Lathi Khela / Bengali Stick Art

Lathi Khela (লাঠি খেলা) is a word combining Lathi, which means a stick, and Khela,  means a game and is widely used as a general name for “stick arts” in the most parts of the subcontinent, except the Dravidian-speaking region in the South.
However, I would like to focus on the traditional stick martial technique transmitted to the Bengal region (West Bengal, India) on this page.
Lathi Khela tells us how to use the stick which is the basics of all weapons techniques.
Before the advent of guns and other firearms in the modern era, when the protagonists of battlefields were swords and spears, stick art was universally favored throughout the world as a basic technique for training warriors.
It can be said that Lathi Khera is such typical stick art still inherited in India as a game and sport, barely survived after British colonial era with Guns and Cannons and rapidly proceeded modernization of these days.

In the West Bengal region, Lathi Khera is divided roughly into two, the stick rotating technique called "Banethi" and Fighting technique called "Halwa".
In Banethi, the player holds the middle of the stick with one hand (or both hands) and rotates it fluently in high speed with various techniques.
In Halwa, he holds one end of the stick with both hands (or one hand) and wields it with full strength.
The sticks used here are often bamboo or rattan, usually little longer than player's height, and its technical style is very close to Tamil Silambam. 
The name "Benethi" is probably a corruption of the word "Banathi", which is seen in Odisha State as "rotating fire rope", and both would have been derived from Ba-Nathi meaning fire-stick.
Therefore Banethi in Lathi Khela system is designed for firestick rotating performance, I guess.
It has a very high potential as a universal exercise to build up the body fittable to operate weaponry like a sword and spear and has been practiced and inherited under various names throughout India.


The highly developed Banethi rotating technique

As well as effective exercise, the trajectories of the Banethi stick draw the image of a beautiful rotating wheel, has become a must-have attraction for Indian festivals in many ways.
On the other hand, Halwa(which means an attack) technique is mainly stick-wielding to attack the opponent severely in many technical variations but Banethi mainly focuses on exercise and show performance.


Halwa stick-wielding

When gripping one end of the stick with both hands, in case of the Japanese sword, left-hand holds the end of the stick and right-hand holds a bit upper point, but in case of Lathi Khela, it's completely opposite where the right-hand holds the lower end of the stick and the left-hand holds the upper side. This is a specification common to almost all Indian stick arts.
This Halwa technique has been transmitted in the Bengal region until now, because of a landlord class called Zamindar who stands between farmers and colonial government and collects taxes from farmers, intimidated them by using stickman called “Lathial” and always keep it beside them as an escort guard in peacetime too under the British colonial era.
Therefore, this lathial stick was exceptionally accepted by the British colonial government because it facilitates their tax collection process, contrary to other traditional martial arts which often were violently oppressed as a symbol of the resistance against British authority.
It is not difficult to imagine how this Halwa stick has suppressed innocent people as the symbol of the merciless British sovereign at that time.
Such sad history was now completely forgotten, and Banathi and Halwa are practiced as a modern youth sport under the name of Lathi Khela together in West Bengal.

However, with the rapid modernization and economic development of India, the interest toward traditional martial arts of young people, in particular, is rapidly being lost, and even if this Lathi Khela is put in danger of the decline and extinction.
Under such circumstances, one interesting form of this stick art practice is in a religious context.
A religious movement that originated in Bengal in the beginning of the 20th century called Bharat Sevashram has a curriculum of Lathi Khela training as a kind of religious virtue and ritual.
I have been researching mainly with this ashram in West Bengal, and all the nist videos introduced on this page were taken there.

Swami Purushottamananda Guru-Ji and his disciple

The Bharat Sevashram is one of the Hindu revival movement founded in 1917 by Swami Pranavananda Maharaj who was born in a village near Madaripur Bangladesh, which was much inspired by Buddhist ideas despite being Hindu, has strict priesthood system outside family life.

Since the founder praised the Lathi as a religious practice to protect Hindus from the threat of aliens such as the British and Muslims, Lathi Khela has been a required subject for young monks just after ordination in the main Ashram. There is also a stick class in many branch Ashrams, both for householders and monks.

This seems to be a typical Indian like that they practice stick art as a kind of spiritual rituals using body and mind.


Guru-Ji, age 85yo teaches Stick every day in the morning & evening

It is also said that in the same era, another Hindu revival movement Bratachari, also practiced the Lathi Khela as a part of the Hindu cultural revival program.

On the other hand, even in Bangladesh, which contrary has become an independent country of Muslim Majority, Lathi Khela survives barely a kind of simple stick play in the daily life of rural areas.

However, compared with that of West Bengal, it has more primitive rural nuances, and it does not show the stylish technical superiority as seen in Bharat Sevachram.





Since the birthplace of Bharat Sevashram is in present Bangladesh, I went around the country in 2019 with hopes that a good tradition of stick arts in high level would remain there, but I couldn't discover it.

Similar to India, the traditional martial arts of Bangladesh are in danger of decline and annihilation as a whole, but I would like to continue to explore it as a theme too.








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