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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Tuesday 23 June 2020

Garung Thunk- A Revolutionary NGO in Shergaon, Arunachal Pradesh

Members of the Garung Thuk- Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

It was sometime in the second half of 2018 that I read about a small community run library called Garung Thuk in a tiny village in Arunachal Pradesh. While usually I spend many months of research on my solo travel destinations, I was immediately intrigued by this unique library located in a tiny village called Shergaon. After scouring the net for some contact number I found one on a Facebook group. It belonged to Dr. Lobsang Tashi, who is one of the founding members of the library.
Soon, I planned my itinerary with him, booked my flight and found myself in a picturesque village nestled in a valley. Dorjee Khandu Thungon, another founding member of Garung Thuk remarked, “Bollywood goes abroad for scenic locations and the North-east movie makers come to Shergaon”. And I could understand why. Being in the temperate region, Shergaon experiences four distinct seasons and I had visited in Spring. Everywhere you looked was a picture postcard shot, with oak trees sprouting tender red and green leaves, birds chirping and serenading their mates, bees and butterflies buzzing about pollinating flowers, the mountains standing guard in the background and a river gurgling across.

You may like to read my blog post on the Wild vegetables festival too

Beautiful Shergaon- "We are at the end of the spring.. elders in my village tells me that.. nyi nyi phangmu (rainbow) is a bridge for the Angels to visit Earth to fetch water". Caption text and photo by Dorjee Thungon.
Shergaon is home to the Sherdukpen tribe who are spread in the villages of Rupa, Jigaon and Shergaon. Around 1000 members of the tribe reside in Shergaon and everyone knows everybody else in the village. Originally from Tibet, having migrated this side hundreds of years ago, they follow TibetanBuddhism along with their Animist practices.

The Sherdukpens are a very closely knit community with an incredible sense of pride in their tradition and culture as I discovered over the period of my stay with them. And it is to maintain this very fabric of their culture that Garung Thuk, a non-profit organization was established in October 2014. And this is evident by the name, Garung Thuk, which means ‘our village’.

A child inaugurating the library. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon

Inside Garung Thuk.

Old photo exhibits of the Sherdukpen tribe are displayed inside. 

The Sherdukpens were primarily hunters and gatherers who also practiced agriculture. Although now, the main source of income is agriculture and horticulture with hunting being banned by the government. With changes happening in society in the tribal cultures, and with the passing away of the elderly who are the repositories of knowledge and ancient wisdom, a group of like-minded people like Lobsang and Dorjee established a community-run center that would not only promote culture and tradition but also preserve the bio-diversity of the region.
Men dressed up for the Kro Cheykor festival. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon

In 2015, with one of the leading publishing houses in India, they did a fund raiser through a crowd sourced campaign which generated Rs 45000 with which they could buy a multitude of books for children of various genres. Thus Garung Thuk also became a community run library. And what was very unique was the manner in which they inaugurated the library. Instead of inviting prominent personalities or politicians as chief guests they asked the students, the direct beneficiaries, to inaugurate the library.
Children playing musical instruments at the Kro Chykor festival. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon
Garung Thuk is at the lead for creating awareness about the rich biodiversity of Shergaon so that the younger generation are not only aware about it, but also take pride it in and preserve it. One such initiative was adopting a stretch of the river called Choskorong Kho for five years starting December 2014. They did a fish riverine ranching program where they released 500 fish fingerlings with the help of the fishery department. Felling of trees and fishing is banned along the riverside and in the river thus allowing them to regenerate with fish and the other fauna around it like birds and butterflies.
Releasing fish fingerlings and making of bamboo items.Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon

Other activities pertaining to the environment are:

    Workshops on mushroom cultivation- Shergaon has a wealth of mushrooms. While ambling around the village with Lobsang, we spotted a few women collecting the very rare mushroom Marcella (Sherdukpen name is ‘Mubung Shruk’) which sells for an exorbitant price of around Rs 2000 per kg on account of its rarity. But because it’s so scarce people don’t sell but consume it themselves. On a trek to a mud fort another day, we chanced upon the dork eared fungus. We gathered it, took it home and just nibbled on it after washing it. Apparently it tastes delicious when cooked with fish.

    Extensive tree plantation drives are conducted as part of which the community has planted around 2000 trees since its inception. This includes plantation of fruiting trees such as peach, plum, etc, as well as oak trees.
Tree plantation drive. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon. 

    Workshops for teaching how to make bamboo cups and mugs so that plastic can be eliminated. In fact traditionally before the infestation of plastic, bamboo was extensively used for crafting cups and mugs and the community is reverting to its roots.

