Lathi Khela: A Lesser Known Art and Identity of Bengal

Martial arts and stunts are a treat to look at, and no one can tell me otherwise. In motion entertainment, this form of action is rapidly gaining an enthusiastic audience, thus steadily becoming mainstream. Even the basic moves, when exhibited accurately, looks tough but tempting altogether. Speaking of martial arts, the names and visuals that used to pop up in our mind would have been Karate, Tae Kwan Do or MMA. But, recent times, many indigenous forms are getting recognition, some more than others. It won’t be surprising if you have heard of Kalaripayattu, or Kalari (native to Kerala) or Gatka (native to Punjab). But, do you know about Lathi Khela? If not, how about we find out!

Origin and history

Lathi khela is a form of Bengali martial arts, and the practitioners and experts are termed as lathials. The origin of this art form can be traced  back to ancient South-East Asia, and was said to be practised by the then inhabitants of the region. The etymology of lathi khela can be described using two words, lathi, the Bengali means stick, and khela, which is translated to game. So, this whole word sums up to mean ‘game of sticks’. To this date, this form is practised, mainly in eastern parts of India and Bangladesh.

Lathi, or stick, the integral part of this art, is produced from male bamboo. This makes the lathi flexible and strong. The usual length of lathi is 2 to 2.5 metres. Sometimes, these lathis are also bounded by iron ring(s).

In earlier days, hiring lathials for security and protection was seen as a sign of status. Hence, it was a common practice in rich farmers and important personalities. Lathials were also sent to collect taxes, mostly forcefully, by the  zamindars. 

Mock fights, one on one, or in a group were also fought for entertainment. They were termed as Nori Bari and Baoi Jhak respectively. Many other styles of art forms that used sticks as fighting weapons are unambiguously classified as stick martial arts. 

A distinguished name in the field of lathi khela is Pulin Behari Das. He was a capable lathial and also trained young individuals in stick welding, swordplay and wrestling. Infact, he founded the Bangiya Byayam Samiti, an akhada,  in 1928 for the same purpose.  He also single handedly founded the Dhaka Anushilan Samiti, and taught hundreds of youth to wield lathi against the British firearms. The training made the lathi a formidable weapon and the lathials of Bengal were said to be dreaded even by the British, so was their agility and strength in wielding their weapons. 

Present scenario

In present times, lathi khela is treated more as a sport than a defense technique. And, sadly, both spectators and students learning lathi khela are decreasing at a steady rate. A veteran in the field of lathi khela, Kaushik Mazumder feels that they might be the last generation to see lathi khela in all its former glory. He pointed out that attempts to keep this art form alive are being made, but it is not working very well due to lack of interest and students who learn this. Another occurrence that solidifies this fact is that until 1989, Kushtia, Bangladesh used to organize an annual lathi khela tournament, which was graced by teams from all over the country. But due to decline in demand, this event is now organized once in three years. In India, lathi khela is practiced at an organizational level only in Bharat Sevashram Sangha. And demonstrations have become far and rare, mostly at regional ceremonies.

With appropriate interest and culturing, this art form can be revived to a new glory. At present, lathi khela needs recognition and acceptance in the masses. Let’s hope and help  lathi khela get its due in near future. 

Website References: