Letter from India: Gatka

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in S Africa, where I am visiting my wife for a few days.


A continuation of Letter from India: Philosophies


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By the time Kirit and I reach Punjab, buses have broken our backs. Unable to secure a seat on any northbound train, we board a series of overnight buses—Pondicherry to Hyderabad; Hyderabad to Nagpur; Nagpur to Indore; Indore to Jaipur; Jaipur to Chandigarh; and, finally, Chandigarh to Amritsar—collectively taking more than 50 hours over some 3000km, greater than the distance from Hong Kong to Singapore, or Houston to San Francisco.

In Indore we break our journey for a few days, visiting my Nani’s house every day for home cooking. Then, as if to compensate for those comforts, our karma delivers the bus from hell. We have two “upper sleepers” on a “Non-AC bus” to Jaipur. This doesn’t sound too shabby, but when we board we find a dirty, old interior. The faux leather plastic on my bed’s “headrest” is completely worn, exposing the spongy foam beneath. Every time I lift my head up, I find little bits of black foam clinging lovingly to my hair. The bed itself is sandy. That is partly its steady state, and partly my doing, as I keep my soiled slippers up there with me, rather than down below on the even filthier bus floor, where they might get trampled on by even filthier slippers.

Across the aisle, on a double-sleeper on the other side of the bus, are my travel companions: an elderly man and his white terrier, “Kutta”, literally dog in Hindi. Kutta is actually quite cute, but he annoys me by barking sporadically and also because I’m envious of his royal diet: burfi, which I look at longingly, every time the man places one delicately in Kutta’s mouth. Kutta’s bark isn’t the only aural pain. At every available opportunity our bus driver blares his irritating horn, which in India can range from the multi-layered melodious to the fart-like. The racket is worse than anything those post-South Africa 2010 Vuvuzuela nuts conjured. I regret booking a sleeper in the front of the bus.

At about 6am, when some of us are finally about to fall asleep, the bus sputters to a stop by the side of the road. Day is breaking over the lush Indian countryside. Much more is breaking inside. Steam is rising from the engine, and the driver, cloth in hand, is figuring out what to do with an overheated radiator. As is common in almost every situation in India, three or four other people immediately offer their own diagnoses, one from the ivory tower middle of the bus. The driver finally decides that since we are on Jaipur’s doorstep, he can push on.

Less than fifteen minutes later,  he pulls over again. This time he yanks open the giant cover of the engine housing, by his side, releasing plumes of steam into the bus. I feel like I have been dropped into a Turkish bath. Kutta barks. The whole bus is awake. The driver decides to top up the radiator with some grassy, sandy water from a stream by the road. Poor radiator.

Less than five minutes later, the engine gives up. The driver stops near a busy junction, some ten kilometres outside Jaipur, and asks all the red-eyed passengers to hop onto another vehicle; any vehicle we can find—public bus, rickshaw, bullock cart. Kirit and I, the only long-distance travellers, have our big bags in the back. When he pulls them out, we find their undersides completely drenched. I spend the next few hours resting, with my wet shirts and underwear hanging around me, like flags, as they dry in the cheap hotel room we’ve booked for the day till our next bus, that very same night, to Chandigarh.

The day isn’t all bad. Jaipur is in Rajasthan, the land of my foremothers, and so after more than two years of longing, I finally again have a pot of lal mas, literally red meat, a triumph of Rajasthani cuisine, one of the best lamb curries around (pictured).

Lal Mas

The bus to Punjab is a “Volvo A/C semi-sleeper”. The Swedish-Chinese firm’s global automobile business may be in decline, but for weary bus riders in India, the mere mention of its name sends shockwaves of dharmic bliss up their pleasure centres. We reach Chandigarh in good shape, and after breakfast head out into India’s most famous planned city, which Le Corbusier, the Frenchman, designed in the wake of partition after Punjab’s former capital, Lahore, found itself on the Pakistani side.


This is my first visit to the Great Land of Punjab, and I am filled with excitement and expectation, for so many different reasons. First, I have grown up with Punjabis. Many of my best friends around the world, including Jere-Jaymit, my brother-in-law in Singapore, and Nitasha Sawhney, who I got to know while in university in California, are Punjabis.

Second, Punjabis—particularly the Sikhs—occupy a special place in the Malayan imagination, both loved and laughed at. Some of the most successful businesspeople in Malaysia and Singapore are Sikhs. The Sikhs have some of the grandest places of worship and throw some of the biggest parties in town. Malayan women of all ethnicities love to wear “Punjabi suits”. They represent one of the most successful migrant communities in Malaya.

Unique to Malaya, I believe, Sikh males are often called “bhai”, literally brother, by other people, even strangers, which depending on the context and tone can be endearing or derogatory. (They are also called the more common “sardar”.) There are innumerable jokes about Sikhs, ranging from the one-liner puns on their names to the more elaborate constructions that poke fun at their supposed dim-wittedness. Again, just like with the use of bhai, I have seen the beginnings of both fights and friendships over Sikh jokes.

Third, when I was conducting research for my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze (see here), Sumana Rajarethnam and I cycled around Malaysia, each night looking for a free place to stay. Whenever we couldn’t find sandy beaches to pitch our tent, we approached religious places of worship. Though we ended up staying once at a church and mosque, they also rejected us several times. The Sikhs were the only ones to take us in every time we approached them (twice), providing not only a mattress in the gurudwara, but chapati and dal too. Their openness towards strangers has always impressed me.

Finally, at a broader level, the Sikh peoples’ fierce ethno-religious nationalism and loyalty to their kin, expressed everywhere in the world they live, is something I have both admired and feared.

Driving around Chandigarh is a riot. On the one hand, I had no idea India had such neat, clean, green cities. On the other, I am perennially lost. Every wide road and every orderly junction and every smooth roundabout looks the same as the last. Chandigarh is effectively an agglomeration of more than fifty self-contained “Sectors”. In every sector there is every thing a fun-loving, God-fearing person might need, from marketplace and bar to gurudwara. Each sector looks similar. Moreover, given the commonality in dress and facial hair amongst Sikh men, from afar almost half the people look somewhat indistinguishable. Our auto-rickshaw driver has been motoring along for fifteen minutes, but the view is the same as when we started. This is a Matrix—a verdant one.

We are heading to the gurudwara in Sector 22 to meet Deep Singh, a guru of gatka, the Sikh martial art. This past two months, travelling around India, whenever I meet a martial arts teacher for the first time, I have no idea what to expect. Some want to first suss me out over chai, and find out more about the book. Others read this blog in detail and make preparations ahead of time.

Deep Singh pulls out all the stops. Not knowing how much time Kirit and I have in Chandigarh, he organises an impromptu noon gatka session on the rooftop of a three-storey building next to the temple. The boys who are there to entertain us are skipping school (pictured). It is blazing hot; every sane Chandigarhi is indoors. Insisting that I must sit, one of the boys rushes to unfurl a mat and tries desperately to position it below the fast-disappearing sliver of shade. Within minutes, we are served cold Coca-Cola and mineral water. Hot samosas lie waiting.


We feel terrible that they have gone to this trouble; but now that we are here, we make the most of it, photographing them over the next hour. We then sit down for samosas. Following that I interview Deep as well as Rajdeep (third from left), Deep’s former student and the senior-most coach, and Simranjit (extreme right), a young gatka “All India” tournament champion, in the building’s cool basement, which is filled with cushions and mats; people shuttle in and out for naps.

Kirit wants more photographs, so Deep invites us to join them for the regularly scheduled evening session. Rajdeep drops me back to the hotel, and picks me up after two hours. After the training, the general secretary of the Chandigarh Gatka Association, Hardeep Singh Bittu, takes us out for a dinner buffet. Then, at around 10pm, he drives the extra thirty minutes to drop us back to our hotel—despite our insistence that we can take an auto—thus ending a splendid first day where, every step of the way, I felt like somebody was taking care of us.


Of all the different martial arts I will be researching, gatka is one of the youngest, being so closely intertwined with Sikhism, one of the world’s youngest major religions, founded in the late 15th Century. In Sikhism there are eleven gurus, the last of whom, Guru Granth Sahib, is the religious text itself. Gatka is most closely associated with Guru Har Gobind, the sixth guru who lived from 1595 to 1644, and Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last human guru, who lived from 1666 to 1708.

