In the days of yore, Kerala had many who were skilled in the martial arts form of Kalaripayattu. One such person whose name appears in many tales is Perumbulavil Kelu Menon. He was not just a skilled fighter but also a hero who robbed the rich to help the poor. He did not bother much about what others thought of him nor did he have much respect for offices of authority set up by the rulers.
Kelu Menon was born in a well-to-do family and had an elder brother and four sisters. He was extremely intelligent and hard-working and soon his education in reading, writing and maths was completed. Kelu was very stubborn and self-willed and to his chagrin, he found living under the strict rules and regulations of his family’s ‘karanavar’ (head) cramped his style and so he left home at the age of sixteen and went looking for adventure.
After travelling for a few days he met an elderly man from a rich family who spoke to him in a kind and fatherly way and when he learned that he belonged to the famous Perumbulavil family, took him home to live with him as his son. While living with this family Kelu heard of the famous Changampally Gurukkal a Muslim marital arts expert who ran a ‘kalari’ – a martial arts school, and had several disciples. Kelu went to the school and observed the Gurukkal and his students and was fascinated by what he saw and immediately wanted to join as a student. The head of the family where he now lived made all arrangements for him to learn under the Gurukkal.
Kelu proved to be an outstanding student and Gurukkal loved him the most. In twelve years’ time Kelu became a fine exponent of Kalaripayattu and a warrior who was feared and respected for his skills. Since his education was now complete he took leave of the Gurukkal and went back to his own family which he had left when he was sixteen. The head of the family felt that the Gurukkal should be invited home and a feast should be held in his honour and his fees or gurudakshina must be paid to him. So a servant was despatched with a palm scroll bearing the invitation. The Gurukkal sent back a reply saying he would attend and a date was fixed.
Test of Skill
On the appointed day, the whole of Kelu’s house was decorated to welcome the Gurukkal and a sumptuous feast was prepared and the karanavar himself stood on the veranda ready to welcome the great master. Kelu woke up early and wanting to be ready and waiting to receive his master when he arrived went quickly down to the river for his bath and prayers at the Kali temple.
The Gurukkal came in when he was gone. He was given a warm welcome and a cool drink of fresh coconut water. The karanavar sat him down on the veranda where they talked of this and that. The Gurukkal found out that Kelu was not home and had gone to the river for his bath. He immediately instructed the servants to close the door of the gatehouse and latch it from the inside. He also told them to fetch him a banana plant which he then planted in the middle of the courtyard.
Kelu finished his bath and came home only to find the gatehouse closed and latched from the inside. He immediately knew who was behind it. He walked a few pace away from the compound wall, took position and then somersaulted over it to land in the courtyard in front of his guru. The Gurukkal smiled approvingly for he had noticed the perfect way in which Kelu had landed on the courtyard. Kelu touched his guru’s feet in obeisance.
“I would like you to slice the stem of the banana plant that is standing in the centre of the courtyard. I want your family to see your skill.”
Kelu wondered what his guru was testing by asking him to just fell a banana plant. That could be done with just a single stroke of his sword. He decided there must be more to it and thought he should use more force than was necessary. In one single stroke his sword sliced through the stem of the plant as well as the iron rod that his guru had cunningly hidden within it. There was a roar of applause from everyone.
After the sumptuous feast, the karanavar paid the Gurukkal a handsome amount for making his nephew such a skilful warrior and he went away a happy man.
Kelu’s fame spread far and wide. He himself attracted a band of followers. They often helped the poor by robbing the houses of the rich and the powerful in the dead of the night and escaping under the cover of darkness. They distributed the booty from their adventures among the poor. People feared and respected Kelu.
Years passed and Kelu was the hero of many adventures. The bards of the land enthralled their listeners by narrating stories of his skill and also of his flaming temper. And thus we know of how he crushed the pride of a local grandee and how at great personal risk he rescued one of his followers from captivity after a heist; of how a tahsildar who had come to serve a warrant ran away from sheer fear.
