Count us among the many millions who are counting the seconds until The RZA’s directorial debut, Wu-Tang vs. The Golden Phoenix, hits the big screen. In the meantime, we must sate our martial-arts jones with less cinematic fare, starting with this 13-year-old account of Manipuri swordfighting. The denizens of the Indian province have long been renowned for their skills with the blade, dating back to the region’s spell as one of the British raj’s more unruly possessions. Prior to the colonialists’ arrival, Manipur defended itself against invasion by relying on a citizen’s militia of expert swordsmen, who occasionally demonstrated their mastery for a few extra coins—a tradition that continues to the present day. The American anthropologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer wrote about one such demonstration he witnessed while doing field work:
The most memorable performance with the sword involved in a blindfolded swordsman and a man lying on his back with five pieces of melon balanced on various parts of his body. A wedge of melon was place on each knee, as well as in each hand, and a single wedge was precariously balanced between his chin and his chest, directly above the throat. The swordsman was blindfolded using a piece of cloth filled with sand, so that everyone could see that there was no way for him to peek through the cloth. After being blindfolded, the swordsman would begin a rhythmic chopping and prancing in place, while a third person took up a position directly opposite the swordsman. In the middle was the man lying with melon slices balanced on various parts of his body. Drumming and cymbals accompanied the whole act and the third man would begin chanting, in order to provide the blindfolded swordsman a directional cue.
Suddenly, the swordsman would surge forward, leaping and chopping in a very precise pattern. As he leaped over the man lying in his path, his sword deftly cut each piece of melon, including the piece directly over the man’s throat. Every spectator was tense with expectation until the man lying on the ground would jump to his feet and the swordsman would rip off his blindfold. As people shouted their approval and clapped their hands, many would throw coins and currency notes into the stage in appreciation of this spectacle.
Some excellent swordcraft video, obviously ripped from VHS, can be seen here. We hope The RZA considers adding in some Manipuris for his inevitable sequel.