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13. The Hidden Treasures

If only India knew the treasure trove hidden in her midst! There is a knowledge here, which has been lost to the world; there is a spiritual fervor in this country, which is found nowhere in this degree on this planet; there is a diversity of cultural and social expression in India, which is unique in an increasingly unipolar world. We have chosen four stories to illustrate this point: pranayama the science of breathing; the astounding festival of Ayappa; kalaripayat, the ancestor of all great Asian martial arts; and the jallikatu festival in Madurai. Enjoy!

The Wonders of Pranayama

The West is fast discovering the wonders of pranayama, the ancient art of breathing, which was devised in India more than 3000 years ago. “Our fist act upon coming in this world is to breathe in, while emitting a cry  and our last, is to breathe out, upon expiring. But in between, we completely forget to breathe”, exclaims Rajshree Patel ,an Indian woman teaching pranayama in the United States ! And it is true : not only do we all neglect breathing during our whole life - whereas it is the very basis of our existence - but have you never noticed how, we when are angry, our breath becomes so laboured; and how, we are in sorrow, or nervous about something, we hardly breathe at all ? No wonder many of us end-up with heart attacks or with blood pressure problems ! “Pranayama is such a simple and straightforward everyday practice - and you will derive so many benefits out of it”, says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a great Master of pranayama. Rajshree Patel couldn’t agree more: ! “These daily twenty minutes are so very precious, because they are going to set the pace for the day and give you the right rhythm which will carry you through all problems, tiredness and hassles for the next 24 hours”.

Pranayama is probably the best suited Indian yogic discipline for the West, because it is so down to earth, so scientific - there are no miracles, no levitation, no smoky mysticism and everything can be explained in a rational way.

Pranayama, in Sanskrit, means breath - and in India, it is known that prana circulates in the whole body and that one breathes not only trough the nose and mouth, of course, but through ANY part of the body, making thus prana flow everywhere. Thus, according to yogis, prana can revitalise all these parts of our body which do not receive enough energy - and which, as a consequence, become weak and lose their vitality, like the eyes for instance. “Pranayama is everywhere, explains Rajshree Patel : in the air which surrounds us, of course, but also in animals, in Nature, in the mineral world even”. It is also found in food : “today, says Rajsree, one speaks of vitamins, proteins, calories - but one does not understand that it is actually the prana in the food which gives us energy; and the quality of this prana depends on the sort of food we are partaking”.

The first exercise of pranayama consists in observing your breath, in noticing, for instance, how it is fresh when it penetrates your nostrils and warmer when it comes out. Later, you might be able to feel how it does a U turn between your eyebrows before re-descending towards the throat. And you will soon realise that when you are with your respiration, you simply ARE : neither in the past, nor in the future, but in the present moment - which is so precious - with your 100% concentration and abilities.

The effects of pranayama have been studied for thousands of years and Indian teachers know exactly what results will this type of exercise have on you and what kind of routine you should do to improve that particular problem, or develop this certain faculty in you. But recently, modern science has also decided to apply its knowledge to pranayama. The National Institute of Neuroscience in Bangalore, one of the most reputed in Asia, has studied for the fist time in the world, under the care of Professors Meti and Raju, assisted by the Chief of the psychiatric Service, Dr Venkatesha Murthy, the effects of pranayama on 80 patients suffering from various psychological problems : depressions, anorexia, insomnia, obesity, alcoholism…

To do so, half of the patients continued to receive a normal treatment : electroshocks, sedation, psychiatric help, while the other half was only made to practise pranayama two hours a day for three months. By using the P300 method (Positive Electrical Wave), to measure the reactions of the brain, through electrodes placed on different parts of the body (vertex of the skull, left lobe of the ear), the doctors were able to study in nano-volts, thirty milliseconds after the stimulation, the auditory and somatic reactions of the patients. They quickly noticed that the latent periods - that is the delay between the stimulus and the response of the subject - decrease considerably after the pranayama exercises and one also notes a slowing down of the breathing and the cardiac rhythm. After three months, the 40 patients having only practised pranayama, showed so much improvement that they were allowed to go home, while the forty others stayed on behind in the hospital. Last year Professor Metti and his team have shown the results of their experiments to an astonished World Meet of Psychiatry.

That indeed, is very scientific; but what about this: Indians believe, that thanks to pranayama, their yogis are not only capable of mastering their emotions, but also to have control over their body functions. Thus, if you go high in the Himalayas, you can see in winter numerous sadhous (wandering monks) who are bathing in icy torrents - and certain yogis are even supposed to be able to slow down their breathing to such a tiny thread, that one can think that they are dead !

