18 April 2014

Exploring the Indian Connections of the Filipino Martial Arts

There are solid historical proofs showing the profound influence of India on the Philippines. Indian influences on the country may have started seeping in during the first three centuries of the Christian era via Indian trading activities in Southeast Asia. The oldest written document found in the Philippines, namely the Laguna Copperplate Inscription displays obvious Indian influence. Including loanwords from Sanskrit, the document, which releases its bearer from a debt in gold, has a date that corresponds to the year 900 AD. Upendra Thakur in his book “Some Aspects of Asian History and Culture,” wrote, “As we all know, the Philippine islands, Malay and Indonesia were greatly influenced by Hindu religions and philosophy since the early years of the Christian era. Some writers have suggested that direct Indian contact with the Philippines occurred in the early centuries of the Christian era. This belief is based on the archeological remains consisting mostly of pottery, beads and bracelets and other materials similar to those found in South India, which have been found in the Philippines and Malaysia. They believe that without direct contact between India and the Philippines Indian influence on religion, politics and statecraft of the Philippines is not possible.”

On the extent of Indian influence on Philippine syllabary, Thakur wrote, “The best evidence of strong Indian elements in Filipino life is, however, found in Philippine languages, particularly in Tagalog which has borrowed from Sanskrit the words which signify intellectual acts, moral conceptions, emotions, superstitions, names of deities, of planets, of numerals of high numbers, of botany, of war, of titles and dignitaries, some animals, instruments of industry and the names of money. This deep influence on Philippine languages was due to the borrowing of Sanskrit words by the Malays during first centuries of the Christian era from whom the Filipinos engrafted all the words into their own languages, when they came into contact with the Hinduised Malays.”

Indian wrestlers with stone weights and heavy Indian clubs. From the book “India and the Indians” (1913) by Edward F. Elwin

Two Filipino words – guro and Bathala, popularly used within Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) circles are Indian in origin. Guro, which means “teacher,” a common title used by many FMA instructors was derived from the Indian word “guru.” On the etymology of Bathala, the supreme god of pre-colonial Filipinos, Thakur has this to say, “Similarly Bathala, the Tagalog supreme god, is obviously Indra (Battara).

And now comes the question, “Did Indian martial arts reached Philippine shores?” Probably, considering that martial arts is a cultural export and Indian culture was heavily transported to Southeast Asia during the first two centuries of Christianity, “As we know, during the turmoil in South India just before the rise of the Pallavas, many Indians left their home and went to Malaysia, Campā and Cambodia in the earlier centuries of the Christian era (c. 2nd cent. A.D.). They brought with them their culture and religion and when the Pallava kingdom was established, Indian settlements came to be founded in Malaysia and other parts of South-East Asia whose people consequently adopted Indian culture,” wrote Thakur, postulating that, “Indian transmitters of culture were court functionaries, not missionaries.” Based on this statement, Kalaripayattu (arguably India’s oldest martial) and other Indian combat systems may have reached the Philippines during this period of Indian exodus to Southeast Asia. But to what extent they have taken roots, it is hard to tell.

Similarities and Disparities between Indian and Filipino Stick Fighting
While it is purely hypothetical that Indian martial arts directly influenced the development of FMA, it is a fact that the two display similarities worthy of scrutiny. For one, India has its own method of stick fighting. Robert Beér in his book, “The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs” wrote, “In ancient Indian warfare the heavy club was a chosen weapon of the physically strong and robust – a tradition which still finds expression in the training techniques of Indian wrestlers, who use a pair of wooden clubs for strengthening exercises. Hanuman, the powerful monkey god who wields the gada or mace, is commonly the patron deity of Indian Vaishnavite wrestlers. Street-jugglers also wield the wooden clubs with great dexterity. Indian warfare employed four distinct methods of fighting with the club: vikshepa, or paired combat; abhishepa, or single club combat; parishepa, or circling of the club amidst the throng of enemies; and prakshepa, or the throwing of the club.” 

It is interesting to identify the similarities and disparities between Indian and Filipino stick fighting based on what Beér has written. Just like the solo baston (single stick) and doble baston (double sticks) modalities of arnis-escrima, Indian stick fighting has vikshepa, or paired club combat and abhishepa, or single club combat. The wooden clubs used by Indian wrestlers for conditioning is a popular training tool in Indian physical culture. Though practiced solely as an exercise, its swinging patterns resemble that of Filipino stick fighting. The disparity is evident though in the choice of sticks. The Indians prefer a heavy club, “a chosen weapon of the physically strong and robust,” Beér wrote. The Filipinos on the other hand prefers the rattan stick, light but durable and capable of delivering multiple hits in a second.

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