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The Techniques of Kalarippayattu in the Ethnographic Present

     There is the power to be attained through repetition of mantra, each of which must be individually accomplished; the power inherent in discovery and control of the internal energy/breath (prana-vayu); the strength of mental power (manasakti) manifest in one-point focus and complete doubtlessness; the elemental discovery and raising of the power per se (kundalini sakti); and the powers of the divine gained through worship and rituals (puja), meditation, devotion, and/or magic.

     However, to gain access to the majority of these types of power, one must begin with the body and its training in actualizing particular powers. A Muslim master once told me, "He who wants to become a master must possess complete knowledge of the body." As assumed in traditional yoga practice, knowledge of the body begins with the physical or gross body (sthula-sarira), discovered through exercises and massage. Together they are considered body prepara tion "(meyyorukkam)".The exercises include a vast array of poses, steps, jumps, kicks, and leg movements performed in increasingly complex combinations back and forth across the kalari floor. Collectively, they are considered a "body art" (meiabhyasam). Individual body-exercise sequences (meippayattu) are taught one by one, and every student masters simple forms before moving on to more complex and difficult sequences. Most important is mastery of basic poses (vadivu), named after animals and comparable to basic postures (asana) of yoga, and mastery of steps (cuvadu) by which one moves into and out of poses. Repetitious practice of these outer forms eventually renders the external body flexible (meivalakkam) and, as one master said, flowing (olukku) like a river.

     According to tradition, at least during the most intensive period of training while the monsoon is active, masters are supposed to require observance of specific behavioral, dietary, and devotional practices and/or restraints similar to those traditionally practiced in the classic eightfold Patanjali yoga: (1) negative (yama, "do not") restrictions, (2) positive ("do") practices, and (3) the development of a devotional attitude. Students are instructed never to sleep during the day time nor to keep awake at night, to refrain from sex during the most intensive monsoon period of training, never to misuse what one is being taught; to only use kalarippayattu to defend oneself (i.e., when dharma demands); and to be of good character (i.e., not to steal, lie, cheat, drink liquor, or take drugs). Finally, from the very first day of practice in a traditional Hindu kalari, students must participate in the devotional life of the kalari from the point of ritual entry into the sacred space through the practice of personal devotion to the kalari deities and to the master. As Eliade explains, these restraints do not produce "a yogic state but a 'purified' human being . . . This purity is essential to the succeeding stages" (Eliade, 1975:63).

     Training traditionally begins at about the age of seven for both boys and girls. Students come to the place of training (kalari), a pit dug out of the earth, before dawn at about 5:00 6:00 a.m. while it is dark, cool, and auspicious. The most intensive training takes place during the cool monsoon season (June-August).

     Hindu kalaris are ritually purified with daily and seasonal offerings (puja) to the kalari deities, thereby ensuring protection of those who practice and are treated inside. One of the important dimensions of initial training is direction of the student's visual focus. Students are told to look at a specific place on the opposite side of the kalari while performing the leg exercises, the initial step in developing one-point focus (ekagrata). As master Achuthan Gurukkal told me, "One-point focus is first developed by constant practice of correct form in exercises." Once the external, physical eye is steadied, the student eventually begins to discover the "inner eye" of practice, a state of inner connection to practice.

     The body-exercise sequences are linked combinations of basic body movements (meitolil) including poses (vativu), steps (cuvat), kicks (kal etupp), a variety of jumps and turns, and coordinated hand/arm movements performed in increasingly swift succession back and forth across the kalari. Masters emphasize the importance of poses (vadivu) in a student's progression. As Gurukkal P. K. Balan told me, "Only a person who has learned these eight poses can perform the kalari law (mura) and go on to empty-hand combat, weapons, massage, or marma applications." The poses (vadivu), usu ally numbering eight, are named after animals. They are not static forms, but configurations of movements which embody both the external and internal essence of the animal after which they are named. P. K. Balan explained his version of the animal names: When any animal fights, it uses its whole body. This must also be true in kalarippayattu.The horse is an animal which can concentrate all its powers centrally, and it can run fast by jumping up. The same pause, preparation for jumping, and forward movement [that are in a horse] are in the asvavadivu. When a peacock is going to attack its enemies, it spreads its feathers, raises its neck, and dances by steadying itself on one leg. Then it shifts to the other leg and attacks by jumping and flying. The capability of doing this attack is known as mayuravadivu.

