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A Flexible and Deadly Blade
It is a sword that acts like a whip and a whip that acts like a sword, and it is said that a warrior needs to master both techniques for a grueling 12 years before he could even attempt to fight with an urumi.
The urumi (translated as ‘curling blade’) is a flexible whip-like sword used in Kalaripayattu, an ancient Indian martial art that dates back to 300 B.C.E.The sword is considered by many experts the deadliest sword ever created.
Though the urumi has not been used as a war weapon for the last two hundred years, even as a demonstration weapon, it is incredibly dangerous even to the wielder.
And the unique feature of the urumi is that it can be used and concealed easily by both men and women. Its flexibility enables it to be worn like a waist belt and carry it inconspicuously and without great inconvenience.
And as the women in ancient India had the culture of wearing waist belts, it became a weapon of choice for them, with many women like Unniarcha, the heroines of the ballads of the Northern Malabar coast in the Kerala state of India, becoming the supreme masters in urumi fighting.
And since it is a very dangerous weapon for both against whom it is used. Equally so for its wielder, it is also exceptionally difficult to master, taking years of study, superhuman physical ability, and a hawk-like vigilance at all times.
The Story of the Urumi
The urumi is believed to have originated from the southern states of India, namely Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Still, it might have also existed even during the times of the Mauryan dynasty between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC.
Called by different names, the urumi in Malayalam, the Surul Pattai in Tamil, and the Aara in Hindi, in its simplest form, the sword is basically a long strip of metal attached to a handle with a thumb-guard and a knuckle-guard.
It is still used in the Indian states of Kerala, Rajasthan, and Punjab. It is one of the weapons mastered by practitioners of the martial arts of Kalaripayattu, Varma Kalai, Kuttu Varisai, and Sikh martial arts Gatka. It is also called Chuttuval in Malayalam, with ‘Chuttu’ meaning coil and ‘Vaal’ meaning sword, aptly describing the weapon's lethality.
There are multiple variations to the sword. While a normal urumi blade can be between 1.2-1.7 meters (3.94-5.58 ft.) long, but longer lengths up to 3-5 meters are not unheard of depending on the person wielding it.
The width of the blade is about 2.5 cm (0.98 inches) thick. The blade's thinness allows the weapon to be used as a whip. In addition to the length, the number of blades on this weapon may be added. For example, experienced urumi swordsmen in ancient times had as many as 32 blades attached to its handle, increasing the weapon’s deadliness.
India's Deadly, Flexible Whip Sword Takes Years to Master
The basic principle of urumi fighting is slashing and creating a ‘defensive’ bubble around yourself. While conventional swords may also be used for slashing, the urumi works somewhat differently. An urumi fighter generates a continuous slashing motion by swinging the weapon over and around her shoulder in arcs.
This arcing motion creates a defensive bubble around the user, and any opponent foolish enough to come inside the arc gets wounded fatally. In addition, the urumi can also curve itself around the opponent's shields, either injuring the enemy or rendering the armor ineffective. That is why the urumi is most useful when the user is alone and surrounded by multiple opponents.
Agility and skill are the main prerequisites to master the urumi, with the training going up to 12 years to reach the expert level. More than the strength and aggression, the key to mastering this difficult weapon lies in mastering the twirling and controlling the urumi to prevent self-injury.
It is therefore only taught to the best pupils of Kalaripayattu and Gatka. Incorrect use can seriously injure the wielder and incapacitate her lethally for life.
Therefore, even by experts, great concentration, agility, and presence of mind are required during use.
The Urumi Has Still Survived
The urumi has survived today largely due to two forms of Indian martial arts: Kalaripayattu, which originated in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and Silambam in Tamil Nadu, another southern Indian state.
Students learning these martial arts are taught urumi fighting right at the very end of the training, and that too is only to the best of all students. Students learn to use the urumi by practicing with a piece of cloth and gradually going the next steps to coir and steel. This not only helps them learn the intricate moves of the urumi but also minimizes the risk of hurting himself/herself.
And outside the martial arts, the urumi is getting popular in online games like Pathfinder and Age of Empires, where urumi warriors are displayed in full regalia. There was even a 2011 Indian historical movie called, Urumi, in which the main character prominently uses this weapon.
The urumi is an important bit of Indian history, and it is heartening to see it getting recognized and getting the due it so richly deserves.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan