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Thang-Ta: Ancient martial art of sword and spear from Manipur

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Photo: www.e-pao.net

By Nithin Sridhar

“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….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. …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.”

The above paragraph, taken from Encyclopedia of Manipur, is a description of a fantastic performance of an ancient, but little known martial art from Manipur- Thang Ta.

‘Thang-Ta’, which literally means ‘sword and spear’, is but one aspect of Huyen Lallong (Art of war or method of self-guarding), whose other aspect is ‘Sarit-Sarak’ that involves unarmed combat. It is an armed martial art technique wherein the swords, spears, axes, and shields are the main weapons used.

The martial art is deeply rooted in the traditional history, religion, and lifestyle practices of Manipuris (especially the Meitei community). The Meitei community believes that the art of Thang-ta originated from their creator ‘Tin Sidaba’. In fact, the various weapons used in Thang-Ta are actually perceived as being emanated from various parts of Tin-Sidaba. Thus, the limbs and bones of Tin-Sidaba became swords and tools, the ribs became the broad sword called Thangjao, and his fingers became kitchen knife.

A similar world-view is present in mainstream Hinduism wherein, the whole universe, with its people and objects have originated from creator Lord Brahma and all the tools and equipment have originated from Brahmaa’s son Vishwakarma.

Thang-Ta was basically a dual combat that was fought amongst common people. The earliest references to Huyen Lallong can be found in a text that records personal armed combats and the ethics of combat named Chainarol-Puya whose earliest portions have been dated to 1st century CE. But, this martial art was given a definite military shape by King Loyumba who ruled in the 11th century and created an armed force called ‘lallup’. Later, King Pamheiba, who ruled in the 18th century upgraded the armed forces further.

The uniqueness of this system appears to be that, the King had no standing army. Instead, every male member of the society was trained to be a warrior. Speaking to NewsGram over the phone, Prem Kumar, the President of Thang-Ta Federation of India said that the male members between the age of 16 and 40 years were given military training in Thang-Ta and other associated arts. He further said that every year people used to be trained in Thang-Ta for around 40 days compulsorily. Hence, though the Kings did not have a standing army, all his male subjects served as soldiers.

Photo: http://musicandtraditions.org/
Photo: http://musicandtraditions.org/

The Thang-Ta can be practiced in three different, but supplementary ways: Religious (which is often wrongly described as ritualistic), Demonstration, and Combat. The religious practice of Thang-Ta involves performing various rituals and is deeply rooted in Tantric traditions. This practice aims to take one from the mundane to the spiritual.

The demonstration of Thang-Ta involves the performance of dances using swords and spears using combat movements. Finally, the third is a direct application in combats.

Today, Thang-Ta is mainly promoted as a sport because it has been largely forgotten that Thang-Ta was originally a lifestyle system. It was not just a sport or a combat technique.

Prem Kumar says that, along with the physical aspect of combat, people were taught breath control, meditation, medicine, politics, and ethics. He adds that Thang-Ta must be perceived as a lifestyle system whose basic purpose is helping others and doing good to the society. The Martial art must be understood as a path towards God. Faith and devotion to Guru (teacher) and the Guru-Parampara (lineage of teachers) is very important.

One of the most important aspects of Thang-Ta is self-discipline. The practitioner must adhere to strict discipline not only in his combat training, but in other aspects of life as well. His actions should be ethical and must follow certain tenets laid down in the scriptures. He should dedicatedly practice the martial arts along with the meditation and worship. The goal of such a practice is to help one to overcome physical limitations and attain spiritual emancipation.

Another unique feature of Thang-Ta is that it believes in maintaining high ethical standards even in combat. The warrior is strictly forbidden from hurting the opponent who has run away from the battle, or is begging for mercy, or if he has taken the warrior’s protection. These tenets can be seen as being similar to tenets of the Dharma Yuddha found in Hindu scriptures.

This wonderful martial art saw its decline with the arrival of the British in India who prohibited the practice of Thang-Ta between 1891 and 1947. After independence, many efforts have been made for the revival of the martial arts and today there are many schools that teach them especially in Manipur, and Jammu and Kashmir.

But, today it is mostly promoted as a sport and not as a lifestyle system. It is high time that efforts are made to revive the wholesome system of this martial art so that people derive not only physical benefits but also mental and spiritual benefits from it.

A short video on Thang-Ta performance taken from Youtube:

Next Story

Manipuri Women Are Breaking Barriers, The Birthplace Of Modern Polo

"Their enthusiasm lit a desire in me to play polo. I've felt close to horses since my uncle brought them home. But before that, horses roamed about everywhere. My family was not very well off and my uncle couldn't afford to buy a horse,"

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"Here is one (polo) community whose welfare is so closely tied with the welfare of the animal on which the game is played. We felt that since India did not have any women's polo tournament, Manipur could be, and should be, the home of women's polo in India," Somi Roy says. Pixabay

Polo, often thought of as a game of the rich, has also been generally dominated by men. However, a quiet revolution is taking place at the very place where it all started – the northeast Indian state of Manipur, which is considered the birthplace of modern polo.

