A simple stroke of a trained finger can be lethal, according to practitioners of Varmakalai, which translates into English as “art of vital points.” Targeted at the right spot, or pressure point, they claim their techniques can be used to disable organs, or even the whole body – with or without killing the victim. Paradoxically, it offers therapeutic techniques that can cure ailments. But for all that, the indigenous south Indian tradition, considered by many to be the master of all martial arts, is suffering a slow death.
On the premises of Gopalakrishnan Asan (master), a man delivers a single blow that apparently paralyzes his opponent. Immediately, the injury is addressed by “unblocking” the just-targeted spot. Soon, the opponent is back on his feet, ready to face the next exchange.
The Asan says there are 108 “vital spots” in our bodies, and that they can each be targeted to hurt or heal. The discipline, he says, descended from the Gods, through a renowned sage, Agastya, who documented it and bequeathed it to the mortals. It is also believed that when the Tamil prince-turned-monk Daruma Bodhidarma moved to China in the sixth century, he carried the technique with him and taught it to the Shaolin monks – and that this later evolved into different Chinese martial arts.
With the arrivals of firearms, the art witnessed a wane, and as the modern era dawned, the transmission of Varmakalai knowledge went underground: it was only passed through family lineage and rarely to very dedicated disciples. Today, only a handful of Asans in the southern tip of Tamil Nadu – around Kanyakumari, Rameswaram and Kovipatti – and in parts of Kerala are keeping the tradition alive.
Gopalakrishnan learned the art from his forebears, and says some Asans are descended from the masters who once protected royalty. Given the lethal nature of the art, he adds, its secrets have been guarded and some of the original wisdom might well be lost.
“It requires rigorous practice to train the mind and body and identify the pressure points, which are nerves, veins, tendons, organs and bone joints,” he says. “Varma adi, the combative component of Varmakalai, is the advanced stage of fighting training and provided only to disciples with self-control. It is only to be used for defense and not offense, even under provocation.”
He adds: “It takes years and years of training to master the art. Usually, practiced and taught by monks and sages, this art is a culture in itself that combines religious ways of life and trains the practitioners to follow a spiritual path to wisdom and goodness. Patience and discipline is crucial here as it may even take decades to reach the heart of the art.”
Unlike many popular martial art techniques that depend on body strength, Varma adi relies on knowledge of vital points in the body when attacking one’s opponent. “That’s why we teach it to [everyone from] five- to 50-year-olds,” Swaminathan, another renowned Asan, avers. “Combined with herbal concoctions and hard massages, it can be used to cure almost all ailments.”
A German Cultural Anthropologist from Heidelberg University who studies non-codified medical practices in India, Roman Sieler undertook an apprenticeship with Velayudhan Asan in the south of India to learn how medicine and martial art are intertwined. “All practices related to both the settings of Varma adi [striking the vital spots] and Varmamaruttuvam [vital spot treatment] enhance a Varmakalai student’s overall skills, and the progress in one can be gauged by efficacy gained in the other,” he says.
“Physical strength is required for both combat and medical practices. Blows, kicks, blocks and handling of weapons require physical stamina, and the same is true for administering massages and vital spots manipulations. In the course of training, both physical strength and mental progression of students combine and produce a kind of psychosomatic intuition – the medical and martial competence of masters. All this underscores the assertions of practitioners that Varmakalai must consist of both medical and martial practices.”
Sieler says that while practitioners are reluctant to share their secrets and often live secluded lives, in Kanyamuari he has witnessed both sides of what Varmakalai can do. “I have experienced demonstrations that knocked people down,” he says. “I have [also] seen them cure several ailments and even witnessed them controlling birds and animals using varma points. I saw a patient who had a fall from a rooftop brought to the Asan. He was unconscious. The Asan used the varma points in his foot to revive the patient.”
While the practice of Varmakalai as a martial art is dwindling, it continues to be used to cure certain kinds of ailments including paralysis, sprains, fractures and nervous disorders. Gopalakrishnan warns, however, that this should not be separated from the discipline as a whole, otherwise the traditional wisdom and the culture it is associated with may be lost. “Some private martial art academies try to commercialize this art form and it doesn’t work that way,” he adds. “To master this art form, the traditional practices and principles need to be followed.”