Kalarippayatt, Martial Art of Kerala by Phillip B. Zarrilli At the start of the sixteenth century, Duarte Barbosa, one of the earliest Portugese to arrive in Kerala, a state in southwest India, provides a description of Kalarippayatt (meaning "place of exercise," referring to the technical system of training in its entirety. Kalari by itself means gymnasium or fencing school.) which although quaint is never- theless still an apt account of this indigenous martial art system: The more part of the Nairs, when they are seven years of age, are sent to schools, where they are taught many tricks of nimbleness and dexterity, there they teach them to dance and turn about and to twist on the ground, to take royal leaps and other leaps, and this they learn twice a day as long as they are children, and they become so loose jointed and supple that they make them turn their bodies contrary to nature; and when they are fully accomplished in this they teach them to play with the weapon to which they are most inclined, some with bows and arrows, some with poles to become spearmen, but most with sword and are ever practising ... Longworth Mansel Dames, ed., The Book of Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II. Initial Western reaction to Asian martial arts often takes the form of awed statements at the mastery of sheer physical technique. What Barbosa does not mention about Kalarippayatt, and what is often not recognized as lying beyond the amazing "royal leaps" of such systems, is the highly integrated fusion of mental/visual concentration with the physical technique. Psycho-physical integration is the coordination of concentration, energy flow, and physical technique. Kalarippayatt, still taught today by a few gurukkals (teachers) in Kerala, could be part of any Western training program. Kalarippayatt leads to muscle tone but not to hyperextension. The leg exercises,first singly and then in combinations, develop various skills; flexibility through gradual extension of the muscles; balance through centering and subtle body weight shifts from one exercise to another; and control through mastery of the complex leg movements themselves. The sequences further develop total body control as well as stamina, concentration, and focused energy flow. There is a total flow of energy choreographed in continuing movements through use of the feet, legs, back, hands, arms, head and eyes. The weapons system continues to build upon the preliminary mastery of the body, integrating exercises, poses, steps, jumps, kicks into immediate reflex responses demanding absolute visual and mental concentration. Kalarippayatt demands daily practice, persistence, and encouragement. Progressing at his own rate, the student is encouraged and assisted by the teacher in overcoming the particular physical problems, tension points, and blocks to visual focus/concentration. As a system in which the student must preliminarily perfect a predetermined sequence of physical exercises and weapons techniques, Kalarippayatt at first appears restrictive. But through the gradual mastery of the form itself the performer's mind and body are freed into newly-found balance, control, and flexibility combined with directed energy flow. Even in its early stages of training, Kalarippayatt has an intrinsic interest for the student that comes, quite simply, from the challenge of mastering day-by-day his own body as well as advancing through a graded system. Background Kalarippayatt has been basically the same since the twelfth century. It synthesizes elements of the ancient all-Indian sciences of war (Dhanur Veda) and medicine (Ayurveda), at the same time transforming these through its own indigenously developed techniques of weapons use, exercises, and massage. At the height of its influence from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries-Kalarippayatt was a regular part of the education of Nair youth (the Kerala military caste), who began training at the age of seven. But the system was not restricted to the military caste. Its practice quickly proliferated across caste and religious boundaries with some Muslims, Christians, and Tiyyas (low caste Hindus) becoming well known graduates of their local community's kalari. The martial art was so integral to medieval Kerala society that aspects of the system were woven into cultural life in such widely diverse performance forms as Kathakali dance-drama, Teyyam ritual, Christian Cavittu-Natakam dance-drama, Kolkali stick dance, Parisakali and Velakali sword and shield dances, and the Namboodiri Brahmin Yatrakali ritual-dramatic performance. Popular heroes and heroines trained in Kalarippayatt became the subjects of folk songs, some of which are still sung in the fields today. (These folk songs, the Northern Ballads, provide romantic stories for many Malayalam films. A 1977 film, Unniarca, is a typical glorification of late medieval heroes and heroines which distorts the practical function and austere beauty of Kalarippayatt.) The influx of European colonialists attempting to monopolize Kerala's rich spice trade brought increasing dependence upon firearms. The Kerala warriors, trained in a system designed for individual combat or duels, resisted the waves of Europeans struggling for control. With the advent of British supremacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Nairs were prohibited from training in their traditional disciplines, practicing their traditional role as