The history and practise of the Indian martial art Kalarippayattu

Dawn. Outside, a cool “half-light” heralds the ritual of prayer, as temple bells wake a sleeping village. Inside, however, the flickers of light from a solitary oil lamp light up red earthen walls and the mud-packed floor under an ageing thatched roof — mute witnesses to the ritual of combat.

Surrounded by the silent aura of warm red earth, two glistening, oil-soaked bodies come forward slowly, like leopards about to attack. Bare, but for a tightly wrapped loin-cloth, their lithe bodies ripple like a coiled serpent waiting to unleash its power. As the two coils of energy meet in the centre of the room, they crouch down to give a low salute, slow and dance-like in its elegance, breathtaking in its beauty. With a gentle touching of arms, they return to their crouch; feet set firmly on the ground, thighs forming a rock-stable square with the earth, and hands clenched tight and drawn up together under the chin. As their arms circle their heads, one “sees” the centring of energy, the coiling of the serpent, as it were. The movement complete, the “serpent” stands coiled and ready, waiting to spring forward and unleash its deadly power.

With a sudden, lightning-quick leap into the air, the two “uncoil” and meet high above the earthen floor. Back on earth, they recover quickly and take up defensive positions, and begin the next round of attack and defence.

Drawing circles of unleashed energy on the earthen floor, the two bodies appear to explore space in all dimensions, leaping high or, with a single stride, covering the breadth of the room. When the clash comes to an end, a moment of silence, and then the salute again. Low and respectful; a return to the coil, perhaps.

THE CRUX of any martial art is an understanding of the mathematics of the human body. In India, this understanding would necessarily be coupled with an understanding of the human mind, as well as spiritual practises meant to bring about substantial attitudinal changes in the temperament of the martial arts practitioner.

The clearest example of such a holistic approach to a science of the body can be seen in Kalarippayattu, a martial art form that finds its home in Kerala, the lush coastal state in southern India.

The mother of martial arts
Kalarippayattu, it is also called Kalari for short, draws its lineage from Vedic texts that date as far back as 1000 to 1,500 BC, (although specific recorded references, in the form of palm leaf manuscripts and Buddhist texts only go back approximately 400 years). A combination of the words kalari (or arena) and payattu (or military training), Kalarippayattu literally means martial training that takes place in an arena or gymnasium. It finds mention in the Dhanurveda, the ancient Indian treatise on science, as well as the Ayurveda, the treatise on medicine. It is said to have travelled to the Far East through travelling Buddhist monks (Bodhi Dharma of Kancheepuram) who first brought Buddhism to China in the 6th century AD. There, the monks of the Shaolin temple used its principles to develop kung-fu and derive other intricate attack-defence systems which later even flowered into high philosophy under the overarching influence of dhyana or Zen Buddhism.

In India, from a once closed and secret form, which passed from guru to shishya through an osmotic and contact process, with little documentation or text except the body itself, Kalarippayattu is today poised to step out of its confines and, in a typically paradoxical way, prove how modern some traditions are. Reviving a centuries-old interaction that has contributed significantly to the kinetic structure of almost all traditional dance and theatre forms of Kerala (like Kathakali, Krishnattam, Margamkali etc), the last two decades has seen Kalarippayattu influence the work of a host of contemporary dance and theatre artistes from both India and abroad: be it Peter Brook’s cinematic and theatrical rendering of the epic Mahabharata; to dancer-choreographer Chandralekha’s contemporary explorations in the language of the body; to the dramatic interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s writings by theatreperson Veenapani Chawla, who harnessed that fundamental ingredient to this technique of fighting: the deliberate use of breath to gain strength, poise and power.More…

But to see, in all its purity and contextual space, what choreographer Chandralekha so appropriately calls, “the truth of the body”, one has to move away from impersonal performance spaces and the glare of stagelights. To the sanctum of Kalarippayattu – the kalari.

