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With the rise of HEMA and historical martial arts in general, there seems to be more interest in looking into historical written sources and old texts for martial arts from the various fechtbuchs and treatises in Europe, to texts like the WuBeiZhi or Bansenshukai in East Asia.

India obviously has a long history with its own writing systems and texts. It also has a number of living traditions of martial arts like Kalaripayattu and Gatka. But are there any written historical Indian martial arts texts out there comparable to things we find in Europe and Asia or is it all living tradition? In addition, do the surviving Indian living traditions of martial arts have any historical basis that we have written document evidence for?

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  • A short search on GoogleScholar indicates that there are plenty (millions) of Tamil (and more northern) palm-leaf manuscripts, some of them containing texts about martial practices. The problem, from what I see, is that they are mostly without order, not transcripted, and thus not exactly accessible so far. Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 18:21

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Short Answer - It will probably be transmitted wholly through oral tradition/living tradition due to India's history.

Long Answer - It's highly unlikely that there will be anything published on Indian martial arts, due to the relatively small scale of publishing in Indian around even the early 1900s (Pritchett 1983). Publishing was an activity controlled by the elite in India, often with fewer than 100 books being published in a year, and with fewer publishers in 1800s India than there were in England in the 1600s - despite the number in England being tightly controlled by the government (Britannica).

It's also important to note that India was essentially subjugated by Islamic Sultanates and then the Mughal Empire from around the 9th Century until the British moved in to drive the Mughal Empire out in the late 1500s/early 1600s at the Indian's request. This means much of the middle ages period which HEMA focusses on is a period where the Hindu Indians were not the dominant power and therefore would not have been in a position to create manuscripts - particularly with the negative effects Islamic occupation had on Hindu temples and centres of learning - which typically is where either books are created, or the education to the higher castes would have been given to allow them to publish these works.

Following this period the primary method of conflict would have been modern (for the time) European warfare with a focus on musketry and European swordsmanship and a de-emphasis on unarmed combat/traditional martial arts - though there are again no published books I can find from this early, there are examples from the 18th-20th century specifically published aimed at training Indians in the methods of fighting of the British military.

The closest I have been able to find (though I did not find it myself) is this which was published in 1927 on Pahlvani/Wrestling: shorturl.at/emPUY

It is primarily focussed on the training at the time, and could be considered akin to "The Science of Wrestling" by Earl Liederman in terms of historic provenance.

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  • Thanks for the answer, but I'm a little skeptical of the "foreign occupation = no martial arts sources" statement. As a point of comparison, China also was subjugated by foreign powers during Qing dynasty but there are historical sources available during that period (e.g. WuBeiZhi and such which seem to have been republished a few times during Qing). Also a slight clarification; when I said "Indian Martial Arts" I didn't necessarily only mean Hindu sources and would be interested in Mughal/Islamic sources from India as well. Heck, the British sources would be nice to list here too.
    – JZBai
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 6:58
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    The Wubei Zhi was compiled in the Ming by the dominant dynasty wasn't it? Similar to the Yonglo Tatien it was part of an increase in Chinese publishing following the end of Mongol subjugation iirc. It's not necessarily subjugation which led to a lack of sources - looking at books published by the Mughals (and the Dehli Sultanate) there are fairly few - biographies of great Mughals, some religious books translated between Persian/Urdu/Hindi. This seems to continue with the gurus Sikhs don't seem to have written much on Gatka, which was the Sikh art, and seems to still be transmitted live. Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 18:18

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