In Europe, the film « the Great Blue », has shown how pranayama can be used by sportsmen and sportswomen : remember how the hero does a series of breathing. exercises known in India as « Viloma », to store as much air as possible in his lungs, before breaking a world record in underwater diving without oxygen. And today, more and more sportsmen in the West are using pranayama to improve their performances. « Not only are they thus able to considerably increase their lung capacity, says an Indian Master, but they can also free their mind of all tension and find the proper inner calmness to really achieve their best”. And finally, did you know that quite a few American companies have included exercises of pranayama in the peps sessions of their executives ?


It’s in the Western Ghats of Kerala. As the night falls and you start driving up the mountain, you come upon thousands of cars, vans and buses, carefully parked on both both sides of the road. Long queues of men dressed in black and blue are walking bare-feet, staff in hand, chanting something you cannot yet catch. And when you reach the top, there are a lakh of people milling around, looking up to the top of the mountain as if already in ecstasy - and all singing, over and again, the same words: “Om Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.”

You thought that the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad with its five lakh people was a record, but you’re wrong there: the Lord Ayyappa festival in Sabarimalai attracts 15 million people in a month and a half; and on the last three days, which are the most important and auspicious, there are around 800,000 devotees praying on the sacred mountain.

The first thing that strikes you when you pass the Sabarimalai village is a board which says: “Women between ten and 50 years are strictly forbidden beyond this point.” The truth is that Ayyappa disciples have to endure a 41-day tapasya before they can start on their pilgrimage; apart from fasting, eating only vegetarian food and abstinence from alcohol and smoking, strict refraining from any sexual relations, in deed or in thought, is also enjoined. Hence the black dress to warn women to stay away and the forbiddance of their presence on the mountain, although modem day feminists might disagree.

Below, in the beautiful flowing river, thousands of men are bathing in the golden light of the early morning, purifying themselves of the sweat of the journey and shedding the last remnants of their worldly life. Then, after a preliminary puja in a temple at the foot of the sacred path, it is up the mountain, towards the 1,000-year-old abode of Lord Ayyappa. And thousands and thousands, all looking alike under the centenarian pine trees, climb towards God, carrying a small mysterious bundle carried on the head and chanting endlessly the sacred mantra: “Om Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.” Who is this Ayyappa who whips up so much fervour and devotion from these souls?

The legend says that Manikanta, son of Shiva and a feminine form of Vishnu, was begotten to rid the earth of Asurin (female demon) Mahishi. He was found near a river by King Rajashekkara and adopted by the royal couple. When Manikanta became adult, the queen, made jealous by her minister that her other natural son would not get the throne, sent him to the forest to get tiger’s milk to cure a rare disease, thinking he would never come back alive. Manikanta went into the forest with his father’s blessings, who to sustain him during his arduous journey, gave him a small bundle which contained a coconut, filled with ghee and rice (hence the bundle carried on the heads of all true Ayyappas). In the forest, he slew Mahishi and came back with an army of tigers. Seeing this, the queen and king understood his divinity, and fell on their knees, imploring him to take over the kingdom. But Manikanta, taking an arrow, shot it in the air: it fell on the sacred spot near Sabarimalai, which he chose as his abode and where his father is said to have constructed the ancestor of present day temple. Saying goodbye to all, he promised that every year he would appear to them as light (jyoti) and vanished into the mountains to become forever Lord Ayyappa.

At last, the faithful arrive at the foot of the sacred 18 steps made of five different precious metals, which lead to the holy abode. After symbolically breaking their coconuts, they climb the stairs, rapture written on their face. And there, on top of the mountain, it’s an incredible show: men ecstatic with joy, rolling themselves on the ground, or else dancing and throwing yellow and red powder on themselves, amidst the banging of the gongs, and the smoke of a million coconuts burning in a huge bonfire. Finally, on the last day of the pilgrimage comes the jyoti: as Manikanta had promised his father, the king, every year, on the same day, January 14, at the same hour, between 6.30 and 6.45 p.m., two white eagles circle around the temple a few times, and then a light, like a fire, appears for two or three seconds on the mountain facing the abode.

Then 500,000 throats shout the magic mantra: “Om Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa”, making the whole mountain vibrate and shaking the soul of all men present. Numerous are those who have tried to discover the source and reason for the light: is it a trick or an illusion ? Nobody ever found out. Then, as the men leave, the mountain is rendered unto peace and the wild animals. But in the dark forests, amidst the chanting of birds and the roaring of tigers, where the soul of Manikanta roams, one can still hear, as if whispered by the wind, the enchanting words: “Om Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.”


IN 522 A.D., an Indian Buddhist monk named Boddidharma, son of the king of Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, arrived at the court of the Chinese Emperor Liang Nuti, of the 6th dynasty. The Emperor granted him an audience and gave him travel documents to walk to the Kingdom of Wei (now Honan province), at the foot of the Han Shan-mountains, to a Buddhist monastery called the temple of Shaolin.

