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Gatka is one of the most esoteric martial arts around. Even the most jaded martial artist, someone who has heard of or even studied shorinji kempo, ROSS, or lua*, might say, "Oh yeah, that's the movie starring Uma Thurman, the one where style was more important than the plot, right?"
Wrong. Gatka is a battle-tested, ancient martial art that survives today as part of the Sikh culture. Sikhism began in fifteenth century India, in the Punjab region. Its founder, Guru Nanak, started the religion as an alternative to the dominant Hindu and Muslim faiths. For example, Sikhism does away with the Hindu caste system; all Sikh men share a common surname of Singh, while all Sikh women share a common surname of Kaur. Devout Sikhs follow several tenets of the religion, but the one most visible to non-Sikhs are the turbans worn by Sikh men.
Gatka specializes in sword (called shaster) and shield fighting, but includes other weapons, including the lathi, or staff, the chakram, or quoit, and the exotic chakar, which looks like a wagon wheel with weights at the end of each spoke.
The chakram and chakar are weapons unique to gatka. The chakar is wielded by grasping the center (the "hub" of the "wagon wheel") and spinning it around, scoring impact damage upon anyone foolish enough to come too close to the spinning weights, and providing protection for the wielder.
The chakram, or quoit, is basically a flat steel hoop, where the outside edge is honed to a sharp edge. The gatka practitioner spins the chakram around the index finger, then lets it fly to its target. The chakram is probably most famous in these modern times as the favorite weapon of television's Xena: Warrior Princess.
Gatka has been used over the centuries to great effect. Besides the numerous conflicts and wars in the Sikh homeland of Punjab, or the famous Sikh regiments of World War II, Sikhs armed with lathi were employed as riot police in the rough-and-tumble streets of 1930's Shanghai. The British police instructor, William Ewart Fairbairn, a pioneer in close-quarters battle and riot police tactics, found the Sikhs to be very effective at quelling disturbances due to their gatka-derived skills.
Although training in gatka may be hard to find for non-Sikhs, the art is exciting to watch in cultural demonstrations--wait for one near you. In the meantime, consult the following links for more information on the martial art of gatka.
*We'll cover these arts in future articles.
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