Sunday, January 25, 2009

Varma Ati/Adi

Martial and fighting arts have existed on the South Asian subcontinent since antiquity but have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. Based on field work conducted between 1976 and 1989, this essay focuses on the central role that the vital play in two closely related South Indian martial traditions still practiced today--kalarippayattu of Kerala State and varma ati of Tamil Nadu State and Travancore District of Kerala State.

In both martial traditions, knowledge of the vital spots was historically the most important part of a practitioner`s training since one`s life as well as livelihood depended on gaining the practical ability to attack the vital spots in order to kill, stun, and/or disarm an opponent, to defend one`s own vital spots, and to heal injuries to the vital spots affecting the circulation of the wind humor.

As a practical, hands-on art, fighting art applications to specific vital spots and treatments for penetration of the same spots have typically been inseparably linked and taught in tandem. Due to the life-threatening nature of knowledge of the vital spots, this knowledge has always been the most secretive and last-taught part of a student`s training, and is traditionally given only to students in whom the master has complete trust

Varma Adi Practitioners do not practice in special roofed pits but rather in the open air, or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches. Masters are usually known as asan.( teacher in Tamil). And at least some of its practitioners were once called Agasthiyars or Siddha yogis, referring to the fact that practitioners were traditionally expected to practice a highly esoteric form of yoga meditation.

Although in both traditions the master is paid respects, and given absolute devotion and authority, much less formalized ritual (especially puja practice) circumscribes varma ati practice and treatments. Oil is not applied to the body daily for training, nor are there preliminary training exercises. Practice and fighting techniques emphasize practical applications and/or empty-hand techniques from the first lesson, and initial steps/exercises include attacks and defenses aimed at the body`s vital spots .Some masters teach fighting with long staffs, short sticks, and weapons including the unusual double deer horns.

A similar set of treatments including a variety of massage therapies is practiced by masters of this system, but it is part of the Dravidian Siddha medicinal system and not Ayurveda

Zarrilli, P. (1992) `To heal and/or harm: The vital spots (marmmam/varmam) in two south Indian martial traditions.` Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Vol. 1:1 and 1:2

In contrast to the straightforward descriptive nature of these kalarippayattu texts are the varma ati master's highly poetic Tamil texts which were traditionally taught verse by verse as the student sang each verse, thereby committing each to memory. Some texts like the Varma Cuttiram located at the University of Madras manuscript library are relatively short and may focus on only one aspect of practice. Much longer texts like Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram ('Songs (concerning) the Breaking and Wounding of the Vital Spots') include more than 1,000 verses and provide names and locations of the vital spots, whether it is a single or a double spot, symptoms of injury, methods of emergency revival, techniques and recipes for treatments of injuries not only to the vital spots but also to bones, muscles, etc. As a comprehensive medical text its purpose is clearly sung

Varmams /Varma points
108 is the number of names for the vital spots. Since some names identify single spots, and others are double, the number of vital spots can total more than 200

For example, the Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram, records 46 of the 108 vital spots as single and 62 as double, for a total of 170

Of these 108 vital spots, 96 are classified as minor spots (thodu varmam) and 12 as the major deadly vital spots (padu varmam)31. The most vulnerable/dangerous padu varmam are those which, when penetrated deeply enough, cause instant death. The more numerous minor spots are not as dangerous when penetrated but cause great pain while incapacitating an attacker

the information in varma ati texts provides colloquial names, specific locations, symptoms of injury/penetration with a blunt instrument or part of the body, and methods of emergency revival.

There are two types of results of penetration of a vital spot--those impossible to revive and resulting in death, and those which it is possible to revive. According to Moolachal Asan, penetration of one of the deadly 12 vital spots with a part of the body or blunt instrument which is one matram (inch) deep would be impossible to revive. However, when a death spot has been penetrated only one-half a matram, the patient can be revived.

Although varma ati texts record no specific techniques of attack or defense of the vital spots, each master's techniques provide him with a repertoire of methods of empty-hand attacks and defends of the vital spots.

With many of its basic defensive and offensive techniques taught in four directions to guard against attack from all sides, varma ati techniques always open within an evasive move and/or block since philosophically one is never supposed to attack first. When a counter-attack is launched to one of the vital spots, some are to be attacked straight ahead, some from a 45 degree angle, and others must be caught inside and pulled in order to achieve the full result.

