Breath by breath – the way of the Kalari warrior

Breath by breath – the way of the Kalari warrior


By C.K. Shridhar

The Veda and the Tantra, Ayurveda and Jyotisha, Yoga and Martial Art, come together in India’s Kalaripayattu, the ancient predecessor of what would later become the Kung Fu and Karate of other lands…

C.K. Shridhar visited Kalarigram, a Kalari school in Tamil Nadu, near Pondicherry, to meet its founder Lakshman Gurukkal, a Kalari teacher from a traditional lineage, born and trained in the old ways, radiating the timeless wisdom of India. Kalarigram attracts students from India and abroad, especially given its proximity to Auroville.

Following a conversation that was as much communion and blessing as a journalistic interview, the writer creates an imaginary Kalari student under Lakshman Gurukkal, and presents glimpses of an ancient teaching as an impressionistic first person account.

Presented in two parts.

Part I

The training happens in the red earth, cool and fragrant, firm and solid beneath your feet. Prithvi, after all, is the foundation, the first of the Pancha Bhootas, the five elements, the element of solidity. The Kalari pit or ‘kuzhi’ is set several feet deep into the earth, and several meters long.

In the Kalari kuzhi you move the way you have been taught, with flow and controlled power, every sense alert, with a deep awareness; and with reserves of speed and strength to be deployed with explosive impact when called upon. The long weapon in my hand feels a part of me, an extension of me, and the movements become easier as the training takes over.

The Solid becomes liquid, Water, apah, strength and power in flow. The body glistens with the special oils that have been massaged in, before training begins -- a hard massage, designed for the flexibility that is at the core of the movements.

Water becomes Air -- which is more than just Vayu, it is the vital element, it is Prana, Energy, the Breath, at the heart of all life. Lakshman Gurukkal talks about how Vata, the air element of the Tri-doshas in the body, is also flow and energy.

The other two doshas are Pitha and Kapha.

I can hear Lakshman Gurukkal’s voice in my mind.  “Your Pitha (associated with Agni, the fire element) is Pangu, unmovable. Kapha is also Pangu. Only  Vata moves. Everything travels through Vata.”

Also closely associated are the Chakras, the Ayurvedic, Tantric and Yogic elaboration of the Vedic thinking of the Pancha Bhootas. As scholars have pointed out, both the Veda and the Tantra are ancient Indic traditions that have developed independently, but have frequently mingled to borrow, learn from and enrich each other.

Lakshman Gurukkal says, “When you apply oil every day and wear the Kaccha, the long cloth, your Prana is blocked in the Mooladhara and Swadishtana chakras. The hard massage creates flexibility and the oil stimulates Pranic energy which we call Vata. Some spots are very important, head, nose, ears, the nerve endings. The base is Sesame oil to which sometimes other special oils are added. The massage is like ploughing the earth before seeding it. The body then becomes ready to receive the knowledge.”

Knowledge. Veda. From of old, the Vedic corpus has been about the eternal knowledge, “seen” by Rishis and handed down, over millennia. And at the heart of the Veda is Agni – Agni on earth, just as Surya in the sky.

Gurukkal’s voice: “The Veda is natural knowledge which is very close to the five elements. And Agni is strongly associated with speech. “Agnirvai vak”. And in Kalari chikitsa, Ayurvedic treatment and therapy using Kalari, we talk about stimulating the Agni force. In the body is the Jataragni, the digestive fire. We eat ghee. Ghee is a representation of fire. And then there are the mantras, which pervade and precede.”

He emphasises the Sadhana Chatushtaya, at the heart of all learning and training in Vedic culture, as well as the value of the Guru, the transmission, sometimes sudden, of learning and grace from a Guru, and the 12 year cycle, associated with the planet Jupiter, who is also Guru, Brihaspathi, and its 12 year cycle around the Sun.

He emphasises the spiritual content of Kalari Payattu. “There is a deep spiritual component in Kalari. Without that component it will not work because if the spirit is not inside, the body is nothing.”

