By Bindu Suraj

Martial ArtsKerala's traditional martial art form teaches you how to floor an opponent with a feather - and then mend his injuries

As it happens with a great many traditional culture survivors caught in the hurly-burly of modern life, disbelief greets the fact that the southern Indian state of Kerala was once the crucible of the world's martial arts: but look closely at "Kalarippayat" and you will find the kernel of the world's martial arts systems—from the dowager tai chi chuan to the adult survival kit known as Shaolin wushu to the baby of the lot, jeet kune do.

Kalarippayat as it survives today is also more than the sum of its mutated progeny. It was designed, in the first place, to be more than just a narrow-focus, single-purpose martial art: "Kalari" is an arena for combat, "payat" stands for a system of combat. The arena—terra firma—is more or less common to all the martial arts; the "payat" always follows the ground rules and martial imperatives of the multifarious societies where this martial art has taken root.

The only instrument of the original that has survived to this day without redesign or restating its purpose is its ubiquitous circular shield: for the most part, however, the shield is no longer what it used to be. Making a good shield is an art in itself—all the way from the foundry to the forge of the blacksmith to the decorator of symbols. What distinguishes a good metal shield from a passable one is how it sounds when you land a thwack on it: a good one rings like a bell, the run-of-the-mill thuds like a bag of cements.

Nevertheless, the shield had worked its way to the top of the totem pole of folklore, a tribal symbol that was always more than its stated purpose of defense through blocking and deflection. Today, lightweight nylon flags and chrome-and-brass plaques set on mahogany have replaced the proud pennant and the coat-of-arms on the shield.

Not many systems of violence can get away with claiming with a straight face that spiritual transcendence is both one of its causes and its primary aim. Kalarippayat slips through because of the transparency of its conviction: it stretches the body to its limits, and then repairs the damage with massage and medication. The kalari acolyte graduates to master only after having perfected both the art of disempowerment and the art of re-empowerment.

It's a tall order, but then kalarippayat has a spiritually impeccable lineage: according to historians, in AD 4 when one monk, Bodhidharma, carried Buddhism to the world outside, kalari piggybacked along for the ride. The rest, as they say, is history.

It also echoes a Sanskrit term, "khaloorika" which means "military training ground". It's a bit misleading, in that what was glorified as the arena is a packed floor—measuring 35/43/63 feet in length and of a width measuring half that of the length.

The complex architecture of kalarippayat has its own raison d'etre, some of it firmly down to earth, some of it hurtling towards the dim fringes of esoterica. The gladiatorial arena was built according to the ancient vaastu shastra, with construction—about 4 ft below ground level—aligned along the secondary east-west axis. The mud from digging the ground is used to build walls around an area, which is bald and featureless but for a single door on the eastern wall.

A platform with seven steps in the southwest corner of the kalari is a poothura (dais for flowers) where the presiding deity, a volatile double-trouble of Shiva and Shakti, is given place of honor. Gurupeedam, a representative embodiment of the entire line of past gurus, is placed next to the poothura. And this is only the beginning of a lifelong study of physical, mental and spiritual proaction and reaction at fever pitch.

Most acolytes begin when they are seven years old, when their bodies and minds are supple enough to withstand the harshness of kalarippayat its apparent rigidity, its innate malleability, its knowledge, its wisdom, and finally its detached observation of the body's spirit—without cracking.

In days gone by, every village had a kalari near the temple pond administered by a master who was reverently addressed as "gurukkal". In terms of the patriarchal terror and respect he commanded, he was second only to God.

Down to this day, the gurukkal performs the initiation rituals by lighting the lamp, offering flowers on the pothua and chanting mantras: Oh God! Save us together/Nurture us together /Bless us to work courageously/ Protect our bond against our enemy.

Right at the initiation, the acolyte is informed that kalarippayat is more than the rippling of muscles, the speed of reaction, the endurance of pain. It is equally about quite the opposite—stillness and the ability to hold on to stasis, the art of doctoring, the sublimation of feeling, humility before a fallen enemy, doctoring in both healing enemies as about disabling them.

Every day, before and after practice, students gallop through a series of symbolic rituals to acquire the fabled discipline and pinpoint concentration of the perfect warrior. Says C.V.Govindankutty, Gurukkal of Thiruvananthapuram: "There are no free lurches. And because the practicing of every little clause in the kalarippayat system is a formidable exercise designed as much to root out those with questionable dedication as it is to strengthen those whose dedication is unquestionable, the tutelage is tailored according to the individual capability of each student."

