Originating in the southern Indian province of Kerala, kalaripayat is the most ancient of the Eastern martial arts. Yet today it has been practically forgotten. Former CBS war correspondent Patrick Denaud looks at this neglected tradition, whose history spans millennia, from the time it was transmitted by the god Vishnu to the sage Parasurama and his twenty-one disciples, the original Gurukkals, to its present-day practice.
More than an art of combat, kalaripayat is a way of life and a spiritual discipline. Its material techniques are designed to create states propitious for deep meditation. Long the jealously guarded art of the Nair warriors of southern India, kalaripayat was banned by the British East India Company in 1793 and was long believed by outside observers to be extinct. Several Gurukkals continued a clandestine practice and secretly trained the students who would transmit the teachings to today’s keepers of the art, such as Gurukkal P.S. Balachandran.
Like other spiritual disciplines, kalaripayat draws from the science of breath. Focused, silent breathing creates highly concentrated trance states and helps control the inner circulation of vital energy. The practitioner learns not only how to be a capable fighter with or without weapons but also an accomplished healer. The emphasis of this practice on circulating energy throughout the body is not only of interest to material arts practitioners but also to all those interested in the harmonious development of the self.
Patrick Denaudis a former war correspondent for CBS News and a documentary filmmaker. He lives in France.
Kalaripayat-the first time Patrick Denaud spoke to me about his desire to write a book on this topic, my immediate reaction was to savor this delightful word. Kalaripayat-of no meaning to me, and yet conveying a special quality through its sound: a harmony, a powerful shape, a palpable force.
He spoke to me about it as a journalist would-a real journalist- with precision, clarity, directness, and enthusiasm. He told me the story of his trip, speaking of the people he had met, what he had experienced, and what he had seen. I reveled in having this far-flung province of Kerala penetrate into my modern Western world and in the radically new insights that our conversation brought to my meager knowledge of India.
India is very definitely one of our cultural "motherlands," as the Indo-European basis of our language makes clear. I have no doubt that this civilization occupies, often without our really being aware of it, a significant place in our collective memory.
As a practitioner of a martial art, I've always regretted having to look for the theoretical and philosophical foundations of my discipline deep within some other civilization. I never imagined that the foundation of the martial arts in Far-Eastern civilization could be found in an Indian tradition. As Patrick Denaud confidently makes clear, Kalaripayat arose in India prior to all other martial arts. From there, it spread out and influenced all subsequent practice-including that of China, Korea, and Japan!
There is something deeply magical about India. It has a complex subtlety (or a subtle complexity) and Kalaripayat is very much a part of that. It is an authentic and extremely rich martial art- which includes techniques, massage, meditation, medicine, and self defense-yet at the same time it avoids the impulse toward confusion or mystification by being clear and simple. Kalaripayat is total, complete, and complex ... but without complexes.
I am delighted to be the publisher of the first book in French on this topic. I am most particularly delighted in feeling that the modern world of martial arts is beginning to soar toward an era that seems more global, richer, and more full of possibilities. I am also pleased that Kalaripayat is not solely an art of the past, but rather an art of the present day; it is a record but at the same time a portent.
During a trip to the south of India in order to research a film devoted to the history of martial arts (which unfortunately has yet to be made), I discovered Kalaripayat, the southern Indian martial art.
While I was there, I also met P. S. Balachandran, a master of southern-style Kalaripayat, whose family has taught and practiced this art for several generations. With great generosity and patience, he helped me understand its philosophy as well as the connections between Kalaripayat and traditional Indian medicine (ayurveda) and yoga. Master Balachandran also did his best to dispel my ignorance and correct my misapprehensions about India, a land and culture that at first seemed so totally foreign and impenetrable to me. In addition, I met and conversed with other masters as well as practitioners, both young and not so young.
I discovered that, as practiced today, this unusual martial art goes back to the twelfth century, but its history-which is some- times intertwined with the origins of yoga-certainly goes back several hundred years before our era. At the end of the seventeenth century, Kalaripayat was declared illegal by the British, due no doubt in part to the fact that in 1800, the English Colonel A. Westley fought warriors of the caste known as Nairs who were skilled in the art of Kalaripayat-and he did not emerge victorious! Although it remained banned until India's independence in 1947, its practice and traditions were secretly rescued and preserved by several masters. Today Kalaripayat exists only in the province of Kerala, and is completely unknown in other regions of India or in the world.
For whatever reason, Kalaripayat has not received the same worldwide attention as karate, judo, kung fu, tai chi, and so on, even though it brings together all forms of combat (internal, external, with weapons) in a remarkable way. Its obscurity is especially astonishing in light of the fact that a number of specialists and researchers consider it to be the elder brother of all Asian martial arts.
Having fallen into almost complete oblivion, Kalaripayat is now experiencing a renaissance through the influence and encouragement of a few masters and because of interest from the international community, which is gradually learning about its many sides. It is very likely that in the years to come it will find its place and become "fashionable" in the Western world. In fact many Western researchers are currently interested in Kalaripayat and a number of books are in preparation that are much more technical than this one.
This book is the result of the investigations of a journalist who has only practiced martial arts a little and whose sole purpose is to have this undeservedly neglected martial art become better known, along with its very specific Indian context, a context burgeoning with spirituality. That is why, before even attempting to approach Kalaripayat, one needs to understand the Indian soul, its mysteries and its contradictions.
In an immense a fantastic tumult of sound and color, in the fragile and marvellous silence of the trembling dawn and, upon nightfall, when fish of moonlight dance along the Malabar coast, the life of India exudes, bursts forth, dazzles and overflows-a life that is various, excessive, contradictory and full of drama. India lives and her men and women live along with her, through their joy and their sadness, their good fortune and their bad times, as men and women must do when heart and soul are given outright, without limit, with nothing held back, in laughter and in tears, all being part of the great noise of life. But nothing counts as long as the moment unfolds and the presence of the moment bestows on India the secret of timelessness. And Western youth, tired of growing old and impelled more by intuition than by knowledge, come to drink at the well of this secret. The Ganges never ceases its flow nor do the eyes of men ever cease their caress of its reflections. Yesterday and tomorrow merge (these two words, yesterday and tomorrow, are only one word in Hindi: kal); time is vanquished because it is no longer divided up. And it is perhaps also the perception of the essential that gives India its exceptional and tragic dimension of beauty: the child who comes toward you and holds out his hand to you with a look and a smile of eternity that bares his entire astonished soul. But is there room still for poetry in the modern world, which encroaches here as elsewhere? Can what we call progress be other than a rupture of life in the unfolding of civilizations? Only too late do men realize that they do not live by bread alone.
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