By:Prabhjot Singh Gill, Amritsar, 30th October, 2008: Sikh Martial arts – Gatka ,Like all true martial arts in the world and in keeping with the purpose and inspiration of art and culture from a Sikh viewpoint, the Sikh martial arts, known as Gatka, is the unity between inner spiritual strength and the external expression of physical adeptness.
Out of necessity as well as a technique to develop the complete human, the Gurus – from the founder Guru Nanak till the Nanak X, Guru Gobind Singh – provided patronage to physical fitness and martial arts within the community of their Sikh disciples. This martial tradition of the Sikhs has been both useful in times of war as well as a memorial to the inspiration of the unique philosophy of sant-sipahi or “saint warrior” prescribed by the Gurus.
The art of Gatka is a battle-tested ancient martial art that has mainly been preserved as an oral tradition and, thus, today we find very few practitioners of the art. In the Punjab, South Asia, the popular Nihang Sikhs, a group of nomadic Sikhs who strictly adhere to the traditional saint warrior lifestyle, are the most common expressers of this art. However, in Punjab and select places around the world where Sikhs have settled and made their homes, there are schools known as gatka ‘akharas’ where the art is taught to the public.
The techniques of gatka can be traced back to one specific set of basic body movement called the ‘pantra’. The simple ‘pantra’ is a sequence of foot and body movements which provides the practitioner with the balance and speed required for the use of weapons. As the gatka training progresses, from basic ‘pantra’ with no weapons, to the use of wooden sticks to real swords, daggers and lances, the combination of different forms of the ‘pantra’ and the use of 18 different weapons creates a very effective means of self defense. Indeed, it is not to be forgotten that the Sikh martial art is to be used, if at all, with purely self defensive motives. The effectiveness of a talented gatka practitioner has been expressed succinctly in the only book on gatka in the world so far:
“A Gatka master could kill or maim hundreds of his enemies in a single day of fighting. Small bands of Sikh warriors would hold the armies of the Moghal’s kings hostage at will. And yet these were peace loving people who hated to fight unless duly provoked. This fine balance between the fierce divesting warrior and the serene blissful saint was reached through dedicated practice of their martial form”.
Gatka in modern times
It has also been shown in recent times that Sikhs who have used this technique for their defense have been able to save their own and other people’s lives: “During our research we learned that in 1984 when the Golden Temple was attacked by the Indian Army, it is said that four Singhs stood at each of the doors of the temple, swinging their Shasters (full length swords) in a basic movement from the Gatka and nobody could come within a ten-metre range of them.”
Gatka in Shanghai
Gatka has been used over the centuries to great effect. Besides the numerous conflicts and wars in the Sikh homeland of Punjab, or the famous Sikh regiments of World War II, Sikhs armed with lathi were employed as riot police in the rough-and-tumble streets of 1930’s Shanghai. The British police instructor, William Ewart Fairbairn, a pioneer in close-quarters battle and riot police tactics, found the Sikhs to be very effective at quelling disturbances due to their gatka-derived skills.