Kungfu or gongfu or gung fu is a Chinese term often used by speakers of the English language to refer to Chinese martial arts. Its original meaning is somewhat different, referring to one’s expertise in any skill, not necessarily martial.
Originally, to practice kung fu did not just mean to practice Chinese martial arts. Instead, it referred to the process of one’s training – the strengthening of the body and the mind, the learning and the perfection of one’s skills – rather than to what was being trained.
Chinese martial arts sometimes referred to by the Mandarin Chinese term wushu and popularly as kung fu, consist of a number of fighting styles that have developed over the centuries. Those fighting styles can be classified according to common themes that are identified as “families”, “sects” or “schools” of martial arts. Examples of themes are physical exercises that mimic the movements of specific animals, or a history and training method inspired by various Chinese philosophies, myths and legends. Some styles focus on the harnessing of qi and are labeled internal, while others concentrate on improving muscle and cardiovascular fitness and are labeled external. Geographical association, as in northern and southern, is another popular method of categorization. Each fighting style offers a different approach to the common problems of self-defense, health, and self-cultivation from a Chinese perspective.
It would be interesting to note that an ancient form of martial art practiced in the Vedic times especially in South India elaborately bring out the above and may after indepth study and research bring us to the original parents of kung fu, but, nevertheless the article is not meant to show the Chinese martial art to be of a lower order or in poor light.
The martial art that is sought to be drawn attention to by way of this write-up is better known as Kalarippayattu.
The origin of Kalarippayattu can be traced back to the Vedic period.
The Sanskrit word Kaloorika is used to denote a place of learning. A similar word in Tamil , Kalloori is used in place of university even in modern days. Kaloorika, Kalloori and Kalari are nothing but words used from time immemorial to denote places of learning like schools, colleges and universities.
Kalaripayattu literally means “the way of the battlefield.” This martial art originated in the kingdom of Cheras, in present day Kerala, South India. It is more than 2,000 years old. It is this martial art that is recognized to be the precursor of the Asian ones of today.
However, Kalari was just one of many martial arts that evolved from the ancient martial art of Vajramukti, or “Thunder Fist.” Kshatriya Vajramukti is mentioned in the great Ramayana war, which occurred 5114 BCE. Indrajit, demon warrior prince, was mentioned to be highly proficient in its use.
Vajramukti branched out into various Indian martial arts – Simhanta, Kalaripayattu, and Nata being the most famous.
Kalaripayattu continued to evolve for many years.
According to certain legends, around 525 AD an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharama traveled to China and preached at the Shaolin temple. On finding the monks weak and listless, Bodhidharama taught them the eighteen hands of Buddha – a special set of exercises and from this evolved the Chinese art of Shaolin Boxing. These eighteen hands of Buddha were said to be derived from the eighteen adavukal (adavu = technique), which form the base of the Vadakkan or northern style of Kalarippayattu. Slowly this fighting system spread to Japan and along with the fighting traditions already present in those regions, developed into many of today’s martial arts.
Buddhism, as you probably know, originated in India, with the Hindu prince Siddharta Gautama, who attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. Buddhist monks are commonly attributed to bringing martial arts to the rest of Asia.
Coming back to Kalarippayattu, this martial art form is as old as the great Indian philosophy and the Vedas. It is the martial tradition of Kerala and it has its roots deep in the Vedic culture of India. Kalarippayattu is considered by many as the most comprehensive of all the martial traditions because it is :
a) an excellent system of physical training,
b) a very effective self defense techniques – both armed and unarmed,
c) a great system of vital t/pressure points system of fighting and treatment based on the principles of Ayurveda, and,
d) a great philosophy based on the Vedic culture of India.
It is this martial art that is recognized to be the precursor of the Asian ones of today.
