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History of Indian clubs swinging

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

There is prehistoric evidence of the use of clubs as weapons from as early as 10,000 years ago in Nataruk in Turkana, Kenya. In modern popular culture, the most simple weapon of a wooden club is often associated with the primitive caveman. A simple fallen branch or a long bone of primate could easily be fashioned into a club, that would be able to create massive blunt force trauma with relative ease. It is therefore easy to see why many cultures and civilisations across the globe adopted such a basic tool and have their own versions of a club as a weapon.

In historic times, the use of clubs as weapons in India was written about extensively in the epic Sanskrit poems, the Ramayana, which is reported to be written in 5th century BCE, and the Mahabharata, written slightly later between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The use of the mace (Gada) in Hindu iconography, arose from its martial applications in battle. There are references to the mace being used to train the opposing cousins of the two warring families who are at the centre of the Mahabharata: the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Balram, a master of arms whose weapons were a plough and a mace, taught both the mighty Bhima and his enemy cousin Duryodhana, the art of the mace. This ultimately led to the death of Duryodhana, who was killed by the hands of Bhima who landed a massive mace blow to the thigh of his cousin during combat.

The weapon was so named after the mighty Gada, an Asura (a member of a divine class), who, although was much feared, was also well known for his charitable acts. Vishnu (one of the three main deities of Hinduism) disguised himself as a Brahmin (the most respected of the four social classes) and approached Gada. He requested Gada to lend his own bones to him to make a weapon. Gada, being benevolant, readily, agreed and Vishnu made a mace weapon from his bones. Having created such a weapon from the bones of Gada, the word gada was henceforth used to describe the mace in Sanskrit.

Another notable user of the Gada is Lord Hanuman. Hanumans Gada is a symbol of self-sovereignty, the authority of governance and the power to rule. Hanuman’s gada is said to have saved Surath, the king of Kashi, from the arrows of Rama.

With its roots deeply ingrained in the Sanskrit epics, club swinging became part of Indian and Hindu culture, with wooden training tools such as the Mugdar and Jori, being used to condition wrestlers and warriors in the centuries that followed.

By the early 17th century, East India Company, had established trading connections on the Indian sub continent, and it was at this time that English men were first exposed to the impressive physical prowess of of the Indian men they encountered. Over the following two centuries, as the East India Company project expanded, the apparent benefits of club swinging were further recognised, and in the 19th century, were adopted for use within the British military.

According the C R Treat, in his article published 1869, one British soldier is believed to have remarked.

"The wonderful club exercise is one of the most effectual kinds of athletic training known anywhere in common use throughout India. The clubs are of wood, varying in weight, according to the strength of the person using them, and in length about two feet and a half, and some six or seven inches in diameter at the base, which is level, so as to admit of their standing firmly when placed on the ground. The exercise is in great repute among the native soldiery, police, and others, whose caste renders them liable to emergencies where great strength of muscle is desirable.”

Hindu clubs swingers would typically swing heavy clubs, some weighing in excess of 70lb/30kg. However, the British army didn’t adopt the heavy style of club swinging, as they erroneously believed it would make their soldiers slow and cumbersome, and therefore adopted much lighter clubs, typically weighing as little as 4lb/2.8kg .

Indian men swinging heavy clubs, notice the thick arms, legs, chest and shoulders.

By 1825, Captain P H Clias who was superintendent of the royal military school at sandhurst in England, made reference to the Indian club as training tool in the 4th edition of his publication, An elementary course of gymnastics. Slightly later, in 1834, Donald Walker, published two books: British manly exercises and exercises for ladies both of which show plates and descriptions of The Indian club exercises. Walker was clear to make a distinction between the new British style, what he subtitled, “the portion adopted by the army”, and the more traditional Hindu/Indian style which he headed “the new and more beautiful portion now added from the Indian practice”. The British style incorporating more circular movements at the elbow and wrists, whereas the original indian style, called for the heavier clubs to swung in large arching movements both under and over the shoulders.

There were however, some English proponents of the heavier club swinging method , the most renowned being Proffesor Harrison. Harrison had incrementally increased the weight of the clubs he used until he was proficient with clubs more commonly seen on the Indian sub continent. As was popular at the time, Harrison showed off his abilities, skill and feats of strength to the public, often performing at fetes and private gynamsia.

The popularity of Indian club use in England continued to rise throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century with many physical culture experts using the clubs to improve the well being, posture and vitality of the middle and upper classes. Many methods were written down and even published, but as F J Harvey wrote in his 1903 publication 1000 dumbbell indian club and steel bar exercises,

“I am conscious of the fact that is is extremely difficult to attempt to describe or learn Club exercises from books”

With that said, some notable and excellent works on the subject were produced. Professor Harrison’s Indian clubs, dumb-bells, and Sword exercises, along with G T B Cobbett and A F Jenkin, whose book, simply entitled Indian clubs, provided wonderful illustrations and photographs as well as very detailed descriptions of the movements being prescribed.

Professor Harrison depicted swinging heavy clubs as reported in The illustrated London news in 1852 (left) and Cobbet and Jenkins Indian clubs, first published in 1893, notice the more dextrous moves allowed with lighter clubs.

Indian clubs quickly found a new outlet in the American market. Simon D Kehoe began designing his own Indian clubs after discovering the benefits of club swinging on his travels. He too produced a popular book on the subject, and his club designs are still coveted today, for their particular shape and considered balance.

Soon other manufacturers such as Spalding and Naragansette (Standard) machine co in the USA began producing Indian clubs, and the popularity of clubs swinging quickly rose on the other side of the Atlantic. Many people would also make their own clubs, and various styles of “folk art” clubs of differing sizes were not unpopular.

Meanwhile in England, Indian clubs had very much become part of popular culture, with images of club swingers finding themselves on amongst other things, cigarette cards and post cards, many of which can still be found today if you look hard enough.

With the emergence of more organised sport in the early parts of the 20th century, Indian club usage began to wain. In popular culture, Indian clubs had all but been forgotten towards the latter part of the last century, save for their maintained usage in certain areas of the British Military, although now, more ceremonially rather than for the physical benefits they were first used for.

The British Royal Marines, still use the insignia of crossed clubs, and the physical training instructors (PTIs) are still known colloquially, as ‘club swingers’.

In recent years Indian club swinging has had a resurgence in popularity, with many people recognising the benefits of both the original Indian methods as well as the modified practices that emerged from the British adoption of club swinging.

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