Letter from India: Kalarippayattu

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity and transparency, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in Singapore. I am back home now for a few days break.


A continuation of Letter from India: Trivandrum

India is helping me slow down. On Day 1 I am frustrated when I find out it will take three days to get my Indian SIM card. On Day 5 I hear that the new estimate is one week. Babu Uncle, in a rare rationalisation of Indian delays, says something about terrorists and cellphone-activated bombs, but all I can think about is the Roaming Charge Bomb that Singtel will dispatch in three weeks.

Moreover, it’s getting embarrassing and tiresome responding to well-meaning folks who repeatedly ask, “You don’t have a local number?” For writers working abroad today, a local cell number is essential, not only for convenience’s sake, but also because it symbolises, in some small way, a semi-permanent, serious kind of scholarship, as opposed to parachuting, fly-by-night analysis.

The SIM episode is just one of several that elicits my Singaporeanness. One of our incurable addictions is to convenience. Whenever we are overseas—whether in Boston or Bombay—everything, from getting a phone line to a milkshake, just seems to take much longer. This can cause mild irritation, especially when it is our stomachs that are kept waiting.

Despite visiting India many times, these little delays still always bother me. Worse, another surprise beckons: contrary to what I had thought, many people here in Trivandrum, including the owner of the corner stall that sells pre-paid SIM cards, don’t speak English.

It is in this mood—frustrated, irritable, lost in translation, and having just failed to find the “secret vaults” at Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple (see previous letter)—that Kirit Kiran, my travel companion cum photographer, and I walk into CVN Kalari, a famous kalarippayattu centre with branches across Kerala.

I had first heard about CVN Kalari Zarrillithrough that most reliable of Indian sources: a British scholar. After reading the first two chapters of When the body becomes all eyes (pictured) by Philiip Zarrilli, I email him. Now a professor at Exeter University, he responds almost instantly.

“Many of the old masters of kalarippayattu with whom I interacted between 1976 and 1993–a period in which I lived in Kerala for 7 years–have passed on now. Many of their kalaris and its teachings are now in the hands of a younger generation so I am not sure I can do more than refer you to my book and various essays about kalarippayattu published over the years.”

When we get to CVN Kalari, several older Malayali men are milling around the entrance, smiling but keeping their distance; we poke our heads in and look around hopefully for somebody who understands us. A diminutive white girl emerges from within the group of men. “Yes, can I help you?” she asks, in what I think is a German accent. We are soon speaking to Sathyan, the gurukkal of the kalari, who asks us to return the following morning at 7am. “Yes, I know Zarrilli’s book, I am on the cover,” he beams. (A much younger Sathyan is on the right.)

The next morning, Day 2, Trivandrum is still mostly sleeping when Kirit and I leave Babu Uncle’s house at 615am. The familiar din of traffic and honking has been replaced by sweet chirping—Kirit and I will go on to share many Kerala moments trying to decipher exactly how many different species of birds there are around us. On the main road, traffic is sparse, as a young girl learns to roller skate on damp, pot-holed roads, with her father chugging along by her side in an 800cc car, offering protection and advice.

At CVN Kalari we find two older men and a few young boys inside the kalari, or training area. They are wearing only teeny loincloths and are in different stages of preparation—some massaging Ayurvedic oils onto their bodies, others already doing basic exercises. Kirit and I sit on an elevated platform and observe them.

There is one basic movement that predominates—a simple walk up and down the kalari floor, alternatively swinging each foot high into the air. It is not unlike one of the warm-up exercises that footballers perform, and so I figure it can’t be that tough. Most of the students are simply repeating this exercise over and over again, up and down the kalari. They perform it in unison, with at least one other person. Some, including a white guy who has just joined in, have a look of intense concentration. Though all this seems pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, the row of weapons—sticks, knives, swords, shields—arranged on the far wall bears promise to the ferociousness ahead.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, the exercise movements become a bit more complex (pictured), and some of the positions and postures make for good photographs. But nothing to really titillate the senses of those brought up on a diet of Jet Li and Kung Fu Panda; and certainly nothing resembling the cover of “the Zarrili book”. Finally, at the very end, we get a bit more action, as students take turns sparring using the sticks (kettukari) with the senior-most disciple, Rajasekharan (Rajan). Yet even now, only one of the students manages to strike with any force and rapidity. Kirit snaps away.