Essentially a step beyond the system of total warfare—which believes in nothing less than total annihilation—kalarippayat is supposed to end in the suspended animation of total bliss, an end that is the transcendental motivation of, among other creatures, yogis, sanyasins, all manner of priests and laity. Some of its death and disability, and peak physical fitness at all times, even when asleep. What makes kalarippayat stand out alone is the single cardinal law except when under pain of death: even when facing the worst of enemies, combatants must strictly adhere to the pledge to defend themselves and those under their protection without harming any creature, to fight only to defend themselves, and to escape to live another day—perhaps to fight another day—rather than attack suicidally, motivated by some misbegotten notion of martial honour that plagues the male of the species." It is basically a system that gives importance to non-violence and strives for peace and security of the people." Says Muraleedharan Gurukkal of Kottayam.

Anything in Hinduism that smacks even remotely of divine intent and occasional intervention has to choose between the numbers 3 and 7. Kalarippayat chose 3—beginning with its division into three distinct parts: Meithari, Kothari and Ankathari.

Martial ArtsMeithari (the physique):
The initiating procedure is designed to enhance the meippayat (physical fitness) of students. Preparation entails wearing the kaccha (loincloth), smearing the body with oil, and prostration before the gurukkal and the complex pantheon of deities he arbitrates on behalf of. It highlights the Vedantic philosophy of surrendering abjectly to the Supreme Being. Says Govindankutty Gurukkal: "Our body, mind and spirit are the gift of God. Every movement in this world is planned and performed by Him alone. Kalari teaches the students to grasp life's contents, using them to attain strength and tranquility of mind and body. They work together."

To prepare the body for a punishing routine, students learn leg stretching movements that lead to proper balance and the stability of a sphere, basic body postures, the flea jumps (or flying leaps, if you will) so beloved of photographers and tourism PR personnel, and flexibility exercises that can stymie the most crooked of chiropractors. In its advanced stages, meithari helps to understand and control at will the balance and flow of energy in the body.

Kothari (weapons of wood):
This is where the student is introduced to the first of his prostheses in battle: wooden weapons like the kettukari (the long 12-span staff), cheruvadi (three-span staff) and ottakkol (a curved wooden weapon). The ottakkol serves as a training instrument for perfecting the coordination of the intricate movements of spine and feet, and is also a stepping stone to learning the proper execution of kalarippayat's advanced fighting techniques, some that can permanently disable or kill a man with the jab of a finger.

The first lesson the use of these weapons teaches the student is that anything can be used as an extension of the body, making it a potent fly-by-wire instrument of control.

Ankathari (metal weapons combat):
The final stage begins with mastery of the kattaram (short dagger) used for close combat. Ankathari ranges from very artistically crafted, almost choreographic, sequences of mutual respectful salutations between the combatants to the hyper kinetic movements of puliyankam, the greased lightning leopard fight where the bones seem to melt away.

Says Muraleedharan Gurukkal: "Combatants start fighting only after mutual consent. It is a convention of giving respect to the enemy as a person and to the payat for the purpose. It reflects the patience and steadiness in the character of combatants, attained after long years of practice."

Research has revived some of them (but more priceless weaponry is said to have been lost than recovered). The urumi (a paper-thin flexible sword), mace and spear are weapons that demand niggling training because they can easily turn back upon the unversed user. As for gum: it is said—and no master will either refute or verify it—that broken weapons are joined with vajralepavidhi (a special paste made of precious stones), which lasts for more than 1,000 years.

What is less obvious is the joinery between tradition and modernity in kalarippayat. A kalari school is a living anachronism, a piece of the past caught in a time warp. In the 60s, a couple of kalarippayat schools did try to tie in with the short-diploma mayhem of modern tutelage, with unfortunate consequences. Suryaprakash, who has been a kalari student for 12 years now, likens this futile go at adapting to changed circumstances to "dancing the Bharatnatyam to the beat of disco music."

But Ramachandra Gurukkal is firm about the virtues of being shackled to tradition: "I am practicing and teaching my students in precisely the manner my own gurukkal had taught me. My responsibility—which I feel I am fulfilling —is to sustain it for our next generation without any modification or revision."

This sounds simple but it isn't. Compounding the problems inherent in bridging a time gap, kalarippayat is being taught in what is scientifically called a "biosphere", a hot house shut away from the rest of the world but for experimental purposes. Intrinsic to the threat of kalarippayat is a sublime moral and existential agenda from a tradition that died in the vast world outside long ago.