warriors, and from carrying arms. It was only through the care of several gurukkals that the practice of Kalarippayatt was saved from extinction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today the art is taught by a few teachers. Students today range from eight to sixty years, though the majority are between sixteen and thirty, and are drawn from a wide variety of socioeconomic positions in society. In spite of the worldwide attention focused upon Kathakali, the form most directly influenced by Kalarippayatt, the martial art has remained relatively unknown outside of India. Kathakali, which evolved during the seventeenth century, drew directly from the martial art its physical training of the body, unique system of massage with the feet (uliccil), distinctive battle choreography, and emphasis on the heroic rasa. The first actors of the dance-drama form were the kalari trained Nair warriors. These actor warriors transformed Kalarippayatt body exercises, positions, floor patterns, etc. to fit the unique esthetic style and body position of the evolving dance-drama: the splayed knees, use of outsides of the feet, etc. (While the vigorous physicality of Kathakali is drawn from Kalarippayatt, its esthetically intricate use of hand gestures (mudras) and facial gesture is drawn from Kerala's Sanskrit temple-drama, Kutiyattam.) Naturally, the Kalarippayatt system was designed to produce the proficient warrior. The maxim, "the weapon is only an extension of the body" (still told to students today), illustrates the close connection between preliminary physical training and advanced weapons practice. The primacy of physical culture is asserted from the first day of training when the student is introduced to an "alphabet" of leg exercises. Weapons training only comes after the student has gained proficiency in physical technique. The degree of advancement is closely monitored by the teacher who judges each student's progress in balance, control, flexibility, stamina, and immediacy of reflexes. Development of the proper mental attitude is just as important as physical mastery. Kalarippayatt has no highly articulated philosophical system. While the art is not selfconsciously yogic, mystical, or meditative, it does foster an attitude of reverence and respect for the individual's body/mind, for the tradition, for the deities who are believed to guard and protect the individual, and for the gurukkal's knowledge. At its best, the practice of the system nurtures in the student a fusion of mind and body, developed through concentration of attention, strict visual focus, and the individual's striving for mastery of the form's complexities; a sense of humility when the student realizes the skill, patience, and perseverance needed to become a master of the form; and a sense of well-being coming from the inner strength based on the individual's awareness that he need fear no one. The teacher must have the innate ability to perceive the student's attitude that provides the foundation for progress in the system. If the teacher thinks that the student might misuse certain techniques, he will refuse to impart some of the more "secretive" elements of the system. Reverence and respect are absorbed more from the environment in the kalari and the teacher's approach to the discipline than from the system of instruction per se. The Kalari Building The cocoon-like kalari, enclosed against monsoon rains, drafts, and the tropical rays of the sun, provides a marked contrast to the outside world. The kalari raditionally serves the function of both training center and temple. The deities of the kalari play an integral part in the daily life of both teacher and students. In palm-leaf family manuscripts, strict requirements are set down regarding the site, dimensions, and construction of the kalari. In the past there were two types of kalaris, the payatt kalari, for practice and training, and the ankam kalari (somewhat larger), for mock fights or duels. Although kalaris varied in exact size, all were to be twice as long as wide, with the height of the roof the same as the width. All kalaris were to be built by digging 1 kol (21/2 feet) into the ground. The earth dug out is used to build up the walls to a height of approximately five feet, or until the earth is used up. Except for the three-foot-wide opening on the eastern side, which consists of a stairway leading down into the enclosed practice area, the kalari is contained on all four sides by the earthworks. The roof is constructed from plaited coconut-palm leaves, supported by a bamboo framework. The kalari's pit-like construction provides a draftless atmosphere with a constant temperature. The deities of the kalari range in number from seven to as many as twenty-one, depending upon the gurukkal's family tradition, or the community's local traditions. The presiding deity of the kalari, kalari bhagavati (the deity of war), is located in the kannumula or southwest corner of the kalari, where she is lodged on the puttara, a raised platform of seven tiers . Other deities often include nagabhagavati (serpent god), ganapadi (elephant god), the pitham or tripod (representing past gurus), and antimahalan and vettaykkorumakan (incarnations of siva). The ritual life of the kalari centers around daily worship of the deities, as well as special observances on days auspicious for the particular kalari. The gurukkal is revered as the direct representative of the deities, the