Kalari: Indian Martial Arts


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The ethnic Indian martial art of Kalari Payat (Kalaripayattu) - meaning 'Battleground' or 'Gymnasium' - (Kalari), 'Method' or 'Art' - (Payatt), has a special significance for practitioners of the Tibetan and Chinese martial arts.

In tradition, the Shaolin Temple martial art of China was introduced by the Indian Buddhist Patriarch and founder of Ch'an' (Zen) Buddhism; Bodhidharma (450-523 AD). 

Bodhidharma known in Chinese as 'Dat-Mo' was the 28th Patriarch in the dhyana (Sanskrit for meditation and hence Ch'an and Zen) Buddhist tradition of India.

He had been invited to China by the Emperor Wu, an ardent Buddhist. Bodhidharma later retired to the Shaolin Temple, and according to legend instructed the Monks there in a series of exercises that went on to form the basis of Shaolin Temple 'boxing'.  Variously, these exercises are recorded as martial arts techniques and forms from India, or, simply calisthenics, as identified in the 'I Chin Ching' or "Muscle Changing Classic".  Extant wall paintings and murals at the Honan Shaolin Temple in North East China show etnic Indian Monks sparring and training in boxing skills with Chinese Monks, supporting the view that Bodhidharma's exercises were in fact martial arts - the martial arts of his homeland - India.

There are no records that chronicle the historical origins of Kalari Payat, only narrative accounts formatted as myth and legend. Most of these credit Kalari's origins to Lord Shiva, one of the three principle Gods of the Hindu pathenon.

Shiva has many aspects, he is depicted as moral and paternal, but also under one of his other names (mahakala) as the Great God of Time, the 'Destroyer' of all things. He is the Great Yogi who dwells on Mount Kailassa in the high Himalayas, deep in the dhyana meditation that maintains the worlds very existence.

Shiva was said to have taught the Brahmin (highest Hindu caste) Parasurama the art of Kalari Payat, the art itself arising out from Shiva's war with his Father-In-Law Daksha, one of the Prajapatis or 'Lords Of Creation'. Parasurama taught his 21 disciples (all Brahmins themselves) the art of Kalari Payat, and then opened 108 Kalari (school's/gymnasiums) around the Kerala region of Southern India.

The very sparse written historical details that exist today, about Kalari Payat, date back to between the 9th and 12th centuries AD. Obviously, this is much too late for the arts origins given the teachings of Bodhidharma, and the long martial heritage of India, known to the Persian Empire (circa 6th Century BC) and the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great (4th Century BC). It is however, well within the time frame for a transmission (along with Tantric Buddhism) to Tibet, and for the period of Ah-Dat-Tor Lama, founder of the Tibetan Lion's Roar Lama martial art (Circa 1426 AD) - see below.

Nevertheless, Bodhidharma, is remembered in the Kerala Region of Southern India - the Homeland of Kalari, as both a lineage Kalari Master, AND, as the Father of Han-Chinese Shaolin 'Kung-Fu'. 

Kalari Payat has many similarities with Chinese martial arts. There is a division into Northern and Southern styles. There is a separation of systems and techniques into 'external' and 'internal' categories. There is a medical tradition (in Kalari: Ayurveda), there is a vital point discipline (in Kalari: Marma-adi), there is a 'spiritual' aspect that covers both orthodox faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and also, as in Chinese Kung-Fu a demonology and the use of alters. There is a strong weapons training tradition in Kalari, indeed in some systems the empty hand arts are secondary - as in some South-East Asian martial disciplines.

Kalari has many distinct practices too, the use of massage to prepare the fighter for the rigors of training can last a period of several months. The 'Kalari' or Gymnasium - particularly in the Southern systems is constructed as a ritually dug pit of specific dimensions.

Kalari Payat today, is still practiced in the same manner as it was hundreds and probably thousands of years ago, the rural traditions of India keeping it's original practices very much alive and unaltered, in large contrast to much of Mainland Chinese Kung-Fu - which has undergone great change since the homogenization of the Cultural Revolution.

This author was astonished in 1982 to witness a British BBC television documentary entitled: "The Way Of The Warrior": 'Kalari, the Indian Way'. The opening film sequence was of a Southern Kalari Payat Guru (Master) performing a traditional 'Form' that was near identical to a Tibetan Lion's Roar Lama Kung-Fu form that he had learned! This was despite a separation between the arts of many hundreds of miles and several hundreds of years. The connection was real, present and obvious.

An intriguing suggestion has been made by several prominent martial arts historians, notably Tatsuo Suzuki, Hirokazu Kanazawa, and Masutasu Oyama, that the Greek Martial Art of Pankration (all Powers) introduced into India by the army of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC, influenced the development of Kalari, and thence, the martial arts of China, Tibet, Japan, Okinawa and South-East-Asia. The Greeks remained in India and Afghanistan for three hundred years, during which time Greek (Hellenistic) culture pervaded that of India, even influencing China and Japan.

Today, mainly for reasons of national pride, many Chinese reject out of hand the possibility of any effect on Kung-Fu from Greek Pankration. The Japanese and Okinawan's, who openly acknowledge the influence of Kung-Fu on their arts are less reticent.

