Sikh Martial Art Gatka: Last Resort Of Warrior Saints

Gatka, an indigenous art form that is popular in Punjab, was the “last resort” for peace-loving saints from the region.

Having seen his father and fellow countrymen face extreme torture from the then rulers, a young sixth Nanak of the Sikhs – Guru Har Gobind Ji – laid foundation of this martial art form by adorning himself with two swords he called “Miri” and “Piri”.

The former was for self-defence and the latter was to protect the honour of others who were too weak to fight back.

Interestingly, gatka crudely translates to stick in local language. The stick is also the weapon of initiation to any new disciple of the art reveals Gurpreet Singh Khalsa, the same 75-year-old warrior we mentioned at the start. The octogenarian runs the Shaheed Baba Deep Singh Academy in Chandigarh where boys and girls, some as young as five, turn up everyday in a traditional attire to learn the ropes of the 17th century art form and hone their skills on the many weapons that complete a gatka warrior. The arsenal includes a myriad of weapons including two-sided swords, daggers and spears apart from the humble stick, all of which give its bearer an edge over the opponent.

The sixth Nanak of the Sikhs, Guru Har Gobind ji is credited with creating Gatka back in the 17th century.

The intensity is there to be seen in their eyes and expressions. The clanging of metal as a pair of sword and shield takes on half a dozen other pairs leaves you stunned. It’s a fight alright, but not a real one and you wish no one gets hurt because the might of the swinging arm is real. What leaves us even more awestruck is the fact that the martial art expert is almost 75 years old and his energy is supposed to match the collective force of his younger opponents.

This indigenous art form is not just about fighting. It is also about building character.

While the weapons can be deadly, it is not what defines the prowess of a gatka warrior. Like in most martial art forms, even in gatka, the onus is on the mind and body of the warrior than on the his or her weapon. “That is one of the most important things anyone who takes up Gatka needs to understand,” says the Khalsa. ‘While we start with training the body, it is also training the mind that needs to be managed. Having that balance is very important not just in Gatka but also in our daily lives.”

The disciples who turned up on the day we visited the akhada were an interesting bunch. While some parents left their children for training, a handful of them joined them as well. There were also an entire family – both mother, father, daughter and son – who regularly come for training at this akhada. Considering the physical nature of training one wonders if these youngsters get hurt in the process? “Of course, they do” says Khalsa ji. “We take every precaution to avoid but cuts and bruises are something you need to take in your stride.”

Gurpreet Singh Khalsa, 75 who runs one of the few Gatka akhadas in Chandigarh.

The children look fit and extremely agile and showed the same inquisitiveness of most urban youngsters. When not training one could hear them discuss everything from the best smartphone in town and to the Tucson’s panoramic sun roof which some of them experienced while being driven down to the akhada with us. One would really question their frail-looking bodies’ ability to manage some of these mighty weapons. But with years of training, the weapons look like harmless toys in their hands. The agility, the somersaults, gravity-defying body roll in the air all hint towards their more evolved control over their bodies than most of us. And when the training stops, you can’t miss a smile on every face. Gatka isn’t something they are doing because they have been told to, it is something they do because they want to.

After a couple of hours of intense training, they pack their weapons. But the day isn’t over. “Pehle sangat, phir pangat” is an old-age saying for the Khalsas. So, post the training, most head to the traditional langar at an adjoining gurudwara. As you might be aware, the Sikhs take pride in feeding everyone in need. A simple and unlimited serving of lentil curry and roti is what we relished that day. Not only eating it but also serving it to others. “Gatka isn’t just about the art of fighting an oppressor,” says the Khalsa. “It looks at the holistic development. Our Guru’s ultimate aim was to make sure that everyone lives together in harmony which will come with mutual respect and our ability to stand up for those who are oppressed.”

Like many art forms, Gatka has also evolved. It is now also famous for various kinds of stunts that have been incorporated. While all that is popular and gimmicky, the core values of this ancient form are apparent at these non-glamourous akhadas supervised by gurus such as Gurpreet Singh Khalsa. Gatka may have born with the need to fight oppression but today it resonates more with the broader quest of fighting the demons within us as much as outside. In consequence, the fight is still for peace.

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