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Gatka (Punjabi: ਗਤਕਾ gatkā) is a traditional South Asian form of combat training in which wooden sticks are used to simulate swords in sparring matches.[1] In modern usage, it commonly refers to the weapon-based northern Indian martial arts, which should more properly be called shastar vidiyā (ਸ਼ਸਤਰ ਵਿਦਿਆ, from Sanskrit sastravidya or "knowledge of the sword"). In English, the terms gatka and shastar vidya are very often used specifically in relation to the Panjabi-Sikh method of fighting. In actuality, the art is not unique to any particular ethno-cultural group or religion but has been the traditional form of combat throughout north India and Pakistan since at least the 6th century BC. Attacks and counterattacks vary from one community to another but the basic techniques are the same.[1] This article will primarily use the extended definition of gatka, making it synonomous with shastar vidya.

Sikh gatka can be practiced either as a sport (khela) or ritual (rasmi). The sport form is played by two opponents wielding wooden staves called gatka. These sticks may be paired with a shield. Points are scored for touches on vital spots. The other weapons are not used for sparring, but their techniques are taught through preset routines.[2] The Mughal style called fari gatka uses a sword and shield. The Manipuri style, known as cheibi gatka, is usually practiced with a 2-foot leather-encased cudgel which may be paired with a leather shield measuring one metre in diameter. The ritual form is purely for demonstration and is performed to music during occasions such as weddings.

Gatka originated in what is now northern India and neighbouring Pakistan where the regional system of fighting is today most commonly termed shastar vidiya, originally a classical Sanskrit word for armed combat. Its creation is attributed to the god Shiva and his devotees. Indeed, the oldest manual on the northern Indian fighting system was said to have been the Shiva Dhanurveda, at present no longer extant. The sage Vasistha is said to have based his own work, the Dhanuveda Samhita, on the aforementioned manual. Early Shaivite sages and Kapalika are credited as progenitors and disseminators of the art of combat, even the most peaceful of whom are recorded as being fierce when confronted by enemies.[3]

By the 6th century BC, ten fighting styles were said to have already been in existence, developed in different regions for use in different terrain. Their convergence is traditionally traced to the city of Takshashila in present-day West Punjab, Pakistan. Held in high regard by the eastern janapada for its connection to the ancient epics, Takshashila quickly became a hub of trade and higher education. Known especially for its schools of law, medicine and military sciences, the city attracted students from throughout. Takshashila provides the earliest tangible evidence of the teaching of systemised combat, particularly but not exclusively archery. But as a city built on scholarship with little in the way of natural defences, Takshashila witnessed a string of foreign rulers throughout its history before finally being sacked by the White Huns in the 5th century AD. The rest of India was spared from the Huns in large part due to the efforts of the rulers of Malwa, the Maukharis, the Vardhanas and others as the Indian kings rose up against the conquerors.

Beginning in the 10th century Muslim raiders began invading northern India, resulting in violent confrontations which would continue for centuries. The kshatriya dharma enjoined by the warrior caste gave rise to numerous warriors and communities regarded as heroes of the martial ethos, such as the Gurjaras and their later Rajput successors. In one famous battle, Muhammed of Ghor duelled Govinda-raja of Delhi. Each on horseback, Govinda lost his front teeth to the Ghorid's lance, but eventually won the contest by piercing his opponent's arm with his spear. Ultimately, the increasing number of Turkic adventurers from Central Asia brought most of north India under Muslim rule. Consequently, Middle Eastern weapons were adopted in shastar vidiya, such as the talwar and shamshir. The Indian application of these weapons incorporated them into the indigenous techniques, making them unique rather than borrowing from the original Middle Eastern fighting style.

Sikh era
With the spread of Sikhism during the 15th-16th century, Sikhs in particular became renowned throughout South Asia for their stature, comparatively large build, and heavily militarized culture. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born into a kshatriya family and according to Nihang tradition was taught the art of combat by Natha sadhus, a sect of ascetics. His successor, Guru Angad Dev, taught followers to train the body physically, mentally and spiritually, encouraging the practice of martial arts. One of Guru Nanak's early disciples, Baba Buddha, taught the boy who would eventually become the sixth Sikh patriarch, Guru Hargobind. He founded the original Sikh fighting school, the Ranjit Akhara (lit. "invincible training hall") at Amritsar, with its armed force known as the Akal Sena or "invincible army". He propagated the theory of the warrior-saint and emphasized the need to practice fighting for self-defence against the Mughal rulers, during the reign of Aurangazeb, due to growing animosities. The Mughals themselves were patrons of gatka; Emperor Akbar is recorded as practicing with a sword and shield everyday.
The tenth patriarch, Guru Gobind Singh was a master of armed fighting who galvanized the martial energies of the Sikh community by founding the Khalsa brotherhood in 1699. The Khalsa's aims were to fight oppression, assist the poor, worship the one God, abandon superstition, and defend the freedom of faiths. This is symbolised by the kirpan or dagger, one of the five Ks which every baptised Sikh is required to carry. In regards to training the brotherhood, Guru Gobind Singh pledged that he would "teach the sparrow to fight the hawk". Women faced no restriction from learning the use of weapons, due to the Guru's teaching of gender equality. The Nihang, a stricter order of Sikh warriors, exemplified his principles of combining spirituality with combat training.

Following the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848 to 1849 and the establishment of the British Raj, the Sikh martial traditions and practitioners suffered greatly. Ever wary of the Sikhs, the British ordered effective disarmament of the entire Sikh community. The Nihang, considered the keepers of all Sikh traditions, were regarded as disloyal to the colonists. More than 1,500 Nihang were killed by the British for plotting rebellion. According to folklore, some fled and spent the rest of their lives in the northern mountains.
During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sikhs assisted the British in crushing the mutiny. As a consequence of this assistance, restrictions on fighting practices were relaxed, and gatka re-emerged after 1857.[4] The old method of sword training was used by the Khalsa Army in the 1860s as practice for hand-to-hand combat. Richard F. Burton describes gatka matches in which the swordsmen fight with a ribboned stick in one hand and a small shield in the other.
As Sikh colleges opened during the 1880s, European rules of fencing were applied to create what is now called khela or sport gatka. The European colonists also brought Sikhs from India to other British colonies to work as soldiers and security guards. Gatka is still practiced by the Sikh communities of former British colonies and neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand. Due to the large overseas Panjabi-Sikh community, it is has become a common misconception that gatka is practiced only by Sikhs.

Gatka today
Since India's independence from colonial rule, gatka has been managed and promoted in India by the Panjab Gatka Association and the Gatka Federation of India. The latter organization formulated and standardized rules and regulations for gatka as a sport, and providing free training through seminars, workshops and camps under the new rules. The Panjab & Chandigarh Education Departments have introduced gatka into the school sports calendars in the state, while the School Games Federation Of India also incorporated gatka into the 56th national school games calendar 2011-2012. Once considered a primarily male domain, gatka is now commonly practiced by females as well. To promote and popularize the art outside India, the Asian Gatka Federation, Commonwealth Gatka Federation and World Gatka Federation have also been constituted. From 2011, the Panjabi University Patiala have started to host All India inter-varsity gatka championships annually.

Today gatka is most often showcased during Sikh festivals, as well as Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations in the Panjab. Gatka is one of the competitions held during an annual sporting event in the rural Indian city of Kila Raipur, and the Sikh community of Malaysia often holds gatka demonstrations during certain festivals. Once considered a diminishing art by UNESCO and SAARC, the intense and concerted efforts of these gatka federations has popularized it amongst the students in north India.
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