The Wedding Contest
It was the custom of the wealthy lords and businesspeople of those days to organise martial arts competitions and give away fabulous prizes to celebrate family events like weddings. Once, the wealthy Vadakkath family organised such a competition to celebrate the wedding of their daughter. Martial arts practitioners and warriors from far and wide came to attend in the hope of winning prizes. Among them were the formidable Kadathanadan Kuruppu who had a large retinue of disciples and Changampally Gurukkal now grown old and feeble, also with a large group of students. The Gurukkal knew that he had no strength left in his old frame to win any competition. But then he was by now quite poor as he had squandered all the money he had made in his younger days. But he also knew that the wedding was taking place near the village of his most well-known disciple Kelu Menon and he wished to win the competition through him. The rules allowed disciples to compete in place of their masters.
When he arrived at the venue and enquired about his dear disciple Kelu, he found out to his dismay that he had gone to Kochi on some business and was not expected back until four days later. Yet he hung on, hoping that he would somehow bluster through. Among the organisers of the competitions there were many who had a sot corner for the Gurukkal and they decided that the main competition would be held on the fourth day of the wedding. On the first three days there would be displays of skills in the use of various weapons by both the the masters and their disciples.
The displays drew great crowds from all the neighbouring villages. Both Kuruppu and Gurukkal and their disciples showed their prowess in all departments of kalaripayattu. They displayed the amazing almost feline flexibility of their bodies, skilful use of the long and short wooden staffs as well as the bent ones. They used the dagger and the sword and the long, flexible sword or urumi to perfection and to prove their absolute mastery of the form defended themselves barehanded from any attack by using their wrestling skills to disarm the opponent. The enthusiastic crowds jumped up and down cheering themselves hoarse.
On the fourth day the organisers set up the task for the two masters to prove their skills. A brass lamp hung from a shaft in the ceiling by a brass chain. It was filled to the brim with oil and all five wicks were lit. Directly below it was an idangazhi – a vessel used to measure paddy. The task was to sever the chain of the lamp with one stroke of the sword so that the lamp fell inside the idangazhi without a drop of oil spilling and with all the five wicks still burning.
Changampally Gurukkal knew he could have done it with ease in his younger days. But now he was old and his strength had waned. Besides, his hand was no longer as steady when it held the sword. But to gain time he had a plan in his head. He announced loudly to the gathered people that he would not attempt the task until he was satisfied with the sword provided. There were hundreds of swords laid out for the contestants to practice.
The Gurukkal took each sword and shook it. Each time he did this something happened to the sword. The first one cleaved into two halves. The second one was bent from the hilt. The third one broke into pieces. The common people gathered there thought that the Gurukkal was not attempting the task because all the swords so far were faulty. But the knowledgeable people in the audience soon saw through the ruse. The Gurukkal was using his expertise in swordsmanship to damage the swords!
“It seems that there are no competent swordsmen in your team,” said Kuruppu loudly in a challenging tone. “Maybe that’s why you are damaging one sword after another. If you can’t do the task just admit it like a true warrior and be gone.”
There was a stunned silence in the hall. The Gurukkal knew he was truly trapped. Just as he was preparing to accept defeat he heard a voice behind him.
Kelu to the Rescue
“You must be speaking of your own team, Kuruppu, when you say that there are no competent swordsmen. Just shut your big mouth and watch. And, if you are a true warrior be humble enough to learn.”
Doubtless, it was Kelu Menon himself who had come to his teacher’s rescue.
Kuruppu hung his head in silence. He knew that he was not skilled enough to do the task successfully. He had only been blustering.
More silence followed as Kelu carefully selected a sword from the ones laid out on a platform below the burning lamp. He then proceeded to pay obeisance at his guru’s feet. Then he circled around the lamp looking at it with great concentration. When he reached a particular spot he adopted a stance and then with the grace and agility of a tiger sprang and swung his sword at the same time. There was a clink as the chain broke and the lamp landed inside the brass idangazhi safely. The organisers went quickly to check. Not a drop of oil had spilled. And all the five wicks were still burning.
The crowd broke into riotous applause as Kelu was showered with expensive gifts – several bags of gold, a jewel encrusted dagger with a curved blade and several hundred measures of paddy. Kelu gracefully handed over all these to his teacher, the Gurukkal. He did not want anything for himself. The Gurukkal blessed him with all his heart and handed him back the jewelled dagger.
Stories are told that even today among his descendants there exists the dagger and on the curved blade is engraved the name of Perumbulavil Kelu Menon.
Read more tales in the folk tales section of this blog.