    You may like my blog post on an eco-friendly heritage farm in Karnataka.
Shergaon has a rich flora and fauna. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

    Garung Thuk also periodically invites experts on birds and butterflies to organize workshops for the community on identification and habitat of the same to create awareness and pride in the local fauna and flora. An extension of this is photography workshops to facilitate documenting the species of flora and fauna by the community as a whole.
The Sherdukpen bags are to die for. It's highly labour intensive and intricate and takes several weeks to make one bag. 

Sherdukpen robe for women. 

Look at the lovely colours of the bags and shawl. Photo taken from

    With the markets getting flooded with cheap powerloom fabric and readymade garments handloom, as everywhere else in India, had been getting sidelined even amongst the Sherdukpen. Thus the center is doing a commendable job of reviving handloom. As part of this initiative expert weavers are called from other states to give inputs of improvisation of the loom and the group of weavers brain storm on how traditional wear can be made contemporary to keep pace with the changing times without losing out on their authenticity. I saw some excellently handwoven bags, stoles, skirts, etc.
I had a lovely time at the homestay. Did some sketching by the river that flows just outside the home stay. 

My host Chang Chom Ano cooked some amazing local delicacies for me. Here the family members are making momos while I sketched away. 


    A recently started initiative is the community run homestays where guests can experience traditional Sherdukpen cuisine, culture and the pristine beauty of the village.

Offering prayers to the Lei. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

A very important aspect of the Sherdukpen tribe is ownership of the forests as a community. Forests are considered to be sacred by the Sherdukpen and forest conservation is deeply embedded in their culture. The community takes turns to use the fallen and decaying oak leaves from different areas of the sacred grove to use for mulching in agriculture. Since it’s a sacred grove it follows naturally that felling of trees does not happen. It is this sense of reverence towards nature and the community based ownership that ensures that a healthy balance between nature and Man. Read more about the close relationship of the Sherdukpens with Nature in this blog post.
The Sherdukpen museum. 

Another one. 

To promote and preserve their culture, the members of Garung Thuk have converted an old traditional wooden house into a museum where traditional home utensils and agricultural equipment of the yore are displayed. A slice of life from the past is thus preserved so that the younger generation can relate to it and visitors be awed by it.
Celebrations at the Kro Chykor festival. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

Garung Thuk also preserves its culture through an annual festival called Kro-Cheykor in which the entire clan of the Sherdukpens regardless of their age participate with full gusto. The festival is a beautiful example of how Animist and Buddhist traditions co-exist. The rituals and dance which have been in practice for hundreds of years are kept intact through this festival. The younger generation even receive training on the dance moves and songs for a dedicated period of time from the elders in the months preceding the festival. Traditional food including wild berries, roots and fruit foraged from the forest are served with copious quantities of the locally brewed beer. This is the time when each member of the clan, dresses up in traditional attire, complete with the Sherdukpen hand woven bag and necks bejeweled with big coral and turquoise beads. The Kro-Cheykor festival was started by the great monk Doyan Tanzing and commences on the 25th day of the 3rd lunar month and the main procession is taken out on the full moon day of the holy month Saka Dawa, the 4th month. During the 20 day festival, all deities are invoked and their blessings are sought. They are also given a beautiful farewell through a song called Lurjaang in which the first few lines are dedicated to the great monk. After the farewell, the deities retire to their respective resting places thus bringing an end to the fun and festivities.
Bhoti script class in progress. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

The center also organizes interesting workshops such as the one on Bhoti script to reacquaint the younger generation to their roots and culture. Other commendable initiatives include organizing medical camps, eye checkup for elders and cataract removal, water tank clean ups and the like.

I had originally written about the Garung Thuk for The Better India  in September 2019. Reading my article, the Hyderabad Literature festival 2020 got in touch with them and they were awarded the  Innovative Library award in India Reading Olympiad organised by Food4thought foundation on 26th January,2020. I am so happy that I could contribute in some way to them.

Garung Thuk is a shining example of how a community together can live life based on ancient principles and harmony with Nature. Of how in a world becoming homogenous in some aspects by what we could call a wave of ‘modernization’, tradition and culture can still survive and be embraced by the younger generation. In that way Garung Thuk provides a proverbial bridge connecting the old with the new, the ancient and the modern. And it does so remarkably well. The Sherdukpens are an incredibly warm people and excellent hosts. I was happy I trusted my instinct and travelled to this quaint village, the happy memories of which will remain with me forever.

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