Agnirvai Vak. The power of the word, the mantra. Veda and Tantra come together as Gurukkal explicates on the Mantra, quoting mantras from Taittiriya Upanishad, but at the same time tantalisingly associating the Mantra, at the heart of which is Sound, with Silence.

“Mantra is the energy, the Bindu. (The Bindu is at the core of the Tantric Shrichakra).  Bindu is a silence….

“Then Desire awakens, ‘So Kamayatha. Bahusyam prajayeyethi.’ ”

(The quote is from the Yajur Veda’s Taittiriya Upanishad 2.6, which reflects on how the Brahman, the ultimate source, desires to become multiple, and brings forth all creation, and subsequently enters into all of creation and beyond, defined and undefined, truth and untruth, conscious and unconscious).

 Gurukkal goes on in the language of the Tantras: “And that desire is Kameshwara, the Lord of Desire, Shiva himself. Desire says, who am I, it looks at itself, and so becomes two. The energy splits. That sound is Om. It is like the Big Bang. The split sound is Omkar. That energy is Shiva becoming Shakti. Shiva and Shakti are actually abedha, there is no difference. They are the same. The static becomes dynamic. So Bindu becomes two, and forms a triangle. That is Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra. Srishti, Stithi, Samhar. (Creation, Preservation, Dissolution).

“In the Omkar is the Visarga and Bindu, Naada and Bindu, and then you have the Pancha Krithya Parayana – the five-step cycle.” Not just Creation, Preservation, and Destruction (called Laya in this delineation), but also Thirobhava (Concealment) and finally Anugraha (Blessing). All happening over and over again.

As the training progresses on the red earth, and sweat pours down profusely, you are intensely aware of not just how you are moving, but how you are breathing. Every breath seems an event, an event in the eternal.

“Just like you breathe in, breathe out and breathe in again, the universe comes and goes, again and again. That is Pancha Krithya Parayana. That process. It is happening with Shiva, Shakthi and the five elements. Solid to liquid to air.  And it ends with Pra-layam. Prakarshena layam. Sukshma to Sthoola, Sthoola to sukshma. (The Gross to the Subtle and back). The energy in the Mooladhara Chakra (the base Chakra at the bottom of the spine) is sleeping coiled in three and a half circles. Three and a half circles means Aa, Uu, Ma, (the three sound components of Om), the Ardhachandra and the Bindu. (Om as written).

In the pit, the movements come, one after another. Animal postures. The Lion. The Elephant. The Boar.

“From Omkar you get Soham. Invert that, you get Hamsa, the Swan. Invert that, you get Simha, the Lion. Simha is in the Prana. The Simha Vadivu we use with the Narasimha Mantra. We also have the elephant posture. And when we are doing the elephant posture, we chant the Ganapati mantra. When we do the Varaha, we chant the Varaha mantra.”

And there is always the connection to the Chakras. “When your breath channel is moving through ida and pingala, sun and moon, two kinds of breath, left and right -- when they move together, that is when the central route of the Chakras is working. Through the chakras you are opening the sixth sense. Your knowledge becomes of the past, present and future, trikala gnayani.”

As I move in the Kalari pit, or, I should say, write these lines (thus retiring my imaginary student), I am thinking about Veda and Tantra, thinking about how, if the Sciences, when applied, gives you Technology, the Tantra could well be thought of as Applied Veda. Whatever the rivalry of later Vedic and Tantric gurus and practitioners, as evidenced in some texts, modern syncretic Hinduism in action, in all its forms, from the Sandhyavandanam to Shodashopachara Pooja, from Temple worship sequences to Havans and Homas, clearly reflect both Vedic and Tantric thought and practice.

Be that as it may, as the Kalari master speaks, the journalistic question-and-answer becomes conversation, conversation becomes communion, and communion becomes learning and transformation. I get a distinct sense of a Guru’s blessing, anugraha.

“With the central channel working, with full knowledge and awareness, you win over the fear of death. This awareness you can enjoy, this connect with a deep spirit, and then you are happy. This is the warrior’s journey, the Yodhayana.”

Part Two

Lakshman Gurukkal, the Kalari master of Kalarigram, is telling a story.

