Angampora, the forgotten art of Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Angampora, the forgotten art of Sri Lanka

2 April, 2017

Angampora, the once glorious tradition of martial arts in Sri Lanka, with fierce fighters whose strength and actions were subtly controlled by the influence of Buddhism, fought next to the kings in battles as they thought it was their duty. It is of many layers that go beyond the fighting techniques that meet the eye, that many consider to be a philosophy, having Buddhism as the cornerstone of the tradition. Having a British ban imposed on angampora since 1818, the fighters resort to secrecy to pass on this ancient tradition, making it a well kept secret in Sri Lanka that most people are not privy to.

“But, it has always been a part and parcel of our culture, hence, angampora has a mighty cultural value,” said, Ajantha Mahantharachchi, a traditional angampora fighter, who learnt the art from his father, and who is now trying to protect the tradition and raise awareness about it. In addition to being a traditional fighter, Mahantharachchi has also conducted extensive research on this tradition, academically, as well as practically, and has around 20 students studying under him. He also teaches the fighting elements of angampora to the Sri Lanka military, for about 14 years now. “We always used angampora in wars, including the last war we fought,” he said. There is a different process to select candidates to study this art. Mahantharachchi said, they check the horoscopes and other vetting ways practised by their forefathers, and select a chosen few to teach all the elements of the angampora tradition.

Coupled with scientific methods of physicality, mind and spirituality, angampora has been the strength of Sri Lanka, where both men and women engaged in it. Mahantharachchi spoke of a 50 year old lady studying this art, who tosses male opponents, even when she is attired in the Kandyan saree. He hailed these female fighters, past and present, who guided the next generation into the tradition of angampora. “These fighters never retired. They only got better with time,” he said. And it was the influence of religion that kept these fighters under control. Meditating and other elements in angampora that comes from the Buddhist background kept the fighters in check, and prevented the art from being misused.

Mahantharachchi is, however, on a mission; a mission to remove the ban imposed on angampora by the British, who tasted its bitter strength during the 1818 Wellassa uprising. Though the ban is not valid anymore, removing it would mean restoring the honour and respect it once enjoyed, to practice, and teach it freely, raise awareness about it and preserve it for the generations to come.

Survival techniques

On October 6, 1818, Governor Robert Brownrigg banned the angampora tradition, after the Wellassa uprising. Mahantharachchi refers to the documents he has retrieved from the National Achieves in UK, as there isn’t any documentary evidence in Sri Lanka regarding the banning of angampora. Subsequently, Ilangam Madu, centres around the country that taught angampora, were burnt and the fighters and trainers of angampora were punished and some even banished from the country. These punishments included shooting the fighters below the knee to prevent them from fighting again, or teaching anyone.

Mahantharachchi explains that in this confused state, the trainers who escaped punishment, sought ways to protect the tradition, and as a result, included its elements to traditional dancing. For example, there is a dancing item in Kandyan dancing called ‘Yak Enuma’ which is similar to angampora fighting items. Dancing techniques such as, ‘Malakkama’, ‘Bambara’ in Low Country dancing are also features taken from the angampora tradition. Some dancing items such as, ‘Koti Netuma’ (Tiger Dancing) is the exact angampora fighting element, incorporated into traditional dancing.

Historic evidence

However, the caste system was heavily attached to dancing traditions during this period, and Mahantharachchi said, some traditional fighters refused to support this merge with dancing, and resorted to teach angampora only to their children, in secret, to preserve the tradition in its purest sense. Thus it prevailed, until it was revived by the teledrama, ‘Dandubasnamanaya’.

The important as well as the unusual aspect of the angampora tradition compared to other traditional martial arts in the world is that there is ample evidence spread across history to prove its existence and the changes it underwent.

These historic evidences of angampora stretches beyond the Anuradhapura era, where many writings and carvings on temple walls can be seen related to this fighting tradition.