According to certain legends yoga, classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam and martial traditions like Kalarippayattu evolved from Lord Shiva. The physical exercises practiced by Lord Shiva and other divine beings, were put together to form the base of present day yoga, by the great sage Patanjali. The dance forms were derived from the Ananda Thandava (ananda means pleasure, happiness etc.) of Lord Shiva and codified by sage Bharata in his famous work called Natyasasthra. From the war dance or Samhara Thandava of Lord Shiva evolved the martial traditions of India. Sage Parasurama who retrieved the land of Kerala from the sea was a disciple of Lord Shiva and Parasurama learned all of the martial techniques and the use of divine weapons from Him. (The art of warfare of the Vedic period can be seen in Dhanurveda where it has been codified systematically).
Parasurama is said to have traversed the earth 21 times defeating all the Kshathriya (warrior caste like the samurai of Japan) kings. In doing so he had to kill many of them. In order to get rid of all those sins, Sage Parasurama decided to perform tapa (a kind of deep meditation). For this he had to get some virgin land. He threw his battle axe into the sea from Gokarna – a place in the northern most part of present day Kerala, and the axe fell into the sea at Cape Comorin. The sea from Gokarna to Cape Comorin receded and the land of Kerala rose from the waters. Parasurama established temples, towns, Vedic schools and most importantly 64 kalaris or gymnasiums throughout the length and breadth of the virgin land Kerala. He entrusted each kalari to a specific family of warriors and taught them the secrets of the art of divine warfare which in the course of time became to be known as Kalarippayattu – kalari means training center and payattu means warfare or fight.
The three main styles of Kalarippayattu are:
1) The southern style known as Thekkan (popular in Southern Kerala),
2) The northern style known as Vadakkan (popular in Northern Kerala), and,
3) The very rare and most difficult system called Kathinayoga (Kathina = hard or difficult)
The weapons used in kalari system can be generally classified into three categories:
1) Mukta – means one which get released from the hand of the warrior. Sub-categories are pani mukta and yanthra mukta. ‘Pani’ means hand and ‘yanthra’ means machine. Examples are throwing axe and spears for panimukta and bow and arrow and catapult for yanthramukta.
2) Amukta – means one that does not leave the hand of the warrior. Examples are sword and shield, long staff and so on.
3) Muktamukta – means one that can be used handheld and or thrown. Examples are certain types of spears and “valari” (boomerang).
Chakra is a mukta category weapon and its use in battlefield has been described in detail in the classic epic ‘Mahabharata’. In Kalarippayattu, the chakra is not used at present. But in the case of southern style Kalarippayattu and Silambam, there is a weapon called “valari” which is nothing but a boomerang and at present only certain tribal people in the mountain regions of Tamil Nadu use it.
Thekkan kalari system places more emphasis on the empty hand fighting, wooden weapons like the long staff, short stick or Muchchan vati and the striking of vital points while less emphasis is placed on the use of sword and shield. After sufficient practice of the solo forms and then mastering the empty hand sets and prearranged sparring with partner the student of Thekkan or southern style Kalarippayattu moves on to the study of the use of weapons such as long staff, Kurunthadi, knife or dagger, Valum parichayum (sword and round shield), Chuttuval (flexible sword), etc.
The northern style is characterized with the typical leaping and jumping movements which is unique to the system. The training starts at an early age (as early as 5 years). The place of training called Kalari has very strict dimensions. One of the unique practices of the Vadakkan style is the applying of oil on the practitioner’s body before training. Herbal oils are applied and Chavutti Thirummal or foot massage is performed before undertaking training. This helps in developing flexibility and preventing injury. After the Meyppayttu (solo forms) the student progresses to Kettukari (long staff), Muchchan (short stick), Katara (dagger), Valum parichayum (sword and shield) and Urumi (flexible sword) and then to the Ottakkol (curved stick).
The greatest and ultimate system. Even in its heyday only a handful of people could learn this style. It is based on the principles of internal energy called Kundalini and yogic breath control named Pranayama. This form would have been extinct by now but for the efforts of the great Guru Sri. K.R. Kumaran Asan. Sri Kumaran Asan resurrected this form of kalari based on the Pranayama, Tantra and Yajurveda through hard training and teaching which spanned a lifetime of 98 years. He passed away on 30th June 2001. Even one week before his sad demise he could throw persons weighing as much as 90 kilograms some 10 feet away.
