Continued from last week… Pictures by Reza Akram, Written by Yasas Ratnayake
A life is on the line in the Boar’s Pit (Ūra Linda). It isn’t the life of an ordinary person either. It’s the life of a fearless and imposing fighter that will be taken. And it will be at the hands of another fighter, whose skill and endurance sees him through a deadly tussle. Angampora used to be fatal and dramatic in this way, but a duel in the Boar’s Pit is seldom seen anymore. After the British banned Angampora by official gazette in 1818, the art went into a downward spiral. Angam fighters were persecuted and killed openly for everyone to see. Training quarters or Angam Madu were burnt down along with countless ola leaf manuscripts that held together the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years. Teachers and practitioners were killed in the open and warrants for the death or capture of Angampora leaders were hung in every town and city. A few decades of intense persecution and every bit of this legacy was erased. Coming into the post-colonial phase of Sri Lanka’s history, the knowledge of combat that protected our nation from centuries of foreign invasion was seemingly lost. Small enclaves of rebels held out; either far away in the remote wilderness of Sri Lanka, or in plain sight; shrewdly disguising themselves to appear as average village folk. However ordinary they seemed to appear or wherever in the wilderness they dwelt, they kept the knowledge of an ancient art from dying out.
For those who have been lucky enough to witness a fight in the Boar’s Pit, the skill, technicality, and depth required to grasp the art becomes evident. It’s a tradition that has been preserved for centuries, and is continued to this day. Fighters could fight for hours at an end, employing locks and grapples to put the opponent into submission. Combatants need to be developed in strength, agility, endurance, and technique to compete and outwit the opponent. According to Angam tradition, promotion to higher rank is only conferred once a fighter has survived in the Boar’s Pit. When Project Angampora got an opportunity to witness this secretive tradition, we went with high hopes, and our expectations were exceeded with what we saw. There was a community of men, women and children, clad in their traditional white and black outfits. Their attire signified rank. Some wore black headscarves, and some wore blue scarves around their necks. The Angam master (gurunnanse) was clad in white. Gathered under the stars and lit by flaming torches, the gathering watched on as two fighters wrestled in the Boar’s Pit using the strength and dexterity you would expect to see in an MMA bout. The whole ritual was surreal and electrifying. One fighter used his strength to slam his opponent to the ground, but the grounded fighter held on with a body lock that restricted the other fighters movement. They both use their dexterity, and their mud drenched limbs to grapple each other into a position of advantage. After a deadlock that lasts 10 minutes, the gurunnanse calls for the fighters to separate. Water is given to them and the mud is washed off their eyes. Breathing heavily, the combatants get ready to resume the duel. The fighters’ bodies glisten in the light of the fire. Their groans give away the furious tension inside the pit as they grapple and fight on for more than 45 minutes without respite. Even though they are exhausted and drained with their bodies in severe pain, they fight on to the point that they seem equally matched. “Stop the fight!” says the gurunnanse and the fighters obey. They stagger into their traditional salutation with palms held together, and await the gurunnanse’s verdict. “You have both fought very well,” he pronounces, under the radiance of the flaming torches that light the Angam Maduwa. “But only one person can win this duel.” The winner is named and the defeated fighter is carried out of the pit where he is given intensive massage and oil treatments to normalise his body. The victor stands in the pit, holding his exhausted body in a rigid upright salutation as a disciple pours scented water sprinkled with Araliya blossoms, that washes the mud away from the victor’s body as the gathering recite traditional victory chants. Not only is this a beautiful and captivating ritual, it showed us how uniquely Sri Lankan Angampora is. What is a cause for concern though is, how much longer will these traditions last until they go into extinction?
Project Angampora hopes to educate and make the world of this legacy of our forefathers. The younger generation of our country needs to know about the heritage that we have inherited, and the time is now to make our communities aware of the cultural treasures of our own land. We have lost much of what we considered our cultural legacy over the centuries. So, please help us spread the word of this heritage of our nation!