Why women in Kolhapur are learning an ancient Indian martial art

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Mardani Khel - an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India
Mardani Khel – an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India

Kolhapur to me stood for the Mahalakshmi temple, Kolhapuri Chappal, Spicy Mutton and Lavani dance. On a beautiful spring morning when I alighted from the Deccan Odyssey luxury train as a part of India Blog Train initiative by Incredible India, I had no idea that a new name was going to be added to the ‘must do’ list.

After walking through the monumental gateway in a cobblestone Plaza, I got busy capturing the atmospheric old town quarter around the Mahalaxmi Temple. In the middle of an unceasing tide of humanity, I heard a roaring voice along with sounds of Dhol-Nagada (drum) and Shankha (conch shell). My feet started following the music and I reached a performance area encircled with spectators hypnotized in a hair-raising performance of an ancient Indian martial art.

A woman draped in a Maharashtrian Saree and a kid tied to her back was fighting a gang of 7-8 men. Her sword and body moved with the speed and agility of a leopard. With a raging red face and piercing eyes, she looked like a splitting image of Rani Lakshmi Bai in a battlefield. I reminded myself this wasn’t a scene from an action movie where multiple retakes and Computer Graphics make an action scene but I was witnessing a real-life Mardani Khel performance in Kolhapur. An ancient Indian martial art practised majorly in Maharashtra.

Mardani Khel - an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India
Mardani Khel – an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India

I had my heart in my mouth when I saw lemons, green chillies and coconuts shredded precisely from the middle placed on the neck, stomach and forehead of the performers. One miss and a life could have been lost. I was trembling with fear but there wasn’t a strand of anxiety in the eyes of the performers. They had literally put their lives in someone else’s hands. From sword gladiators, bamboo stick warriors, fire guzzlers to dagger fighters; I had never seen so many brave men, women and kids using weapons so swiftly and elegantly.

Mardani Khel performance - an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India
Mardani Khel performance – an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India

The most interesting thing about this ancient Indian martial art performance was seeing three generations of men, women and kids from 80 years to 3 years of age joining in unison to put together a show of Maratha valour, precision and pride.

Claps were not enough for such a riveting ancient Indian martial art performance. Goose bumps and tears joined the applause.

The Origin

The bloodcurdling performance had piqued my interest to know more about this ancient Indian martial art form, so I probed Madhav Rathore, the Deccan Odyssey Train Manager who had been organising this performance for several years.

Mardani Khel performance - an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India
Mardani Khel performance – an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India

Mardani Khel is a weapon-based Maharashtrian Martial Art form, which flourished under the reigns of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Shahu Maharaj of Maratha Dynasty (1674-1818. In 1700s, due to incessant enemy attacks, Rani Tarabai Bhonsle, the warrior queen and brave daughter-in-law of Chhatrapati Shivaji, asked everyone (including women and children) to be trained in this art. Kolhapur used to be the centre of the Maratha Kingdom and it became a hub for the training centres called ‘Talims’ where skilled elders prepared men, women, boys, girls, and even kids for the war

said Madhav answering my question of how this art came into being.

He further elucidated why Mardani Khel had to change for its survival,

After the revolt of 1857, the British banned the use of weapons and the ‘Talims’ were forced to turn Mardani Khel into a folk entertainment to ensure its survival. The use of weapons such as swords, lathi-kathi (bamboo sticks), kattar (dagger), bhala (javelin), veeta (darts), dand and patta (long-bladed swords) continued but the moves were made more entertaining and less lethal.

Having known the glorious past of Mardani Khel I was interested in knowing what the future holds for this spectacular ancient Indian martial art form.

The Revival

Upon further research and talking to several ‘Talim’ centres, I got to know that today many individuals and organisations are working relentlessly to keep this ancient Indian martial art alive.

One such family runs the ‘Khandobachi’ Talim in Kolhapur to practice and train new people into this ancient art of self-defence. It was this family whose martial arts performance I saw at the Plaza Performance area near Mahalakshmi Temple in Kohlapur. They rigorously train to achieve perfection in their strategic moves, techniques and 14 ways to wield a sword, sticks and other weapons. Like all good martial arts, it teaches you the weaknesses of human anatomy in attack mode.

Young warriors of an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India
Young warriors of an ancient Indian martial art form, Kolhapur, Incredible India

The martial art shot to global fame when a popular British Rapper, Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A), of Srilankan Tamil descent came out with a new short film titled ‘Matahdatah Scroll 01 Broader Than a Border’ in 2015, which featured local girls displaying their Mardani Khel skills.

Mardani Khel: an ancient Indian martial art for self-defence
Mardani Khel: an ancient Indian martial art for self-defence

This video and the rising molestation cases in India gave Mardani Khel a new leash of life. A lot of youngsters joined ‘Talim’ centres to learn this art of self-defense. Even the Kolhapur civic body started a programme to train girls and women in this art for self-defence in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident. With renewed youth interest, Mardani Khel is here to stay. And, it’s popularity is not limited to Kolhapur alone. It has spread its wings to other parts of Maharashtra too.

Mardani Khel: an ancient Indian martial art for self-defence
Mardani Khel: an ancient Indian martial art for self-defence

You don’t need to be an avid history buff or an expert to love this unsung Indian martial art form, which deserves a lot more attention.

