My guide wants me to visit an old Kalaripayat master who is also a master of yoga breathing and meditation. “An astonishing person, a sage,” he tells me. An appointment is arranged for me.
The house is at the end of a dusty street teeming with children as they always are in India--a street with indescribable odors, bitter, unsavory
yet suddenly rather sensual. On one side of the road, shacks and their beggars line the route.
I push open a heavy door and an old woman comes toward me, bowing repeatedly, offering words of welcome that my guide translates for me. She leads me through a dark corridor to the living room that looks out on a garden burgeoning with luxurious vegetation including jackfruit trees and bougainvillea.
A door opens slowly. The old master, aristocratic, with haughty bearing, who is called Pratap, appears and leads us to a large, empty room furnished only with a carpet.
“Have a seat,” he says, indicating the carpet.
With a supple movement, he is quickly seated and there we are both crouched down in the hot, muggy atmosphere of the room. After offering a few polite words, I explain the reason for my visit, my interest in Kalaripayat and my research on the martial art and its different techniques.
He looks at me with a slight smile, his eyes twinkling. In spite of his advanced age, his look is amazingly lively. His body seems lithe and muscular.
“May I help you?”
He speaks perfect English, a result of the British occupation. On a kind of wooden stand where incense is burning, filling the room with its penetrating scent, palm leaf manuscripts arouse my curiosity. The master hands one to me and explains, “I write these at night. They are texts that summarize my experience with our art. Some young people who like to call themselves my disciples often come here to read them.”
After a few minutes, the old woman returns with a pot of boiling tea, bananas, mangos, and coconut.
He shows me other documents, several centuries old he tells me, in which we see animals in combat (lions, monkeys, serpents). These documents are handed down from generation to generation. Written by hand on palm leaves and illustrated with finely engraved diagrams, these documents deal with astrology, medical science, pressure points, and the art of combat. They are written in the Malayalam language (a Dravidian language of south India) and are anonymous: Parappa Padu Varman Pandirndum, Pankanam Todu Maram Thonutiaarun.
Pratap then tells me about the origins of his art and how the great masters observed the combat techniques of animals:
“Kalaripayat proceeds from two great principles: the mind is in charge in the body and one’s opponent is vanquished by turning his own force back on him. The swallow swoops down to peck, the bear grabs, the serpent undulates, the crane spreads his wings and pecks with his beak. The masters of former times, having withdrawn to the solitude of the mountains to live in harmony with nature and to meditate, studied and observed the movements of various animals, and from these creatures they learned their main defense and attack positions.”
I steer the conversation toward meditation and the breathing practices that the masters deem so important and that they so carefully guard in secrecy. He stops me immediately saying that he is not allowed to speak to me about that. I insist. After a long moment of silence, he agrees to tell me a few details about certain theories underlying the breathing techniques.
“Nature has set at 21,000 the number of our exchanges of breath (in-breath and out-breath) between two sunrises. A breathing cycle that is too quick, or is noisy and agitated, accelerates this rhythm and shortens the length of one’s life. A slow, deep, and calm rhythm economizes on what we have been allotted and lengthens life. Exchanges that have been economized in this way accumulate and form an important reserve from which a man can extract several extra years of life.
“It should also be noted that the breath is only the physical expression of a more subtle force that is the real underlying support for the body. It is the energy that is hidden and is invisible in all our vital organs. When it departs from the body, breathing stops, and that is what we call death.
“Controlling the breathing allows us to master, to a certain extent, this invisible flux. However, though we push the control of the body to the extreme so that even movements of the heart can be mastered, don’t imagine that our former masters were only thinking of the body and its organs when they began to teach our system.”
I listen. He is quiet for a few moments.
“Can you really control the working of the heart?”
“Yes, our vital organs, the heart, the stomach, the kidneys, are brought under control to a certain degree by our masters.”
“How is that done?”
“By the action of mental processes, combined with the appropriate exercises. Thanks to these practices, I have been able to control the cardiac muscles and also the other organs. Here, put your hand on my wrist and feel my pulse.”
As he says this, the old man assumes a lotuslike posture, lowers his head, and closes his eyes. His breathing becomes slower and is soon imperceptible. I wait for a few minutes, noticing nothing unusual. His heart is beating at about sixty beats a minute.
Then, gradually, I feel the heartbeat slow down, become slower, then slower still until it comes down to about forty beats per minute.
This phenomena lasts about a minute, then gradually the heartbeat speeds up and returns to its normal rhythm.