There are many different versions of the History of Indian clubs. We are not scholars, but we have gathered facts from different sources for this broad but short article.
Club swinging is one of the disciplines of varzesh-e pahlavāni (“Sport of heroes”), an ancient Persian physical training system to improve strength, mobility, coordination and not least, to increase mindfulness. Warriors needed to improve multiple physical abilities while developing their spirituality at the same time.
Disputed origins of Indian clubs
The beginning of Pahlavani tradition goes back to Parthian Dynasty (238 BC – 224 AD) and Mithraism, the religion of warriors. One hypothesis is that Club swinging spread from the Persian empire to the adjacent countries. However, people from India dispute this, maintaining that club swinging goes even further back. And as a weapon, this might be right. Clubs are ancient, and depicted on temple carvings, and other art form. However, swinging a mace or club for physical conditioning is something else… And without written records, anything goes.
In India, clubs are known as Karlakattai, Jori and Mugdar. Tamil warriors also used clubs to assist their martial art practice, Silambam, which teaches how to handle weapons before one learns empty hand combat. Silambam is supposed to be the world’s oldest martial art.
In Persia, the pahlavan (“hero”) was a warrior but also a leader for his community. They would gather at their local gym called the Zurkhaneh (“House of Strength”) to swing heavy clubs, lift odd shaped objects, wrestle, and perform calisthenics along to music, traditional stories and prayers.
Persian pahlavans were forced underground under the Muslim rule, and since they were not allowed to bear arms, they could at least do some physical training and maintain their conditioning and traditions. Skills developed during practice were transferable to weaponry and fighting techniques.
Even this name “pahlavan” or “pehlwan” is understood as “wrestler” today in India, Pakistan and adjacent countries. The plot thickens…
Indian clubs in Europe
By contrast, club swinging came to Europe and USA during in the 19th century. Englishmen stationed in India during the East India Company (1600-1858) witnessed the graceful motions and good physiques of the wrestlers swinging heavy clubs. They mistakenly called them “Indian clubs“.
They redesigned the clubs into smaller versions, and the concept was taken to Europe, where club swinging became integrated into institutions and the system of physical education of that time. For reference, the regulation club of the British Army in 1850 weighted 2kg a piece. Lighter clubs opened the possibility of swinging in new patterns that could not be done with heavy clubs.
”British Manly Exercises” by Donald Walker is the earliest reference book on the subject of club swinging, and was published in 1834. It contains both exercises with light and with heavy clubs.
As people started to lead a more sedentary lifestyle, physical exercise became essential to achieving and preserving good health. Indian clubs become one of the tools of ”Restorative arts” (also known as ”orthopedic or remedial gymnastics”, or basically an early form of physiotherapy). The practice aimed to bring the body into an optimal state of balance and compensate the effect of modern life.
Indian clubs in institutions
Indian clubs were found in gymnasiums along boxing and fencing equipment. Cultural factors at that time ensured the popularity of organized exercise. Club swinging was introduced into school physical education classes and military training.
Sim. D. Kehoe, an American fitness enthusiast and businessman, began to manufacture and sell clubs to the American public in 1862, after his travels to England.
The body coordination benefits were a big reason why the U.S. Army had soldiers train with Indian clubs. According to the 1914 U.S. Army Manual of Physical Training: “The effect of these exercises, when performed with light clubs, is chiefly a neural one, hence they are primary factors in the development of grace, coordination and rhythm.”
Did you know that club swinging was even an Olympic sport in 1904 and 1932? However, like kettlebells, Indian clubs lost their popularity in the 1930s, as organized sports and games became more popular than physical culture.
Indian clubs today
At Heroic Sport we are trying to revive the once very popular discipline of club swinging, and make it once again available for the masses. Until now, the price of traditional equipment has been a barrier for many people who might want to try it, and instruction has been scarce or without structure.
- Two men wrestling – Tashrih al-aqvam (1825), f.203v – BL Add. 27255.jpg
- Cleveland St Public School – Indian Club Drill