Inside a kalari
Kalari. A word that encompasses many meanings: an arena, a gymnasium, even the place where the presiding family deity resides. Despite its deceptively humble appearance, this earthen building is a “specially constructed sanctum,” says E.P. Vasudevan Gurukkal, a Kalari Asan, or guru, who runs the CVN Kalari Sangha in Kaduthuruthy, a small village near the coastal town of Kottayam. Like the construction of a temple, the construction of a kalari too must follow the precise specifications laid down in ancient Kalari palm-leaf manuscripts. Accordingly, the thick walls of a kalari enclose a space that is precisely 42 feet long, 21 feet wide, and 21 feet high. The mud-beaten floor is first dug to a depth of three feet and then well-consolidated into a level surface.

The entrance to the kalari is located on the eastern wall, and within the kalari, in the south-western corner is the poothara or the sacred altar to the Goddess Kali (the goddess of war and destruction); a smaller altar to Lord Ganesh (the god of benevolence and good fortune), and the gurutthara or the altar to the ancient Asans or masters of Kalarippayattu. Placed alongside, and reverentially touched by all the students, are the ancient weapons that form the armoury of a Kalari warrior.

The kalari is, quite literally, a temple to the spiritual and physical well-being of the body. Hence, as in a temple, so in the kalari; students and visitors leave their footwear outside. As they step into the inner sanctum of the kalari, their right foot crosses the threshold first while their right hand touches the floor of the kalari and then their heart. This mark of reverence over, they head towards the poothara to offer their salutations to the gods and goddess, the ancient masters and the Kalari weapons. “The ritual of prayer must accompany the ritual of combat,” explains Vasudevan Gurukkal. “The daily prayers and practice of the students are the vibrations of the Kalari. So, just as the students are considered to be the soul of the Kalari, a Kalari without students is said to be lifeless.” Therefore, the student must worship them all: the goddess, the spiritual guide and the weapons that will equip him with the deadly art of Kalarippayattu. And to temper the power that lies within the threshold of the kalari, the student must first offer a Sanskrit prayer that aptly reads: “I am nothing. The Supreme Power is Brahma. I have nothing against this world.”

Temples of excellence
Among the 500-odd kalari-s spread across Kerala, only a fraction can make any claim to excellence. Some of the best Kalari warriors are trained by the CVN kalari-s, founded in the mid-1950’s by students of CVN Narayanan Nair — the man who, in the early part of this century, scoured the Kerala landscape for the fast-disappearing breed of Kalari Gurukkal. Others, not quite so well-known, yet recognised for their excellence among Kalari gurukkals, are often tucked away in the small villages of northern Kerala, the area which was originally home to Kalarippayattu.

Hence, to see Kalari at its best, it is to these that one must head. There are three main CVN Kalari-s in Kerala: in Kozhikode, Kaduthuruthy and Thiruvananthapuram. The CVN Kalari in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram boasts a rather proud lineage: it is run by CVN Narayanan Nair’s son, Govindankutty Nair Gurukkal and his son Ravi. Besides training local Kalari students, it attracts a steady stream of dance and theatre artistes from India and abroad, and has trained, most prominently, the cast for Peter Brook’s Mahabharata.
The CVN Kalari Sangha in Kaduthuruthy, an hour’s drive from the coastal town of Kottayam too has hefty credentials. E.P. Vasudevan Gurukkal has been teaching Kalarippayattu here for the past four decades. And is the chief collaborator with his Kalari students in dancer-choreographer Chandralekha’s dance productions.

