Martial art generally evokes images of violence and Kalarippayattu of Kerala is no exception. But unknown to many, it also has a softer side - a healing system that is very popular here.
Kalarippayattu masters, known as gurukkal, are not only experts in the martial art but are also highly skilled massage therapists. Though Kalari treatment follows the principles of ayurveda, what makes it different is the masters' knowledge of vital spots (marma) on the human body.
"Ayurveda treatment doesn't involve detailed study of the vital spots on the body. Kalari experts have practical knowledge about these spots. When the massage is given, we know how to apply pressure or avoid these spots," says Saheer Ali of Shafi Dawa Khana near Kozhikode where Kalarippayattu therapies are provided. Ali is also a qualified ayurveda doctor.
The Kalari massage is used basically to prepare students by making them physically flexible enough to practise the martial art. But it is also administered as annual seasonal treatment for rejuvenation and therapeutic purposes. No wonder, the massage centres attract tourists in large numbers.
"People from abroad find our massage different from the Thai or other styles of massages."
Though this system is applicable to a host of illnesses, people generally approach the Kalari treatment centres for fractures, dislocations, sprains, joint or back pain, arthritis and rheumatic complaints.
"We also find massage treatment beneficial to diabetes and cholesterol patients. But people with high cholesterol have a wrong presumption that the use of oil for massage will be detrimental to them," says Ali.
As a therapeutic method, the Kalari treatment is very popular among the natives of Kerala. Many centres here have in-patient facilities.
The Kairali Chikitsalayam (Kairali Treatment Centre) at Karanthur has the facility to house 25 patients, says Shibu Lal, proprietor of the centre.
Shibu Lal took over the reins of the centre following the demise of his father Chandran Gurukkal, a renowned practitioner of the Kalari treatment. Kalari is also known for its efficacy in treating sports injuries.
"Famous athletes P.T. Usha and Anju Bobby George and (late) volleyball star Jimmy George used to consult my father for treatment of injuries. Sportsmen usually come with injuries to ligaments or joints," says Shibu Lal.
In Malabar, the northern part of Kerala, it is not uncommon to see people who previously underwent treatment at hospital approaching these experts to correct improperly set limbs.
"These kinds of complications usually arise not because of any fault of the doctors. After putting plaster, patients may not follow what was advised by doctors and bones get fixed wrongly. Sometimes we have to break the bones again to correct the condition," says Shibu Lal.
Most medicines for this treatment are infusions of herbs in oil or water. These are either applied on the body or consumed. Traditionally each practitioner has his own recipes for medicines and keeps it a closely guarded secret.