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Angampora to the fore

It was 23 August 1562. The arrival of the Portuguese forces, bearing firepower and advanced weaponry had taken its toll on the Sinhala armies. But, Prince Tikiri Bandara, later King Rajasinghe I of Seethawaka, was not about to surrender the land of his ancestor to the invading Europeans. On a vast open field in Mulleriyawa, the Portuguese soldiers met the Sinhala armies led by Tikiri Bandara. The ranks of Sinhala warriors, masters of the art of Angam or Angampora, attacked the enemy with brutal force and unexpected military skill. The Mulleriya Satana (Battle of Mulleriya) ensued. Fought between the Portuguese and the Seethawaka garrison, the bloodied war field saw the victorious Sinhalese military defeat the might of the Portuguese army, marking a momentous victory for the Seethawaka Kingdom.

 


After the battle, the King of Seethawaka rewarded the arachchies of each korale with land and other items of value, encouraging them to continue the practice of Angampora. In addition, the Arachchi of the Korathota Korale also received Tikiri Bandara's coveted sabre of gold. Today, this sword pledges the existence of the Korathota Arachchi lineage that bore the secrets and traditions of Angampora for centuries.


Ajantha Mahantharachchi, the present Mohandiram of the Korathota tradition, instructs his disciples. Although the rains seem ceaseless and the lush foliage surrounding the Angam Maduwa is cloaked in a veil of mist, the young mohandiram sees an opportunity for mastering the sacred art of combat, native to Sri Lanka. Men clad in white cloth and black ina pati (waist band) crouch, with raised shields and drawn muskets, facing each other. One female fighter, wearing a white dhoti and jacket, bends, almost to a mandiya posture. She clasps a sharp kinissa (dagger) in her jaws and her hands appear claw-like, waiting to strike. This depiction of an age-old battle portrays both the male and female warriors of Angampora engaging in battle. It is remarkable to observe the historic martial arts in practice today.


The Korathota Angampitiya (field of Angam) is situated off Kaduwela, in close proximity to the Korathota Navagamu Paththini Devalaya. The opportunity to study the indigenous combating technique is rare and those accepted into the circle are chosen with utmost caution. Mahantharachchi explains that the words of the Ola leaf are what help make that vital choice. "Not everyone can become a student of Angampora. The horoscope must be read. It carries weight and tells us what the past life experiences of each individual have been. We need to know what the person's life expectancy is and if they possess the qualities of a warrior.


Purity of thought and the potential to develop one’s mind is comprehensible through the message of the Ola leaf. We need to know if their knowledge of the Angam Satan Kalawa (the fighting techniques of Angam) will not lead them to take advantage of others or use it unjustly.


Angampora involves combatants making use of both striking and grappling techniques, often fighting until death or till the opponent is caught in a submission lock. In combat, the perimeters of fighting are defined in advance, and in some of the cases take place in a pit-like arena, known as the Ura Wala. While the usage of weapons in Angampora is optional, its evolution is seen during the advent of European invasions in Sri Lanka. The techniques of combat depend heavily upon psychological development, physical exercise, healthy eating and Ayurvedic healing.


The school of Angampora is divided into a number of sub-categories. Angam: unarmed combat utilizing parts of the human body, such as gataputtu (locks and grips) and pora haramba (strikes and blocks), Illangam: using various types of arms and weaponry comprising the ethunu kaduwa (sharp strips of metal tied together), spears, knives and swords, Nilangam or Nila Shasthraya: involving the use of pressure point attacks to inflict pain or permanently paralyze the opponent and, its most unique feature, Maya Angam: spells and incantations as a fighting technique. Mahantharachchi also stresses on the importance of music in the success of the overall method of combat. For instance, rana bera wadanaya (beating of the war drums) and hatan kavi (battle songs) played an imperative role in the preliminary stages of war.


Indigenous way of life

The Angam Haramba (history of Angampora) is related through ancient manuscripts, such as the Rajavaliya, and is shrouded in myth and lore, reaching beyond 30,000 years. One of the oldest known forms of martial arts in the world, its origins are attributed to the Yakka ancestry of the Suriyawamsa clan. It is believed that King Ravana of Lanka was the first great warrior to master the art of Angampora. The son of Vishrava and his wife, Princess Kaikesi, Ravana, succeed his father, as the heir, and became the ruler of the Yakkas. Known as Dasa Sheersha Pathi, the king was said to have mastered 10 sciences including medicine, music, art, dancing, mantra, technology, astrology and Angampora. The combating style was utilized predominantly against the Chola invasions of South India and in combat among neighbouring states. The knowledge of Angam Haramba is said to have been transferred from the king to his son, Indrajit, and in turn, to his two sons, Keweshastha and Ravishailasa, thereby creating two distinctive schools of Angampora within the country.


Later, with the island’s introduction Buddhism, monarchs of Lanka incorporated the philosophy of the dhamma into Angam Haramba. According to the Rajavaliya (historic Ceylonese chronicles), all monarchs of Sri Lanka practiced Angampora, passing it from generation to generation, letting it evolve as a complete combating technique under royal patronage.


With European invasions threatening the sovereignty of the island, the indigenous martial art was employed on the battlefield. Although Angampora proved successful against the various attacks made by the Dutch and the Portuguese militia, the powerful armaments and munitions of the British army resulted in the fall of the divided state. As the British became the colonial masters of the country, fighters of Angam Haramba were imprisoned, exiled and, oftentimes, shot to death. The practicing of Angampora was deemed illegal by the gazette notification of 1827, leading to the destruction of the teaching halls or Angam Madu and the assassination of anyone associated with its existence.


 “It was because of dedicated individuals like Korathota Sobhitha Thero, of the Korathota Navagamu Paththini Devalaya, that the secrets of this fighting technique were kept safe. A handful of people continued to practice and develop the art of Angam in temples and other secret locations. Although many of the Sinhala warriors were murdered, Angampora didn’t die. It was during this time that the Sinhala warriors were truly tested. It was because of their courage and will that we are able to carry on its tradition, even today. It was such a vital aspect of our ancestors and I am honoured to embrace this indigenous way of life,” Mahantharachchi says.


Female equality

One of the most interesting factors of this combat art form is its acceptance of female equality. While the history of Angam Haramba boasts the valour of many male warriors, it also praises the skill and courage of their female counterparts. Kuweni, Mahapali, Ratnapali and Navarathna Menike are some of the fiercest fighters of Angam “Women were warriors who excelled in Angampora,” explains the Mohandiram. “They fought just as valiantly as the men. We are equals in the battlefield. Women were much better at mastering ways of healing than the men were. It is these western concepts that have told our women to stay indoors and mend to the needs of the house alone. Our people were never of this mindset; not until the colonial conquest. Now they (the western world) are changing their ways to make women more independent. Our women have always been independent. They have been involved in physical and outdoor activities since ancient times. Because Victorian ideals were forced upon a fierce race of Sinhala women, our armies lost many female comrades,” he adds.


In conclusion, Mahantharachchi, relates that although the state is yet to comprehend the value of this ancient form of warfare, he is determined create recognition and appreciation for the Angampora Satan Kalawa. “Some veterans of the field believe that the art of Angam should continue in secrecy and silence, but I think the time has come to emerge from our hiding and have pride in our own. People must be told of our history. They must know that this, too, is a form of art, like Kandyan dance or native song. Angampora is a part of our heritage and that must not be forgotten.”


By Yashasvi Kannangara

Ceylon Today

29-09-2013


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Published on: 2013-10-09