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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > The Tamil Heritage > Culture of the Tamils > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Studies> Second International Tamil Conference Seminar 1968, Madras, Tamil Nadu > Cilampam - a Brief Historical Review and Evaluation
|Second International Tamil Conference Seminar
January 1968, Madras, Tamil Nadu
Etymological research on the Tamil word cilampam, the staff play which continues to be very popular in Tamil Nad since the dawn of the Sangam era, is highly interesting. Cilampam is an onomatopoeic term from the swishing sound produced when an elastic cane staff or a staff of softwood, fairly uniform in cross section and of a length which is a little less than that of the performer, is brandished with power and vigour and hit one against another in the process of the play or duelling.
Such nomenclature is sanctioned by the rules of derivation of nominals in the Tamil Grammar. (1) According to Dr. M. Varadarajan, “Cilampu means either a mountain or an anklet or merely ‘to sound’ (as a verb). It might have been originally devoted to a sport in the mountains . a sport accompanied by some rhythmical sound (2) The practice of wearing jingling anklets by the participants in this sport in some parts of Madras State might also have been the cause for it being named cilampam. (3)
Even as early as the sixteenth century, the sport of cilampam seems to have developed a sophisticated technique and attained a high degree of popularity as evinced by the description that Paranjcoothimunivar gives in his Thiruvilhaiyaatat puraaNanm (4) of the gymnasium cilampakkuutam wherein this sport was practised and the use made of this by his characters in their mutual fights. A synopsis of the technique of Cilanpam is given in Kalaikkalhanjciyam (5) making reference to Thiruvilhaiyaatat puraaNam. According to it, the characteristics of a skilled player are said to he his ability
It is said that the practice of cilampam was banned by the foreign rulers in order to prevent the natives using this skill in their skirmishes against the foreign rulers.(6) There is an oral tradition that in spite of such a ban, the natives practised it using sugar cane and, when caught, pretended to eat the sugar cane.(7)
Contests are of three types:
It is quite interesting to note that a contestant who makes a mark at the centre of the forehead of his opponent (a feat which is traditionally called thilakamiTal or pOTTuVaiththal8 is hailed as a great victor in the contest. (8)
In MukkuuTal palhlhu (9) it has been stated that the maestro of any play used to swagger along the stage flourishing the recognised strokes of cilampam to control and to impress his importance on the audience at the beginning of the play. References have also been made to show how dexterity in cilampam is used by certain heroes to frighten their opponents.(10) In a book, MuththuppaTTan kathai, (11) a hero by name MuththupaTTan is stated to have mastered many arts such as cilampam play, horse-riding and elephant riding. In a palm-leaf manuscript, Maavai palhlhu,(12) of the eighteenth century reference is made to two important hits in the play of cilampam, namely, ‘straight hit’, and ‘round about hit’. Cilampam is said to be one of the important items in the training procedures of the warriors in Pathaarththa manjcari (13). It is significant to note that in Thiruppukazh, (14) it is stated that the experts in cilampam would be highly cunning and skilled in intrigues as well, because skill in cilampam depends on these traits. Incidentally it may be noticed that in Tamil dictionaries,(15) the meanings of cilampam are given as ‘skill in intrigues’, ‘act of frightening others’, ‘swinging staves’, etc.
The forces of ViirapaaNTiyak-KarTappomman (1160 A.D.-1799A.D.) relied upon their skill in cilampam to a large extent in their battles against the British army.(16)
In an ancient medical work in Tamil called Pathartha kuNa cinhthaamani, (17) it is said that the play of cilampam would promote strength, increase appetite, remove diseases due to phlegm and wind, eliminate constipation and colic. This indicates that its therapeutic value as an exercise had been recognised even during the mediaeval period in Tamil Nad.
Ziegenbalg (18) and Fabricius (19) in rendering the New and Old Testaments of the Holy Bible in 1715 A.D. and 1782 A.D. respectively at Tranquebar have used the word cilampam in translating ‘fight’ and ‘play’ respectively. This indicates that by that time cilampam had become a well established and a combat activity and was also used as a recreational pursuit in Tamilnad.
Some proverbs and sayings current in Tamil indicate the influence of Cilambam. They are as follows:
There is one pamphlet (20) on cilampam in Tamil. Therein, the techniques are briefly analysed. Dr. J. P. Thomas mentions cilampam in a list of indigenous exercises in Organization of Physical Education. (21) K. Rajagopalan disposes of cilampam in a cavalier fashion, as a lingering form of self defence activity of Tamil Nad (22). The play of cilampam is prominently displayed in the Tamil movie Raajathi.(23)
Staff-play in some form or other seems to have been in vogue in all parts of the globe, especially in England.(24) The method of staff-play that is in vogue in Kerala is given in the book Kalaripayat. (25) However, the techniques described therein are not so exhaustive and varied as to show a high degree of integration of many physical skills into a unitary form of play with the long staff (as the main weapon) as we find in cilampam. The Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, (26) carry brief accounts of ‘Quarter-staff’, a kind of sport popular during the days of chivalry in Great Britain. However, it seems that with the development of fencing (sword), this had died out as a form of sport and it did not develop the highly complicated techniques and forms as in the case of cilampam.
In the hey-day of cilampam the staves used by top-class experts were given distinctive names just as racing cars or horses are given to-day. This tradition of giving names to the staves is something similar to the ancient European customs of giving names to famous swords, as for example ‘Philippan’, the name of Mark Antony’s sword, and ‘Excalibur’, the name of King Arthur’s sword. The name for the staff is usually proclaimed in the body of the couplet or some doggerel rhyme.(27) The staves are preserved with great care and reverence even now.
It is expressed by some experts that it is necessary for one to know the name of the opponent’s staff, as the name often indicates the composition, properties, pliability, strength, etc., of the staff. One can then be on one’s guard against the opponent’s hits. At the beginning of a contest, the staff-owner used to give a eulogy on the exploits of his staff in previous contest. This served as a device to boost up the morale of the contestant.
This art seems to have been the special preserve of a particular class of people who serve the public in the profession of bone-setting and nerve manipulation, somewhat akin to the modern osteopath.
As there is a paucity of literature on the techniques of this unique staff-play the present writer submitted a thesis to the Jiwaji University, Gwalior, through Lakshmibai College of Physical Education, Gwalior, in English on “Silambam, Technique and Evaluation “, in April 1967, in lieu of a paper for the Examination for the degree of Master of Physical Education. In this he had preserved many of the techniques (both attack and defence, with relevant action photographs) of cilampam. These he had gathered from and discussed with fifty-six cilampam experts from diverse parts of Tamil Nad.
As this unique staff-play contributes to the objectives of physical education, according to Doctors in Physical Education in India, (28) it is the author’s dream that it may one day become a world sport, a unique contribution from Tamil Nad.