From combating the Mughals to performing at the Commonwealth Games, Mardani Khel, Maharashtra’s homegrown martial arts has become an international spectacle. We trace its origins and practice.
Gayatri Powar and Aarti Shinde are mild-mannered girls, but place a lathi (wooden lance) or a sword in their hand and they transform into a powerhouse of speed and agility. For onlookers, everything is a blur as they whirl the wood swiftly and tirelessly. Both girls are experts in Mardani Khel, a martial art indigenous to the Kolhapur region in Maharashtra. This martial art form first came into being under the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to combat the oppression of the Mughal empire and later the British. In order to keep it under wraps and catch the enemy by surprise, the Maratha leader disguised the practice of this art as a form of recreational activity, only for performances during festivities.
About the sport
Mardani Khel, a weapon-heavy martial art form, teaches 14 ways to wield a sword, stick and corded lance among other weapons. It increases stamina, strength and patience and inspires players to acquire a never-beaten attitude, in a fight. In essence, it is an art of living life by not giving up, but standing strong after a fall. Nowadays, it is also practised as a performing art and has been showcased at Commonwealth Games, Military World Games, Women’s Cricket World Cup, National Youth Festival, various Indian tourism festivals and at a BRICS conference.
Armoury and weapons
In the sport, an individual or a team of two, works in unison to defend themselves against a group of attackers. All performers carry a fari (leather shield), daggers, lathis, patta or sword and Madu (Maratha boomerang). “Weapons fashioned from animal horns are known as Madu, or the Maratha boomerang, as coined by the British. It is a spear with a rope knotted on one end. The other end of this rope is in the hand of the warrior. This was a key weapon in Shivaji Maharaj’s army,” explains trainer Pandit A Powar, Founder of the Late Anandrao Powar Ancient War Art Training Center in Kolhapur.
Let the action begin
Beginners are taught stance and how to rotate and swirl a lathi. Once a student is able to confidently maneuver the lance, she/he graduates to patta or sword training. The fight with the lances is called Lathi Kathi Combat. Two different lengths of lathis are used; for beginners the length is 4 feet and for advance training the length is 6 feet. Students practice everyday for at least 2 hours on an empty stomach. Post practice they have to go through various breathing and limbering down exercises to cool their body and only then can they drink water or have a meal.
“A male fighter is required to wear a 12-knots cotton-padded jacket called barahbandi. In old times, fighters would also opt for a barahbandi made of silk instead of cotton, if they could afford it. For bottom wear, they would put on a salwar, which was skin fitting from ankle to the knee and loose from knee up to the waist to allow flexibility,” informs Vinod Salokhe, Vice President of the Kolhapur District Dandpatta Association. As head gear, a pagadi or pheta is worn to protect the crown from enemy blows. Pagadi requires almost 13-14 metres of cloth for wrapping. One side of it is twirled around multiple times so that it becomes hard and helps to further defend against the enemy’s sword if it struck on the head. Pheta requires 7-8 metres of cloth. Women wear the traditional sari called nauvari.
The warriors of Shivaji Maharaj’s army would also wear a jacket called bandi, a black-padded jacket made of sheep wool. This served multiple purposes – the jacket kept them warm at night and helped to camouflage them from the enemy since it was black in colour. On the waist, a cloth called as shela was tied. It not only protected the stomach but also allowed the fighter to hide small weapons in it.
A healthy diet
In earlier times, milk, jowar roti, vegetables and meat was the diet of a Mardani Khel warrior. They would also eat and carry peanuts and jaggery during long stakeouts or scouting excursions as it is high-protein, plus easy to carry and consume.
Injuries and recovery
It is not hard to envisage that such a sport is susceptible to injuries. The process for recovery involves using a combination of modern medicines like pain relieving sprays and allopathic tablets, and healing tips passed down generations. A traditional remedy is the application of a rampantly found weed known as dagadi pala. This weed has medicinal benefits and since it is easily available, it is simply crushed and placed on the wound for fast recovery. In addition, once every week, players get a full-body massage with a mix of camphor and eucalyptus oil to help them rejuvenate. In the olden days, coconut oil was mixed with kerosene for faster pain relief.
Written By : KHURSHEED DINSHAW