"Ninjas" in Blue Robes

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It's an ancient north Indian fighting style that nearly died out in the 19th century, after the British Raj outlawed it and other indigenous martial arts. And right now, in a high school gym in England's Black Country, one man, clad in blue robes and trainers, is trying to bring shastar vidiya back from the near dead.

Nidar Singh Nihang, the Wolverhampton factory worker whose made it his life's work to breathe life into the dying art, learned the physical technique from an ancient Sikh master, or "gurdev," who was likely one of the last practitioners of the fighting style. But, he says, it was the British Empire's obsession with record keeping that enabled him to learn its past.

According to Chinese martial art legend, it was an Indian Buddhist monk who brought shastar vidiya to ancient China "“ at the famous Shaolin Temple, no less "“ in around 520 AD.

The battlefield tradition spread across Asia and the Asian Subcontinent, growing and flourishing throughout the centuries, until 16th century Sikhs of the Punjab region adopted shastar vidiya as their own and further perfected it. By the 1840s, as the British Empire stretched its greedy fingers across the continent, Sikhs used their technique to fight several bloody battles against the British, but ultimately lost. Colonial administrators quickly outlawed the fighting styles, drafting the Sikh warriors into their army and replacing their wicked serrated blades and swords with rifles. While those forms of martial arts inspired by the Indian fighting style have flourished and gone on to become worldwide institutions, shastar vidiya and others were forced or allowed to die out.

Now, Signh Nihang is making an open call to the world in an effort to save the tradition, inviting the world to learn about and perhaps even learn to practice. It's the first time in history such an open invitation has been made, and for good reason: If people don't start practicing shastar vidiya now, it could completely and finally die out.

"Most people who practice Indian martial arts nowadays are simply learning the toned down exhibition styles that were allowed by the British," he told the Independent. "Unless we start teaching the original fighting styles they will be extinct within 50 years. I want to find two or three sensible, intelligent and tolerant young apprentices who can pass on what I've learned to future generations."

May 18, 2009 - 10:08am
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