kalari exercise

Gurukkal appears near the end of the session at 9, and ushers us into his office for an interview. During that time, we learn that kalarippayattu is more a “way of life” than anything “martial”, almost a morning exercise that should, ideally, be a part of everybody’s daily routine;  that the two kalarippayattu schools—“Northern” (which CVN Kalari belongs to) and “Southern”—are actually quite different, with the Southern adopting more brisk, forceful movements; that with rising child obesity in India many parents are sending their kids there primarily to lose weight; but that despite a renewed focus on kalarippayattu from some quarters of Keralite society, gurukkal is still worried about the future of the discipline—among other challenges, there are apparently many young aspirational Indians who are eager to embrace modernity, and for whom traditional art forms such as kalarippayattu are a tad stuffy and anachronistic.

“Did kalarippayattu influence Shaolin kung fu?”
“I am sure,” gurukkal says.

In a precursor to explanations I will hear many times in Kerala, gurukkal points to the evidence in Shaolin itself of Boddhidharma, an Indian Buddhist monk who is believed to have travelled from South India to Shaolin sometime in the 6th century. He also cites similarities in movements. “Many martial arts would have adopted some of kalarippayattu’s basic postures,” he says.

After about an hour, a queue of people has formed outside gurukkal’s office. They are patients, waiting to see him for Ayurvedic treatments to help with everything from the common cold to serious orthopaedic conditions. One of several features that sets kalarippayattu apart from other martial arts is its extensive medical knowledge bank and practise. For students wanting to become kalarippayattu practitioners and gurukkals, an understanding of this medical side is as essential as the exercises and the martial arts. With Rajan overseeing the daily training, gurukkal actual spends most of his time in the clinic.

“Is there any chance I can join one of your sessions?” I ask, as we are on the way out.
“One session?”
“Yes. I just want to see what kalarippayattu is like.”
“One session…hmmm…I’m not sure what you can learn in one session.”
“Not looking for much…just to do some basic exercises.”
He spends some time thinking, before finally agreeing.
“Please come tomorrow morning with three betel leafs, one areca nut and a bit of money for the donation. I will come down and show you. ”

He also tells me to wear a white veshti, or sarong, for the session. I assume that during the course of the day, I will be able to find the betel leafs and areca nut easily, so don’t think any more about it. The next morning, Day 3, I have borrowed a white veshti from Babu Uncle, but am still without the leafs and nut.

No matter, I think—we’ll find one on the way.
No such luck, at 615am.
No matter, I think—I’ll exercise first then give the donation later.

When Kirit and I get to the kalari, the same group of boys and men are there, massaging Ayurvedic oils onto their bodies. Gurukkal is nowhere to be seen, so I simply sit and wait by the side. At around 720am, the white girl who ushered us in on Day 1 appears. She smiles at us before quickly entering the kalari. She is dressed in gym-type spandex. Skipping the oils, she launches straight into the swinging-foot exercise. Next to the loin-clothed men, she looks out of place—and goes about her exercising on her own, without any partners. I scribble away on my notebook, unsure if I’ll actually get to join them.

Finally, at around 8am, gurukkal shows up, says hi to me, and then tells one of the senior students something in Malayalam, and then disappears. The student comes outside to meet me; and then asks for the three betel leafs and areca nut.
“Can we get it later?”
“No, no. Now.”
I am unsure why three betel leafs and one areca nut should stand in the way of me swinging my feet. But I wait as one of the boys, who is now done with his training, goes out to buy some.