Kalari and Tibetan Martial Arts:

The Tibetan Lion's Roar! Lama, Potala Palace Martial Art: the martial art of the Tibetan Nation and People; is a Tantric Yana in it's own right. The art becomes known to narrative history in the middle of the 15th century AD, when the Lama Ah-Dat-Tor, a Tantric Siddha (Crazy Wisdom Teacher), and student of Dharma Master Gong-Got Lama, at the Potala's famous: Namgyal or "Victorious" Monastery, 'created' the Lion's Roar! martial art through a Tantric meditative and Yiddam (Deity Meditation) process, making Lion's Roar Lama Potala Palace Kung-Fu, part of the Gelugpa or "Yellow Hat" school of Tibetan Buddhism, a part of the lineage sect of the Dalai Lama himself.

This is as far as the oral narrative histories, can take us. However, broader anthropological research can offer the potential for further insight.

The 'Potala':  Early legends concerning the Red Mountain at Lhasa, tell of a sacred cave, considered to be the dwelling place of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig that was used as a meditation retreat by Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century AD. In 637 King Songtsen Gampo built a palace on the 'Red Hill/Mountain' at Lhasa. From as early as the eleventh century the Palace was called Potala. The name probably derives from Mt. Potala (Sanskrit: Potalaka - derived from the Tamil for 'Brilliance' or 'To Light a Fire') the mythological mountain abode of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig (Indian - 'Avilokiteshvara', Han- 'Kuan Yin') in the Kerala region of Southern India.  The Potalaka is sacred to Hindu's, Jains and Buddhists. The Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo has been regarded as an incarnation of Chenrezig (as indeed were all the subsequent incarnations of the Dalai Lama). As he founded the Potala, it seems likely that the Mountain top Palace of Lhasa took on the name of the Indian sacred mountain.

Given this, and given that The Lion's Roar (as part of the Lotus Sutra) was originally a Theravada Arhat teaching, it seems likely that very early Buddhist influence (Theravadian) may well have entered into Tibet, and settled near to the Potala Mountain.  The Lion's Roar! Tibetan martial art, is acknowledged to have been influenced by the Indian martial art of Kalari Pyatt. Some narrative histories make direct claim that Ah-Dat-Tor was trained in Kalari, and, some martial arts forms from the 'Southern' style of Kalari Pyatt, from the Kerala district, are very close indeed in technique and sequence to modern Lion's Roar forms, even without any evidence whatsoever of any recent historical contact between the systems.  This fact was recorded in a BBC Television film documentary in 1981: "Kalari, the Indian way" which shows a Southern Kalari Master performing a martial arts form near identical to one found in a branch lineage from the Chan-Tat-Fu line of Tibetan Hap-Gar Kung-Fu. Given that the Sacred Mountain of Potala is in Southern India, a potential link to Southern Kalari martial arts is obviously evident (see above).

Given also that Gong-Got Lama (Dharma Master) was also a teacher of martial arts at the Potala to Ah-Dat-Tor Lama, it may well be that Southern Indian Kalari Pyatt together with its sister art Simhanada Vajramukti, was already present at Lhasa, and taught on the Potala Red-Hill for many generations before 'Lion's Roar' as we know it (exclusively through Han Chinese lineages) was 'formulated' by Ah-Dat-Tor himself.

The transformation of the Arhat (Theravadian) tradition into the Mahayana Bodhisattva, may mirror the transformation of Iindian Kalari Pyatt into Tibetan Lion's Roar Lama 'Kung-Fu'. Named Arhat forms still exist in some extant Han 'Tibetan' Hop-Gar, Lama and White Crane Kung-Fu lineages, that all arise from the original Lion's Roar of Ah-Dat-Tor. Bodhisattva forms also exist, showing the mixture of traditions. Indeed some Tibetan lineages in Hop-Gar claim that their Tantra is from the Karmapa 'Black-Hat' tradition, which cannot be the case if Ah-Dat-Tor was a Monk at the Potala, unless, further influence occurred after Ah-Dat-Tor's time, which seems to be the case.

Nevertheless, Ah-Dat-Tor's art, as originated by him, or as 'ascribed to him', albeit arising from a Kalari root, has further diversified into many branches.  To be authentically 'Tibetan' however, the Lion's Roar! Lama 'Kung-Fu' MUST be Tantric in form and practice, this is the essential root, and must be 'living' even in the Han-diversified or Westernized branches of the art.

To be practiced as Tantra, TRUE Lion's Roar! Martial Arts will resemble Japanese 'Zen' martial systems, even more than they do Han Chinese, in respect of their integrated spiritual - Buddhist practices. Just as Karate-Do is the way of the 'Empty' (Zen) Hand, so too is Lion's Roar 'Tantra', in it's integrated body, mind, and spiritual form.

Buddhism has always changed to meet 'local' conditions, in host cultures: Tibet, Thailand, Japan, China, the West etc (e.g. 'Gnostic Buddhism').  Lion's Roar! as a Tantric martial art has also changed and evolved, but, as with Buddhism, and in particular, as with 'Tibetan' Buddhism, the art must have a Tantric core. Then, the Lion's Roar! will still Roar the Buddha's Dharma, and still be a vehicle for transformation and enlightenment, just as it was always intended to be.....

'Tibetan' Kung-Fu has been demonstrated to be related in religion to India thru Tantric Buddhism, and now thru actual research the physical connections in technique and form can be seen as still alive, and still flourishing in Kerala, Southern India, the 'homeland' of Kalari, which is perhaps the 'Mother Art' for both Tibetan and Han Chinese 'Kung-Fu'......