Angampora: 5,000 years of combat tradition | Sunday Observer

Angampora: 5,000 years of combat tradition

Throughout the ages every nation has practised fighting forms. One of the oldest fighting forms in Asia is Angampora, an indigenous Sri Lankan martial art that has withstood the test of time. The term Angampora is derived from two words angam meaning body and pora meaning to attack (fight). In the ancient times of our monarchs this martial art focused on three segments- angampora (unarmed hand to hand combat), elangampora (weapons) and maya angam (use of incantations to repulse an enemy). By 1815 the British had managed to wield their influence over most of Ceylon. Prior to this our warriors who knew angampora managed to inflict pain and death on the invading British, and put up a good resistance against many historic battles. Subsequently, Governor Robert Brownrigg realized the threat to his troops from this martial art, and sent out a decree whereby angampora masters were shot on the knee, making them cripple.

In 1818 the Governor banned the use and learning of angampora, after the Uva-Wellessa rebellion. The British assumed that this would put an end to this combat art. However Sri Lankans being a resilient people practised in secret and sustained this art. Angampora was taught by two main clans Sudaliya and Maruwalliya.

Practitioners of the art were pleased on Wednesday to note that the ban on the status of this ancient martial art form was lifted by the authorities for it to be recognised as a legitimate art.

The 19 gallant men previously condemned have been vindicated and honoured as patriots.

One of the last masters of this fighting lineage is Piumal Edirisinghe (36), a software engineer. After weeks spent on earning his trust I was invited to visit their angam maduwa (training hall) at Athurugiriya. The natural bliss surrounding this area supplements and conditions the student’s mind. Guru Piumal as he is known is an unassuming and calm young man. He explained, “I developed an interest in angampora as a child. My maternal grandfather was a famous ayurveda practitioner named Mudalihamy Warnasuriya. He taught me my first lessons when I was 12 years. Since then I studied under many famous masters including Premasiri Malimbadaarachchi, Athula and Charles Warnasuriya, Wickremesinghe and Karunapala. After completing my A/Ls I studied engineering at Staffordshire University, but continued to learn this combat art. I have been a practitioner for almost 23 years”.

Origins of a fighting tradition

We can boldly claim that unarmed fighting techniques, later supplemented by blade weapons originated in the Asian countries. For example, India has her own martial art form known as Silambam. The origins of angampora date back 5,000 years. Some say that King Ravana was well versed in this defensive art as well as being a practitioner of ayurveda. The basis of angampora, while effectively used for self defence was originally a deadly combat offensive martial art. Its ancient practitioners took an oath of allegiance to protect the country, willing to lay down their lives.

As his students engaged in breathing exercise Piumal explained, “Angampora is not just a martial art, to us it is a lifestyle. In the ancient days potential students offered fruits, betel and their horoscope to the master. The master would observe their body language and character. They would later check the student’s horoscope, and only then enlist them for training. This would commence with the lighting of three oil lamps. The student stayed at the residence of the master and did chores for him. Today, we live in modern times. We don’t check horoscopes as we have foreign students- they have no horoscopes. But we check each student’s character which is tested during the first three months of training. Honesty, compassion, endurance and a friendly disposition are key qualities we look for. In the bygone era an oath was sworn with seven points- emphasizing that the student must complete training, use the skill for self defence only, be humble and discreet, not use it to gain wealth, and be willing to serve the country.”

Raising a formidable fighter

Angampora training has an assortment of exercises focusing on strengthening the tendons, and on spiritual purity. After two years of training in unarmed combat the student is given the first weapon- a long staff. Practising with the staff improves foot movement and agility. The student is then given a blade weapon like a sword.

Piumal, an expert in the double edged sword showed me some frightening cuts and strikes with his sword. He added, “We have a range of 21 weapons, of which we focus on seven main weapons. These are the staff, sword, dagger, axe, mace, belt sword and spear. It will take a lifetime to master all 21 weapons. But most students according to their physical build and dedication master two or three weapons with excellent proficiency.

“You must realize that angampora was drawn up for the Sri Lankan physique. Our body type influences the fighting style. Our forefathers were rather stocky and able to grapple and apply body locks. Now unlike in Kung Fu imagine if they had to rise high and do flying kicks- it wouldn’t match. Our ancient warriors ate kurakkan based food. They occasionally drank kitul toddy. Today, diets have changed. But we don’t allow our students to eat beef and pork. Even the students from Germany and Switzerland adhere to this rule. We are a nation of old farming communities. We respect the cow and the bull. They worked for us. As for pork we believe it draws negative energy.”

Master Piumal continued, “In angampora there are no belt systems or badges. We follow a 12 year training syllabus, at the end of which the student graduates as a praveena- a qualified fighter. We have 10 instructors and four gurus. To be a guru takes a minimum of 15 years training. You must be over 30 years to gain many experiences in life. You must connect with an apprentice like a father.”

In 2010 Piumal started the forum known as STIMA- Sri Lankan Traditional Indigenous Martial Arts Association along with Premasiri Malimbadaachchi, Athula Nandana, Oliver Hermann (German), Lasantha Chaminda and Nishantha Costa. Their aim was preserving and teaching this 5,000 year fighting form. In addition, he is the general secretary of the National Angampora Federation. He explained, ‘You can’t buy an angampora weapon in a shop. It has to be handmade. A blacksmith from Hanwella makes our weapons. A basic sword costs 12,000 rupees. In ancient times a king’s sword was washed in milk and the warrior’s sword washed in blood. Today, we don’t do this but each sword is custom made. The sword becomes the practitioner’s watch dog’.

The instructors at STIMA have recently opened a retreat centre at Alauwa where residential training is offered. They have performed this art in Singapore, India, Iran and Malaysia. Master Piumal Edirisinghe is one of the last of a clan of noble fighters who will continue to sustain this ancient Sri Lankan combat art.