The history of Indian martial arts is rich and diverse, spanning thousands of years and influenced by various cultural, regional, and historical factors. Here is an overview of the historical development of Indian martial arts. Among the most common terms today, sastra-vidya, is a compound of the words sastra (weapon) and vidya (knowledge). Dhanurveda derives […]

The history of Indian martial arts is rich and diverse, spanning thousands of years and influenced by various cultural, regional, and historical factors. Here is an overview of the historical development of Indian martial arts.

Among the most common terms today, sastra-vidya, is a compound of the words sastra (weapon) and vidya (knowledge). Dhanurveda derives from the words for bow (dhanushya) and knowledge (veda), the “science of archery” in Puranic literature, later applied to martial arts in general. The Vishnu Purana text describes dhanuveda as one of the traditional eighteen branches of “applied knowledge” or upaveda, along with military science. A later term, yuddha kala, comes from the words yuddha meaning fight or combat and kala meaning art or skill. The related term sastra kala (lit. weapon art) usually refers specifically to armed disciplines. Another term, yuddha-vidya or “combat knowledge”, refers to the skills used on the battlefield, encompassing not only actual fighting but also battle formations and strategy. Martial arts are usually learnt and practiced in the traditional akharas.

Antiquity (pre-Gupta)
An Indus valley civilization seal shows some pictures which depicts martial arts.
Dhanurveda: A section found in the Vedas (1500 BCE – 1100 BCE) contains references to martial arts. Indian epics contain the earliest accounts of combat, both armed and bare-handed. Most deities of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon are armed with their own personal weapon, and are revered not only as master martial artists but often as originators of those systems themselves. The Mahabharata tells of fighters armed only with daggers besting lions, and describes a prolonged battle between Arjuna and Karna using bows, swords, trees, rocks and fists. The oldest recorded organized unarmed fighting art in the Indian subcontinent is malla-yuddha or combat-wrestling, codified into four forms in the Vedic Period.
In Sanskrit literature the term dwandwayuddha referred to a duel, such that it was a battle between only two warriors and not armies.

The Charanavyuha authored by Shaunaka mentions four upaveda (applied Vedas). Included among them are archery (dhanurveda) and military sciences (shastrashastra), the mastery of which was the duty (dharma) of the warrior class. Kings usually belonged to the kshatria (warrior) class and thus served as heads of the army.
Many of the popular sports mentioned in the Vedas and the epics have their origins in military training, such as boxing (musti-yuddha), wrestling (maladwandwa), chariot-racing (rathachalan), horse-riding (aswa-rohana) and archery (dhanurvidya). Competitions were held not just as a contest of the players’ prowess but also as a means of finding a bridegroom. Arjuna, Rama and Siddhartha Gautama all won their consorts in such tournaments.
In the 3rd century, elements from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were incorporated into the fighting arts. A number of Indian fighting styles remain closely connected to yoga, dance and performing arts. Some of the choreographed sparring in kalaripayat can be applied to dance and kathakali dancers who knew kalaripayat were believed to be markedly better than other performers. Until recent decades, the chhau dance was performed only by martial artists.

Written evidence of martial arts in Southern India dates back to the Sangam literature of about the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam in the Sangam era. The word kalari appears in the Puram (verses 225, 237, 245, 356) and Akam (verses 34, 231, 293) to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training in target practice and horse riding. They specialized in one or more of the important weapons of the period including the spear (vel), sword (val), shield (kedaham), and bow and arrow (vil ambu). The combat techniques of the Sangam period were the earliest precursors to kalaripayat. References to “Silappadikkaram” in Sangam literature date back to the 2nd century. This referred to the silambam staff which was in great demand with foreign visitors.

The ten fighting styles of northern sastra-vidya were said to have been created in different areas based on animals and gods, and designed for the particular geography of their origin.[citation needed] Tradition ascribes their convergence to the 6th-century university of Takshashila, ancient India’s intellectual capital. Located in present-day Panjab, Pakistan, the Ramayana ascribes the city’s founding to Bharata who named it after his son Taksha. From the 7th to the 5th centuries BC it was held in high regard as a great centre of trade and learning, attracting students from throughout present-day Pakistan and northern India. Among the subjects taught were the “military sciences”, and archery was one of its prime arts.

Classical period (3rd to 10th centuries)
Like other branches of Sanskrit literature, treatises on martial arts become more systematic in the course of the 1st millennium AD. Vajra-musti, an armed grappling style, is mentioned in sources of the early centuries AD. The Sushruta Samhita (c. 4th century) identifies 108 vital points on the human body of which 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick. Sushruta’s work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda which was taught alongside various martial arts.
Martial arts were not exclusive to the kshatriya caste, though the warrior class used them more extensively. The 8th-century text Kuvalaymala by Udyotanasuri recorded fighting techniques being taught at educational institutions, where non-kshatriya students from throughout the subcontinent “were learning and practicing archery, fighting with sword and shield, with daggers, sticks, lances, and with fists, and in duels (niyuddham)”.
The Gurjara-Pratihara came into power during the 7th century and founded a kshatriya dynasty in northern India which exceeded the preceding Gupta Empire. During this period, Emperor Nagabhata I (750–780 AD) and Mihir Bhoja I (836–890) commissioned various texts on martial arts, and were themselves practitioners of these systems. Shiva Dhanuveda was composed in this era.

Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries)
Kalaripayat had developed into its present form by the 11th century, during an extended period of warfare between the Chera and Chola dynasties. The earliest treatise discussing the techniques of malla-yuddha is the Malla Purana (c. 13th century), unlike the earlier Manasollasa which gives the names of movements but no descriptions.
Over a period of several centuries, invading Muslim armies managed to occupy much of present-day Pakistan and northern India. In response to the spread of Muslim rule, the kingdoms of South India united in the 14th century to found the Vijayanagara Empire. According to Italian traveller Pietro Della Valle, it was the custom for soldiers to specialise in their own particular weapon of expertise and never use any other even during war, “thereby becoming very expert and well practised in that which he takes to”.

Mughal era (1526–1857)
After a series of victories, the Central Asian conqueror Babur established Mughal rule in north India during the 16th century. The Mughals were patrons of India’s native arts, not only recruiting akhara-trained Rajput fighters for their armies but even practicing these systems themselves. The Ausanasa Dhanurveda Sankalanam dates to the late 16th century, compiled under the patronage of Akbar. Among them were said to be both native and Mughal wrestlers, slingers from Gujarat, Hindustani athletes, boxers, stone-throwers and many others.
At court, there are a thousand gladiators always in readiness. Avid hunters, a popular sport among the Mughals was shikar or tiger-hunting. While often done with arrows and later even rifles, it was considered most impressive to kill a tiger with a hand-to-hand weapon such as a sword or dagger. A warrior who managed to best a tiger would be awarded the title of Pachmar.
In the 16th century, Madhusudana Saraswati of Bengal organised a section of the Naga tradition of armed sannyasi in order to protect Hindus from the intolerant Mughal rulers. There is also a 17th-century Dhanurveda-samhita attributed to Vasistha. The pehlwani style of wrestling developed in the Mughal Empire by combining native malla-yuddha with influences from Persian varzesh-e bastani.
During the Mughal period,Marathas became expert horsemen who favoured light armour and highly mobile cavalry units during war. Known especially as masters of swords and spears, their heavily martial culture and propensity for the lance is mentioned as early as the 7th century by Xuanzang. After serving the Dakshin sultanates of the early 17th century, the scattered Marathas united to found their own kingdom under the warrior Shivaji. Having learned the native art of mardani khela from a young age, Shivaji was a master swordsman and proficient in the use of various weapons.

Modern period (1857—present)
Indian martial arts underwent a period of decline after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century. The British colonial government banned kalaripayat in 1804 in response to a series of revolts. Silambam was also banned and became more common in the Malay Peninsula than its native Tamil Nadu.
The British took advantage of communities with a heavily militaristic culture, characterising them as “martial races” and employing them in the armed forces. Sikhs – already known among Indians for their martial practices – were particularly valued by the colonists as soldiers and guards, and were posted throughout not only India but Southeast Asia and other parts of the British Empire.
The resurgence of public interest in kalaripayat began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India which characterised the growing reaction against British colonial rule. During the following three decades, other regional styles were subsequently revived such as silambam in Tamil Nadu, thang-ta in Manipur and paika akhada in .

Agni Purana
One of the earliest extant manual of Indian martial arts is in the Agni Purana (dated to between the 8th and the 11th century). The dhanurveda section in the Agni Purana spans chapters 248–251, categorizing weapons into thrown and unthrown classes and further divided into several sub-classes. It catalogs training into five major divisions for different types of warriors, namely charioteers, elephant-riders, horsemen, infantry, and wrestlers.

Role of Women in Martial Arts
The role of women in ancient India in martial arts varied across different regions and time periods. While societal norms and expectations often limited women’s participation in certain activities, historical records and cultural texts indicate that women in ancient India did engage in martial arts to some extent.
The Rigveda, one of the oldest Vedic texts, mentions women training in martial skills alongside men. It suggests that women in ancient India were not only involved in the arts and sciences but also in the martial aspects of warfare.
Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, traditionally included both men and women. Women practiced Kalaripayattu not only for self-defense but also for physical fitness and discipline.
Silambam, the stick-fighting martial art of Tamil Nadu, is said to have been practiced by women as well. Historical references and folklore suggest that women in the region were skilled in Silambam for self-defense.
In Sikh martial traditions, such as Gatka, women actively participated in training for self-defense. The Sikh Gurus emphasized equality, and historical accounts mention instances of Sikh women defending their communities.