“The ‘Poornika Grantha’ has records of angampora fights since the days of Ravana, dating back to 5,000 years, and the Mahawansa refers to many instances of angampora fights, e.g. in the Elara - Dutugemunu war, and other books such as, ‘Dambadeni Asna’ and ‘Kandavuru Siritha’ also have references to angampora,” Mahantharachchi said. Jurgen Anderson, a Dutch sergeant who was posted in Sri Lanka in 1669 wrote that angam fighters would spin over the first in line, and slit the throat of the tenth of the opposite army, attacking everyone in between. Famous archeologist H.C.P. Bell wrote about Ededawawala Kumarihamy, who held a position of District Head during King Rajasinghe’s time in Seethawala Era, and knew and engaged in angampora fighting tradition.

These evidences make angampora one of the most documented martial arts traditions in the world, though it is not being recognized as one in Sri Lanka or globally. The ‘Sinha Pokuna’ of Mihinthale has many carvings of angampora fighters in fighting postures which proves it was already an established fighting tradition in the Anuradhapura Era. Mahantharachchi described a funeral tradition in the Anuradhapura era where, when a fighter dies, a stone is placed on where he was buried with a description of his death carved on the stone. The Anuradhapura museum has such stones describing angampora fighters.

A specific stone describes a fighter who continued to fight though arrows had already pierced his chest and legs, crying out the physical and mental strength of the fighters long before Hollywood. However, as the closest kingdom to modern-day, Kandy carries most of the evidences of the angampora tradition. Mahantharachchi said, the Sri Dalada Maligawa carries around 12 carvings of angam fighters, and many more can be seen in the Embekke Devalaya and Degaldoruwa Temple.

Sri Vishnu temple at Hanguranketha which is over 600 years old has a 30 feet long cloth that had been used as a ceiling, which has images depicting various angampora fighting postures. “I have discovered around 700 such carvings,” he added.

This tradition of martial arts underwent changes depending on the foreign invasions the country experienced. Initially, it was used to hold the country’s defences against Indian invaders. But, after the Portuguese invasion, the angampora tradition changed to suit the new technology the invaders brought with them.

Angampora fighters had two main challenges against the Portuguese; one is guns, second is the body armor of Portuguese soldiers. Mahantharachchi said, historic evidence as well as folk stories say that the fighters used enchanted talismans known as ‘suraya’ as protection against guns, and new techniques of pinning the opponent to the ground were introduced to be used in instances where the opponent carried a gun. Angampora fighters didn’t wear armours as it prevented them from using their arms freely to fight. But, a new, sharp knife became part of the traditional angampora attire, a knife that could pierce the body armour. The archerers came up with new arrows that could pierce the armors or give them strategic advantage in a fight despite body armours.

And the ‘Ilangankara’ group was established, known as the ninja group, trained specifically during the Seethawaka era to penetrate into Portuguese forts and attack from inside. They were given training on martial arts, sword fighting, poison and the art of disguising themselves. Thus angampora advanced in their war techniques during the Seethawaka era.

Modern day relevance

Mahantharachchi believes that certain elements in the angampora tradition can easily be adapted into the school syllabuses, such as meditations and basic exercises. These meditations and exercises can be helpful in increasing memory capacity and the mental strength of youngsters, he said, which could increase the immune system too. “Without engaging in the exercises the West has introduced to us to teach our kids during PE, why can’t we make use of our own tradition?” he questioned.

Cultural tradition

Being a cultural tradition, angampora is yet to make it to the performance stage along with the traditional dancing in Sri Lanka. While continuing to use traditional dancing, the Tourism Industry could make use of the traditional martial arts as well, to promote the country, like the Japanese have done with Samurais, he added. “We have an ancient tradition of martial arts, with an ancient history that goes beyond Samurais, but we haven’t made use of it to promote the art, or the country.”

To preserve angampora, it is important to give it professional status within the country, create a platform for it to be performed for audiences, and bring it to a level that it could self-sustain. “In this money centered society, these traditions will die if they are not supported by the State and given the opportunity to self-sustain.” There needs to be an appropriate way of registering these fighters and supporting them to preserve this thousands of year old tradition.

It will be ideal to have a separate museum for angampora, Mahantharachchi added.