Orgins and history
Gatka is the martial art of the Sikhs, and is tied in with the religion Sikhism. It’s a weapons-based martial art, which was imparted to the Sikhs in the time of Guru Hargobind Ji (the sixth Guru of the Sikhs) by the Rajputs (Hindu warriors of northern India) in the 16th century, in gratitude for their release from imprisonment by the fledgling Sikh army of that time. The Sikhs at that time opposed the Mughal Empire, which violently oppressed both Sikhs and Hindus in the name of Islam.
The Tenth Master of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, was an extremely proficient martial artist.
He continued to encourage the Sikhs to train seriously in the martial arts, and in 1699 founded the Khalsa, a special Order, to which all Sikhs would thereafter aspire to joining. The Khalsa was subject to strict military and personal discipline, and were enjoined to, inter alia, always carry 5 items with them: the Kanga (a small wooden comb), Kachhehra (long drawers instead of a loincloth), Kara (a steel bracer worn on the right wrist), Kesh (uncut hair) and Kirpan (curved sword). The Khalsa was enjoined to train to fight, and to vigorously resist the oppression of any religious community, including Sikhs and Hindus. The wearing of the kirpan represented the martial character of the Khalsa, and all Sikhs, men, women and children, were encouraged to resist their Mughal oppressors, and to train diligently in gatka.
Gatka was used succesfully by the Sikhs throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, in numerous battles against the Mughal forces. Eventually, the Sikhs succeeded in deposing the Mughal overlords, and in creating a new, tolerant rulership in the Punjab (the “Land of Five Rivers”, a region in modern-day India and Pakistan).
Gatka is, and has always been, taught as a spiritual exercise in Sikhism. Sikhism requires its followers to become absorbed in honouring the Name of God, and this is taught through the ecstatic exercise of gatka. Sikhism and gatka are inextricably intertwined, in many ways.
Gatka actually refers to the soti, a wooden stick used in training, which is equipped with a basket hilt. The entire martial art is based on the correct use of a vast array of melee (hand-to-hand) weapons. The foundation of the art is the panthra, a basic form and methodology for moving the feet, body, arms and weapons correctly, in unison. Gatka is normally taught with rhythmic accompaniment, and the object is to achieve fluid, natural and flowing movement, without hesitation, doubt or anxiety. The attacking and blocking methods are all based upon the positions of the hands, feet and weapon(s) during the panthra dexterity exercise. Many weapons are taught with special methodologies, in addition to the panthra exercise.
There are set of unique “chambers” and other techniques, which are unique to certain weapons, such as the khanda (two-edged sword), the tabar (axe) and the barcha (spear).
The most common weapon used by gatka exponents today is the lathi (a stick of varying length), but all of the other traditional weapons are still taught. A common combination in that hands of gatka practitioners of today and in the past is the sword and shield.
The panthra exercise is a flowing, non-stop movement, and there are no specific “techniques” as such in gatka. Rather, the methods of attacking and defending are the same, and the application depends on the circumstances at the time. The panthra exercise is practised at the same time as the “Jaap Sahib” prayer is being sung. Also, a three-beat-per-cycle is played by a drummer at the same time. This assists in developing natural and flowing co-ordination.
Most gatka groups train in a religious or semi-religious situation, such as in a gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship) or in a Sikh cultural centre or school. However, in recent years a number of “Akhara” (regiment or gymnasium) organisations have been founded, with the express purpose of teaching and disseminating the skill of gatka.
Gatka students always train with “both hands full”, as this is both an excellent exercise for matching the two halves of the body and is emphasised as ideal for combat. Gatka emphasises the superiority of having something in both hands, whether it’s two sticks, or a stick and a sword, or a sword and a shield or any other combination.
At an advanced level, gatka is always tailored to the practitioner. Hence the gatka practitioner will eventually focus all of his effort on training his or her abilities with a chosen weapon or combination of weapons.
Gatka was never originally intended as a competitive sport. However, recently a number of modern gatka organisations have introduced competition. Normally, these are based on a “best of two” or a “best of Five” hits contest between two practitiners.
How to find an instructor
The best traditional gatka practitioners outside the Punjab are known by word of mouth only. However, some organisations have recently begun teaching their own variation of gatka, in schools and clubs, in the same way as any other martial art. These organisations usually advertise, too. However, their gatka may differ significantly from the traditional form of the art, either by accident or design. It may be fruitful to consult your local gurdwara (Sikh temple) officials in order to find a reputable gatka instructor who is willing to teach you. Discretion (most gatka experts disdain being the centre of attention) and courtesy will be indispensable in finding yourself a willing instructor in the art.
author: Arun Singh