It all becomes clear 15 minutes later, as I enter the kalari. There are many different formalities and rituals associated with the discipline. Enter with your right foot first. Touch the ground. Walk slowly around the kalari, paying respects to every picture and statue of Hindu gods and goddesses placed around the kalari, about five in total. Offer the three betel leafs—with stem facing away from you—one areca nut and a small cash donation to the main god. (This last ritual is done only the first time you train at a particular kalari.)

Only then is one ready to begin. But now that I’ve cleared the first hurdle, my inappropriate dressing becomes the next topic of conversation.

“Are you wearing anything inside?” Rajan asks, as he tugs at my veshti.

He grunts, as the other students, who have had to pause their training to accommodate the buffoon, look on impatiently. Before I had chuckled at their teeny loinclothes. Now I look at them enviously. And it suddenly occurs to me that gurukkal probably intended for me to come with a white veshti over a loincloth. I am missing the latter.

Over the course of the next thirty minutes, I will perform the swinging-foot exercise in three different outfits. First, the white veshti with nothing inside. Then, the white veshti with my SuperDry shorts inside. And finally, when they decide the white veshti is getting in the way, they whip it off; I’m left with only my green SuperDry shorts on. I look and feel stupid wearing contemporary American-Japanese apparel next to loin-clothed warriors performing a three-thousand year old exercise.

But by this point, I’m too busy worrying about swinging my feet. It is much harder than it looks. I have never been very flexible, and now nightmares of “sit-and-reach” marathons in school and excruciating one-off yoga sessions return to haunt me. Even though I did not apply the Ayurvedic oils, my body is wet, with perspiration.

Swinging foot

Good example: The correct way of swinging your foot

Me swinging foot

Bad example: Bent knees, low swing, improper attire (white veshti over green SuperDry)

Gurukkal takes me through the first fifteen minutes (pictured). He pays incredibly close attention to my swing—how far apart my feet are when I stand, whether my toes are pointed, where my eyes are looking, the flow of my swing, and my overall body posture, with hands straight above my head. When we reach one end of the kalari, we have to perform a little 180-degree spin around—again, with seemingly excessive focus on the minutiae of my turn.

Kalarippayattu emphasises the perfection of basic postures and movements. Some students can spend months doing the swinging-foot exercise before they are allowed to move on. The white girl has mastered it; when she swings each foot up, her knee touches her chest, and her foot, incredibly, seems to hover for a millisecond above and behind her head.

After a while, gurukkal leaves me alone to train the others. I wait by the inner edge of the kalari, watching them while trying to catch my breath. I have a newfound appreciation for these movements. Gurukkal then asks Arjun, the 28-year old Malayali with hazel-coloured eyes who I introduced in my first letter, to train me for a while.

With gurukkal just a few feet away and possibly observing, Arjun decides to do his best impersonation of a drill sergeant.

“Is that as high as you can go?”
Since there is no reason why I would be intentionally swinging low—I cannot even reach above waist-height—I assume this is a rhetorical question, and keep quiet.
“Do you speak English?” Arjun asks, more earnest than mocking.
“Yes. I’m swinging as high as I can.”
“OK. Why are you kicking? Don’t kick, just swing.”

With Arjun watching me like a hawk, I become more nervous. We reach the end and spin around. He has five times more pointers than gurukkal had about my 180-degree spin. Finally we start walking and swinging again.

“Is that as high as you can go?”
I keep quiet and try to swing higher.
“You are kicking again. Don’t kick!”
One more word, and I’ll kick you.

“One last time, OK?” Arjun asks, with absolutely no intention of this being the last time. In this, he reminds me of an old piano teacher, as well as a friend who was once coaching a bunch of us in a Hindi dance routine.
“One last time, OK?”
When we finish, he asks again, “You tired? One last time, OK?”

The cycle repeats for a good ten minutes. When we are finally done, my body feels looser and there’s a spring in my step. Arjun walks me through the exit formalities and rituals, and we leave the kalari area.

“Are you coming tomorrow?”
“One day is not enough.”
“I’m a writer, I just wanted a taste.”
“Yes, for ‘a taste’ you need seven days, one day is not enough.”

