A Sri Lankan battle to revive martial art form that survived colonial ban

By Aanya Wipulasena

Korathota, Sri Lanka, Sep 10 (EFE).- Sri Lankans are trying to resurrect an ancient martial art form that the British outlawed more than 200 years ago as a threat to their colonial rule.

Practitioners of Angampora, which employs indigenous weaponry and spells and incantations for fighting, are slowly emerging from obscurity.

It’s early morning on the angam maduwa, or battleground, in Korathota, a Western Province town.

A group of young people has gathered to practice the martial art form based on Buddhist teachings.

Sasithi Akithna, 10, is not doing it right.

To protect herself against her opponent, she needs to employ all her upper body strength.

Her teacher-turned-opponent, Ajantha Mahanthaarachchi, strikes with his wooden stick. This time, a more watchful Akithna stops it deftly, as instructed by him.

“It is important to have a philosophical foundation in martial arts. It trains artists to be compassionate, to only use the skills they have learned when absolutely needed,” Ajantha Mahanthaarachchi, 38, tells EFE.

Mahanthaarachchi claims that he found written evidence to prove that the art was 5,000 years old, which makes it one of the oldest martial arts in the world.

There are three main components: angan or unarmed fighting used for self-defense; illangam or armed fighting practiced with indigenous weapons, to fight wars; and mayaangam that uses spells and incantations.

Then there is hewa angam, a capsule course for individuals going to war; and nila angam, which teaches traditional medicines and cures.

For the past nearly two centuries, people practiced angampora in secrecy because the British, who colonized Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) banned it in 1818, seeing it as a threat.

But angampora survived underground as various sects and traditional practitioners preserved the art clandestinely.

The punishment for defying the colonial ban was brutal.

A shot on the knee to make sure that the person did not practice the martial art again, or a jail sentence. The English even set fire to angam maduwas made across the island.

“The only way to preserve the art was by calling it a dance and practicing it as a dance style,” Mahanthaarachchi says.

Thus, the “deadly dance” was born. Martial artists used to perform angampora by moving in a rhythmic manner to resemble a leopard, an elephant, or a lion.

To revive the art, the Sri Lankan government approved a proposal on June 13 to lift the ban.

While the revocation order is yet to be implemented, the sports ministry has moved to promote angampora as a national heritage of the island.

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