The state of Manipur in northeastern India holds ancient secrets to a martial art that is deeply rooted in history and culture, and the proud spirit of a fiercely independent people.
Just 20 minutes after touching down at the tiny international airport in Manipur’s capital city of Imphal, I learn that I’m to meet none other than the state’s king. I am here to witness the treasured local martial art known as thang-ta. The car that picks me up belongs to Huidrom Premkumar (also known as Prem), president of the World Thang-Ta Federation, and we drive straight to Khuman Lampak Indoor Stadium.
When I arrive, the scene is buzzing with excitement. I manage to beat King Leishemba Sanajaoba by a few minutes, and am already there when his convoy pulls up to the stadium entrance. The crowd splits, and music plays. His Royal Highness walks up the stairs, greeting me with brief but special attention as I’m the only foreigner in the stadium. He takes his seat in the centre, facing the fighting ring.
Fight for Freedom
My timing for taking a peek into Manipur’s complicated history couldn’t be better. This day, August 15, is not only important because the state holds its beloved State Thang-Ta Competition for the 18th time – a milestone the king is here to officiate – but also marks the 60th anniversary of the end of British rule in India. There is definite energy in the air of its central city, Imphal, coinciding with the region’s most important championship. The competiton showcases combat skills and strengths as well as Manipur’s unique system of combat – huyen langlon.
In the local Meitei language, huyen means war, and langlon means knowledge or art. The practice went through tough times, undergoing a ban during British rule; it was kept alive in secret before finding its way back to the surface post-independence.
This ‘art of war’ can be separated into two elements: thang-ta, a form which uses weapons (thang means sword, and ta is spear); and, sarit sarak, which is unarmed fighting. In thang-ta, the spear is used in close combat and by throwing from afar. Other weapons include the shield and axe. Sarit sarak meanwhile consists of kicks, hand strikes and grappling. Thang-ta relies heavily on additional meditation and complex breathing techniques, while putting great emphasis on the leg muscles with various tactics – all of these take years to fully acquire.
The focus on combat and defence is apparent even in Manipur’s traditional sports, historically preparing the state’s male population for battle. Games like sagol kangjei, which is similar to polo, or mukna, the local version of wrestling, kept the fighting spirit alive even through peaceful times.
The 18th State Thang-Ta Competition opens with style. The stadium comes alive with the blare of trumpets and horns, filling the air with upbeat music, as all the judges and fighters honour the king by lining up in front of him to offer a deep bow.
The local press is here, and in the strobe of clicking camera flashes, a scene unfolds before me that makes one thing apparent: huyen langlon is the essence of Manipur. It’s the social glue that holds everything and everyone here together, from kids through to adults, male and female, masters and proud parents, all the way up to the royalty.
What goes on next in the fighting ring is magnificent to behold. Boys fight like adults with full power, and 10-year-old girls execute hair-raising but measured movements with swords. I stop snapping pictures and just sit there, taking in the spectacular sight.
In Manipur, almost all children study huyen langlon, and their training begins at a very early age. Their initial introduction, from the age of three, involves learning elementary movements along with dance moves; these are basically the same actions that they will later perform with heavy swords and spears. It almost feels like the children here are born with an enthusiasm and dedication towards the spirit of huyen langlon.
As a European travelling around Asia, with a camera perpetually hanging around my neck, I am used to attracting the attention of children, particularly in smaller communities – they usually gather around me, asking questions and requesting for their photos to be taken. But here in Manipur, it is strikingly different. The kids are very friendly, but they study me from afar and smile politely. The ones that come up to me are serious and respectful. It takes me a few hours to realise what is so different; there is an overall discipline to them, that seems to come from practising sports at a young age.
Prem is my guide to this world. He’s very busy during the first few days of my stay – being one of the main organisers of the championship comes with many responsibilities, and he doesn’t have much time to spare. As I watch him during practice and the games, he walks between the competing youngsters, correcting their movements. It feels like he’s not only president of the association, but a father figure to the competitors. While judges and trainers run around the stadium, he takes his seat next to the king, a gesture that clearly shows huyen langlon’s position in Manipur’s society.
On the last day of the championship, once things have calmed down a bit, I’m invited to Prem’s small hometown, Yumnam Huidrom. After lunch, I’m in for a special treat; he presents me with two handwritten, illustrated books on huyen langlon’s rules. They were written by Prem’s former guru R K Sanahal over the course of 10 years, from 1924 to 1934. Back then, the techniques of the martial art were still top secret, and these are the only two copies in existence.
As I glance through the fascinating hand-drawn illustrations of step patterns, hand-strike techniques and written rules, it truly sinks in how meticulous and complex huyen langlon is. One of its most spectacular features is that it shares connections with certain war dances, creating a crossover between ritual dance and combat forms such as khosarol (spear dance) and thangkairol (sword dance).
The ritualistic dances here had their own function too; for example, local martial artists practised the spear dance at funerals of family members. Meanwhile, the sacred thengou dance, which shares many similarities with thangkairol, utilises certain sword movements that symbolise protection or the warding off of evil spirits.