Hidden away in the northern districts of Badagara, in the village Vattoli, is Valappil Karunan Gurukkal’s kalari. Revered as a master from whom even seasoned practitioners aspire to learn, (Vasudevan Gurukkal’s own sons have spent time learning specific Kalari techniques from him), Valappil Karunan Gurukkal provides a rare glimpse of an aspect of Kalarippayattu that is often missing in other Kalari-s. It is here, in the form of his three daughters, that one sees the female Kalari warrior. Agile, highly trained, and just as deadly as their male counterparts, their astonishing skill is almost unreal in relation to their otherwise rather sheltered life. However, their expertise in this martial art is quite in keeping with Kalari’s history. For, traditionally, Kalarippayattu is not limited to men. The Vaddakan Pattukal, or the Northern Ballads, which narrate the heroics of ancient warrior clans of northern Kerala, describe, in great detail, the martial skills of Unniyarcha, the sister of the renowned kalari warrior Aromal Cevakar. Yet, today, one sees few women, except those connected with the performing arts, learning Kalarippayattu.

But first to Vasudevan Gurukkal’s kalari in Kaduthuruthy. Situated an hour’s drive from the coastal town of Kottayam, amidst lush rubber plantations, banana groves and coconut trees, the kalari has trained Kalari students of exceptional calibre. Many of them have moved on to start kalari-s of their own, while others have moved into the area of experimental dance and theatre.
Situated at the foot of the village temple, adjacent to the temple pond, the kalari as well as the Gurukkal himself, are inextricable presences in the closely-knit fabric of village life. In the village, the Gurukkal is the teacher, the master, the guide; who can be relied upon to help in times of need, be it physical, spiritual, or medical. Every villager knows what Kalarippayattu is, knows where the kalari is located, where the Gurukkal lives, even where he would be at any particular moment. For, in the village the Gurukkal is like an elder in the family, to be respected and consulted at all times. And the kalari: a shrine to the spiritual and physical health of the village.

The ritual of combat
Inside the kalari, combat begins only after donning the traditional Kalari training gear — a 21 feet long kachcha, or loin cloth. Tightly wound around the Kalari student’s body, it not only protects him against external injuries from kicks and attacking weapons but also from spinal injuries caused by sudden movements. Following this, the student rubs his entire body over with medicinal oil specially prepared by the Gurukkal. That done, he is ready to enter the training area, to begin the day’s exercises.

One of the key elements of Kalarippayattu taught at CVN kalari-s is the emphasis on the use of breath to gain control over the body. At Vasudevan Gurukkal’s kalari, the student first settles down into the yogic posture of pranayam and through slow, rhythmic deep breathing centres his energy. Even the exercises, moving from the lightest to the most demanding, are punctuated by short breathing sessions to maintain physical conditioning.

As the Gurukkal’s terse, verbal commands — called Suvadus — resound like a metronome in the kalari, the younger students, some only seven or eight years old, work their way through the intricate movements or Vadivu of Kalarippayattu. (Kalarippayattu itself has no accompanying instruments to punctuate its movements; rather, the verbal commands are moulded into a special rhythm). Eight static postures, or Vadivu, form the basic alphabet of Kalarippayattu. They draw their inspiration from nature, namely, the postures of animals like the elephant, lion, horse, peacock, snake, cock, fish and boar the basic alphabet for Kalarippayattu. And it is these postures, in varying permutations of offence and defence, that combine to make the Kalari warrior the vessel for a power so controlled and contained that in its release one sees the swiftness of a snake and the kinetic force of a tightly wound spring.

The same pattern is followed for training in armed combat. Each movement has a name, a code and is almost always, an extension of the Vadivu. One retreats like a snake, comes forward to attack like a horse, protects oneself like a boar and balances intricately like the peacock. Even though weapons are in hand, Kalari’s basic vocabulary dominates. Whether it is slowed down to a ritualistic dance, saluting the presiding deity, or a lightning quick attack aimed at slicing the opponent’s skull in half. The fundamentals of Kalari remain the same: combat must follow a code, and within the kalari, the object must never be to defeat one’s opponent. For, sparring with another student is just a means of honing one’s skills and working one’s way up the ladder to perfection, a quality that is regarded as absolute and is a goal in itself.

