Monday 9 May 2022

My Experience with Kalaripayattu

The Kalaripayattu altar

Having taken a keen interest in learning martial arts since 2016, after beating up a molester (who had groped another girl), I was fascinated by the different forms of martial arts around the world. I tried my hand in kickboxing, Kyokushin Karate (which I learned till I got my green belt) and Krav Maga (Israeli self-defense). And then I read up about Kalaripayattu, which is considered the most ancient form of martial arts, originating in none other than my own country, India. After contacting several ashrams that teach Kalari(short form and easier on the tongue), I zeroed in on Hindustan Kalari Sangam in Calicut.   There were no reviews of any Kalari ashrams on the net, so I just went ahead with one of the few ashrams that responded to my query.

You may also want to read my post on Kalarichikitsa

Manappully Bhagavathy temple

Since I was traveling to Kerala, I visited my Kuladevi in Manappully Kavu in Palakkad and then proceeded to Calicut. I reached Calicut by train from Palakkad. A Rs 50 ride in an autorickshaw took me from the railway station to Hindustan Kalari Sangam. I was greeted by Dr. Krishnan Lal who is the wife of Radhika Gurukkal (the daughter of the founder of Hindustan Kalari Sangam) and taken to my room.


Accommodation at Hindustan Kalari Sangam 

The premises of the HKS (Hindustan Kalari Sangam) comprises a building with rooms for students  of Kalari and patients for Kalari Chikitsa, the house where the family that runs the ashram lives, the Kalari, where the art is practiced and another single storied structure where Dr. Lal and his assistants see and treat patients.


Dr. Krishnan Lal treating patients

Hindustan Kalari Sangam, is an ancestral Kalarippayattu training center and Ayurvedic healing centre established during the year of 1950, under the patronage of Guru Veerasree Sami Gurukkal. Currently, it is run by his children Lakshmanan Gurukkal and Radhika Gurukkal.

Kalaripayattu is a combination of two words, ‘kalari’ which means the space where the training is conducted and ‘payattu’ which means action involving performance or combat. Kalaripayattu as practiced in its current form can be traced back to the 18th century by the verbal commands used in language during that period. But there has been evidence of Kalaris from the 12th century. There were numerous provinces in Kerala during that time and each province had its own army trained in Kalaripayattu. There were no caste restrictions in Kalari and literature from earlier periods refers to people from all backgrounds practicing the art form. 

The British had banned Kalaripayattu for around 300 years because they saw how fearless the Kalaripayattu practitioners were. But a few masters kept the art alive by practicing in secrecy and passing the knowledge to the next generation. And after Independence thanks to those brave masters there was again a slow albeit sure revival of Kalaripayattu.


Kalari, where the art is practiced


Kalari resembles a Kerala temple and it is in a way!

The Kalari (the place where Kalaripayattu is practiced) looks like a typical Kerala style temple and is constructed as per Vastu Shastra and tantric traditions of Kalari. Inside, the floor is 7 feet below ground level and is dark like the garba gruha (sanctum sanctorum) of a temple. The area of the Kalari is 42 feet in length and 21 feet in width and can be made smaller or bigger in the same ratio. The Kalari is constructed to stand in the east-west direction with the entrance facing east. The floor is just the mud leveled up. Once a year the mud is dug up and freshly patted down. The dark interiors serve to aid focus and a meditative state during the practice of Kalari because the aim of Kalaripayattu is not brilliance in martial arts but rather lead the disciple on the path of 'moksha' or liberation.

You may like to read my blog post on 'The Nomadic Shepherd's Trail'

Action inside the Kalari

The presiding deity of Kalaripayattu is Khaloorika Devi and she is represented by a 7-step platform, symbolizing the 7 chakras. This sacred structure is placed in the south-west direction of the Kalari and is worshiped everyday. This corner is called Poothara and every practice session begins and ends with a salutation in the direction of the Poothara which translates to ‘platform of flowers’. The other divine spaces in Kalari are Ganapathi thara (a platform for Sri Ganesha),Naga thara (a platform for a snake god) Guruthara (a platform for the late teachers), Bhadrakali thara (a platform for Bhadrakali), etc.


