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Past and present of the Indian female combat

Indian women wrestlers
Women wrestling. Ancient bas-relief in Hampi Karnataka, India
Photo by Chatts from the resource Flickr

Русская версия

In the Ancient India, women warriors and wrestlers existed. Indian women have retained wrestling traditions through the centuries.

Women and valor

Belligerent goddess Durga

During Maurya Empire or Ashoka (321-185 BC) as testified to by Kautilya in his Arthasastra (c. 350-283 BC), women were the armed bodyguards of the kings. Those women who had good physique were selected for this job and were given good training in martial arts including fighting with swords, bow and arrow and wrestling.

The armed women body-guards were appointed to guard harem, in addition to eunuchs. The Greek writer Megasthenese who visited the Mauryan Empire has described the tall and sturdy women guards of the king. He has paid handsome encomium to the valour of these women. This practice continued even during the Gupta period (320 to 550 AD)

The personal valour and bravery shown by women becomes clearer during the Vijayanagar period (1336-1650). Many inscriptions (writing on stone) refer to the heroic deeds of women. Some of the foreign travelers like Domingo Paes, Fernao Nuniz, Duarte Barbosa, Afanasiy Nikitin, Niccolo Da Conti, Abdul Razzak, etc., who were witnesses to the valorous deeds of women have left graphic descriptions. The women guards were posted at different parts of the fort, palace and harem, and they directly reported to the emperor any unusual incident. They kept a vigil even over the officers and searched them if necessary. They always carried a small dagger, a long sword and a shield. Some of them had bow and arrows. Some of them were expert horse riders. There were at least more than one thousand of them.

Many of the stone sculptures on the walls of Hazara Rama temple and some hero - stones have sculptural representations of women soldiers fighting with swords, daggers, shields, bows and arrows. Unfortunately, their names and details are not known.

Emperors of Vijayanagar were great patrons of indigenous martial art, wrestling (kusti). In fact, the Dasara festivities held at Hampi included wrestling competitions. The wrestling was so fierce that some of the wrestlers got hurt and first aid used to be provided. Highly distinguished wrestlers of the period were Mallappa Nayaka, Bhimajetti, Ramajetti and Venkatagirijetti.

Women wrestlers

Now we may refer to women wrestlers. According to foreign travelers, women wrestlers used to show their skill in wrestling in private to the king, queen and the officers.

One of the visitors by name Nuniz, who was a special invitee, saw the women wrestling and was greatly impressed and stated that such a spectacle did not take place in his country nor the countries he visited. Fortunately, there is a stone record dated 1444 AD, at Shikaripura in Shimoga district, which gives the details of a wrestling bout of a woman by name Hariyakka. It also has a fine sculptural representation of the entire event.

Hariyakka's Story

Ancient wrestler Hariyakka defeats a man

Nadanagauda was a wrestler (pailwan) by profession and belonged to the Jetti community. He had become famous in the Vijayanagar Empire. After his death, his son Madigauda followed in his footsteps. He had a daughter by name Hariyakka who was also a great wrestler. One day, a wrestler from the neighboring area arrived at Shikaripura and challenged Madigauda. The latter accepted the challenge and the wrestling took place between the two. Unfortunately, Madigauda was not only defeated but was killed in the fight and the challenge extended to others. Hariyakka accepted the challenge and the wrestling took place between a man and a woman. Hariyakka, who was a well-trained wrestler defeated her enemy in the wrestling and killed him with a dagger and avenged her father's death. This became great news in the entire kingdom and this was carved on a stone with a sculptural representation. It is interesting to note that in the sculpture Hariyakka looks like a pailwan whereas her opponent looks like a dwarfish creature. There should have been many more Hariyakkas during the period and archaeologists have to dig out women wrestlers from oblivion by fresh discoveries.

Prof. A.V. Narasimha Murthy
Former Head, Department of Ancient History & Archaeology, University of Mysore
October 1, 2009

Popular women's combat styles in India

There are two main Indian martial arts being practiced by women: Kusti and Kalari as well as team combat game Kabaddi

Kusti wrestling

Wrestling in the Mysoru Dasara festival, 2008
Photo from the album

Kusti (Kushti, Khusti) or Pehlwani is a synthesis of an indigenous Aryan / Hindu form of wrestling that dates back at least to the 5th century BC and a Persian form of wrestling brought into South Asia by the Mughals.

Kusti is quite similar to the contemporary freestyle wrestling. Its techniques are really the same with rules being the primary differences. Unlike freestyle wrestling which is held on the mat, the Kusti playground is a dirt area; that's why Kusti is considered a prototype mud wrestling, exceptionally popular worldwide women's game. The standout points of Kusti wrestling are the physical regimens designed to build overall strength, with the focus being on grip strength. One of the Kusti forms is ‘Nada Kusti’ popular in Mysore.

Kalari fighting

Kalari practicing

The word Kalari means practice ground in Malayalam. The traditional training of Kalari Payattu, a martial art of Kerala state in south India, is always done inside the Kalari (literally, threshing floor or battlefield), which is a specially constructed practice area. Payattu means 'exercise in arms or practice'.

Kalari playgrounds have not also been used by the men, but for hundreds of years – by women as well. Long ago when their husbands, teachers and sons went off to the battlefield to fight enemies, young women were often left to defend their families and villages. Women were also trained in the art of Kalari to resist the invaders and highway men. Those who were from the higher class had a vast range of weaponry at hand, swords. Spears, equally those who were not used ordinary kitchen utensils such as a knife and vettukatti. Women from lower classes were more sophisticated in straight empty-handed combat.

The Kalari also had a place of importance in the system of education, which prevailed in the ancient Kerala. It is worthwhile to remember that Kalari has played a decisive role in Kerala on many a crucial occasions. It supplied the best fighting materials against many an invading hoarders.

There are many legends of famous women fighters such as Unniyarcha, a legendary heroine, who won many battles with distinction. Today, Kalari Payattu is a method of physical fitness, an empty-handed combat and self-defense. Yet, it is tied to traditional ceremonies and rituals.

Today in Kerala there are kalari institutions were young girls are trained in the hand-to-hand combat of Kalari.

Contemporary Kusti girl competitions. Videoclips

Kusti Kusti


Kabaddi game episode
Click on the image to see the video clip

Kabaddi is a team combat game very popular among Indian women. Kabaddi is basically a team combative sport. The Kabaddi court is divided into two halves with a team of 12 players at each end (only 7 on court at each time). The aim of the game is to score points by touching or catching the opposing team players. Each team alternate in sending one of their players in to try and touch as many of the opposition players as possible before running out of breath as they chant kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi... Once a player is touched they are out. The aim of the defending team is to grab the attacking player and hold him until he has to take another breath, when he is out. Each match has two halves lasting 20 minutes each. When a defender stops an attacker, a short wrestling bout often begins using kust-like techniques. In fact, Kabaddi is a sophisticated imitation of a combat between two groups (like Russian wall-in-wall fight but without blows and in more sophisticated way).

Belur woman warrior
Indian female warrior, Belur (Tan)
Photo from the resource Indian Study Abroad

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