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A truly Sri Lankan art

Angampora, the traditional martial art of Sri Lanka is known to be one of the oldest fighting disciplines in the world. It’s a deeply spiritual form of combat that draws a lot of its philosophies from different aspects of nature and astrology and also has a strong connection to music and employ rhythmic, flowing movements. Loosely translated the word ‘Angampora’ means ‘unarmed combat’. Combat techniques where weapons were used were called ‘Illangam’, and I also learned through this of a technique known as ‘Maya Angam’, which involved the use of spells and incantations to confuse or bring an opponent down. I recently had a conversation with one of the few masters of this ancient art in a traditional ‘Angam Maduwa’ (A hut built specially for this practice), which I learned was the only one that currently existed in Sri Lanka.

Mahantharachchige Ajantha Perera, the individual responsible for the revival of this Angam Maduwa, located in Korathota, Kaduwela in the middle of a paddy field completely unseen to anyone on the road, explained to me that there is written evidence to prove the existence of this combat form that dates back over 2,500 years and myths and folklore that goes as far as 33,000 years that speak of the ‘Angam Satan Kalawa’ (the art of fighting named Angam), making it one of the oldest known forms of martial arts in the world. “From the very beginning of our culture, we had to defend our homeland from all sorts of invaders. For this reason, the Sri Lankan people have always been a race of warriors”. explained Ajantha. “All of our great kings from Kataragama Mahasen of the Yaaksha tribe to all his successors including King Ravana were extremely skilled in armed and unarmed combat and the Angam Satan Kalawa kept evolving throughout the generations with the addition of music and the art of locating and utilizing pressure points to disable opponents and so on”, he added. He went on to explain that all these different elements brought about an art of combat that was different to anything else that existed before it.

Maya Angam

Talking about the different techniques, Ajantha explained that it’s initially broken down into three techniques, namely Angam (only using the body) illangam (combat with weapons) and Maya Angam (combat using various spells and incantations).

From here it’s further broken down within these three main techniques that involve the art of learning to hit pressure points in the body that could paralyze or kill an opponent and even cause them to die a few days after being hit on a pressure point. There was also the technique of reversing the effect of the pressure point shots that were known as ‘beheth parawal’ (medicinal shots). Even the Maya Angam is broken down further. The study of the ‘Angampora’ also involves Ayurvedic practices where they learn to grow and utilize various medicinal herbs.

Meditation also plays a major role in the Angam Satan Kalawa. Practitioners of Angampora believe that disciplining the mind through meditation enables them to harness and channel the energy that lies within themselves.

Ajantha explained to me that it was through the Angam Satan Kalawa that the Sri Lankans battled the Portuguese and the Dutch invaders, and the British, out of fear for this deadly practice band the practice and the training of the Angampora largely due to the events of the 1817-1818 Wellassa rebellion and went on rather successful campaigns to destroy all Angam Madu and wipe out the families that have traditionally practised and taught Angampora. “Something that magnified the British fear of this art was the fact that the Angam Kalawa also involved manthras and incantations which supposedly did things like jamming the guns of the British army leaving them helpless against the Sri Lankan warriors who fought without guns”, said Ajantha. “Their methods of suppressing it were brutal, they ordered that all Angam Madu be burned down and anyone caught practising it be shot in the knees”. This, I think would have been a fate worse than death, for a warrior.

Style of dance

After its, the practice style of dance of the Angam Satan Kalawa kept practicng it as a style of dance as it couldn’t be practised as a form of combat. By doing this, they were able to ensure that the teachings and the philosophies of the Angam Satan Kalawa lived on. Some practitioners secretly taught it to only members of their families and this ensured that their future generations knew of this discipline. Ajantha explained that although this made it exclusive to a large degree, that Angampora was never something that just anyone could do. It involved checking an individuals astrological positioning and other spiritual traits that one needed to have because practitioners of Angampora needed to be on a very stable frame of mind.

“This was because an individual skilled in the Angam Satan Kalawa could very easily kill or permanently disable another. And a person with an unstable mind with such abilities is capable of causing a huge amount of damage and for this reason we always need to analyze why exactly an individual would want to study it”. He further explained that practitioners of the Angam Satan Kalawa have a very strong ethic of not causing harm to others. “The practise of Angampora is not for personal, self indulgent reasons”, said Ajantha. “It’s not even intended for self defence. It was practised by those who wanted to protect their country, their faith and their culture. There’s no place in this discipline for self indulgence”.

Oldest combat form

Ajantha went on to explain about the status that the Angam Satan Kalawa has in the current Sri Lankan society. “The Angam Satan Kalawa is the oldest form of combat in history and it’s something that our country can be proud of”, he said. “However, we now live in a society where many people don’t even know of “the existence of Angampora. That’s how far things have come from their roots”, he added. He also told me that it has all the potential to be recognized internationally.

“If you look at countries like China and Japan, their traditional martial arts are recognized and acknowledged worldwide. It is the duty of our Ministry of Cultural Affairs to ensure that the Angam Satan Kalawa gets its due place in the world as it is an integral part of our cultural heritage, but it’s practically being ignored”, explained Ajantha. He added that the Sports Ministry has a federation for Angampora but they have created their own system where they award points and so on. This, Ajantha explained to me is not at all how it’s supposed to be. “Angampora has never been practised for points or to prove a point to another, it’s a lot more than a mere sport. It’s a philosophy and a lifestyle and it’s something that the Ministry of Cultural Affairs should endorse and not the Sports Ministry”.

“I do think that more people should be aware of this art.

However it needs to be done properly. If it’s going to change in order to be more commercial, I’d rather leave it the way it is”, said Ajantha. He explained that this should not be kept alive simply as a way for a person to learn to fight. “I would not like it if people started putting posters advertising Angampora classes like a tuition class, but we need to keep this tradition alive by any means we can and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs especially need to look into this”, explained Ajantha. “Angampora teaches one to love nature, it teaches them to respect the history of the nation and it strengthens a person physically and spiritually. If it’s not doing that then it’s not Angampora”, he continued. “If it continues to expand while still staying true to these values, I have no problem with Angampora gaining global recognition as it deserves global recognition”.

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