Have you been to Kolhapur or seen any Indian martial art? If yes, please do share your feedback in the comments section below.

Please don’t forget to read my detailed posts on my #IndiaBlogTrain journey with Incredible India and The Deccan Odyssey.

If you are looking to explore more of Maharashtra, do read:

Exploring the Maharashtrian Ecotourism

The best 5 places to enjoy Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai

Disclaimer

I was invited on the #IndiaBlogTrain journey organised by Incredible India in Feb 2018 ON 4 luxury trains – Palace On Wheels, Deccan Odyssey, Golden Chariot and Maharaja’s Express, that took 60 bloggers on a 7N/8D journey across India’s finest historical destinations spread across Delhi, Goa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. I got a chance to experience the Maharashtra Splendor train route on The Deccan Odyssey It was a voyage that I’d treasure forever. Everything expressed above is based on my personal experiences during my visit. Images used are shot by me. Please do not copy anything without written permission. 

India Blog Train: Deccan Odyssey
India Blog Train: Deccan Odyssey

23 Comments

  • Raghav says:

    Such a brilliant and essential piece on one of India’s lesser known traditions. I hope more people get to read it. I particularly loved the photos, and how the locals transformed Mardani Khel from being a martial art to folk art in order to preserve it. More importantly, it is now being adopted by the younger generation for self-defence. Fascinating to say the least.

  • Neha K says:

    Wow!! This is so interesting and an apt example of gender equality. Loved reading about the tradition and truly reminded of Rani Laxmi bai.

  • Carrie Ann Karstunen says:

    It was fascinating to read about the revival of this ancient martial art. I love how even the very young and the very old are able to participate. Self-defense is so important, especially for women. I don’t think many attackers would stand a chance against someone skilled in Mardani Khel!

  • Jane Dempster-Smith says:

    I would love to learn Mardani Khel. I have not seen any Indian Martial Arts before. This really interests me. The story on how women and children became involved was very interesting. I believe we all should be trained to defend ourselves.

  • Cassie says:

    This is so cool! I had no idea about any of this! I love learning different cultures it’s so refreshing!

  • Pooja says:

    This post brought back so many memories. I remember my annual visits to Kolhapur Mahalaxmi temple and then visiting Panhala. I am so thrilled to learn about Mardani Khel. Hoping to learn it someday.

  • Anita says:

    This is so impressive that woman learning the martial arts. I was shocked about the part with lemons and chilli peppers. India is such an interesting country, I spent there a half year and still discovering new fascinating things about the culture. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

  • Clarice says:

    Wow! This is very interesting. I haven’t seen one personally but this is something I would love to watch. I believe this is martial arts in its truest form. Thank you for sharing about it. Will try to search for more videos online.

  • Bhushavali N says:

    Oh my! Even before I started reading, the first picture itself reminded me of Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai!
    As a babywearing mom, I’m just too impressed. This is taking babywearing to the next level!!!
    Good to know that a lot of effort is being taken now to keep the martial art form alive.

  • Erin @ Her Heartland Soul says:

    What colours and beauty! I would love to experience this!

  • Tami Wilcox says:

    I have great respect for those who learn the discipline of martial arts, and I can certainly understand why more women would desire to be able to protect themselves. It must have been wonderful to happen upon this performance.

  • Christina says:

    This is a fascinating piece and it’s great to see a part of culture being kept alive. Those women look impressive and fierce, with their babies tied to their backs. Indian martial arts, although not as widely known as other Asian martial arts, are every bit as impressive.

  • Thomas Bourlet says:

    The Mardani Khel performance definitely seems pretty intimidating, it must have been amazing to witness. Aaah I want to visit India so badly.

  • Roslia Santamaria says:

    It looks like a wonderful place to visit there.
    Loved your pictures.
    Thanks a lot to share a nice post!!

  • Danik says:

    Such an amazing thing to do, to keep the spirit and traditions living on in their culture. Would love to witness this and I think the Mardani Khel by the looks of it, can be a bit scary, am I right to say that?

  • Milijana says:

    How smart to transform art into a game to preserve it!!
    I have never before heard of Mardani Khel and I enjoyed reading and learning about it in your post. Thanks so much for sharing a rare topic in the blogosphere!

  • Indrani says:

    It is great that the women are trying to revive this martial art! Very brave of them to have babies tied to them during the fight. Excellent action pictures.

  • Rosemary says:

    This is so interesting and I love that it empowers women. I’d love to learn this martial art and I do hope it spreads all around the world. Great photos. Love the look of determination on the faces of the women and girls.

  • Lisa says:

    I am anxious just reading about the items being sliced on body parts of performers, must have been spectacular to witness it! I love that Mardani Khel is being taught as a form of self-defense – it’s definitely needed for women! 🙌🏼

  • Mansoureh says:

    Such a fascinating piece. It is so cool that 3 generations plus men and women are all together in this art. I like that they keep the martial art tradition which also empowers women.

  • Mansoureh Farahani says:

    Such a fascinating piece. It is so cool that 3 generations plus men and women are all together in this art. I like that they keep the martial art tradition which also empowers women.

  • sherianne says:

    This sounds like a great experience. I hadn’t heard of Mardani Khel before reading this and the images of a woman fighting with a child on her back is incredible. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to train for this.

  • yabesh says:

    nice article.thank you for sharing useful information.

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