World renowned Philippine sticks martial arts called Arnis de Mano (literally, “harness of the hands”) is still looking for who actually founded it. Popular in Asia, America and Europe especially today, Philippine masters still debate how it started.
There are various versions of the origin of Arnis (or sometimes called Eskrima or Kali), but most seem to agree that it evolved from the sophisticated arts of China—specifically from the Shaolin Temple.
Many writers have attempted to chronicle the history of Filipino Martial Arts and intimated that Arnis was brought here from different parts of Southeast Asia by different Filipinos with different styles.
One tale goes like this: Long ago Chinese trade vessels docked at the port of Binundok (Binondo), a hilly part of pre-Hispanic Manila. Not far away was a Chinese settlement where Chinese Expats who liked the island lived. Here, an islander, Botho Pula, worked for a Chinese businessman.
Well, before he worked for the Chinese he had a quarrel with him. The Old Chinese easily beat him in the fist fight. To cut the story short, he agreed to work for free as a sign of penitence.
Before long, the old man saw Pula’s loyalty and took him to visit China. Pula eventually ended up studying in the Shaolin Temple. But in the Ming Dynasty, the temple was burned down by the Manchus and the temple monks massacred. Those who survived, Pula among them, were in hiding. The old Chinese was not as lucky.
Pula managed to find his way back to Manila passing through different Southeast Asian countries, taking in several stick fighting styles as he did—Indonesia, Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, and finally, the Philippines.
From Kuta Kinabalu in Malaysia he landed first in Mindanao and worked his way to Manila from there, imparting the sticks arts he formulated to many natives on the islands. Later, a school of fighting arts in Mindanao was named “Bothoan.”
The natives each had different versions of what he taught them, owing much to different word meanings in their different dialects. Back in Manila, he taught the art to some natives of the North before he finally died.
When the Spanish conquistadores came to the Philippines years after Pula’s death, a cultic group of fierce and highly skilled warriors in the Visayas gave the Spaniards a real pain in the neck. They called themselves the Pulahanes.
Philippine Arnis art still remains fatherless except for some far-fetched claims such as tales like this. Yet, it remains part of the country’s proud heritage and among the deadliest fighting arts in the world.