Today's kalari students are as canny and "with it" as MBA students-both plan their lives in the cold light of reason. The difference between the two is not that their battlefields are different—for the former, the arena of the spirit, for the latter the marshland of finance. The lesson that today's kalari students aim to learn is almost entirely metaphysical a thing made of the phantom values of war like chivalry and compassion (unless they plan to use it to disable urban muggers, which would be an utter waste of precious and backbreaking tutelage).

Says Kavalam: "In theater, it's not only dialogues that are important, it's action as well, action latent in the script. If you let it, kalari will first show you then teach you the body language of metaphysics." Combatants can use the power of mind and body to either communicate or annihilate. Kalarippayat gives you that choice, and then makes it clear that only one option has the gurukkal's blessings - communicate.

Kalari also opens the door to a lifelong, fulfilling chat with the demon who knows you best: yourself. This cosy tête-à-tête is said to be the moving force behind some of Kerala's famous art forms like the ritualistic Theyyam and Padayani, and more sophisticated dance and drama forms like Koodiyattom and Kathakali.

Sateesh Nagpal, a theater artiste, says: "A sense of déjà vu is what I had when I joined kalari. When I was a toddler, my parents took me through the initial stages of walking by holding my hand, often correcting me and steering me away from obstacles. But I was disobedient and stubborn. I think I lost my basic character then. But now, being with the gurukkal and through his training, my life has changed. It has become more disciplined and systematic."

Jamon, as senior student says: "I had a very careless, rude and stubborn character in my childhood, But after joining Kalari under the surveillance of Muraleedharan Gurukkal my self-confidence, patience and humility have increased tremendously. More than that, I remained healthy throughout my training."

But perhaps the USP of kalarippayat is the uzhichil (massage) with specially prepared medicated oil. The gurukkal, or a skilled masseur, use hands and feet (with the latter suspended by rope) in varied degrees of force and weight till the body is literally squeezed and pummeled into amazing flexibility and suppleness. The background strain to all this wrestling, as it were, of the Saptadhabhu (the seven tissues of the human body: plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, bone marrow and semen) is the song of the charkas, the primum mobile of all yoga. In conjunction is the stimulation of the nadisoothra (ayurvedic acupressure), the marmam (the body's vital parts), pressure points of the sole (foot reflexology) and the known five human senses.

Kalari massage is also trifurcated. Sukha thirummu (massaging for overhauling the body and for rejuvenation) is the hands-down favorite, but stress is also laid on Kacha thirummu (for physical endurance) and Reksha thirummu (for holistic healing). Administered to a fit anatomy, the full course of kalari massage makes it as pliable as pure copper, allowing it to virtually slither from one contortion to another—the animal mimickry, from snake to elephant to cock-of-the walk, that personify kalarippayat.

After you rub your enemy's nose into the hallowed earth, the afterthought of compassion that lies at the heart of kalarippayat makes it incumbent upon you to repair the considerable damage. The system of post-trauma treatment is called kalari marma chikitsa treatment through vital nerve endings. Prototypal of ayurveda, this system enabled sages and yogis of ancient India to heal by poking and prodding the centers through which the pranavayu (life force) passes into the human body. According to ancient Sanskrit treatises on medical treatment, and their postmodern Tamil descendants, there are 108 "vital points" in the human body, of which kalari is interested in 64.

Says Muraleedhran Gurukkal: "The nerve centers are so sensitive that any hit or even jab on the spot will usually kill and almost certainly permanently disable the entire body."

In peacetime, like traditional ayurveds, the kalari gurukkal painstakingly attends to each patient. Gurukkals are capable of diagnosing problems using nadi vigyan, diagnosis by feeling the pulse.

Comparing kalari marma chikitsa to the largely invasive modern medical system, Govindankutty Gurukkal says," Our body organs gravitate towards the natural spirit of Mother Nature. This is the one convincing reason why any disorder or deformity ought to have natural treatment."

In treatises it is mentioned that after long years of kalari treatment, the skin attains the sense of sight. In fact, an old maxim in Malayalam, the language of the South Indian state of Kerala, says that the final excellence in swordplay can only happen when the whole body becomes the eye.

Now, in France, naturologist Jule Romain claims to be able to develop our sensory cells son the epidermis itself. The secret, he says, in relentless practice. What the skin sees may not be what the eye sees, or at least how the eye sees: but—as laboratory tests involving the blind have shown—if the tips of or fingers can be trained to "see" colors by measuring the heat each color emanates, there is no reason why the epidermis can't.

At the end of it all, this is what kalarippayat is all about—mind over matter, soul over mind, demigodhood over soul. Life over death. And somewhere along the way, the power to convert the spasm of a finger into a hellish hurricane.

Life Positive, July 1997