While men had been playing this game here for centuries, the spotlight has now shifted to women of the state who now field five professional polo teams to compete with the world’s best. These Manipuri women from humble backgrounds are not only shattering stereotypes that polo is a game for men, but also that it is the privilege of the rich.

L. Somi Roy, conservationist and partner at Huntre! Equine, has been one of the main crusaders for women’s polo in the state and sees it also as a campaign to save the iconic Manipuri pony, whose numbers have been declining over the years. He says while Manipuri women traditionally did not play polo as it was an equestrian game coming out of a martial tradition, in modern times, in the 1980s, they got inspired by their male relatives.

“The All Manipur Polo Association encouraged them. About 40-45 per cent of polo players in the world are women. So we are just catching up. It’s pretty gender free as a sport, so it puts them on the level of men when they play together,” Roy tells IANS.

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“Playing with the United States Polo Association (USPA) team was a great experience. Though their skills are very different from ours, we could learn a lot,” she says.
Pixabay

While Manipur produces one-third of male players and three-fourths of women players in the country, Roy says most of these players from an isolated, economically-underdeveloped state are not members of the Indian Polo Association.

Yet, the state has India’s longest polo season — November to March — with two international and four state tournaments, including the Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament, the only such tournament in India where teams from the US, UK, Canada, Kenya, Australia and Argentina have participated alongside Manipuri girls.

The matches are held in Imphal’s Mapal Kangjeibung Stadium, the oldest running polo ground in the world.

Filmmaker Roopa Barua, who started documenting the story of women’s polo in Manipur in 2016, says a young polo sisterhood is developing in the state that ploughs on despite adversity and political turmoil.

“Around 2014-15, there was an effort to bring in international women players to play in Manipur. Part of this effort was to create a campaign to save the Manipuri pony which is endangered. I saw a symbiotic relationship developing and I followed this story for four years,” she tells IANS.

This documentation culminated in a film which intends to take the story of these strong women players to the world. The documentary film, “Daughters of the Polo God” was showcased earlier this month at the IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival in New Delhi, and would also be screened at the Bombay Stock Exchange on March 26.

“Manipuri players are natural horsewomen and extremely athletic. As I stayed on throughout the tournament, I saw that women’s polo was becoming a growing story. The symbiotic relationship between women’s polo and the endangered Manipuri pony was a very unique concept,” Barua said.

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“Horses for centuries here are owned by people, they are trained, they are broken. And then they are let loose to graze freely in the open wetlands of Manipur.”
Pixabay

Nineteen-year-old Tanna Thoudam, one of the protagonists of the film, was inspired to play polo when she saw some women players playing in a match in 2010.

“Their enthusiasm lit a desire in me to play polo. I’ve felt close to horses since my uncle brought them home. But before that, horses roamed about everywhere. My family was not very well off and my uncle couldn’t afford to buy a horse,” she says.

Tanna joined the Assam Rifles Polo Club in 2011 and became the only junior to make it to the final Manipuri team for the 2017 Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament. “It was the happiest moment of my life.”

Thoinu Thoudum, founder of the Chingkhei Hunba Polo Club, says it is good to have a women’s tournament as it encourages girls to start playing polo while also showing solidarity and respect for women players.

Jetholia Thongbam started playing polo in 2016 and carried on even after her sister stopped playing following her marriage. She believes that Manipuri players are becoming better every year by playing with international players.

“Playing with the United States Polo Association (USPA) team was a great experience. Though their skills are very different from ours, we could learn a lot,” she says.

N. Ibungochoubi, Secretary of the Manipur Polo Society, says the relationship between Manipuris and horses is special.

“Horses for centuries here are owned by people, they are trained, they are broken. And then they are let loose to graze freely in the open wetlands of Manipur.”

But lately, the Manipuri ponies have lost their home to urban blight with their numbers declining from 1,893 in 2003 to just around 500 in 2014.

This is where this symbiotic relationship between humans and horses can potentially be a game-changer.

“Here is one (polo) community whose welfare is so closely tied with the welfare of the animal on which the game is played. We felt that since India did not have any women’s polo tournament, Manipur could be, and should be, the home of women’s polo in India,” Somi Roy says.

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He adds that going to play polo in Manipur is like going to Mecca.

“For people who know the history of polo, Manipur is a special place – that’s where it all came from. And then we say it’s going to be played on the original Manipuri pony, and then we tell them that it is on the world’s oldest living polo ground. It’s a fairly irresistible invitation,” Roy adds. (IANS)