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Kalarippayattu - A Study

     In the well-known Bhagavad Gita section of India's Mahabharata epic, Krishna elaborates a view of duty and action intended to convince Arjuna that, as a member of the warrior caste (ksatriya), he must overcome all his doubts and take up arms, even against his relatives. As anyone familiar with either the Mahabharata or India's second great epic, the Ramayana, knows, martial techniques have existed on the South Asian subcontinent since antiquity. Both epics are filled with scenes describing how the princely heroes obtain and use their humanly or divinely acquired skills and powers to defeat their enemies: by training in martial techniques under the tutelage of great gurus like the brahmin master Drona, by practicing austerities and meditation techniques which give the martial master access to subtle powers to be used in combat, and/or by receiving a gift or a boon of divine, magical powers from a god. On the one hand, there is Bhima who depends on his brute strength to crush his foes, while on the other, we find the "unsurpassable"; Arjuna making use of his more subtle accomplishments in single point focus or his powers acquired through meditation.

     Among practitioners and teachers of kalarippayattu, the martial art of Kerala,southwestern coastal India, some, like Higgins Masters of the P.B. Kalari in Trissur, model their practice on Bhima, emphasizing kalarippayattu's practical empty hand techniques of attack,defense, locks, and throws. Others, like my first and most important teacher, Gurukkal* Govindankutty Nayar of Thirovananthapuram's C.V.N. Kalari, with whom I have studied since 1977, follow Arjuna and emphasize kalarippayattu as an active, energetic means of disciplining and "harnessing"(yuj, the root of yoga) both one's body and one's mind, that is, as a form of moving meditation. As comparative religions scholar Mircea Eliade has explained, "One always finds a form of yoga whenever there is a question of experiencing the sacred or arriving at complete mastery of oneself . . ." (Eliade, 1975:196).

     *Gurukkal, the plural of Guru (Master), is a title representing all past masters in the lineage of teaching.

     Even though there has been great interest in both yoga and Ayurveda (the Indian science of health and well-being) in the West, little is known about a number of Indian martial arts still practiced today which are founded on a set of fundamental cultural assumptions about the bodymind relation ship, health, and well-being that are similar to the assumptions underlying yoga and Ayurveda. This essay is an introduction to kalarippayattu-a martia/medical/meditation discipline traditionally practiced in Kerala State, southwestern coastal India, since at least the twelfth century A.D. and more specifically is an introduction to the history and a few of the assumptions about the body, mind, and practice shared with yoga and Ayurveda and which inform the way in which some traditional masters still teach kalarippayattu

Also Read: Kalarippayattu - A Study, Some Preliminary Thoughts, The Source of Kalari, The Circumstances & Alliance, Dhanurvadic Tradition, Power in Antiquity, System & Techniques, The Concept of Sakti, Conclusion

Notes:- This is an abridged and edited version of an exhaustive, scholarly essay by Dr Phillip B Zarrilli, PhD, based on his six extended trips to Kerala, India, on extensive interviews with over fifty masters and on fifteen years of training, practice and teaching of the discipline. The most recent research trips were made possible by a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship (1993) and by an American Institute of Indian Studies and NEH Senior Research Fellowship (1988-89).

Dr Phillip B Zarrilli is opening a traditional residential kalari in Llanarth, West Wales. Intensive courses and residencies in kalarippayattu are regularly available there. For information, contact Dr Phillip B Zarrilli, Tyn-y-parc Kalari, Llanarth, Wales SA47 0PB.


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