The main altar of Khaloorika devi and the late teachers

Weapons on display which are used by senior students

The long steel sword is the Urumi

Short and long swords

Ganapathy and Naga Thara

The minimum age to start Kalari practice is 7 years, although I saw some children who looked younger than that, attend class. The initiation usually happens on an auspicious day like Vijayadashami. I myself got to experience a glimpse of the ancient ritual on the 1st day of my class. On the first day, I was asked to step into the Kalari area with my right foot first as we do for auspicious occasions and then touch the Kalari floor in reverence. Then I was led to the main altar of Khaloorika Devi and then the oil from the altar lamp was applied to my head and arms as a mark of initiation. I then had to offer Guru dakshina wrapped in a betel leaf to the teacher who is referred to as Gurukkal and then touch his feet. The kalari area where the art is practised is considered the sanctum sanctorum or 'garba gruha' as in a temple and the Kalari practitioner is the priest or the devotee who offers himself to the higher power through the Kalari practice. The Kalari sessions start with an elaborate salutation to Khaloorika devi and every time we step in or out of the Kalari area we touch the floor with reverence.

Another thing I will never forget is my first few minutes of the first day of class. I was the first woman to enter the Kalari area and there were other students, boys and men, with nothing but a loin cloth for modesty, vigorously applying oil on the bodies. I was a bit embarrassed and didn’t know where to look. Soon after, the other women students came along and I was relieved and also got used to the sight the remaining days. Students apply a herbal oil all over their body before practice, although I did not do that. The oil stimulates the 'vata' energy according to Ayurveda which is beneficial to the Kalari practitioner.


There were some guests for the Kalari performance so I got to watch too.

There are different stages of training in Kalaripayattu.

First is Meipayattu which translates to training the body.  Students are trained in unique body movements  which work the spine and the development of grip and postures of the body. Kalaripayattu includes a lot of animal movements and postures inspired from lion, cat, boar, snake, elephant, etc and due to this requires one to be in more of a horizontal posture during most of the practice. Which means your quads and hamstrings will be tested to the maximum. This horizontal posture is vital for the flow of energy through the chakras efficiently.

The second stage is Kolthari where the usage of various wooden weapons is initiated and practiced during this stage of learning. In Kalaripayattu the weapons are considered as extensions of the body, whereas the body itself is perceived as the prime weapon. Various wooden weapons used in the stage of Kolthari are, Kettukari (Long stick), Cheru vati (Short stick), Otta (Curved Stick) Gada (Mace).


Salutations before starting.

Ankathari is the next and important stage in the training sequence as heavy metal weapons are used. The term Ankam means a combat or a war. The metal weapons used in this stage are the same weapons that were used in war in the earlier times.  It is considered to be the longest and most important training stage among the four. This stage requires strength, agility and precision in rendering the practice and delivering the combat. The main weapons are Vaal (Sword), Paricha (Shield), Kuntham (Spear), Kattaram (Dagger), Urumi (Flexible sword). I had the opportunity to see Radhika Gurukkal and Sajith Gurukkal do a sparring session with Urumi. The Urumi is unique to Kalaripayattu. It is a steel, double edged flexible whip and sword and is about 6 feet in length. It is tied to the fighter’s waist as a belt and is removed when it has to be put to use. Because it’s a whip, wielding it with precision takes years of practice. The two people sparring leaped almost 4 feet up in the air (almost an act of levitation) wielding the Urumi which created sparks and sound as the blades struck against each other. Their movements were so graceful, yet so precise and strong.


Girls using wooden sticks.

The last stage in the Kalari training is Verum Kai which means bare handed. Unlike other forms of martial arts like Karate or Taekwondo, where the training starts with bare hands and then progresses to weapons such as nunchaku or sticks, in Kalari, bare handed combat is reserved only after one has mastered weapons. The Verum Kai techniques are practiced along with the knowledge of Marma Saariram, the knowledge about the vital points of the body. It is considered that there are 108/109 vital points in the body where the life energy is concentrated. Striking some vital points can be fatal whereas some points are struck for hurting, some to make the other unconscious during combat. This system of practice is the integral part of the fourth stage of Kalaripayattu training.


Lakshmanan Gurukkal 

There are considerable differences in the North Kerala and South Kerala traditions of Kalaripayattu. Hindustan Kalari Sangam practices the South Kerala style which focuses on Meipayattu more than the Northern style. Since Kalaripayattu is no longer required for combat these days, it has evolved into more of a performing arts. While I was there, there were people from the theater and dance background who had come to learn Kalari. So this ancient martial arts form has adapted to find a place in contemporary dance and theater too.

I was there for 8 days and there were classes morning and evening for 1.5 hours each. Although I enjoyed the classes a lot, the heat and the humidity got to me (ironically in the ‘winter’ month of December) and I had a nasty sore throat with the continuous sweating. Although I had plans to go back for the longer training, I won't because I have low tolerance for hot and humd weather.. However, if there is Kalaripayattu training in Pune, I would be most eager to enroll for a long term period. 