Liberating the seed of power
Kalari training is relentless, as is the attention to the spiritual development of the student. The lengthy rituals that precede combat — of prostrating before the deity, saying prayers, and seeking the blessings of the Gurukkal – are aimed at banishing all thoughts of bulky biceps from eager, aspiring Bruce Lee’s. For, at the heart of Kalarippayattu lies the belief that a Kalari practitioner must attain physical, spiritual and mental discipline to connect with the seed of power that lies at the centre of all human beings. Noted scholar and writer Kavalam Narayana Panniker, explains why this belief finds resonance in practically all traditional practices, both religious and secular, in Kerala. In Folklore of Kerala, he writes:
“The Malayali tends to give philosophic stress to his age-old beliefs. He holds the serpent as a symbol of infinite power lying coiled and hidden within him, an embryonic force that, if properly searched out and liberated, could bring out his true capabilities. The serpent, more than anything else, constitutes the human power that resides at the lowest point in the spinal column called the “muladhara”. It lies in a coiled form, the “kundalinishakti” the life-force lying latent in man, ready to be awakened by the concentration of one’s mind and inner faculties and pass upward through different nerve centres to keep the body and mind fit as an effective instrument. In the Kalari system of Kerala, this concept of awakening of “kundalini”, or the serpent power, is zealously maintained. The exercises taught in the Kalari right from the basic stance of the practitioner are all designed to give strength to the lowest point in the vertebral column.’’

Breaking in the warrior
To transform an ordinary, static body into a dynamic vessel of energy is no mean process. The first step is to “break in” the body, slowly, carefully, assiduously. Using Uzhichil or the Kalari massage. The massage is unique, in that unlike the parallel Indian medical system of Ayurveda, the herbal oils are rubbed into the body, not with the palm of the hand but with the soles of the feet. To do this, the Gurukkal holds onto a rope suspended from the roof of the Kalari, and, using it as a lever to control the pressure of his foot, systematically rubs the oil over the entire body of the student with his foot.

Again, Kalari’s underlying obsession with balance comes to the fore. For every stroke downwards, there is a stroke upward. If the Gurukkal massages the left side of the body twice, he balances it out with a similar massage for the right side of the body. Dextrously shaping his foot to apply varying degrees of pressure at the various nadi-s or pressure points, the Gurukkal administers what could well be Kalari’s version of acupuncture.

It takes 21 days of rigorous massage to prepare the student’s body for the calisthenics of Kalarippayattu. After the massage and a prescribed rest (called Nallirikka) of two weeks, the student is ready to begin his training.

Kalarippayattu classes coincide with the coolest months of the year, to offset the tremendous body heat generated during the days of Kalari massage. Although traditionally classes commence with the onset of the monsoon, on the first day of Karkitakam (July), which is the last month of the Malayalam year, and close by the end of the month, today, most kalari-s extend their classes into the winter months as well. Daily classes, one at dawn and the other at sundown, continue through the monsoon and winter months, the only time when the air is tolerably cool in this tropical state.

Training the warrior
The study of Kalarippayattu begins with a basic training in mobility and unarmed combat, otherwise known as Meithari. This is followed by a six-month training period in Kolthari, or the use of three basic wooden weapons, the outta or the elephant’s tusk (replaced, in these environmentally sensitive times, to a curved piece of wood), the muchann or a small straight stick and the kettukari or the long stick. What follows, only for a select few students, is the deadly Angathari or training in metal or bladed weapons: the dagger, the spear, the sword and shield and, the most deadly of all, the urumi or the coiled bladed sword which uncoils like a snake to slice through the opponent.

While the basics of Kalari training remain largely the same in all kalari-s, each Gurukkul evolves a distinct style. So, while the Kalari taught by Vasudevan Gurukkal has a more martial feel to it, the Kalari taught at the CVN Kalari Sangha in Thiruvananthapuram is almost dance-like. For here, the movements are more stylised, more controlled. The menacing advance of the outta becomes a slow, wave-like motion that advances with the advance of the warrior. The weapon becomes an extension of the body. Yet, in no way does the aesthetic emphasis of the movement undermine its lethal content.