Father and founder of Zen Buddhism (called C’han in China), Boddidharma taught the Chinese monks Kalaripayat, a very ancient Indian martial art, so that they could defend themselves against the frequent attacks of bandits. In time, the monks became famous all over China as experts in bare-handed fighting, later known as the Shaolin boxing art. The Shaolin temple which has been handed back a few years ago by the communist Government to the C’han Buddhist monks, inheritors of Boddidharma’s spiritual and martial teachings, by the present Chinese Government, is now opened to visitors. On one of its walls, a fresco can be seen, showing Indian dark-skinned monks, teaching their lighter-skinned Chinese brothers the art of bare-handed fighting. On this painting are inscribed: “Tenjiku Naranokaku”, which means: “the fighting techniques to train the body (which come) from India” …

Shaolin boxing and Chan’ Buddhism travelled from China to Japan, through the Ryukyu islands, landing in Okinawa to blossom in the art of the empty hand, or later Karate and then spread into the Japanese mainland as jiu-jiu-tsu, judo, Shorinji Kempo, etc. Listen to one of the greatest contemporary Masters of Karate, Master Masatoshi Nakayama, Director of the Japanese Karate Association, in the introduction to his book, “A Dynamic Karate”: “When the Boddidharma came to the Shaolin Temple, he taught the monks physical and fighting methods to be able to bear the hard monastic life which he imposed on them. These methods became known as the Shaolin art and were later imported to Okinawa and blended to the local fighting techniques…” landing in Okinawa, where Kalaripayat blended with local fighting techniques and became the art of the “Empty Hand” or Karate.

Kalaripayat, literally “the way of the battlefield, still survives in Kerala, where it is often dedicated to Mahakali. The Kalari grounds are usually situated near a temple, and the pupils, after having touched the feet of the master, saluted the ancestors and bowed down to the Goddess, begin the lesson. Kalari trainings have been codified for over 3000 years and nothing much has changed. The warming-up is essential and demands great suppleness. Each movement is repeated several times, facing north, east, south and west, till perfect loosening is achieved. The young pupils pass on to the handling of weapons, starting with the “Silambam”, a short stick made of extremely hard wood, which in the olden times could effectively deal with swords. The blows are hard and the parade must be fast and precise, to avoid being hit on the fingers! They continue with the swords, heavy and dangerous, even though they are not sharpened any more, as they are used . without guard or any kind of body protection; they whirl, jump and parry, in an impressive ballet. Young, fearless girls fight with enormous knives, bigger than their arms and the clash of irons is echoed in the ground. The session ends with the big canes, favourite weapons of the Buddhist traveller monks, which they used during their long journey towards China to scare away attackers.

Kerala closed-up on the sea by the Deccan plateau, was essentially a land of forests and jungles. The fathers of Kalaripayat carefully watched the wild animals which peopled the forests. Thus they had the idea to fashion a piece of hard wood in the shape of an elephant tusk. The “Otta” is the most difficult Kalari weapon to handle, for one should not only know his opponent’s weak body points to probe and poke at, but the parades are also extremely difficult, the Otta being only 40 cm long. There are not many horses in Kerala and the infantry men of ancient Kerala, worried about their safety, had devised a unique way of blending spear fighting and closed arm combat making them redoubtable warriors.

The “Urimi” is the most extraordinary weapon of Kalari, unique in the world. This double-edged flexible sword which the old times masters use to wrap around the waist or keep coiled in one hand, to suddenly whip at the opponent and inflict mortal blows, is hardly used today in trainings, for it is much too dangerous. Only the Masters permit themselves a few sessions, for their own pleasure. Their preliminary movements look like a ritualistic and powerful dance, agile and supple. The mock fights which follow are like a challenge to gravity and balance and the blood of hundreds of generations of warriors seem to course in their veins.

When Boddidharma introduced Kalaripayat in China at the temple of Shaolin, he brought with him two essential things which would revolutionise forever the martial arts of Asia: “Wu-Te” or the notion of martial virtue, unknown to the Chinese and Japanese of that time, and “Marama Adi”, the bare-handed combat techniques from Kerala. Nearly 3000 years ago, the first Masters of Kalari discovered 108 vital points of the body, 96 of them considered as minors, which cause when struck, violent pain or temporary paralysis and 12 leading to death. These vital points were later transcribed and catalogued on palm leaves and transmitted down from generation to generation. These writings are called “Marama Sutras” and describe in detail, the exact location of each point, the symptoms incurred by each blow and the reviving techniques needed to bring back an opponent to life. The few initiated who still practice these techniques, are also experts in “Suvasus”, the combined science of all movements’ of bare-handed fighting: locks, strangulations, kicks. The Katas of Karate bear a strong likeness to the “Suvasus” of Kalaripayat. The most difficult Kata to execute is called “Suparimpei”, which in spoken language, is the reading of the Chinese characters meaning hundred an eight ! The 108 desires and human passions as defined by Boddidharma, the 108 vital points of the body of Kerala’s Marama  Finally, Marama Adi is also a medical science, using the knowledge of the 108 vital points of the body, to cure and relieve. Some historians think that it is at the origin of Chinese acupuncture, which appeared much later

