Why traditional medicine making is part of Kalaripayattu training
Herbal medicine has always been a part of Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala in southern India. For the ancient Kalaripayattu warriors, knowing what herbs in the wild could be used for treating injuries and wounds from combat was an essential part of their knowledge. The ability to identify and successfully use medicinal plants was, in many cases, a matter of life and death.
This knowledge continues to be used in Kerala’s traditional martial arts centres where herbal medicine is given as part of Kalari Chikitsa treatments. Here the Kalaripayattu master (Gurukkal) plays the dual role of martial arts teacher and healer.
What is Kalari Chikitsa medicine?
In Kalari Chikitsa, the herbal medicines are made from secret recipes passed down through the generations from master to student. As Kalari Chikitsa follows the same principles as Ayurveda, the medicine making techniques are mostly the same. But in Kalari Chikitsa, the combination of ingredients is more specialised for martial arts related conditions. Internal and external medicines are made for fractures, dislocations, bruises, sprains, strains, cuts and wounds, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions, etc.
Learning to make Kalari Chikitsa medicine
For a Kalaripayattu student, traditional medicine making is an integral element of their physical and mental training.
Collecting, preparing, and cooking the medicine is an elaborate process that requires much skill, knowledge, dedication and persistence. The various medicine making stages benefit the students in their martial art practice, and also prepares them for advanced training when they learn to become healers.
In Kalari Chikitsa, the medicines are all freshly made according to the patient’s condition. Depending on the medicine the Gurukkal prescribes, the students will collect the part of the plant needed.
The part of the plant is chosen and used depending on where its medicinal value lies and its specific actions. It could be the leaf, flower, bark, stem, root or the whole plant.
Collecting herbs is physically demanding with climbing trees, pulling roots out of the ground and carrying huge quantities of plants on the head, etc.
The student also learns to identify a variety of plants, what parts of the plants are used and the action of those plants for a particular client and their condition.
Just like Ayurveda, Kalari Chikitsa uses a range of methods for preparing the herbs depending on how they will be used. Each method maintains the potencies of the herbs in different ways.
Some of the methods used include:
Fresh leaves are pounded to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and the juices are squeezed out by hand and filtered through a strainer.
Plants are put in the sun or shade to dry and then pounded with a mortar and pestle into a fine powder.
Fresh plants or powdered plants are mixed with water or herbal juice and ground on a big stone with a smaller stone to make a paste.
As the medicines are all handmade, the preparation of the herbs improves the strength and stamina of the student and improves their skill in the martial art. Their hands and arms are particularly strengthened, which aids their weapons practice.
This strength is also required for advanced stages of training in healing when the student learns to give massages and marma applications.
In Kalari Chikitsa and Ayurveda, herbs are generally not used alone but in formulas. It is the particular combination of herbs and their percentages that determines the specific actions of the herbal medicine.
Most of the herbal medicines are cooked over a fire. They can take hours, days or more than a week to cook, and some require constant stirring. The herbs must be added in a specific order in a specific timeframe. A small mistake could destroy the entire batch of medicine.
Through this elaborate process, the student learns patience, perseverance, concentration and attention to detail. These attributes are all needed for progressing in the martial arts as well.
It also prepares the students for a future as healers as they learn not only the qualities of individual herbs but also the art of combining them and how the herbs work together on different patients’ conditions.
Due to the diverse nature of the various stages of traditional medicine making, the opportunity exists for the development of many skills. The student also sees the depth of the Gurukkal’s knowledge and is inspired to continue gaining more knowledge and passing on the lineage.
Kalari Chikitsa is an ancient system of musculoskeletal treatments based on Ayurveda and Siddha Veda. Originating in South India, Kalari Chikitsa was developed to benefit the warriors of Kalaripayattu. The techniques that were used to treat the ancient warriors are also highly effective in the treatment of modern day aches, pains and injuries.