This is just amazing, don’t you think?
Kalari literally means school or training place. For the guru and the student the kalari is the most sacred place on earth. The place is as sacred as a temple. These places are constructed according to the principles of vastu shastra ( vedic science of building).
The northern system uses the kuzhikkalari or pit kalari while the southern system uses an open or fenced space for training.
Kathinayoga training is done in natural surroundings usually near a river or lake or the seaside. The place where training takes place is dug up to a depth of one foot and filled with river sand. The quantity of the sand will often be more than that is necessary to fill the pit. This is very important as the Kathinayoga training system has some brutal movements in which the practitioners slam their opponents/training partners onto the ground with maximum force. On a hard surface this means certain death! The training sometime takes place in knee to hip deep water. Again the sacred kalari lamp is lit at the south-west corner.
The Kalarippayattu has a wonderful system of medicine based on the principles of ayurveda and in the case of the southern style, the ancient Tamil texts written by sage Agasthya on the science of vital points or marma. Some of the core principles of ayurveda form the basis of kalari treatment . But kalari treatment differs from the ayurveda in many ways.
Kalari treatment, on the other hand, evolved to treat mainly the warriors who get injured either in battle or during training.. The ayurvedic principles play an important role in kalari treatment, but the Siddha system of medicine – the system of ayurveda popularized by sage Agasthya and his disciples in the southern most part of India, in the present day states of Kerala and Tamilnadu, predominates over ayurveda in the southern style kalari treatments. The practitioners of northern system of Kalarippayattu follow mainly the texts of Susrutha, Charaka and Vagbhata and their system of medicine is much more closely related to the Ayurveda than the southern style kalari marma treatment.
A student who undergoes Kalari training for the prescribed 12 years of training would be a master of:
1) Empty hand fighting,
3) Traditional weapons like long staff, short stick, dagger, spear and sword,
4) An expert masseur,
5) An expert in the traditional Ayurvedic/Marma (pressure point) treatment,
6) Would have a deep knowledge in the Vedic tradition of India,
7) Adept in the art of Pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) and yoga (those who practice the yogic way of Kalarippayattu).
The disciple of Kalarippayattu would become a complete human being.
There are many other martial arts in the world like karate, kungfu and so on. One may therefore ask as to what makes Kalarippayattu different from the others?
Martial arts/ science are a part of any human civilization. In fact the system of fighting is the most necessary adaptation required for any living creature for survival. Thus different civilizations adapted different martial techniques over the course of the evolution of mankind. What makes the system of Kalarippayattu different from the other styles of martial arts is that this is a complete system by itself. It is beyond being a mere martial art. Empty hand techniques, weapons, flexibility and strength training, traditional treatments and above all a great philosophy based on the Vedic concepts of ancient India makes Kalari the most complete system of martial training.
Tibet has the most striking evidence that the oriental martial arts of today have their roots in India. For in Tibet, survives the ancient Indian martial art of Simhanta (Lion’s Roar!) in its relatively unchanged form. Simhanta is one of the most ancient Indian martial arts, one of the first styles to evolve from Vajramukti.
Tibetan Simhanta, sometimes called Tibetan Kung Fu, is Indian in every aspect. From the Sanskrit names, to the Hindu mantras, to the techniques, which are drawn from Vajramukti and Kalari.
It is from the Hindu God Narasimha, from which Simhanta takes its name.
The major mantra of Tibetan Simhanta, which all practitioners recite is “Om Ah Hum Vajra Simhanada Sangha Hum,” which praises Narasimha, and is in the Sanskrit language.
Readers of this article may please write in to us as we wish to feature and unravel many more mysteries of Vedic times. Watch out for more in this space, with the next article on another form of martial art, just about as old as kalarippayattu.