH THROUGH MARTIAL ARTS, (edited by M.
Kiyoto and J. Lee) pp. 53-63.]

Dr.  J. Mark Kenoyer is a Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison.  He grew  up among  the Meitei community of Cachar, Assam,  until his graduation from
high school in 1970, where his father was a missionary doctor at Alipur Baptist Memorial Christian Hospital.  After playing  for 18 years with swords and spears made of bamboo, finally he was accepted by a Thangkairol teacher (Master Tombi Singh) to learn the art of sword fighting for two years.  Manipuri masters seldom teaches students from
other communities to preserve the tradition in their own community. Prof. Kenoyer is concerned with the advancement of education and research in his field and keenly interested in the study of weapon forms.  He recently began practicing Kendo with the U.W. Kendo Club.

"Thang-Ta, used as a common public performance keeps the youth of the community following cultural traditions exercising traditional physical movements for use in defense.  This fosters cultural identity in the youth and nationalistic pride in the young people of the Manipur villages.  Therefore, this perpetuates the sense of belonging to a group
which in return supports the individual.  This sense of community membership and participation is similar to being a Boy Scout in the United States".
[Stephan G. Voss: Japanese, European and Indian Sword
Fighting; A comparative Study: in PERSONAL GROWTH THROUGH MARTIAL ARTS,
(edited by M. Kiyoto and J. Lee) p 75, 1997.]



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3. ELIMINATING VIOLENCE:

"We do need more martial arts training ... wherever it is taught,  it eliminates violence. That is so overlooked."  Lord Yehudi Menuhin.

In India, the Two Best known Martial Art Traditions—Thang Ta of Manipur and Kalaripayattu of  Kerala, have survived through centuries and both have a strong spiritual basis with strict  moral and ethical codes. They are meant for protection and defense and are opposed to viciousness, cruelty and violence.

The origin of Thang Ta is hoary and full of legends. In the beginning of time when there was  absolute nothingness, the Supreme Creator,  Atiya Guru Sidaba sitting levitated on his own  breath, created Asiba his son, and asked him to fashion the universe.  - [Guru is not an appropriate usage here; Guru means the master or teacher; but in this context the correct wording will  be  KURU =  round hemisphere, for  Atiya = the sky, Kuru = the round or circular, and Sidaba = never ending or without death,  indicating the limitless hemisphere of the sky].   Perplexed as to how to  fabricate anything out of a void, he inquired of  his father how to go about it. At this, the Creator opened his mouth and asked his son to look inside, where he saw the whole cosmos lying dormant, yet to manifest. He was also instructed  to devise a dance named Thengou using the same configuration of nerves and veins inside his father as the model for the pattern of his movements on the ground, on which the universe would rest when it was created. Thus  the first act of
cosmology was dance, and Thengou was the first dance, made up of a combination of martial art movements.

Thengou, traditionally believed to have been originally performed by the Gods at the time of  creation, forms a highly esoteric branch of Manipuri martial arts. These are sacrosanct dance  compositions, performed usually by holding either a sword and shield or a spear and shield. There are many variations. The pattern on the ground is based on
one of the various sacred  coiled snake motifs worshipped in Manipur. There are various Thengous for bringing prosperity to the land or people, protecting the king, destroying the enemy, etc. They are performed on extremely rare occasions when a dire  need concerning the well being of the country arises. The rituals involved are extremely
elaborate. All the details including the auspicious moment, ceremonial offerings, purification  rites, choice of place, kind of weapon, costume, movement, ground patterns and incantations,  mentioned in the sacred texts are inviolable and thus scrupulously followed. It is believed  that any mistake in its performance or its employment can bring untold misfortunes to the   performer and his family, even to future generations. Thus only great masters with absolute proficiency, experience and pure minds perform Thengous. The gurus, very reluctant to part   with this knowledge, choose only those few disciples with proven integrity and maturity.

Thengou training is imparted in a secluded place, away from habitation or a sandy riverbank likely to be washed away in the next floods. For where Thengou is performed, the ground is  imbued with such power that anyone desecrating it inadvertently may incur divine wrath. The training begins after sanctifying the land.

The weapons are also considered to have divine origin with symbolic significance. When Til Sidaba (a powerful god) decided to give up his body, different ‘boxes' of his remains became  various weapons. Swords, spears, etc., do take on varying forms resembling such boxes. Scholars have given elaborate interpretations on their significance and use. The weapon is  not an ordinary object; it is energized and infused with a vital divine force and cannot be desecrated by employing it for any degrading pursuit.

Thang Ta demands a great deal of self-discipline from its practitioners. It is feared that certain  vices may even jeopardize those powers acquired through years of training, meditation and  worship. Some types of food are also forbidden.  One important ethical code mentioned in the scriptures is that even in the midst of war, one should not harm an enemy who is running away, who is hiding out of fear, who is crying out  of fear and who has asked for protection. Violating any of this is considered a great sin. For a  warrior, every moment of his life is guided by certain rules. Eating, sleeping and even breathing are well regulated. Martial arts training, initially, is more physical in nature, but as  one advances, it is more spiritual. The secrets of yantra, mantra and tantra are gradually   revealed to the student. The warrior's main and only concern ought to be the protection of the  land, people, king and the weak. This sense of selflessness cannot be better symbolized than the costume which he wears to war. It includes a sacred cloth usually worn by the dead, thus preparing him for the supreme most sacrifice.   In actual practice, however, all these branches are interrelated and one cannot be completely free of the other.

The aesthetic or dance aspect of the martial arts of Manipur demand a great deal of  balancing and body control. Dancing skills add exterity in wielding the weapons. In fact, this  has greatly influenced the dance traditions of Manipur. In our times, many dancers  incorporate the martial dances, enriching their repertoire with great effect. In the combat part, the training is extremely thorough and demanding. It makes a person physically and mentally so alert and well integrated that he becomes virtually impregnable.  At the same time he is also packed with tremendous striking power. A trainee usually  specializes in one weapon though he must learn the use of all the main ones.
 

[R. K. Singhajit Singh (1998): THE MARTIAL ARTS OF ASIA, Eliminating
Violence - THE EYE, vol. 5]
[ http://internetindia.com/theeye/vol5/martial.htm ].

Guru Singhajit Singh is an internationally known Manipuri dancer, choreographer and teacher. He has pioneered creative work in this dance form, having produced thirty eight full length dramas. He has  performed all over the world and received great acclaim. He was given the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards apart from various fellowships to dance academies. He performs with his wife, Charu Mathur and lives in Delhi.



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