Fruit and vegetable seller near the ashram

Different varieties of bananas.

The accommodation is basic. There are fans and no AC. The dining is in the main house where the family lives and the food is simple and delicious, made in the local way. I ate a lot of bananas and sweet pineapples while I was there. I was amazed to see how the younger Gurukkals like Sajith who were Kalari instructors and also doubled up as Kalarichikitsa interns to Dr. Lal worked from morning to night, ate the same simple food and kept so lean and fit with not a shred of fat on their bodies. However, I noticed that there were some other instructors as well as students who were very flexible but did not fit the normal description of ‘fit’.

Lastly, on the last day of my stay there, I went for a traditional Kalari massage given by Radhika Gurukkal. After that I asked her about Kalaripayattu being the most ancient form of martial arts. She told me in a matter of fact manner that Kalaripayattu is a spiritual means of transcending the physical to attain liberation or 'Moksha' (as is the aim of any Indian art form). A true master of Kalaripayattu knows no fear and by his very aura will not attract any experience that will require him to use it as combat. How profound! It came as a revelation to me that martial arts is more for self- discipline and defending oneself becomes just an effortless by product of training ones' body and senses. 

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Kalari Chikitsa in Hindustan Kalari Sangam


Kalari at Hindustan Kalari Sangam

During my 8-day training in Kalaripayattu at Hindustan Kalari Sangam in Calicut, I had the opportunity to learn about Kalarichikitsa. Chikitsa means medicine and it is an important aspect of Kalaripayattu which deals with medicine and healing. Although Kalarichikitsa comes under the broader umbrella of Ayurveda, it is unique in its own way. Each Kalari ashram has its own unique and secret herbal recipe for various injuries and is not shared openly. The Kalari system is still very traditional in the sense that not all Kalaripayattu students are initiated into kalarichikitsa. It's only after the Kalaripayattu disciple after many years of Kalari practice has won the trust of the guru that he or she is initiated into chikitsa. Kalarichikitsa deals with different vital points of the body which are responsible for flow of energy. Even in Kalaripayattu, after many years of practice the disciple is taught the vital points or marmas. Different marmas when struck have a different effect. Striking some marma points can be fatal, some may render one unconscious, some may only cause pain, etc.

       You may want to read my post on my experience in Kalaripayattu

Sketch of the process of the herbal preparation

Kalari uzhichil or Kalari massage is a very important aspect of Kalaripayattu. The entire body is massaged with  a herbal oil in a very methodical way. The strokes involved in the massage, is practiced in the way of Akshara kettu and Akka kettu, which means the strokes of the massage is executed in the form of letters and numbers. The massage is executed by hand as well as by the feet. I went for a massage by Radhika Gurukkal and saw that she held on to a thick rope suspended from the ceiling and worked her feet up and down my body.   The massage helps to facilitate the healthy flow of  the Vata energy in the system, in-turn helps to promote healthy tissue conversion, waste disposal and harnessing of body-mind-soul coordination and integrity. Kalari massage is an effective way to treat various disorders of the body such as, inter-vertebral disc prolapses, cervical spondilitis, frozen shoulder, and many other disease conditions pertaining to musculoskeletal and neurological origins. 

Kalari doctor examining a boy's leg

Herbal paste preparation

I went to the room where the herbal medicine is prepared. The secret herbal paste is boiled with milk and mixed with arrow root powder and left to settle for the next day (this part I haven't sketched). Next is whenever a patient comes, one spoon of the herbal paste is mixed with an egg in a pestle. Meanwhile strips of cloth are torn and each strip is dunked into the egg and herbal paste and bandaged onto the affected area of the patient. Egg is used because it's a natural source of protein which aids in healing the skin. Depending on the injury, the length of the cloth, the pressure applied, the way it is tied varies. Patients came with diverse problems such as sprains, ligament tear, fractures, swelling and other musculoskeletal problems. Kalari Chikitsa is capable of healing any kind of bone fractures which are not in the category of surgical intervention such as, fractures of skull etc. The time taken to heal in Kalarichikitsa is drastically less than in conventional medicine. For example a fracture which would normally take around 4 to 6 months to heal in conventional medicine takes around a month to heal in kalarichikitsa. Amazing isn't it! There are different medicated oil preparations too, some oils are used for the head, some for the body and some for internal consumption. 

I think Kalari Chikitsa should be more widely propagated and practiced outside of Kerala too, for the benefit of everyone.

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