In competitive thangkairol, the sword movements are awarded points. The fighter holds a sword in each hand, making continuous, circular movements around their body. At first slow, the movements gradually speed up while their torso arches back and forth. A bongo drum playing in the background accompanies each movement, speeding up to a dangerous pace and making the ritual even more dramatic. The fighter has to be extremely careful not to cut their own ear off, while also not letting the two swords they’re wielding touch each other. If the swords do touch, it means a point off their final score. In competition, every time the metallic clang of the swords touching each other is heard, the audience hisses in response – they know the fighter is losing points.
If it is mesmerising to watch this in the fighting ring, then studying them in colourful illustrations within these pages is another experience altogether. For instance, when drawn on paper, some of the step patterns map out the shape of a snake, giving its already ritualistic nature a more powerful interpretation. Each curvature of the snake is marked with a number that shows how many steps you should take – and if you don’t follow the pattern carefully, defeat is guaranteed. One of the books is dedicated entirely to the weapon movements, and the other for sarit sarak.
Later, I am honoured to be given the opportunity to observe Prem’s students in action, at the top of a hill just outside Imphal. The scene is mesmerising. When I finally put my camera down, Prem and I settle onto the grass to talk more about thangta – all the while, a gentle breeze sweeps over us as the sun slowly disappears behind the mountains, and swords click in the background.
Despite being considered a highly valued part of Manipur culture, thang-ta struggles to spread on a global level, like many other Asian martial arts have, due to its lack of international representation at sport events. And this is where Prem’s powerful role really lies – he is one of the martial art’s main advocates, and considers it his life’s mission to turn thang-ta into a structured, internationally accepted sport.
“You see, in the old days, my guru and other masters weren’t willing to share their knowledge with outsiders: only Manipur people. When I first started to loosen this up, and began to train youngsters outside Manipur, I was judged. But I say thang-ta belongs to everyone, no matter where they come from. My dream is to make one home for it all and to unify it. Yes, huyen langlon comes from Manipur and always will be a local martial art, but it should belong to everyone and be taken to another level.”
His plans are already in effect, by introducing uniforms for the sport, and more importantly, protective gear against serious strikes.
“Back when I was learning we used colouring, which was made from lime powder paint. The edges of the weapons were rubbed with different colours of paint and if you got hit, it left a mark on your skin. That’s how you knew you were defeated. But the paint caused skin and eye allergies, so we sat down with the technical committee to develop a healthier method – the cane stick wrapped in protective soft leather. This way the soft leather makes the hit painless, and there’s a proper judge who oversees the fight.”
This was in 1990, when they also tightened and standardised thang-ta’s rules, aiming to give the martial art more legitimacy so that it would be accepted in today’s highly competitive sporting world. According to Prem, the promotion of thang-ta, both within India and internationally, has also increased, thanks to initiatives by the state and central governments.
The task of bringing thang-ta to an international platform isn’t easy, but the will and potential is certainly there. Both the World Thang-Ta Federation and its fellow Asian Thang-Ta Federation are joining forces to make it happen. The goal for thang-ta is to one day be ready to be showcased on a global level, and take its place at the Olympic Games.
As the sun sets, we walk back to Prem’s modest home. I notice a map of the world mounted on his wall, and ask why it is there in such a prominent spot. He says: “Because by this, I try to work out how to spread thang-ta across the world. American, European, any nationality, boys and girls – I would like to teach, because this martial art needs to be more open, more international. That’s my dream, and I’m sure it will happen.”
Huyen langlon’s long and evolving history makes it difficult to pin down specific definitions for its various forms. While opinions differ, the martial art can be broadly broken down to these techniques.
Thang-ta is an armed version, which includes the use of spears, axes, and shields in combat.
Sarit sarak is unarmed combat. This method carries the basics that must be learnt by every beginner. These are the same movements they will use later with weapons, but a stripped-down version, focusing on fundamentals such as rolling on the floor, footwork, kicks and hits.
Punaba ana is fought with a small leather shield and a fighting stick. Kicking is not allowed.
Thangkairol is the ornamented, individual art of swordplay. There are two main sword movements. The decorative movement, called leiteng-thang, involves an individual moving one or two swords around their body in a performative fashion.
Yanna-thang meanwhile is actual combat swordplay with two fighters.
Khosarol is the spear fight, or the art of the spear dance, which has nine major elements of movement with specific orders.
Thengkourol, the art of touch and call, is a secret method known only by a few masters.
Band of Seven
The state of Manipur has been referred to by many names throughout history: Kangleipak, Tilli-Koktong, Poilei Lamtam, Munnipore. There were seven different clans (known as yek) in the state, each with their own dialect. These were the Angom, Luwang, Ningthouja, Khuman, Khaba-Nganba, Moilang, Mangang, and Sarang Leishangthem.
Though divided into their own individual principalities, the clans had many close similarities in their customs. According to tradition, they were not permitted to marry within the same clan. These seven yek were in continuous warfare amongst each other before they integrated into one community, now known as the Meitei. The seven clans are represented in the Meitei flag by seven different colours.
A BIG THANK YOU travel360 wishes to thank Sundeep Louremnba, Manager at Thang-Ta Federation of India and Referee for State Thang-Ta Competition for his invaluable support in producing this story.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Imphal from New Delhi and Guwahati. airasia.com