There is a single source for all the types of weapon fighting arts in North-west India. Though the Hindu themselves relate the origin of these practices to the time of Mahabharata events, but their actual history and the succession of this tradition didn’t start till the 17-18th centuries.
There are some facts that point to the Iranian origin of Indian martial arts. There is certain similarity in the remaining principles of training and the content of training of warriors in Iran and India. The Indian wrestling “kushti” is believed to have been brought from Iran. The localization of weapon styles in the North-West of India as well as the historical ways of migration, conquests, borrowings and the spread of culture prove the Iranian origin to be very likely.
Of all North-western styles the best known and rather popular is gatka. “Gatka” is a Penjabi word and it’s unknown in Rajasthan where they speak Rajastani and Hindi. Gatka is considered to originate in the later 19th century, out of sword practice in the British Indian Army, and had traditional Indian roots in its foundation.
The well-developed part of gatka as a performance was formed under the British command and under the influence of the local British authorities, that thoroughly extirpated any demonstration of the national spirit and actual martial skills, that didn’t have anything to do with the regulations in the British army.
Nowadays the fighting technique with a stick prevails over all existing Indian practices. Teaching starts right with a stick, if we don’t consider practice with fillers, strengthening muscles and tendons. It’s interesting to note that these practices are general for both kushti fighters and fencers.
The stick spinning that at first sight seems useless for any real situation helps to form coordination and the basis movements as the inertia of movement of the stick requires responsive reactions on the part of the body of the one who is practicing that. This method works only when all the fingers of the hands hold the stick tightly, especially the third finger and the little finger. Loosening the grip turns the exercise into jugglery. But holding the stick tightly develops and strengthens wrists, which leads to the formation of extraordinary fencer’s skills that astonished and amazed the British solders in the Anglo-Indian wars. The skills of the body coordination formed with the help of the stick let one fight with only one hand as well and then to pass on to training with any kind weapons.
The second factor that lessens the value of the real practical use of the Indian techniques (besides the poor grip of the weapon), is a widely-spread nowadays tendency not to respond to the inertia of the stick or any other weapon with the coordination and balance of the body, but to follow the weapon at random. As a result the fencer’s movements turn into chaotic steps, jumps over the ground with the main purpose to keep the balance. Thus, responsive, parrying techniques or any reasonable control over the body are out of the question. The reason for this factor is the substitution of the main idea. When the hard and obscure mastery of handling a weapon is replaced by a striking, spectacular skill of rotating different objects and moving them with the maximum speed “faster, higher, harder” to please the applauding spectators. This positive trait of the Hindu character to get joy out of everything plays a negative role in the process of teaching and passing traditions of martial skills.
So, these two factors: the forced formation of the theatrical and acrobatic content and the lack of clear criteria of the mastery made the majotiry of Indian techniques of handling weapons look like a performance at a theatre.
Thus there is logical a question: how is this fantastic sports entertainment connected with the historical records about a unique military training of the inhabitants in northwest India? British experts from the British Indian army gave a list of nations that should join the army, as they had special skills: Rajputs, Brahmans, Jats, Gujars, Pathans and Mughals. The overwhelming majority of them are from the North-western territory of India. Inhabitants of these regions exactly, as travelers described, worked on their fields with a shield on the back and a sword on the belt, and according to the travelers almost all the men there were experienced in handling weapons and fighting and were solders to a certain degree.
Lord Egerton of Tatton, the collector, traveler and explorer of India noted: “The Rajputs are all brought up to the use of arms. Every village has its gymnasium where instruction is given morning and evening in the use of weapons and the practice of athletic exercises, and these must have contributed much to their martial bearing and soldierly qualities”.
The British authors of memoirs, participants of the Anglo-Indian wars in the 19th century recognize that the Hindu surpass Europeans in fencing. The authors of memoirs who don’t write about that directly, ascribed success of the Hindu in the battles to their superior swords, but making a remark that in most cases the swords of Hindu were worse than British. Those who don’t recognize any superiority of the Hindu over the English at all ascribe the failures of the British in battles to iron sheathes that blunted excellent English sabers and didn’t allow the skillful fencers to beat the natives
It’s rather doubtful that almost professional warriors, who became famous not only among their compatriots and not only in the epic times, could be limited in their military training skills just to demonstrational exercises.
The surviving up to the present practice of military skills in the former princedom (now a district) in South-West Rajasthan allows to imagine what the techniques of Rajput schools looked like and what skills could be taught there.