Angampora - lost ancient martial art of Sri Lanka

by Uditha Jayasinghe
Apr 2, 2016

COLOMBO, May 30 (Xinhua) - One man attacks while the other energetically parries and the rest watch in tense silence. The practice session is of Angampora, the ancient Sri Lankan martial art that has been practiced for thousands of years and is still taught in traditional schools around the country.

The ancient art Angampora centers around unarmed combat where only "Anga" or body parts are used to fight. Its counterpart " Illangam" uses a variety of traditional weapons including spear, shield and staff in complex forms of battle.

Angampora as a history steeped deep within the larger antiquity of Sri Lanka. The exact date of when the art first came into being is hazy with clans that have carried on the tradition placing it anywhere from 3000 to 30,000 years old. What cannot be denied is that it is the oldest form of martial arts in the country.

Ajantha Mohoththara met Xinhua on a Saturday morning at his Angampora training school about 35 km out of Colombo. His forefathers were experts in the art and over generations handed down the fighting style to their male children. Both Ajantha's father and grandfather were leaders of their clan and taught Angampora before the title was taken over by him.

"According to Singhalese folklore, there are papyrus rolls that prove the art existed since the beginning of civilization in Sri Lanka nearly 30,000 years ago," he insisted, adding that nine hermits with great powers belonging to one of the country's ancient tribes, the "yaksha", created and documented Angampora. Since then it was adapted by clans that evolved different fighting styles and passed them on from generation to generation.

Angampora was especially popular during the time of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka who trained ranks of fighters in the art and effectively used them to defeat invasions from south India and even expand their own kingdoms against local rivals. "Kings that were pleased by the services rendered by these clans would hand over large tracts of land as gifts. Our forefather was also given this land and our family has been here for generations. There is documented proof of this. When a clan settled in an area they would train more fighters and form larger troops for battles under the king," Ajantha explained.

With the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka over 2600 years ago, Angampora received a religious balance with fighters having to follow deeply religious and disciplined lifestyles. "When you teach a person Angampora you are giving them the skill to kill. There is no greater responsibility and with it there must be the ability to have clear judgment." As a result Angampora fighters also became philosophers and pundits, often having close relationships with Temples and becoming the leaders of their villages or even districts. They also devised elaborate ceremonies of worship and meditation that are still performed before combat sessions.

Due to the close link between Buddhism and Angampora combat scenes are seen in some of the most ancient Temples in Sri Lanka, most notably the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, which is the most important place of worship for Buddhists.

Higher level Angam attacks involve the nervous system of the human body. If executed properly, they can stop the blood circulation of vital organs, leading to paralysis or even death. Therefore, alongside such techniques students learn an Ayurvedic practice known as "BehethPrawal", or medical shots, for reversing the effects of such strikes. As such they became much respected community leaders.

Angampora fighters are mentioned as having taken part in many crucial battles throughout Sri Lanka's history. However, their importance hit a new level with the advent of colonization. Angampora warriors fought with Portuguese and Dutch invaders but their hardest challenge came with the British.

"Angam techniques were used by locals to fight off the westerners who occupied the coastal areas of Sri Lanka during the 16th and 17th centuries. The British, who occupied the whole island by 1815, and who had full control of it by 1818, issued a gazette banning the practice in 1817, paving the way to its decline. All the AngamMadu (huts used for training) were ordered to be burnt and people found practicing the art were shot below their knees. Only a few families continued the practice at secretive locations."

This was a dark age for Angampora. With its practitioners hunted almost to extinction the art went underground and remained so for over a hundred years almost dying out. In the last two decades popular dramas and movies have returned Angampora to the limelight but it still struggles to find adequate support to keep its traditions pure from modern interpretations.

"There are many Angampora teachers that do not understand finer points of the art and do not possess adequate knowledge. Through their teaching they pass an inaccurate and sometimes dangerous version to the world," remarked Ajantha, adding that there is little cooperation between the different clans at present.

Another constraint is that tradition demands that Angampora be taught only to Sinhala Buddhist males. Even though this custom is not strictly followed, traditionalists like Ajantha insist that religious discipline is an essential part of learning a martial art.

"Despite our rich heritage, Angampora is not even taught to army recruits for self defense in Sri Lanka," he laments, adding that while Wushu is widely practiced in local schools, students are not taught this art at least as part of their history.

"We need to give Angampora in its pure form to the next generation as a great symbol of who we are," he said, calling for government support to promote the martial art.

Due to its limited exposure on a global scale, Angampora is also largely unappreciated internationally and remains one of the great secrets of Sri Lanka.