The most secret element of Kalari training is Verumkai. The learning of this deadly skills comprises one year’s study of the vital nerve centres in the human body combined with training in unarmed striking, locking, gripping, throwing and kicking. Although Verumkai involves no use of weapons, one demonstration by Vasudevan Gurukkal is convincing enough to prove that by firmly pressing at a specific point in one’s arm, the Gurukkal can quite effectively render his opponent helpless.

The healing touch
The culmination of training in Kalarippayattu — which is open only to one or two students every year, especially those whom the Gurukkal feels have it in them to go on to become gurukkal themselves — lies in Marma Chikitsa or the art of healing. It is in this that Kalarippayattu’s essence — of balance — is most evident. In order to learn how to injure and even kill, the true Kalari warrior must also learn to heal. Hence, all Kalari gurukkals are practising physicians tending not just to the injuries of their students but extending their knowledge in traditional medicine, consisting largely of oral herbal medicines and herbal oil massages (the Uzhichil), to all who come to them. So, while inside their kalari, a gurukkal may use Marma-adi (or knowledge of the body’s vital points) to temporarily disable a Kalari practitioner; outside, in the medical chamber, he may use the same knowledge to cure paralysis or a nerve disorder. For, to learn the “truth of the body”, the power of injuring must go hand in hand with the power of healing. Offence must go hand in hand with defence. For every move forward there is a move backward. Balance is of the utmost consequence, in the body, in the mind, and most certainly in the environment.

Kalarippayattu’s financial backbone
Training in Kalari medicine, especially Uzhichil, is also important in other, somewhat more pragmatic, ways. In the absence of the earlier system of royal patronage, it is this that keeps the kalari a financially viable proposition for the Gurukkal and his family. For one bare fact is common to nearly all the hundreds of kalari-s strewn across of Kerala: Kalari classes don’t pay. Take for instance, the kalari in Kaduthuruthy. It is frequented by students, many of whom are day labourers, taking time out to learn the martial art, before going to work and after coming back. Others are students, for whom the daily visit to the Kalari is a welcome break from their academic pursuits. Very few of either category find themselves in a position to pay the Gurukkal. Yet, tradition dictates that no Gurukkal should turn away an aspiring student for lack of money.

Similar is the case with the CVN Kalari Sangha in Thiruvananthapuram. Despite being one of the most prominent, and affluent, kalari-s in Kerala, it is not Kalari classes that make this kalari financially viable. Fees for learning kalari are very low [Rs 30 (or $1) for children and Rs 50 to Rs 75 ($1.5 to $2) for adults per month]. More often than not, deserving students compensate by spending time teaching younger students instead. The few who do pay are largely urban enthusiasts or performing artistes from both India and abroad, on a sabbatical to explore the dynamics of their body.

The financial strength of the kalari lies, then, not in the Kalari classes, but in its medical wing, consisting largely of treatment for orthopaedic injuries and, of course, the most lucrative aspect, the Uzhichil, or the Kalari massage. Local residents suffering from back or muscle ailments, tourists interested in a bit of limbering up and curious visitors, all line up for this ancient panacea. In urban, accessible kalari-s like the one in Thiruvananthapuram (a stone’s throw from the city’s bus station), the rush is so severe that it calls for a division of labour. So, the elderly Govindankutty Gurukkal handles the massages while his son Ravi conducts the Kalari classes.

Kalarippayattu: a beacon of balance or an anomaly in today’s world?
Despite the fact that Kalarippayattu has been around in Kerala for the last so many centuries, and has been recognised, even by Japanese and Chinese martial arts practitioners, as the “mother of all martial arts”, it has little presence in the rest of India. Ironically, martial arts from the Far East like judo, karate, kung-fu and taekwondo are taught in practically every small town and city in India. A large number of schools and colleges offer these as part of their physical education programme and the influx of western martial art-based films has sent many a youngster to the nearest karate instructor.