After the class, Arjun and I spend some time getting to know each other outside the confines of the slave driver-slave relationship. He is currently completing his masters in psychology and has some fascinating insights about kalarippayattu, which he has now been learning on and off since 2006. According to him, a unique aspect of the Northern school of kalarippayattu (which we are learning here) is that attacking strokes are never explicitly taught. One infers them only after years of training. There is therefore very little potential for misuse by brutish greenhorns.

He contrasts this with the other martial arts, including the Southern school of kalarippayattu, which he believes are more combative and hence will very early on train new recruits in attacking moves. The potential for misuse, he says, is greater.

In the week ahead, Kirit and I will spend some time at a Southern school as well, the aptly-named Boddhidharma Institute of Martial Arts in Poonthura, on the outskirts of Trivandrum. Here are two GoPro videos I recorded of stick fighting, which will give you some indication of the different intensities.

Northern school, CVN Kalari, Trivandrum

Southern school, Boddhidharma Institute of Martial Arts, Poonthura

A week later in Calicut, Kirit and I visit a karate school, where we meet the “renshi” Dileep Kumar, a Malayali man who made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 2006 by breaking more tiles—6,025 in 45 minutes—than any other. You will get to know Dileep better in a future post.

We are there because I want to find out why Malayalis would choose karate, a newer East Asian martial art, over their very own kalarippayattu. One of the main reasons, it turns out, is that kalarippayattu takes time. Time to get ready; time to wear the loincloth; time to apply and massage the Ayurvedic oils; time to complete your basic exercises; time to begin “combat” training.

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, many young Malayalis find kalarippayattu too time consuming; so they opt for disciplines such as karate, which offer them bite-sized one-hour training sessions and faster combat progression.

Indeed, kalarippayattu is perhaps growing fastest in popularity amongst an unlikely constituency: Western performers. There is Leonardo, the Italian experimental stage actor who has come to learn kalarippayattu on the advice of his Spanish theatre director, who himself did it many years ago. “It allows me to push my body further, in new ways,” he says. Then there is Rita, the mind-bogglingly flexible Hungarian ballerina/dancer who first welcomed us into CVN Kalari. She settled on kalarippayattu after learning different Indian dance forms, including bharatanatyam.

“In kalarippayattu you are stripped down to your bare essentials; it is the purest form I have found; there is a strong connection between you and Mother Earth,” she says. Rita has even been studying kalarippayattu’s medical side since September. Of all the kalarippayattu students I have met, she seems the most devoted to learning it in its entirety.

CVN Group shot

Practitioners at CVN Kalari, Trivandrum: Rita is in the middle. Leonardo is second from left. Arjun is second from right.

Therefore, my experience with kalarippayattu and its practitioners is revealing this tension in India between ancient, methodical traditions and modern, fast-paced society. And it is helping me deal with my impatience at the usual Indian delays.

By Day 12, when I discover in Calicut that the latest SIM forecast is two weeks, I am surprisingly non-plussed. Physically, mentally, spiritually, I am adjusting to India’s pace. By the time we make it up to Kasaragod, in the far northern reaches of Kerala, we are forced to temper demands and expectations even more. At noon we walk into the Indian Coffee House, whose signage boasts about its A/C and non-A/C dining areas. What we don’t realise is that the extensive menu on the wall is simply for show.

“Biryani. We have only biryani,” the mustachioed owner snaps, irritated that he has to communicate in Hinglish.  We would normally jump at the chance to line our stomachs with ghee and rice, but we are still recovering from last night’s biryani—we are, after all,  deep in the heartland of the Malabari Moplat Muslim community, for whom biryani is as much a staple as chicken tikka masala is for the British.

“Biryani. We have only biryani,” he repeats.
“Do you have any roti?”
“Do you have any chicken dishes?”
“Yes. Chicken biryani.”
Despondent, I sit down.
“Fine, I’ll just have coffee.”
“Coffee nehi.”

We later discover that the Indian Coffee House serves coffee only 4 hours a day, in the morning and evening.
It is around this point that I realise that I have altogether stopped thinking about the SIM card. And am feeling strangely relaxed.

