Crossing Colombo with the generous Chaminda
The last evening of our trip to Sri Lanka, after an intense and rewarding journey of sixteen days through the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, the circumstances get sorted and make possible one of the sessions I had planned in my mind, before leaving Madrid. For a few hours, thanks to the previous mentioned causality and to friendly Chaminda – an affable, burly Sinhalese who chooses to help us and drive us in his car, when asked how to get to the neighborhood Mirihana – I have the pleasure to witness and photograph a training session of Angampora (අන්ගම්පොර) and meet, in noble presence and admirable action, a living legend of this ancient martial art.
Being a Friday, afternoon traffic is particularly arduous and hectic in Colombo, so it takes us almost an hour to get from our hotel, located oceanfront, to our destination. Oblivious to the outside noise, we take the time to chat with good Chaminda, who works as a financier in a major national company and turns out to be also a generous conversationalist. He explains countless facts and trivia about this interesting country, while we discuss family issues and other anecdotes that make the journey really worthwhile.
First encounter with the Great Master
Finally, a little later than agreed, we manage to arrive at the place where great master Guru Karunapala lives and gives meaning to “Mirihana Angam Maduwa”, the school which aims to preserve the richness of the discipline and transfer the valuable lessons learned, during more than five decades, to a select group of students. Despite maintaining a fit physique that many would like to show off in their youth, as seen in the pictures, he comfortably exceeds seventy years old of age. He greets us with a huge smile and an undeniable magnetism, accompanied by Thusitha – her son and his voice, given his limited knowledge of English – the latter’s wife and other family members and friends.
While we wait for the students to arrive – it is a last minute improvised session, specially organised for us, so most of them will come when they finish work -, we chat amiably with Thusitha, while Guru Karunapala shows a selection of international magazines that have published reports on his life and important career.
Short after, with everyone ready and the pit (Angam Madu) dimly lit, the practice starts with the master lighting candles and incense in a Buddhist altar that presides the area. Apparently, students have to meditate and perform a series of vows and promises, including the commitment of using the knowledge learned only for self-defense or, alternatively, for protecting their family or country.
Ancestral and temporarily prohibited art
Although its origin is unknown, the Sinhalese folklore places its birth more than 30,000 years ago, within the Yaksha, one of the four tribes who inhabited the country at the time. Two manuscripts, named Varga Purnikawa and Pancha Rakkhawaliya, attribute its creation to nine hermits, while legends mention Rana Ravana as the most feared and powerful angam warrior, who stepped on earth 5,000 years ago.
More conservative sources date its creation in the Anuradhapura era, when it seemed to be the fighting technique used by the nobles. It survived the passage of time and the luck of the reigns of Sinhala, serving also as an effective method of defence against the Portuguese and Dutch invaders.
In 1817, two years after taking Kandy and gaining control of the entire island, the British government decided to ban the practice of Angampora and ordered the burning of all training locations (Angam Madu), punishing those who were caught practicing with a cruel shot under the knees. Fortunately, some families overcame fear and continued to practice in secret during the ban, preserving this martial art until the arrival of independence.
A demonstration of strength, technique and spirituality
Generally, the practice begins with a meditation session and several warm-ups, before working the different aspects that make up the discipline. In the case of hand to hand techniques, it includes keys and locks (Gataputttu), offensive and defensive moves (Pora Harammba) and a series of dangerous attacks to certain nerve points (Maru Kala), capable of causing death, paralysis and other devastating effects to the opponent. Of course, these techniques are taught only to students of demonstrated trustability, and, interestingly, are accompanied by Ayurvedic remedies that can reverse the serious effects caused by the powerful hits.
With the help of Guru Karunapala, the friendly students – four adults and children of both sexes – perform complex demonstrations of these blockades and movements, before showing us the interesting practice with weapons, another important aspect of Angampora known by the name of Illangam.
It is composed by a total of 64 types of weapons, such as swords of different length, sticks of varied sizes or the lethal Welayudhaya, a curious kind of whip that is formed by 4 flexible blades and requires an advanced practitioner to make a good and safe use of it, due to the high dangerousness involved in the process.
With one of these impressive weapons in each hand, Guru Karunapala stars one of the most shocking and memorable moments of the event, exhibiting an amazing dexterity to handle them, not far from my camera, displaying an enviable energy and causing a metallic noise that imposes caution and will be difficult to forget.
At the end of the practice, exhausted from many days of travel, we really thank the gesture of Samanthi – Thusitha´s lovely wife -, who prepares some delicious sandwiches and a cup of the delicious tea that can be tasted in Sri Lanka, considered by many as the best in the world.
Since next day we have to be at the airport, very early, we finish the experience sooner than we would like to, saying goodbye to Guru Karunapala and all participants, thanking them for their effort to create this improvised and unforgettable practice session. It’s late and Thusitha decides to drive us to the hotel, avoiding the discomfort and complications of doing it by bus or taxi, something that we appreciate greatly.
If you are a fan of martial arts, you plan to travel to Colombo and have the desire to learn and practice with the great teacher Guru Karunapala, you can do so by contacting them in numbers + 94 11 5051770 / 5051793. Please don´t forget to give them our warmest regards, if this happens.
Guru Karunapala, Living Legend of Angampora in Sri Lanka
Students: Sameera, Nuwan, Ravindra, Aravinda, Nihindu and Oshadha
Text and Photos © Nano Calvo 2014