The phrase martial arts conjures up images of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan beating up the baddies into pulp. But how many of us are aware of Indian martial arts giants like Aromal Chekavar and Thacholi Othenan, who lived in Kerala centuries ago and mastered Kalarippayat, one of the greatest martial arts the world was ever to see? Kalarippayat evolved in Kerala, not only as as a fighting art, but also as a physical culture aimed at perfect psycho-physical integration. It has its roots in the Dhanur Veda, the available oldest text on warfare. Its origin is traced to the 4th century AD.Some of the texts on Asian martial arts point out that even Tai Chi Chuan, the Chinese system of martial arts, has been inspired by Kalari. It is believed that Bodhi Dharma, a South Indian prince who went to China to spread Buddhism, taught them the art.
Kalari was a centre for training in physical culture in ancient Kerala, usually situated near Devi temples. In all Kalaris, there were trained warriors and teachers coming togetherto fight enemies.
In order to destroy the martial arts prowess of the Keralites, the Britishers banished all Kalaris. Gradually, the importance of the Kalari was lost. But some practitioners, like Kottakal Kanaran Gurukkal, kept the tradition alive. It was Veerasri C V Narayanan Nair Gurukkal, his most important disciple, who was instrumental in the revival of the art.C V Narayanan Nair Gurukkal's disciples started CVN Memorial Kalaris in different parts of Kerala. Today, there are 142 such branches in Kerala. Kalarippayat is a combination of kalari, Malayalam for gymnasium and payat or the art of fighting. Self-discipline is the core of this training. If one practises systematically, one can fight for hours together, without tiring.According to K Narayanan Nair Gurukkal, the last disciple of C V Narayanan Nair Gurukkal and the main Kalari exponent in Palakkad district today, one who is trained in Kalari will be able to meet any situation in life with confidence and discrimination. Kalari increases physicalfitness, calm and concentration. The mind is still balanced when the person is fighting. Weapons are used to remove fear of weapons, not just to strike the enemy. Techniques are taught to face the enemy unarmed. Thus, Kalarippayat is more of self-defence rather than offence. ``The one who first takes a weapon is a coward,'' says Nair.
According to Sunil Kumar of the CVN Kalari Sangham, Kozhikode, the atmosphere in the Kalari is such that the practitioners automatically imbibe the qualities of truth, patience and surrender to presiding deity of the Kalari-in this case Lord Shiva and Shakthi, the goddess of power.
Besides mastery in Kalarippayat, the gurukkal (teacher) should be an expert in Ayurvedic marma treatment-the specialised system of treatment unique to the Lalari institution.
Marmas are vital points in the body. The therapy cures sprains, dislocated joints, fractures, back pains, rheumatic diseases, spondylosis, sciatica, lumbago, anxiety, depression, insomnia, obesity, arthritis andparalysis.According to K Narayanan Gurukkal, founder of the Kozhikode-based CVN Kalari, Nadakkavu, boys as well as girls are usually enrolled for training at the age of seven. There are four stages in a training programme: Meythari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai Prayogam.
Meythari consists of exercises to prepare the person to achieve maximum body-control and withstand arduous feats with weapons. In this, the student learns various leg-stretching exercises leading to proper balance, body posture, jumps and several sequences of body control exercises. The student's body is smeared with medicated oil and the guru massages it with his feet to make the body and muscles supple. Three forms of massage or ``Uzhichal'' are practised in Kalari. Sukha Thirummu (for physical comfort and relaxation), Raksha Thirummu (massage for diseases, in which specially prepared Ayurvedic herbal oils are used) and Katcha Thirummu (for flexibility of the body of the practitioners and those learning classical dance).
AfterMeythari, starts Kolthari. `Kol' means stick and hence the name. Here, training is given with long canes, short wooden sticks and specially designed wooden weapons and maces. Practice with a mace simultaneously enhances strength and tact. The third phase of training is called Ankathari. This prepares the disciple to defend and attack with fatal metallic weapons. The word Ankom means fight. In feudal Kerala, duels were fought in order to settle scores between warring parties. Ankathari was practised to prepare them for such battles. Training is given in dagger, sword and shield, spear fighting and wielding the Urumi, a flexible sword. The next stage of unarmed combat is called Verumkai Prayogam or bare-handed fight. Techniques like Kathiyum Thalayum (wherein attacks with a knife are defended with a cloth piece), are also taught at this stage.
In today's world, Kalari may not be used to fight duels, but it is still used to fight modern-day enemies like stress and fatigue. M Manoj Kumar, chief executive ofFeroke Tile Works, says training at a Kalari gave him self-confidence and the patience to deal with day-to-day situations.Affirms Shabi, a dealer in Escotel products in Kozhikode, ``Kalari has helped me maintain my mental composure and even saved my life. It was my abhyas that saved me when I had a motor accident,'' he says.
Many classical folk art forms of Kerala, especially Kathakali, came under the direct or indirect influence of Kalaripayyat. CVN Kalari, Nadakkavu, teaches many dancers from Western countries who are interested in Kalari training.
The CVN Kalari, Nadakkavu, Kozhikode, has been conducting classes in Kalarippayat since 1955. The three sons of K Narayanan Gurukkal, Anil Kumar, Sunil Kumar and Gopa kumar, are all trained Kalari teachers. Besides imparting all aspects of the training, treatment in specialised methods of Kalari is provided to the needy.
Those interested in Kalarippayat can contact: K Narayanan Gurukkal, CVN Kalari, Nadakkkavu, Kozhikode (Kerala)-673 011; Ph: 769 114,768 214.
Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.