You may have heard the common expressions, ‘jumping through hoops’ or ‘bending over backwards’ to describe an act, done for someone else, which is in some way a difficult challenge. I’m now willing to venture a guess that these phrases originated from the practitioners of kalari payattu – an ancient martial art native to Kerala – who literally do both of these things as devotional acts and for the love of their art. They might have also had a hand in spawning the phrase, ‘playing with fire,’ used to describe something which is downright dangerous.
Just a three-minute walk up the road from Cardamom County Resort is the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre, Thekkady. Sung and I were invited there by the French group on our bamboo rafting tour to watch a performance of kalari payattu, a martial art which, like so many others, is infused as much with sacred spirituality as it is with the spirit of combat. Practitioners revere their guru as a god, not too outlandish when put into the context of Hinduism’s 330 million deities, and they begin with a series of poses of worship – to their guru, to their guardian deity, to their group, and to their weapons. A shrine-like wall of weaponry was illuminated with about 100 wicks and incense, a tedious task for the young man whose job it is to ignite them. As further signs of faith, each exercise, spar, or feat, as it were, was commenced with a gesture of devotion that, to me, resembled an athleticized form of the signum crucis seen in Catholicism. These motions must have been blessings of protection, although I’m speculating here, since the announcer on the loudspeaker didn’t explain this bit as he did the rest of the information I’m relaying here.
Blessings of protection would be a top priority when performing the acts that these young men performed, some of which were hazardous, to say the least. One man jumped through a ring (then two, then three rings) of fire held up by two of his cohorts, arms extended well above their heads. Another leapt over four of his friends in one go. Another took the limbo to a whole new (and much lower) level when, remaining only on his feet, he bent over backwards to pick up a flower off the ground – with his mouth! By the third flower, my back was in pain just from watching. Others performed spectacular juggling and twirling acts with flaming objects, sticks, and weapons that I can only describe as metal whips.
As the anonymous man on the loudspeaker explained to the audience, kalari means “school” in Malayalam, and payattu means “fight.” While I may be thankful not to be a student at this school of hard knocks, the beauty of this performance is in the practitioners’ utter devotion to what they do. They throw themselves into their art form with the same momentum that they launch into combat. And although it appears to test the strength of their bodies, the strength of their spirits is the true spectacle.