A king invites the Kalari master, to teach the martial art to the best warriors in his Army. The training progresses. Then one night, the warriors are speared, in their sleep. Some students escape with their lives, some don’t.

The King is aghast. What are you are doing, he asks the Guru, I gave you my hand-picked best from my own Army. You have killed so many of them!

“Even in sleep, the warrior must be aware. Urakkathilum Unardhu Irrukkanam,” declares the Kalari master. “The ones who died, they would have been of no use to you anyway.”

Gurukkal’s emphasises the close relationship of the Breath with Time. Knowledge and mastery of the Breath, is mastery of Time -- isn’t that what he is saying?

Jyotisha, Vedic Astrology, always considered one of the ‘Angas’ to the Veda, is also part of Kalari Payattu.

Gurukkal says, “Everything is connected to time. Not just your future, but what you are. Astrology just connects all of this. In fact when you start Kalari you have to check your horoscope. Time in terms of Muhurtha is also very important for us.

“We study how the breath moves, primarily through which nostril, Ida or Pingala. The old masters used to find out many things from your breath. And from your Vak (speech). They will take a word you have said, break it up in terms of how you enunciated it and do an analysis. Everything is breath based.

“In the martial arts, we have the concept of the Marma points in the human body. They are closely related to time and calendric calculations and astrology. Then take Kundalini. There is a reason why it is called serpent power. The serpent power comes to the Sahasrara Chakra, becoming nectar. Poison becomes nectar. And how it travels is related to the cycle of the moon.

“The Kalari pit has a South West corner where there are seven steps. These are related to the chakras. Even in the measurements -- 27 inches is one of the dimensions used, which is related to the 27 nakshatras.  Everybody’s nakshatra will be there. 27 angulas are there. You will also see 96 flowers. They stand for the 96 tatvas. Panchabhutas, Pancha-gyanendriyas, plus Karmendriyas. In Tantra you have the 26 tatvas. This is the same thing with greater elaboration. It is 64 plus 32. Astrology, Marma science, martial arts and medical practice all comes together.”

History and background

Lakshman Gurukkal studied in a traditional family in Calicut, North Malabar. Two different styles of Kalari Payattu are recognised. The original style comes from the Northern Kerala. This region has a ballad tradition called Vadakan Pattu (Northern Songs), which tell the stories of great Kalari warriors and heroes. Unni Achan, Kannapan Unni, Aroman Shegan…

One great guru, known as Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal, credited with the art form’s revival after the ban by the British Raj, hailed from a village called Mukkali near Badagara. His first disciple was Govindan Kutty Nambiar Gurukkal. And our present Guru’s father learnt from him.

“During the British period Kalari was banned. They saw that it would be difficult to rule if Kalari was practiced! If you taught or practiced Kalari you would be sent to the jail in the Andamans. We have lost many styles of Kalaripayattu. A few were kept alive in great secret. This was the situation for almost a 100 years.

 Not many know that K. Kelappan, a freedom fighter famous as the Kerala Gandhi, was from a traditional Kalari family. He and Kanaran Gurukkal were instrumental in reviving Kalari as part of the freedom movement itself (participating in the famous Civil Disobedience movements like Niyamalangana Prasthanam). They started publically teaching and performing Kalari.

This is the main reason why modern Kalari schools have names with a distinct nationalistic flavour – Hindustan Kalari, like our Gurukkal’s, Bharat Kalari, in Kannur, Kerala Kalari, and so on.

“So Kottakal Kanaran Gurukkal started the Hindustan Kalari school and my father’s teacher Govindan Kutti Nambiar was one of the old students of his school. This school also has a lot of other famous masters like C V Narayanan Nair, one of the legends of Kalari, and Kunjalankal Gurukkal,” he says.

 All these masters are from what are called Northern styles, referring to the North of Kerala. As he explains, the southern style is actually not called Kalari at all.

“It is called Adi Thada (Hitting-Blocking). Here the focus is on empty hand fighting and marma related fighting, while in the northern style we mostly focus on body flexibility and exercises. That is why a lot of theatre people, dancers, come to this art form. Because it helps in beautiful movements, flexible movement.”