Guru Har Gobind is generally credited as militarising the Sikhs, in the wake of the martyrdom of his father, Guru Arjan Dev, at the hands of Jahangir, the Mughal emperor. The Sikhs were engaged in a bitter conflict with the Mughals, who were concerned about religious conversion. Imprisoned then released by Jahangir, Guru Har Gobind unsurprisingly also became sworn enemies with Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan. While globally he is known more for his constructions—such as the Taj Mahal—than his destructions, Shah Jahan was responsible for the demolishment of, among other things, the Sikh baoli, stepwell, in Lahore.

Every gatka guru I meet mentions Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s son and the sixth Mughal emperor, who lived from 1618 to 1707. Aurangzeb, whose name in India has become synonymous with religious intolerance, emerges as their bete noire, the Sith Lord that focuses the Sikh Force. Indeed, Aurangzeb’s ghost follows Kirit and I ominously around India. “This temple was demolished by Aurangzeb in XXX”; “These carvings were defaced by Aurangzeb’s army in YYY.” Kirit, a keen student of history, believes he is the craziest, most tyrannical ruler India has ever seen.

I must state three important caveats here. First, I am presenting to you mostly the Sikh version of history as I heard it in Punjab; it gives context to gatka’s origins. Presumably Mughal/Islamic interpretations will differ, and I look forward to reviewing them in the book. Second, historians disagree on the number of temples Aurangzeb destroyed—estimates range from 80 to 60,000—although most will agree that there is a tendency in modern India for Hindu nationalists to inflate the number. Third, and most importantly, every gatka guru I speak with stresses that Punjab has now enjoyed religious harmony for decades.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, lived in the time of Aurangzeb. He is best known for formalising some of the institutions and structures of Sikhism, particularly the Sikh Khalsa, literally sovereign/free, which refers to the collective body of all baptised Sikhs. On March 30th 1699, some 20,000 people were the first to be baptised, upon which Guru Gobind Singh gave the males the name Singh, lion, and females Kaur, princess.

I love it when I’m in a place where there is a simple unique greeting that will instantly endear you to the locals. One of Guru Gobind Singh’s legacies is the ethno-religious cry, “Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Phateh”—“The Khalsa belongs to Waheguru (the wondrous teacher), the victory belongs to Waheguru”.

On the motorcycle ride back to the gurudwara, in between his expressions of love for gatka and Justin Bieber, Rajdeep teaches me this phrase. From then on, I repeat it every chance I get. I often stumble on the words, but nobody cares. As soon as Sikhs hear the opener, “Waheguru”, coming from me, an outsider, they smile and repeat the greeting. I have started saying it everywhere I meet a Sikh. Kirit, tired of hearing me muck up the words, suggests I stick to the shorter “Sat Sri Akaal”, loosely “God is the ultimate truth”.

Guru Gobind Singh also laid out the Khalsa’s codes of conduct, including the restriction against cutting hair or consuming intoxicants, and the dress code comprising the so-called Five Ks: Kesh (uncut hairs); Kanga (comb); Kara (iron bracelet); Kachera (specific inner shorts); and Kirpan (dagger). In Singapore, where most Sikhs my age are at least third- or fourth-generation Singaporeans, the only “K” still visible is often the kara on their wrists. Many have cut their hair, earning themselves the moniker “Modern bhai”.

In Chandigarh, by contrast, all five are on show all the time. On several occasions, when sitting next to a gatka student in a cramped auto-rickshaw or car, I feel the kirpan’s sheath poking my right thigh. It’s fairly sizeable (pictured, alongside kara). I am surprised when petite Jasleen, an eleven-year old female gatka practitioner, shows me hers. “For Sikhs there is no difference between men and women,” Simranjit points out. It is slightly unnerving to know that the majority of people in town are carrying a deadly weapon, especially since Punjab, after Kerala, has the highest per-capita alcohol consumption rate in India (see Letter from India: Trivandrum). But of course, in four days there, I never once feel like anybody is remotely close to unsheathing their daggers.


