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Fists of Fury
... Kalaripayattu, Kerala's martial art form
His sons Sooraj and Dhiraj are his most dedicated sishyans. Dhiraj, who is a computer programmer by vocation, has the lean sculpted physique of a Roman statue. He can twist his body like a contortionist and swerve and move with the speed of a puma. On the other hand his elder brother is rotund and soft-faced, and he looks nothing like the expert handler of weapons that he is. But once you see him in action, agile and flexible like a rubber man, you wouldn't want to grapple with him for a million rupees.
Training usually starts at the age of seven or eight. Early in the morning after ablutions, sishyans wrap themselves in a loincloth, over which they either wear loose shorts or a short cotton towel. Bodies shining with coconut oil, mixed with herbs and ghee, they jump into a pit 42 feet long, 21 feet wide and three feet below ground level. This is the traditional Kalari (gymnasium).
They start the day's session by prostrating before a picture of their goddess, Bhagawati and before the gurukkal (in earlier times all Kalaris were built next to a Bhagawati temple which is not always the case today). For the first six months they do a set of 14 basic exercises called meyerke. These are designed for flexibility, agility, fluidity, bounce and to keep the joints workable in any direction. Like a karateka, a payattu expert can turn around and smash his foot into your face with split second timing, without the slightest hint of it coming.
Meyerke is very difficult for the untrained person but for the sishyan it comes naturally. They kick their legs up to a 90 degree angle till the thighs hit the chest for reach. They twist their bodies into seemingly untwistable positions for flexibility, and kick a ball tied 10 feet up in the air for bounce. These are just a few meyerke exercises. Then they move on to the next set of exercises, or rather movements, called chovude, which are similar to katas in karate.
Weapon training starts with basic stick fighting or kolathari. Generally three kinds of sticks are used -- the short stick, the curved stick and the long stick. But in a street fight situation they could use anything that they can grab, even a branch of a tree could be used as a long stick (silambam in Tamil).
Gradually the students move on to other weapons like the straight dagger, the curved dagger, sword and shield, spear. And finally the most lethal weapon of them all, the urumi, a twin edged long coil of metal which is wrapped around the waist and used like a nanchaku but held with both hands. One wrong move and it can lop the head off. But the constant movement makes a payattu fighter hard to touch. From the urumi the fighter goes on to unarmed combat, at the end of which he learns the meridian points, or pressure points, in the body.
"If I touch a certain point in your body it can immobilise you," says the gurukkal. "There are 11 points on each arm and leg, three in the stomach, nine in the chest, 12 in the neck, 27 in the face and 14 in the back." These are mostly used when the unarmed fighter is faced with an armed adversary and also during the therapy. A payattu fighter does not scream like a karateka to immobilise the opponent. Instead, it is a silent scream in the mind to derive strength.
Massage plays a prominent role. In ancient times training was imparted only during the monsoons. The rest of the year was spent giving herbal massages like uzhicils ( a firm rub down of the body using the palms and fingers) and pizhichils (kneading the body with hands and legs) to make the body supple. A pizhichil with the leg can be painful at first, but then the body gets accustomed to it and adapts. After about 15 years of training when the student has mastered the urumi and unarmed combat, he is taught herbal medicine -- recognising and collecting herbs, their applications and massage.
Kalaripayattu reached its most glorious (and romantic) period sometime during the late 15th and early 16th century AD with the advent of the Portuguese in the country. Local chieftains fighting the hordes of Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, Francisco D'Almeida and Alfonso de Albuquerque formed squads of payattu mercenaries for hit and run operations against the attackers, somewhat on the lines of the samurai in medieval Japan.
Most of these fighters were from the warrior caste of Nairs. There were other castes like Thiyyas too, but the squads were predominantly Nair in number. In ancient times the Nairs followed a matrilineal system of inheritance (called Marumakkathayam) and polyandry was the norm (not anymore though). The more husbands a woman had, the better.
Their sons grew up to be warriors. They were revered by the local people. They carried on their person as many as 10 different kinds of weapons, and during the initial stages of the war with the Portuguese they massacred the invaders with their surprise techniques, or what we call guerrilla warfare. But soon their weapons proved no match for the gun and cannon, and Kerala fell into Portuguese hands.
Even during earlier occupations by other mighty rulers in Kerala's history -- Chola imperialism, for example, in the 9th century AD -- kings used squads of Nair mercenaries. According to one theory, which is not widely accepted though, the first of the warrior castes in Kerala were imported Thiyyas (or Ezhavas) from Sri Lanka, who at that point in their history were a warrior clan. According to this theory Kerala didn't have a warrior caste. The Thiyyas had been brought in by the ruling Cheras -- from which the name Kerala is derived -- to protect the interests of the state under a pact with the rulers of Sri Lanka, who were being beseiged by the powerful Chola rulers of Tanjore, just like the Cheras were.
With the decline of Chola supremacy in the early years of this millennium the Thiyyas were asked to protect Namboodiri brahmins (who had migrated from the Kolhapur area in Maharashtra sometime during the 5th and 6th century AD and thus formed the priestly caste in Kerala). They refused. And the Nairs stepped in.
Over the years the Thiyyas were soon reduced to climbing coconut trees for a living. Which they did for centuries. But this theory is only speculative and has few takers. It is a different matter altogether now, with social reforms introduced by the reformer Sree Narayana Guru and land reform by the Communist government in the state. You find coconut pluckers from almost all castes in the state these days. And Kalaripayattu is not the sole domain of the Nairs. It's universal. But are there any takers?
Those interested in the art can write to T C Chandran gurukkal or his sons Sooraj and Dhiraj.
Photographs by Rajan Kallai
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