Sikh moves in the martial art of Gatka

Senior Prabhleen Kaur wears her turban, a symbol of her Sikh religion and culture, proudly. She spends her Sundays inside the Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, proudly. She wields kirpans and chakars, traditional Sikh weapons, proudly. Most importantly, she embraces her identity as a Sikh proudly. 

Kaur practices Gatka, a Sikh martial art, as an aspect of her religion. Traditionally, after months of strength and agility training, Kaur and her team from the Walnut Gurdwara would participate in competitions hosted by the California Gatka Dal.

“My coach is always saying that we should learn from the other teams,” Kaur said. “Half the experience is us trying to pick up on stuff that other people are doing so that we can learn those things.” 

Different competitive events such as Nagar Kirtans, with parades of Gatka demonstrations in the street, or the Hola Mohalla, which includes both competitions and demonstrations, follow the concept of Sant Sipahi. Meaning Saints and Soldiers, it is the idea that Sikhs should be both spiritually and physically skilled. 

“[In competitions], we also help each other to learn these qualities and uphold these qualities,” Kaur said. “We just all work towards becoming better people.”

During competitions, both religious and physical aspects are demonstrated simultaneously at the Gurdwara. Inside, adherents participate in Kirtan, the singing of hymns, and Langar, a community kitchen that serves food without discrimination. Meanwhile, the various Gatka teams compete on the outside of the Gurdwara.

“I really miss it, now we do things virtually over Zoom,” Kaur said. “We used to eat lunch there together at the actual Gurdwara and go to Gatka. Now we just kind of go to lunch [by ourselves] and that’s it.”

These competitions combine traditional Sikh religious rituals with combat-based Gatka demonstrations, which showcases choreography with different types of weapons while honoring the history of Sikhism. The weapons Kaur uses include a metal sword called Kirpan and shield called Dhaal. She also uses a Chakar, a colorful spinner used for defense against flying obstacles. All of these weapons are based on Indian history and the Sikh warriors who fought with them. 

“I use what [Sikh warriors] used,” Kaur said. “I love being a representative [for my culture]. I love that kind of community and I appreciate it a lot.”

Despite the label of “competition”, these events harbor a festive atmosphere as people from many different Gurdwaras come together to celebrate.

“Gurdwaras always give free food away to everyone [so] there’s tons of really nice, yummy food,” Kaur said. “It’s like a perk [in that] we worked hard this whole time and now we can relax after.”

This year, Kaur also planned to attend the annual Yudh Gatka Tournament, an individual competition that features less pre-rehearsed demonstrations and more impromptu combats, but it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I can learn a lot when I practice with people on my team,” Kaur said. “But fighting a new person would show me different ways that I need to improve [because] you have to find new weaknesses that they have or new weaknesses that you have.”

However, Kaur’s favorite aspect of Gatka is still competing with her team. 

“With [team competitions], we get to use a lot of creativity in coming up with the ways we’re going to demonstrate the things we’ve learned this year,” Kaur said. “It involves a lot of creativity along with the whole martial arts part of it.”

Kaur started practicing Gatka at 9 years old. Originally, she saw it as another way to spend time with her friends. But as Kaur grew older, she became appreciative of the opportunity to represent her religion and culture through Gatka. 

“I was learning so many new things in terms of martial arts,” Kaur said. “[Gatka] is a very big part of our history and the sense of standing up for people who need help and are being treated unjustly.”

Growing up in Walnut, Kaur never experienced the oppression of Sikhs, such as by the Mughal Empire in the 15th century, that made Gatka a necessary practice. She has nevertheless heard stories whispered about current acts of violence and discrimination against her people, which makes her glad to have a way to defend herself and others. 

“Even when it’s not technically fighting, [Gatka] gives you the confidence to make sure that if something wrong is happening, you take action and don’t just stand by,” Kaur said. “Gatka is not only about using weapons, but also learning to stand up for people who need help.”

Kaur’s pursuit of Gatka has always been closely intertwined with her Sikh religion, reiterating many moral values that Sikhism teaches. 

“In our holy text, one principle is Vand Chhako, which means to always be giving and help others,” Kaur said. “In Gatka, we work on fighting against injustice and not being a bystander.”

To Kaur, Gatka isn’t just a sport she participates in, it’s a way of life. Not only does Kaur plan to pursue Gatka in college, but she also wants to make Gatka available for her future children, if she ever decides to have kids.  

“[Gatka] is a facet of my religion, which is everything,” Kaur said. “It changed my life for the better and made me a totally different person than who I would have been without it.”

By Cathy Li, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Prabhleen Kaur