As always, the main reason for me being in a new country is to learn. And inSri Lanka, I am to learn all about Angam Pora, an ancient martial art that has survived for thousands of years on the island. When the British became the third colonial power (after the Portuguese and Dutch) to take control here, they realised the danger Angam Pora represented and, via notice in the local paper, outlawed it completely. Soon thereafter, they razed all of the known Angam maduwas (dojos) to the ground and imprisoned the gurus and masters who were teaching the art. Anyone found to be practising after this, would be punished by being shot in the knee. Extreme indeed, but they knew that what they were dealing with – probably because of theunfortunate Portuguesesome 250 years earlier.
Sri Lankahad also already proved a costly place to conquer and while muskets and canons negated many of the techniques that so ravaged the Iberians, as the British pushed into the mountains, they were reduced to fighting an unwinnable guerrilla battle against an often unseen enemy. In the end, the capitulation was achieved through bribery and double-dealing rather than brute force. After the hand-over, in a bid to keep the art alive, the locals practised in secret when they could, hiding many of the Angam foot movements in dance. What looked like theatrical prancing to an inspecting officer would have actually been the graceful movements that are essential to the “art of death.”
Today, as is the case with martial arts around the world, Angam Pora is largely redundant: too few disputes are settled with a sword; too many with a gun. But on the south side ofColombo, there is one group keeping the traditional fighting spirit very much alive. Somehow, I've stumbled across this story – and from what I learn I'm the first foreign journalist to do so since the colonial era – and now it's going to be my job to tell their tale to the world. Here in one of the few modern maduwas in the country, men have gathered from around the city to learn from the Guru Karanpula, a 72-year-old grandfather who, I say without hyperbole, could pass for a man 30 years younger than that.
Softly spoken and terrifically fit, The Master has an iron glare and an incongruously warm smile that only appears when greeting people. He learned Angam Pora from his grandfather, who must have in turn learned when it was illegal to do so.
The Master studied for 40 years and knows more about the art than any other man alive; meeting him is a goddamn privilege. Wee Mo and I are invited into the maduwa to conduct an interview with The Master (via translation through the wonderfully helpful Piumal) but not before we've first been given a good deal of tuition and paid our respects to Buddha, Ravana another deity who's hitlist I'm doubtless on for forgetting its name. We leave our shoes at the door and head onto the dusty floor. The earth here all comes from ant-hills: the insects are a fussy bunch and don't build with rocks; use their dirt and you know it'll be refined. We start with foot movements that aren't unlike line dancing, before modifying them to shift around inside an imaginary square. Then we're shown how to block... Soon we're marauding forwards, throwing punches, kicks and a wicked boot-to-the-swingers. Obviously we're comically clumsy and spend more time concentrating on not falling over than causing Actual Bodily Harm, but it's a useful insight into the ethos behind Angam.
Then we sit down for a chat. The Master's students (between whom there is a very clear hierarchy) don't hold competitions as the aim of Angam is to cause as much damage to your opponent as possible. Pressure points, weak spots on the skull and the neck are typical targets for the blows which can be administered with a range of weapons and body parts. Those who learn to higher levels could theoretically kill someone with anything they could lay their hands on – whether it was a knife, necktie or newspaper. Between the emphasis on striking a coup de grâce and the Buddhist ethos that plays an important part in the practise, there's no room to attempt point-scoring as one would in karate or judo. As The Master says, “If two men use Angam against each other, they both lose” - in other words, it's a strange game, the only winning move is not to play.
Yet play is precisely what they do – training whenever they can around work, the group now mostly use their skills for demonstrations. I wonder if it was always so? The Master stands up and raises his shirt: around the astonishing site of a six-pack, there is a network of scars. In total he has 42 marks from various different blades. He looks at me while Piumal talks. “My Guru was a legend in this art – I am proud to say that. When he was young, some gangsters tried to open a club in the area, to sell liquer and so on. My Guru and his people were against that, so 16 people came to fight him. They came to kill him – it wasn't a demonstration – with swords and knives. He fought with them barehanded and four of them got killed. After it, the police were impressed – they wanted to learn.” If there's a part of me that wonders if this could be a tall-tale, it's crushed by the glare from The Master. I look away, to listen to Piumal, and when I look back I find He is still fixed on me. I try to match his gaze, but last only a few seconds. For the first time in my life I'm sure: I've looked into the eyes of a killer.
The next day we return to watch the men train before being lucky enough to watch a demonstration.
The fact that they’ve put it on just for us is quite humbling; the fact that Wee Mo and I have to follow it up with demonstrating what we’ve learned over the past two days is quite humiliating. Even so, it’s a small price to pay. Theirs is a great tale – and it’s my First Real Story.