By Bindu Suraj July 1997 Kerala’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. MOVING TOWARDS STILLNESS 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. A SINGLE FORCE OF THREEAnything 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. Meithari (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
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