living embodiment of the entire line of gurus represented by the pitham. As custodians of the art of war, the gurukkal is entitled to the same respect as the deities, a tradition popularly believed to extend to the teachers of the Dhanur Vedic tradition, such as Drona (the Pandavas' teacher in the Mahabharata). The integral link between ritual life and daily training is even found in the physical exercises. The first body exercise sequence taught-the first sequence constructed from the beginning exercises-is the puttara tol . When performing this exercise the student is worshipping the deities with his body, a physical manifestation of the reverence for the traditions of the kalari, the line of gurukkals, and the protection from injury given by the deities. (The puttara tol sequence is essentially the same pattern used for mutual "salutes" prior to any combat sequence in the kalari (or in duels) with otta or sword and shield. The practice of mutual salutes illustrates the feudal nature of duels in Kerala.) Kalari Cikitsa: The Medical System As the kalari gurukkal is priest, so is he healer or physician. Traditional training of the gurukkal includes specialization in indigenous medical preparations and techniques for preventive health care and treatment. Built on the all-Indian Ayurvedic medical system, kalari cikitsa is an indigenously developed branch of treatments for kalari related injuries such as bruises, bonefreaks, wounds, etc. As physician the gurukkal treats injuries to the body's marmas (vital spots), a system ultimately applied in combat-thrusts, blows, cuts are aimed at these most vital spots of the opponent. (The concept of marmas is developed in classical Ayurvedic practice through the surgical methods of Susruta, as recorded in his Samhita, the major source of Ayurvedic knowledge of surgery and anatomy. Marmas developed as a concept of regional anatomy which overcame the defects of an inadequate system of dissection. Susruta defined the marmas as "Firm unions of mamsa (muscles), sira (vessels), snayu (ligaments), asthi (bones), or santhi (bone-joints)... and these naturally and specifically form the seats of life (prana)." (Ancient Indian Medicine by P. Kutumbiah. There are usually 107 marmas listed. In Kalarippayatt 64 of these are considered the kula or most vital marmas and therefore play a role in martial training.) Treatment includes first aid for kalari or battlefield injuries, methods of extended care, and the special system of massage, uliccil. The gurukkal uses the massage for three different purposes: (1) treatment of specific injuries, such as a sprain; (2) body control and flexibility in training; (3) yearly massage for general health purposes. Massage may be with hands, feet, forearms, or in combination, depending upon the purpose of the massage, diagnosis of condition, age, physique, and the patient's general health. Indigenously prepared medicinal oils are applied to the injured area prior to massage, or to the entire body for the Kalarippayatt training or general health massage. The oil preparation used in kalari training, Kalarimukkutt, consists of four parts gingely oil, two parts castor oil, one part ghee, three special herbs, three dried ingredients, for a total of nine elements, which are boiled and cooled before application. Applied to the entire body daily during martial training, this oil enters through the pores of the skin as the student perspires. Kathakali uliccil is given only with the feet except for the head and face areas. It has a slightly different combination in oil preparation: cocoanut oil, castor oil, buffalo ghee in equal proportions, mixed with a condiment (uluva, ground into a pasty substance), all of which is boiled and cooled before application. The Kathakali oil, valukk (literally "slippery") is said to give slightly more emphasis to the flexibility needed for form, while the kalari oil is designed to give maximum flexibility combined with strength; therefore, the difference in ingredients. It should be noted that both the kalari and Kathakali oil preparations are passing out of active use, especially in daily practice, due to the expense of traditional preparations. Today students in both the martial art and dance-drama usually use gingely oil, readily available in any village market. Traditionally uliccil lasted the first 14 days of training each year. Today, due to limited time for training, only a few advanced students receive the massage yearly. In the past training began with the onset of the monsoon, during June-July and lasted for two-four months. Occasionally those selected to become teachers trained throughout the year. During these first 14 days, and for the 14 days following massage, the student was instructed to refrain from sexual intercourse, not to sleep during the daytime, not to keep awake at night, and to include milk and ghee in his diet. On the 15th day the student was instructed to take a laxative to purge his system. The period of massage was always the most intensive part of training. This unique synthesis of oil, massage, and physical exercise allow the student to develop maximum balance, control, and flexibility. Today students begin training on selected auspicious days and may study throughout the year at a few kalaris. Techniques During the period of preliminary training the student is introduced to the most basic level of the Kalarippayatt system, an alphabet of body poses, steps, and leg exercises.