What is Lathi?
Lathi is an ancient armed martial art of India. It also refers to the weapon used in this martial art. The word lathi, in Hindi, means bamboo stick. A lathi is basically a 6 to 8 foot long bamboo stick tipped with a metal blunt. It is used by swinging it back and forth like a sword. The metal blunt is an optional part for a lathi. It is the Indian Police’s most used crowd control device. When referring to the weapon itself, a lathi could be considered the world’s oldest weapon.
Lathi as a martial arts
Although Lathi shares many principles with other martial arts, it is totally unique in a way. Most armed martial arts of Asia have one thing in common – they use the dan-tien as their energy center. The dan-tien is two fingers below the navel and corresponds to the solar plexus. This relatively low center of gravity causes these martial arts to be mostly performed out of a knees-bent crouch, which is called horse stance.
The energy center of Lathi is the heart chakra. This higher center of gravity allows the Lathial (practitioner of Lathi) to practice from a higher, longer, more extended posture. Practitioners feel this provides a natural alignment with gravity that balances, orders and aligns the body with the earth’s gravity field, and believe this means that Lathi can be used as a powerful therapeutic tool to heal the human body of all kinds of chronic and acute structural troubles.
It is worth noting that in dan-tien-centered martial arts, belly breathing is the predominant pattern. In Lathi, the higher heart center allows for the breath to flow into the high chest. The high chest breath moves energy, nourishes the heart and lifts the body structure into a natural and therapeutic alignment with gravity.
Wielding the lathi involves giving quick lethal blows to the opponent and defending opponent attacks by using the lathi as a shield. A lathial needs to be quick and precise. Lathi blows are powerful and sometimes even fatal. A good lathial must be able to fight with lathis of different lengths and thicknesses.
Lathi became popular among villages of India, especially eastern and southern India. Other than fighting lathi was often used to control domestic animals. A common Hindi saying goes “Jiski lathi, uski bhains” meaning, “he who wields the lathi gets to keep the buffalo” (“bhains” in Hindi).
Local warlords and landlords often raised armies of lathials for settling disputes and for security purposes. Lathial armies were also used to oppress and punish common people. The size of the army was also an indication of the power of a warlord or landlord. At the same time lathi had also evolved as a sport. Tournaments involving lathi duels often took place in Indian villages.
The Zamindari System was introduced by the Mughals in India and continued during British rule of India. The Zamindar raised lathial armies to forcefully collect taxes from people. The British introduced lathi as a weapon for the Indian Police. This gave birth to the lathi charge, a military-style rush (or charge) that uses lathis to disperse crowds. Lathis were now often used by Indian Police to control riots and also as a secondary weapon. Lathi charges were a common way to suppress marches and protests for independence by freedom fighters and common people.
Lathi in present day India
After independence of India in 1947, the Zamindari system was abolished. This led to a decline in lathial armies and also lathi as a martial art. Urbanisation has also led to decline of this rural martial art. Rich farmers and other rich & eminent people in today’s Indian villages still hire lathials for security and as a symbol their power. Disputes in villages, when settled illegally (not a common practice), still involve lathi battles if not shootouts although legal methods have now replaced them. Lathi remains a famous sport in rural India.
In modern India lathi is the primary weapon of Indian Riot Police along with helmets, shields, tear gas and other weapons and methods. Policemen are trained in lathi charge. They have highly co-ordinated drill movements, with which gravely injurious blows can be given to the rioters. Generally, it leaves many of them crippled. This drill has been quite controversial in the human rights context. So in many places the police do not follow the drill, but hit in such a way to disperse the crowds. Security guards and police guards often carry a lathi along with or in place of firearms. They prefer lathis and use firearms only in situations when lathis cannot be used efficiently.