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Footprints: Enter the 'Burmese' dragon

Updated September 15, 2017

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BANDO, a rare style of martial arts practised by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, flourished in Pakistan and the world thanks to Grandmaster Ashraf Tai.—Photo by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
BANDO, a rare style of martial arts practised by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, flourished in Pakistan and the world thanks to Grandmaster Ashraf Tai.—Photo by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: It was the early ’70s. A group of seven or eight young men decided to catch a movie at Capri Cinema. Seeing the long queue at the box office, one of them decided to push his way to the front of the line. But the security guards pulled him out, kicked and slapped him around, and showered abuse on him.

The young man’s friends started yelling for him to retaliate. This was followed by them challenging his skills. That was when the tables turned and like a flash of lighting, the fellow turned on his tormentors. “I single-handedly knocked out 11 security guards that day,” recalls Grandmaster Mohammad Ashraf Tai, the man responsible for bringing martial arts to Pakistan.

Though he was a struggling youth back then, he already possessed a black belt in the Bando style of martial arts. Bando, before this, was only practised by Buddhist monks in Myanmar (then Burma). “The name ‘Bando’ is actually a combination of two words ‘Ban’ meaning trap and ‘do’ meaning beat. The monks practise it as a part of their religious rituals for ‘gyan’ or a feeling of closeness to the Buddha,” says Tai, who learnt the art despite being a Kalla Muslim.

He explains: “The Rohingya are not the only Muslims in Myanmar. There are also the Kalla Muslims whose surnames can be ‘Tai’, ‘Patel’, etc. But none of the Muslims have an easy life there. I was a street urchin who would wander long distances from my home to play and wrestle with other boys my age who happened to be Buddhists. I blended in rather well. With my head shaved like them, no one could tell I was not one of them,” he says. “If any of the boys beat me I would be ready for revenge the next day. I could beat all those boys except for one named Dibash, who could always overpower me. Then one day I quietly followed Dibash. It turned out that he was a disciple of the monks who practised Bando.

“I approached the top monk there and asked him to take me on as his student, too,” says Tai. “The monks who meditate for long periods are very spiritual people. They can see beyond the obvious. Lee Phow Shin, my master, gave me one look and asked if I was a Kalla. I did not deny it. It is their art of fighting, they didn’t teach Muslims. Still, seeing my dedication and the way I touched and kissed the feet of the Buddha, he asked if I really respected their way of life. I told him that my friends were all Buddhists so I carried respect for their religion. My own religion never came up again and my master, the only one who knew that I was Muslim, never disclosed it to anyone. I was nine years old then and I earned my black belt when I was 16,” he shares.

But Tai couldn’t stay on in Myanmar after nationalisation in 1965 when his family moved to what was then East Pakistan. “That was also a time of turmoil in East Pakistan. One day I boarded the Safina-i-Arab to Karachi. I was alone and poor. For a while, at night, I shared the pavement of the Merewether Tower with other struggling youths. One of the men there was a bodybuilder, who flexed his muscles at a health centre in Hill Park,” he recalls. “I would accompany him, occasionally, and put on a show, jumping off a billboard. People thought I was a madari [showman] but I was a martial arts expert. Karate and martial arts only gained popularity after Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was released here,” he says.

And after that Tai, too, got about half a dozen students. “The money they paid enabled me to rent a room for myself,” says Tai. That evening at Capri Cinema, he had been with his students.

Tai’s knocking out so many men double or triple his size impressed another youngster watching the scene from a famous barbeque place just across the road. He asked whether Tai would like to teach karate at the Karachi Goan Association (KGA) Ground as he was the son of Mr Luke, then the secretary there, and could put in a good word for him.

“For some reason, perhaps the way I was dressed, the young man mistook me for a Christian. It was realised later that I was Muslim but by then I, with some monetary help from my student Adil Islam, had accepted their offer of renting the place for Rs350 a month. It was too late to renege. They had to amend their by-laws to let me start my karate club there,” says Tai, who founded the Pakistan Karate Federation (PKF) and has taught and is teaching thousands of students the Burmese style of martial arts meant to be practised by Buddhist monks in that country only. It was through Tai that Pakistan got its first martial art. Today, it has also gone international with his students opening hundreds of clubs all over the world, with his blessings.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2017