     A snake attacks its enemy by standing up; however, its tail remains on the ground without movement. From this position, it can turn in any direction and bite a person. This ability to turn in any direction and attack by rising up is known as sarpavadivu. When a cock attacks, he uses all parts of his body: wings, neck, legs, finger nails. He will lift one leg and shake his feathers and neck, fix his gaze on the enemy, and attack. This is kukkuvadivu.

     Like the leg exercises, the body sequences at first further develop flexibility, balance, and control of the body. This most often occurs when the training is rigorous. The oiled bodies begin to sweat, and by the conclusion of a class the student's entire body should be drenched in sweat. As one teacher said, "The sweat of the students should become the water washing the kalari floor." Chirakkal T. Balakrishnan describes the results of such practice for one sequence, pakarcakkal as being like "a bee circling a flower. While doing pakarcakkal a person first moves forward and back, and then again forward and back. It should be done like a spider weaving its web." What is most important is swift and facile changes of direction executed at the transition points between sets of movements, essential for combat in which instantaneous changes of direction are necessary. Only much later are specific martial applications taught.

     Behind the fluid grace of the gymnastic forms is the strength and power of movements which can, when necessary, be applied with lightning-fast speed and precision in potentially deadly attacks. "Hidden" within all the preliminary exercises and basic poses are complex combinations of offensive and defensive applications which are eventually learned through constant practice. The body exercise sequences "just look like exercises," but many applications (prayogam) are possible. Correctly executing locks to escape an enemy's grasp, taught as part of the empty-hand techniques (verumkai) late in training, can only be executed with full force when a student is able to assume a pose such as the elephant deeply and fully. An advanced student should be able to move with fluid spontaneity in any direction and perform any combination of moves from the body exercise sequences for offensive or defensive purposes. As Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar put it, the student himself will begin to discover these applications "in due time."

     Students advance through the system individually. The teacher keeps a constant and watchful eye on each student's gradual progress, i.e., on how well the' student masters the forms of practice and on his general demeanor and behavior. The discerning teacher does not simply look at a student's overt, physical progress, but also looks "within at the heart of the student." Some masters say that they "know [each student's] mind from the countenance of the face" (mukhabhavattil ninnu manassilakkam). Nothing overt is expressed, explained, or spoken; the master simply watches, observes, and "reads" each student. Physically embodying the forms of practice, mentally developing the degree of focus and concentration necessary, and personally developing the requisite devotion for deities and master all take considerable time. Only when a master intuitively senses that a student is psycho-physiologically, morally, and spiritually "ready" to advance and when the teacher has no doubts about the student's character, is he supposed to teach a new, more difficult exercise. Ideally, each technique is given as a "gift". The teacher should take joy in the act of giving, especially as the gifts become more advanced and, therefore, more precious.

     Unlike varma ati, kalarippayattu's sister martial art, indigenous to the Kanyakumari region of the old Travancore kingdom and southern Tamil Nadu, as well as more recent cosmopolitan forms of martial arts oriented toward self-defense and/or street fighting, Kalarippayattu is similar to its Japanese counterpart, the traditional bugei or weapons forms, in which use of weapons was historically the main purpose of practice. Empty-hand fighting has always been important to kalarippayattu, but more as a means of disarming an armed opponent than as its sole raison d'etre. Only when a student is physically, spiritually, and ethically "ready," is he supposed to be allowed to take up the first weapon. If the body and mind have been fully prepared (and therefore integrated), when the student takes up the first weapon it becomes an extension of the integration of the bodymind in action.[20].

     The student first learns wooden weapons: kolttari or kolkayattam payattu--first long staff, later short stick and curved stick (otta, and usually after only several years does one advance to combat weapons including dagger, spear, sword and shield, and flexible sword. The teacher's corrections are intended to make the weapon an extension of the body. The use of each weapon involves one or more basic poses from which the practitioner moves into and out of and through which the weapon becomes an extension of the body. For example, the staff is an extension of the natural line of the spinal column maintained as one moves into and out of basic poses. The hands are kept in front of the body and the body weight is always kept forward, maximizing the range of the staff to keep the opponent at bay.

     For some masters, practice with the curved stick, called otta, with its deep, wavelike, flowing movements, is considered the culmination and epitome of psycho-physiological training because not only is there superb and beautiful external form, but also a simultaneous internal awakening. When correct spinal alignment is maintained, practice further develops the important region at the root of the navel (nabhi mula) region, hips, and thighs. Without the student knowing it, otta also subtly initiates the student in empty-hand combat (verumkai), the most advanced part of total Kalarippayattu training, which eventually culminates when the student learns the location of the body's vital spots (marmmam) which are attacked or defended (See Zarrilli 1992).

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

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