One unique method of empty-hand training for attacking the vital spots was explained to me by Raju Asan. Chelayan Asan taught him the appropriate amount of pressure to apply and depth of penetration for each type of attack by having him apply each technique with the fingers, hands, or fist to the trunk of a bananna log--a surface which approximates remarkably well in its texture and resistance to penetration skin and muscles.

One simple adangal(adangal = revival in tamil) Chelayan Asan uses to revive '70% of all injuries' is to directly stimulate kavalikaalam with his thumb. When spasms occur and/or the face begins to contort from penetration of a vital spot, Chelayan Asan simultaneously stimulates amakaalam in the calf and koncanimarmmam in the ankle Were koncani to be stimulated without also pressing amakaalam, there would be an adverse affect on the patient.

The Esoteric/Subtle Powers of Attack and the Marmmam of the Subtle Body

Thus far my description of the vital spots has focused on those particular places on the gross, physical body (sthula-sarira) which, when penetrated or cut in a certain way, may cause death. As we have seen, the symptoms of injury from either a weapon or a blunt object are based on rational observation of the physiological results of penetration. However, just as the practitioner's entire training process begins with the external, gross body and is understood to eventually move inward toward the discovery of the interior, subtle body commonly thought to be encased within the physical body and made visible through the practice of particular forms of meditation (see Zarrilli 1989b), likewise is there understood to exist a more esoteric, subtle means of attacking the vital spots by looking (nokku-marmmam)(nokku = look in Tamil) or pointing (cundu-marmmam).(cundu = point in Tamil) Such attacks are made on either the 107-108 vital spots of the gross, physical body, or the completely separate set of 32 vital spots of the interior, subtle body. No actual physical blow, cut, or thrust with a weapon or empty-hand is said to be needed by a master who has been able to develop the higher mental powers to be able to make such attacks.

Through ascetic practices, wandering sannyasis were (and are) believed to attain supernatural powers, the powers of Shiva, siddhis, which, like every other aspect of life and death in India, have been systematically catalogued and categorized.

These texts reveal that the varma ati system was tratitionally a highly esoteric and mystical one since only someone who had attained accomplished as a Siddha yogi could be considered a master of the vital spots. In keeping with the commonplace Tamil expression, 'without knowing oneself first, I cannot know about others,' the poet who authored Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram explicitly states, 'Only by practicing the five stages (of yoga kantam) in the six ataram (locations within the subtle body for meditation and generation of internal vital energy) will you get (a clear understanding) of the 108 vital spots (varmam)'. Tirumular's classic definition of a Siddha is implicit in this practice--''Those who live in yoga and see the divine light (oli) and power (cakti) through yoga are the cittar'' (Zvelebil 1973:225 Tirumantiram 1490)

Local Knowledge and Having a 'Doubtless Mentality'

Balachandran Master's highly reflexive yet humorous observation that as long as a practitioner learns only from only one master the vital spots make complete sense, reflects the fact that a martial practitioner's knowledge of the vital spots must be 'doubtless.'

Unlike the modern researcher or 'David' whose understanding of the vital spots is a blurred mass of confusion which results from attempts to cobble together coherence from several different traditions of interpretation, the practitioner is supposed to deveop full confidence in the efficacy of his own techniques. As Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar explained,
Being doubtless is the utmost target of the student. Therefore, whatever you do should be made perfect. You should never have doubts. Just do it!...You must have a doubtless mentality. Others may not have full confidence in themselves yet, and so they may have some lingering doubts. To have confidence you must have a pure heart and be true to yourself. You must not be proud or vain. One of the first steps toward doubtlessness is to have no pride but you must have great belief in what you are doing. Then only will you know what to do at the proper time.

When one is doubtless his practice is instinctual. There is no premeditation, only action. He embodies the common folk expression of the ideal state of the martial practitioner--'the body becomes an eye' (meyyu kannakuka). What is done is done with the power and force appropriate to the moment--whether in giving a counter-application to a vital spot for revival, a healing stroke passing over a vital spot in a massage therapy, or a potentially deadly blow or cut to a vital spot to disarm or kill an attacker.