Gatka’s affinity to Sikhism means that, unlike many other martial arts, its proponents often experience some sort of religious fervour when they practise it. “My faith in the Khalsa is strengthened,” Simranjit tells me. Deep believes that every Sikh should learn gatka, which he considers an essential part of their culture and religion. Like many other martial arts gurus around India, he is working tirelessly to promote his art form. “We have signed an MOU with the Punjabi University in Patiala,” he rejoices over the phone, when I call him a month after my visit. “They will soon offer one-year diploma courses and six-month certificate courses in gatka.”

Kirit and I marvel at the arsenal of gatka weapons, which reflects the art form’s militaristic origins. Today there seems to be a concerted effort to soften its image and promote it as a sport—practitioners do not “fight” or “spar”, but rather “play” with each other. “Let’s play gatka” is the fun rallying cry of the modern age. Nevertheless, according to a few Nihang Singhs, who represent a sort of warrior class (see post-script), if the Sikh people or nation ever again comes under persecution or threat, they will not hesitate to use all their skills and powers, gatka or otherwise, in its defence.

There does, however, seem to be some disagreement over whether gatka is a martial art form only for Sikhs or for the whole world. On the one hand, Deep says that anybody anywhere should have the opportunity to learn gatka, regardless of whether they are Sikh. On the other, Tarun Pal Singh, another guru who we meet the day after, feels that gatka’s secrets should remain the preserve of the Sikhs. (Of course, as per the Sikh religion, anybody at all can become a Sikh by following its principles.)

Tarun Pal invites us not to his own school but to his guru’s: the famous, decorated Ustaad Gurpreet Singh. I sit down to interview the sixty-five-year old Ustaad, while Kirit goes to the park nearby to photograph his students. He seems a bit restless, which I assume is irritation that we are late. After about thirty minutes of chatting, he finally stops me. “Don’t you want to see me play?” I had assumed that he had hung up his swords. How stupid of me. Because boy, can this grandfather move.

The group of boys and men there, who range from about five to forty years old, hang on Ustaad’s every word. One can always tell a guru’s stature by how his/her disciples, who otherwise drip bravado and confidence, are in their presence suddenly reduced to fawning, star-struck pubescents. “Even if he spits, I will wipe it,” says Tarun Pal. “Even if he shits, I will clean it.”

Chandigarh and Gatka leave a deep impression on me also because for the first time on this trip, I actually engage in a bit of “playing” with weapons—up till now, my martial arts training has been limited to warm-up exercises (kalarippayattu in Kerala) and basic handling of weapons (silambam in Tamil Nadu).

Here, after about two hours of footwork and shadow sword play—not real metal swords, but the wooden sports ones—Rajdeep reckons I am ready for a simple session with him. We play out a series of repetitive movements, alternatively hitting and blocking. Today, more than a month after Chandigarh, just whispering “Defence, attack. Defence, attack” takes me back to that exhilarating evening on the gurudwara’s rooftop.


I can’t wait to see The Golden Temple in Amritsar, not just because of its splendour or the fact that it has the world’s highest capacity chapati-making machine or that it was the scene of the most dramatic union-separatist confrontation in recent times: between Sikh nationalists and Indian army soldiers working on Indira Gandhi’s orders—a misguided siege in 1984 that ultimately led to her assassination by her own Sikh bodyguards, which in turn sparked off more Hindu-Sikh violence.

What attracts me most is the architecture of the entire complex, specifically the four entrances facing four directions—a symbolic sign that all people from everywhere are welcome here.



My first visit is in the afternoon, but the queue to get in is too long (above). I return the next morning before daybreak, and watch the sky slowly brighten around the shimmering gold…magical.


Kirit and I also find time to watch the changing of the guards at the Indo-Pak border in Atari, a one-hour drive from Amritsar. I’m certainly not one for jingoistic jives, but it’s still quiet a sight to behold, hundreds of proud Indians dancing to Jai Ho, taunting the Pakistanis, sitting relatively quietly on the other side. “The hair on my hand is standing,” says a Tamilian from Chennai, who has come from as far as anybody. Speaking to him, I again marvel at the sheer size and diversity of the Indian Union.