The story continues at Letter from India: People

(For more photographs, please see Photos from India: Kalarippayattu)


For those of you who enjoy roti prata/canai, I have finally found its origin. Over the years, when travelling in India, I have always been puzzled why an Indian “paratha” or “parotha” is so different from the Singapore version. Well, roti prata/canai is actually an offshoot of the “barrotha” that you find in Malabar, the Northern part of Kerala. I ate it twice there. Once in the Paragon restaurant (pictured), an absolute must-stop for anybody visiting Calicut. The one here is better than anything I’ve ever had in Malaysia/Singapore; it’s the fluffy kind, not crisp. And again in a random coffeeshop in the tiny town of Kasaragod, where it was decent, not special.


On the advice of my good friends, Sumana Rajarethnam and Allanjit Singh, I decided to bring a GoPro camera along. This is partly because in addition to the traditional book, I intend to create an interactive App, which will integrate my text with a reasonable amount of good audio and video. I’m not sure whether it will all work out the way I intend, but I’m just randomly shooting for now.

After I finish my training on Day 3, I walk up to gurukkal with my GoPro in hand, a bit unsure how to explain what it is and what I want to shoot.
“Er, I was wondering if I could use this sort of video device to…”
“That’s a GoPro isn’t it?”

Rajesh GoPro

Phillip Zarrilli
I am to slowly discover that Phillip Zarrilli is a mini celebrity in some of Kerala’s cultural and traditional arts circles. Kalarippayattu practitioners refer gushingly to “the Zarrilli book” as one of the art’s defining textbooks. Kaladharan, a director at the Kerala Kalamandalam University of Art and Culture near Trichur, tells me about how Zarrilli spent time there learning kathakali, a traditional Kerala dance that has some roots in kalarippayattu. In Calicut, a bustling northern city with deep ties to “the Gelff”, M.G.S. Narayanan, a renowned Kerala historian, fondly remembers co-authoring a book with Zarrilli.

In Mallu land, Zarrilli’s the man.

12 thoughts on “Letter from India: Kalarippayattu

  1. Love it! Your Hungarian kalarippayattu devotee brings to mind cousin Shibu’s German Malayalam professor in Texas. We are losing our heritage to modernisation while Europeans are seeking it to return to balance and meaning.

  2. Sud, those GoPro shots are brilliant. Good idea to strap it onto the head of the instructor, really gives you a sense of the pace of this artform. Hope the others are as accommodating on your travels.

    1. Thanks Aloo. You just sparked an idea–I’ll carry the videos along on my phone, so at each stop I can cajole them by showing the videos of all the other centres up till that point. hopefully all agree.

      I actually just bought a GoPro Chest Harness as well–when filming kalari, there was one weapon, the dagger, that didn’t work with GoPro on head…would have been nice to mount it on chest.

  3. Great post … Wow, the birthplace of the Singapore / Malaysia prata we all know and love – that is truly a major finding! Like you, I have never been able to find it or anything close to it in other parts of India The paratha is quite different… What do they eat it with in Kerala?

  4. do you have a chapter on Ayurveda and how it ties in with Kalari? I think it does and I think you should.

  5. Hi Sudhir, friends forwarded me your excellent 4 part musings on GE 2015 and from there I landed here on your Kerala to Shaolin trail…..

    In the early 80s BBC released a fascinating documentary series on the origins of Asian martial arts ( BBC Documentary ‘The Way of the Warrior’ , 1983) it started , like your series/book started, in the Kalari martial studios of Kerala and through Shaolin Kung Fu, Kempo , Tai Chi it worked its way down to Indonesian and Malaysian Silat. I taped the series on videotapes which are sadly long lost /destroyed, but your Kalarippayathu letter activated those memories…… And I found them on YouTube!

    If you haven’t seen the series please type in “BBC Documentary ” The Way of the Warrior (1983)” into the YouTube search bar.
    Best regards,
    Ronny Tan ( your new Facebook friend )

Leave a Reply