Kalarippayattu, on the other hand, has remained restricted to its largely rural milieu, with its recent publicity being due only to its forays into the areas of contemporary dance and theatre. Besides, there is the limitation of language. Very few Kalari Gurukkals are fluent in any other language other than Malayalam; and nearly all would never consider leaving their village, leave alone Kerala, to set up kalari-s in other parts of India. Training too, is long and arduous. Most seasoned practitioners of Kalarippayattu spend approximately 10 to 12 years training in a particular Kalari before they may even hope to be regarded as masters in their own right. And even then, it is the Gurukkal’s discretion to award the title of “master” on any of his students. For, physical expertise is not the only parameter for judging the level of achievement of a Kalari warrior. Only if spiritually he has attained the level thought fit by the master, does the student make the grade.

What place then, can Kalarippayattu occupy in the life of the average, urban, Indian? Ravi, who teaches at the CVN Kalari Sangha in Thiruvananthapuram, strongly believes that training in Kalari can become part of a person’s daily routine, an exercise regimen in the morning followed by regular work or studies during the rest of the day.

Valappil Karunan Gurukkal who teaches the northern style of Kalarippayattu in the small village of Vattoli in northern Kerala, sees a future for Kalari in the performing arts: cinema, theatre, dance, even the circus. However, Ravi is apprehensive of this shift in perspective. “By becoming a performing art, Kalarippayattu is slowly being diluted. The very nature of the martial art is being changed. The real emphasis of Kalarippayattu — on the holistic development of the body, mind and soul — will be lost in the process,” he says. He points out instances where Kalari students, with just the basic training, pick up weapons and perform on every available platform: in fairs and temple court yards, forums that cater to a floating audience, that deny the context that Kalarippayattu springs from.

Ravi also blames some contemporary dance choreographers for what he calls the “degradation” of Kalarippayattu. “Rather than learn Kalarippayattu in a kalari and then choreograph movements from their understanding of Kalari, many dancers just pick up some Vadivu (movements) and intersperse it in their performance. This is just a patchy “use” of Kalari. Kalari must transform your dominant vocabulary, be it theatre or dance, and not replace it,” asserts Ravi.

Antiquated though it may seem, Kalarippayattu’s approach to learning could well be one of the keys to its continued relevance in modern-day India. Within the traditional system of education (the guru-shishya parampara) in India, which is reflected in the teaching of Kalari as well, comparison holds little importance. A student’s achievement is measured not by his grade or whether he or she is first in class, but by measuring the distance he has travelled — individually — in his search for knowledge. In contrast, education in modern India, ardently aping the Western role model of classes, grades, ranks, and numbers, puts undue emphasis on comparison.

It is here that the fragmentation of the Indian mind is taking place. As a traditionally holistic world-view yields to this Western compartmentalisation, the ability to make connections, so crucial in an era of rapidly crumbling structures also gives way. The violence that invades our minds through the media and the very real violence that is shaping our lives appear as disparate entities. Spirituality, earlier so pervasive in every sphere of living, suddenly seems to be the arena of religious bigots. A concern for the environment seems more appropriate for placard-raising environmentalists. Healing is perceived as the domain of doctors, and war, the exclusive preserve of soldiers.

Perhaps, Kalarippayattu’s relevance lies in reminding us of the importance of viewing life as just one strand among many, woven intricately and inseparably, into the larger fabric of the cosmos. Where peace within must inevitably go hand in hand with a larger peace without; where strength is more than just a physical attribute, seemingly necessary as a mode of defence. Rather it is part of an exercise to build the mind…where, ultimately, the arrogance of attack must go hand in hand with the humility of healing.

– Arti Jaiman

First published on November 27, 1997
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