Unfortunately, as usual, India ignores the greatness hidden in her own bosom: Kalari is restricted to Kerala alone, it is mostly practised in villages and gets practically no help from the Indian Government. It is also ironic that an art which has influenced so many other martial arts of the world, is slowly being taken over by karate or kung-fu !

However, the world is beginning to take an interest in Kalari: the Japanese are coming more and more to India to study first-hand the ancestor of their martial arts, the BBC recently made a documentary film on Kalari and there have been a few books published abroad. Will that be enough to save Kalaripayat ?


The winter monsoon in Tamil Nadu has been kind: green are the fields in the countryside near the ancient city of Madurai; and the rice fields ripple gently in the early dawn.

The harvest is over: it too, has been good and bountiful. Now is the time for rejoicing, time for Pongal, the most popular of all South Indian religious festivals.

The gratitude of the people goes first to this wonderful animal, the prime asset of all true south Indian farmers: the bull, Nandi, which has been revered and worshipped in India from Vedic times. In the early morning, the stately beasts are brought to the rivers, bathed and scrubbed. Their horns are painted in joyful hues, they are garlanded with jasmine and marigold and finally led to the temple where a priest performs a puja. Then the ritual cooking takes place in the temple courtyard or in an open field: in huge brass pots, as in ancient times, rice is boiled along with milk, ghee and jaggery; and when it spills over, a sign of prosperity, it has made into a delicious sweet, which, you may have guessed, is called Pongal....

Later in the morning, folk dances, which date back from centuries of Dravidian culture, are performed by both men and women in colourful costumes. On the fourth day of Pongal, in the late afternoon, the main event of the festival takes place: Jallikattu. Jallikattu is an ancient, traditional rural sport having to do with bulls. It is believed to be more than two thousand years old and is referred to several times in Sangam literature. This “bullfight” bears many resemblances to the one practised in Spain: it is considered a sport of valour, in which men pit their reflexes and skill against the bull’s brute strength; some of the animals are specially prpepared for that event; and the winners get a prize. But the similarity stops there, because in India the bull does not die and men, though they do sometimes get hurt, rarely get killed.

Jallikattu literally means “the tying of the coin”; for in ancient times, a gold coin wrapped in a piece of cloth was fastened with coconut fibre around the horns of the bull. Tacklers hung to the hump of the bull with one hand and untied the knot to get at the prize with the other hand. And today, though the name Jallikattu still persists, no coins are tied anymore, but as a token, a piece of symbolic cloth is fastened around the horn. Every year, thousands of people coming from all over the Madurai district converge on the small village of Alaganur, dressed in their best. The main road of the village is sealed, with all side lanes barricaded with the wheels of dismantled carts, so that the bulls are forced to have a straight run from one extremity to the other. Bamboo structures are erected on each side and are already so packed with people that some of them will later collapse.

And suddenly, the crowd is everywhere; on trees, lamp-posts, or roofs. The air has a golden hue tainted with dust. Below, men are jolly with toddy and some of them stage mock fights with their lathis. The tacklers position themselves on each side of the mud walls and suddenly a small bull, terrified, eyes wide open in astonishment at seeing so many people, shoots through the crowd aiming for freedom, on the other side of the village. Braggarts slap him, pull his tail and a dozen men overpower the poor beast.

The next one though, has a respectable size: and magically a passage opens for it amidst the thick crowd. It has courage and anger too, as a proper bull should have: at one time, furious of the noise, it stops suddenly in its tracks and faces the mob: everyone backs off respectfully and there is suddenly silence and fear; then slowly, it ambles off towards light. A daring man jumps on the next beast, grabs with one hand the right horn and the hump with the other; and so he rides, clinging desperately to the somersaulting animal for a predestined distance; then he becomes the hero, is carried triumphantly by his friends and the president of the jury throws him down a silk scarf.

And this goes on and on the whole afternoon, as nearly a hundred bulls are let loose; some veer suddenly from their path and charge the masses; men fly in the air and a few even bleed profusely, but the crowd does not lose its good humour. Finally it’s over and so, on to next year, hoping that the monsoon will be again as good as this one…