A martial artist uses a multi-bladed Sri Lankan variation of a traditional urumi. (Photo: Angampora/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Whips are the coolest weapon, just ask Indiana Jones. Of course, someone like Ned Stark would say the same thing about his sword. But the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu has both of them beat with the urumi, a sword that acts like a whip.

The urumi hasn’t regularly been used as an actual weapon for generations, but even as a demonstration weapon, it is still incredibly dangerous. Especially to the user.

The urumi (which can be translated as “curving sword,” and is also known as a “chuttuval”), hails from southern India. The historic weapon was saved from the erasure of time when it was incorporated into Kalaripayattu martial arts, an Indian fighting style that is considered one of the oldest in the world. Incorporating elements of yoga and performative dance, Kalaripayattu movements look like violent but graceful choreography. Urumi fighting is no different, it is just far more dangerous to those who would attempt to learn the skill.    

Sparring with dual-bladed urumi. (Photo: Zzvet/Shutterstock.com)

Like any sword, the urumi comes in a number of varieties, with a variable length, and even a variable number of blades, but they all follow the same basic construction. Usually simpler than more elaborately decorated sword weapons, at its simplest, the urumi consists of a hilt connected to a thin, flexible steel blade. The handle is usually protected by a crossguard and knuckle-guard. The long blades extend somewhere between four and six feet in length (or even longer in some cases), and around an inch in width, but the aspect that makes the weapon unique is that the steel is always thin enough to flop around. Almost like a cartoon-version of a rubber sword.

Given the urumi’s unique construction, wielding it is also an art unto itself. Since the flexible blade is no good for stabbing, it is slung around similarly to a traditional leather whip. In order to make continuous strikes with the weapon, it must stay continually in motion so that the momentum which gives the blade its slashing power is not lost. This usually requires the user to swing it over and around their head and shoulders in furious arcs.

While this makes the urumi incredibly hard and dangerous to use, it also provides it with one of its major benefits as a weapon. When the blade curves around the sword wielder in quick arcing slashes, it creates a defensive bubble of flying metal that an opponent would be reckless to get close to. In addition, it makes a terrific weapon for defending against multiple opponents, both by providing a good barrier at a number of angles at once, and for the long, wild attacking arcs the steel whip provides.   

Urumi sparring incorporates small buckler shields that are used to deflect direct swings of the weapon, but when the urumi was used in actual combat, it was said to have had the added benefit of curving around the edges of enemy shields, landing cuts even when blocked.

As an added bonus of having a wildly flexible blade, the urumi could be tightly rolled up for easy travel and concealment. In fact, it has often been worn as a belt.

Of course all of this versatility comes at a price. As you can imagine, winging metal whips around your delicate face flesh at high speeds can easily result in a missing nose, or other mishap. Wielding the urumi correctly and safely takes years of training, learning techniques for everything from bringing the blade to safe stop, to altering the rotation of your swings without slicing your arm off.

In the hierarchy of Kalaripayattu weapons training, the urumi is usually taught last due to the high degree of difficulty in wielding the weapon. Sometimes, students begin their training using a piece of cloth instead of the metal blade, so that they can master the intricate moves of the urumi before picking up any steel, learning a graceful flow and rhythm to their swings.

That’s a long urumi. (Photo: SukhwinderSinghNihangSingh/CC BY-SA 3.0)

All of this training is required to wield an urumi that has only one blade, however many variations of the weapon have multiple steel belts radiating from the handle like a slashing flog. Without question, the more strands on a given urumi, the more difficult it becomes to wield, but the more deadly it becomes to the opponent. According to one source, there was a Sri Lankan version of the urumi that had 32 blades, and was usually double-wielded, with one in each hand, although evidence of this is hard to find, and also… seems like suicide.

While use of the urumi is today relegated to demonstrative bouts by Kalaripayattu masters, the weapon still springs up in popular culture from time to time. The weapon can be found in tabletop roleplaying games like Pathfinder, and urumi-wielding warriors can be summoned as troops in the 2007 strategy game Age of Empires III: The The Asian Dynasties. There was even a 2011 Indian historical drama called, Urumi, which prominently featured the main character using the weapon.

It might not be as popular as Indy’s whip or Ned Stark’s broadsword, but the urumi is too badass to die.      

Correction: The caption of the header image has been changed to reflect that the weapon pictured is a Sri Lankan variant of the urumi. Also, a reference to the birthplace of the urumi has been changed from “the Indian state of Tamil Nadu,” to  ”southern India.”