Pictures by Reza Akram, Written by Yasas Ratnayake
A chiseled and intimidating looking man appears over the horizon. His body glistens in the morning sun illuminating the perfect muscular contours of his limbs and torso. Clad in a white loincloth with a crimson sash around his waist and armed with nothing but a glimmering kastane fastened to his side, he proudly bears the flag of the king of Sitwaka. This man is a Weerakkody, the flag bearer of the king who leads the royal Sri Lankan armies into battle against the invading Portuguese.
As he charges towards the enemy at breakneck speed, his army follows him into battle. Battalions of swordsmen, fighters bearing spears, elite forces armed with multi-bladed flexible swords that bend like elastic and ruthlessly sever enemies into pieces, archers with 6 foot bows and fire-tipped arrows, armored elephants bearing specially crafted broadswords and more fighting units storm the battleground of Mulleriyawa in the fateful year of 1559. The battle raged on and the grounds of Mulleriyawa are soaked in the essence of violence. Only one side emerges victorious. Sri Lanka remained sovereign. The Portuguese lay in pools of red; defeated and annihilated.
The momentous battle of Mulleriyawa is a memory that holds a special significance for Mr. Ajantha Mahanthaarachchi, an Angampora practitioner whose ancestors commanded the armies of King Sitawaka Rajasingha. If not for the victory of the royal Sri Lankan armies in Mulleriyawa, Mr. Mahanthaarachchi notes, Sri Lanka would have turned into a country like Brazil; a Portuguese speaking nation that has no connection with its pre-colonial past. Had it not been for the fearsome display of bravery and the ruthless skill of the Angam fighter in the battlefields of Mulleriyawa, the Portuguese would have stripped Sri Lanka off its identity, says Mr. Mahanthaarachchi in a moment of reflection.
Angampora is an ancient Sri Lankan martial art that flourished for hundreds, if not, thousands of years. Ancient cave drawings and murals scattered around Sri Lanka indicate the archaic beginnings of this fighting style and point to its distant origins. Folklore and legend place the beginnings of the art in prehistoric times and the epic stories of King Ravana, the mythical ruler of Sri Lanka in the Indian epic Ramayana.
What is pointedly more important for Sri Lankans today though is the fact that this ancient art from our past has survived to this day. There are many people like Mr. Mahanthaarachchi who have inherited the art of Angampora from birth and lineage. After 4 centuries of persecution by western colonists, Angampora is stepping back into the light, and it brings with it centuries of valuable knowledge about our past that has been passed on from generation to generation.
In a time where martial arts such as kung fu, karate, capoeira, and krav maga have received the attention of the world, Sri Lanka too has an opportunity to showcase its own martial art to a worldwide audience. There are several schools of Angampora that lie scattered throughout Sri Lanka, all teaching Angampora, but in slightly varied forms. The art is gradually attracting more attention from Sri Lankans themselves who, unfortunately, have little or no real idea of the existence of Angampora. Presently, special groups of soldiers from the Army, Navy, and Air Force are being trained in Angam fighting and there is a revival of the art that is gradually taking place.
The Angam fighter is trained with 3 principles at its core: service to the nation, harmony with nature, and the development of a complete man. Not only is the art a rigorous physical discipline, it is also a lifestyle that is grounded on spirituality and the understanding of nature. It could take an Angam practitioner up to 20 years to master all its teachings which include hand-to-hand combat, weapon fighting, meditation, astrology, medicine, and secret arts which are disclosed to only the most committed of practitioners.
Practitioners such as Mr. Mahanthaarachchi would like to see the art gain more recognition and experience a revival. After all, Angampora was an art that was instrumental in protecting Sri Lanka for centuries and it is sad to see what little people today know about it, he comments with a hint of sobriety in his speech. Indeed. People of today and their busy lifestyles afford little room to learn about something new; or in this case, something old. But there is new room for change. Mr. Mahanthaarachchi’s eyes hold an expression of hope. The internet and social media, he says, may hold the key to spreading the message of Angampora and help build up awareness of this mysterious art. It is time for the world to get to know about our culture and our legacy, and it is time for us to learn and piece together the past to learn the story of our true identities.