Kathakali and its close kin Krishna Naatam owe a lot to Kalari, especially Kottayam Kalari. Kathakalli itself used to be called Rama naatam, the names a reflection of the stories they told.

While the revival has given us much, much has also been lost.

“If you read the Vadakan Pattu, the Northern Ballads, there are a lot of Theyam stories. Theyam is a ritual art form in the temples. These stories are about warriors who became Gods. Thachodi danam, kalarivardhu veeran, Vayanad Kurukallam. After their death they became Gods. Some of these warriors travelled in the Tulu region of Gokarna, Udupi, and Mangalore. For a long time there was a Tulu nadan Kalari. This style is now completely lost. Many of these ballads and vaay tharis (oral texts) refer to techniques and styles but we have no idea how to perform or practice them,” Lakshman Gurukkal says.

The warrior journey

And so we come back to the warrior’s journey, the Yodhayana, and the intense practice routines of the Kalari Kuzhi, the movements, the animal postures, the weapons, the attack, and the defence.

There is another way to look at the animal aspect. “You have a lot of animal qualities inside. While practicing that quality will come out. When you are fighting with someone, what you are carrying, what you are supressing, will come out through the practice. You become freer. You become lighter. There is an emotional release.”

He invokes the well-known Pancha Koshas of the Upanishads and Ayurveda. “That is why in our journey we go from the physical to the spiritual. From the Annamayakosha, the Pranamayakosha, the Manonmayakosha, the Vignyanamayakosha and finally the Anandhamaya Kosha.

Evoking both Vedic teaching as well as Vedic Inquiry through negation, Neti Neti, “Not this, not this”, he goes on: “Annam is Brahman, but when you reach it, we are told Neti Neti.

Prana, Manas, Vignyanam, are all identified with Brahman, and then negated, Neti, Neti.

“Then finally Anandam. Then there are no more questions. There is no fear. It is over.”

He talks about the power of Sadhana, practice. The intensity and repetition, over years, creates great understanding and anticipation. He talks about how, for a trained Kalari warrior, the opponent has to just “open” his posture in preparation of making a move, and the warrior will know exactly how and where the opponent is going to attack.

He will probably know just looking in your eye, I think. You don’t even have to twitch.

As we leave, we talk briefly about what might happen to Kalari Payattu if we take the “Studio” approach to promoting it. And the danger of how, as it is happening with Yoga, Meditation and Mindfulness, people will hijack it, sever it from its Vedic, Tantric, and Hindu foundations, at the most acknowledging only the later Buddhist associations. Even the teachers are sometimes forgotten.

He acknowledges the danger, even as, like a true Guru, he expresses a concern for all humanity.

“Everybody is searching for happiness. Our Indic sciences try to answer the question, who am I?  We are on the path to finding out the truth. That is why we call our dharma Sanathana Dharma. That is what our Rishis found out. Rishayo mantra drishtaraha. The Rishis are the ones who “saw” the Veda mantras. They perceived the Truth. That is why they and the mantras are important. That is why the Guru and his Kripa are important.

“Guru Kripa Mathrena Vidya. (Learning comes from the grace of the Guru). The guru, the mantra, the devata and the practice, all four have to come together. You have to prepare yourself, the spark comes from the Guru. That is why this is Sanathana dharma, nobody can do anything to it. Whatever anybody does, it will still come back. The reason is that the truth is here. We don’t just talk, we talk about what is true. That is why we are without fear. That is why we say, (in Tamil), thottu kaattamal vidya, sutta podu. (The knowledge you cannot touch, throw it in the fire.) We have the guts to say this because there is so much truth here. In Kalari, we go into the earth to practice, we feel our roots. If you keep cutting the roots, none of this will work.”


C.K.Shridhar (Sridhar K Chari) is a writer-editor and speaker on the Veda and Vedic and Indic traditions of India, and a Strategic Communications consultant. As a mainstream journalist in a previous avatar, he has written on everything from defence and foreign policy to business and corporate strategyh