But, just like when researching my first book, the arbitrariness of borders again bothers me. Partition sliced the state of Punjab into two; the people in Amritsar and Chandigarh have arguably deeper, stronger historical and cultural links with the people in Lahore (modern day Pakistan) than they do with this chap from Chennai, now singing alongside them. Four weeks after Punjab, I find myself in Imphal, Manipur, on India’s North-east, a city which is physically closer to Bangkok, Chengdu and Hanoi than it is to New Delhi. Again it strikes me: these people have much more in common with South-east Asians than Indians. All this naturally leads to a conversation about centre-periphery tensions and separatism, which I’ll leave for a future post.


Indian women dancing to Jai Ho. Mahatma Gandhi, who was terribly disappointed by the partition of the country, looks on from a distance. The border, and the Pakistanis, are behind me.


I’m still unsure how their groins are intact…

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The pain of partition can be remembered through many prisms, even a cartographic one. When we drive from Amritsar (A) to Atari (B), I don’t realise how close Lahore, Punjab’s former capital, is (scale on lower left).

Continued at Last letter from India: Manipur


Nihang Singhs
The Nihang Singhs are a fascinating sub-community. From the little I know, they are a sort of military, warrior class, always dressed in blue. The word Nihang means “without fear”. They have always been closely associated with the Sikh military order; some suggest they are the most proficient proponents of gatka. Interestingly, they are shunned by some Sikhs because they apparently like to get stoned by drinking bhang lassi, a drink made with cannabis.

Kirit and I visit the Nihang Singhs at a gurudwara in Mohali, Chandigarh’s twin city. After learning about the history of the Nihangs—the name “Aurangzeb” is repeatedly mentioned—we ask them about their fondness for highness. According to them, the use of bhang originated during the period in the 19th Century when the Nihangs, facing persecution by the British, were forced to live in the jungles. There, they had to create energy drinks with whatever they could find, including fruits and nuts. Eventually, cannabis found its way into their underground, colonial-era protein shakes. Today, it is not something they consume habitually. We didn’t see any around.

I’m not really sure who objects to their bhang consumption—perhaps some puritanical Sikhs who believe that the Nihangs are flouting the ban on intoxicants. Indeed, both Deep and Tarun Pal say the Nihangs are well respected in the community. After our chat, they proudly posed for photographs and then gave us a book of verses before we left.



Now we all know that Indians are big mobile phone and Internet users, but only in Chandigarh did I realise exactly how plugged-in they are. Both Deep and Tarun Pal reply almost immediately to my initial emails. When I ask Deepika Shetty, a Singapore-based Indian friend of mine, to introduce me to some people in Chandigarh, her hometown, within minutes I am part of a busy Facebook chat involving seven people, some in their 50s and 60s. (Regrettably, all male.)

Meanwhile, when Tarun Pal drops Kirit and I off after the gatka session, four of his teenage students and I squeeze into the backseat of his car (pictured). We have a rollicking good time, making fun of everybody around, Tarun Pal included. The car is so packed I can barely turn my head, but within seconds, two have added me as Facebook friends, their fingers speeding across their touchscreens like tiny dancers. By the next day, I have five new Facebook friends, who now tag me—and fifty other people—on almost every photograph they upload. In total, I leave Chandigarh with more than ten new FB friends, about the same number as all my other Indian stops combined. Good fun.


More photos

Bus from hell


My travel companions. Man is holding box of burfi


Driver collecting radiator water


Lets play



Jasleen, the eleven-year old female gatka student

Group shot Deep

Deep Singh, Kirit (R) and I


Ustaad Gurpreet Singh (see Youtube video above)


Guri Dhillon, a young gatka student, with his guru Tarun Pal Singh, who in turn is a student of Ustaad Gurpreet Singh (above)



Raj Kachori, the king of India chaat, or street foods


Chole Bhature, spicy chick peas and a fried bread, similar to poori except made with maida flour. A Punjabi staple


Ras malai, paneer balls soaked in clotted cream, with several spices, including cardamom and saffron


Amritsari kulcha, made with maida flour, baked


Amritsari macchi, famous fried fish


Sauf, fennel seeds, a common digestive after Indian meals. This was the most elaborate I had.

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