Written by Yasas Ratnayake, pictures by Nuwan Attanayake and Yasas Ratnayake
Continued from Trekking in India Part II…
As the streamers of light poured through the tiny airplane windows of flight AI-54 to Cochin, we had our first glimpse of Kerala from the air. Unlike the dusty and chaotic atmosphere of Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra, Kerala greeted us with its lush greenery and serene vistas.
It may seem like a routine task to find these fighters, but it was easier said than done. Prior to our visit to India, we researched Kalari practitioners and got a rough idea of where they might be in Kerala (Thank You, internet!). Although there were websites from several different Kalari schools online, communicating with them on the phone to set up shoots proved to be difficult due to the language barrier we faced with the native Malayalam speakers who spoke little or no English.
But regardless of these challenges, we were on a mission. Our strategy was to first locate the Kadathanadan Kalari Center in Thekkady (our first lead), and gather more information and seek out more Kalari teachers around Kerala.
Roughly 250km east of Cochin and close to the border of Tamil Nadu, the hill station of Thekkady was home to the Kadathanadan Kalari Center, a popular tourist attraction of the area that had a daily Kalaripayattu show. We found ourselves in a small arena that was packed with families, children, and tourists looking on with eager eyes to see the dashing moves of Kalari fighters.
As we watched the show, we got our first ever glimpse of Kalaripayattu. The exciting routine, with its sword-fights, fireball twirling, and daring stunts was a good insight into what to expect in the upcoming days of our expedition. Although this whole shindig was a little too commercial for our liking, we got a tipoff of where to find some traditional practitioners. The district of Kozhikode (also known as Calicut), another 250km north of Cochin, was apparently well known for its Kalari practitioners. Armed with this intel, we were on the move once again.
After making our way through the lush coconut-fringed roadways to the north of Kerala, we found ourselves in the city of Calicut. This region was known as Malaya Rata in Sri Lankan historic sources, and has had many interactions with Sri Lanka in both times of war and peace. True to the words of our contacts in Thekkady, we managed to meet more Kalari gurus and see more traditional Kalaripayattu schools in the Calicut area.
One lead led to another and that lead led to more and we were fortunate enough to locate the CVN Kalari Center in Karanthoor, where Guru Satheesh and his group of students gave us a demonstration of Kalari exercises, hand-to-hand combat, weapon combat, and traditional rituals. We watched and took photographs as these nimble Kalari fighters performed high kicks and demonstrated numerous locks and grips for us. We managed to get some great photographs for the book and managed to get further leads on more Kalari practitioners.
Our journey wasn’t over by any means though. After following up on another lead, we set off to the city of Vadakara, another 50km north of Calicut. In Vadakara, we met more traditional Kalari practitioners from several Kalari schools in the area. Speaking to these gurus, we learned about the in’s and outs of Kalaripayattu. They gave us demonstrations, took us through their traditional rituals, and explained their histories to us. Finding these guys was no walk in the park. We had to scrounge through footpaths in pitch darkness, get lost on the road, and have endless troubles communicating with the locals.
The most valuable find we made in Vadakara was when we met Guru Meenakshi, a 72-year-old lady who impressed us all with some tremendous skills that were way beyond what we expected from someone her age.
Firstly, she looked much younger than her actual age. And secondly, she was much faster and stronger than most young people you would find nowadays. Her skill and prowess was a testament to the life enhancing powers of martial arts. As she fluidly manoeuvred her staff, we saw how years of practice can bear amazing results. Guru Meenakshi demonstrated how Kalari stick fighting happens, and her demonstration was purely magical to watch as she moved at a blistering pace and used her staff with unmatched grace.
All in all, our trip to Kerala was full of memorable experiences, but most importantly, we had accomplished some work that had never been done before. We witnessed the similarities and differences between Kalaripayattu and Angampora and clearly saw how the two arts were distinct from each other and unique in their own right.
Our book will be the first in-depth study on Angampora and it will be of invaluable use to researchers who wish to study the subject in the future. It also promises to show people some things that they never knew existed, and we are extremely excited to show you the results!