Exponent Extraordinaire

Kalarippayattu, the martial arts form unique to Kerala has always been part of its folklore. Thus we get to know of colourful masters who performed great deeds of valour and showed unimaginable skill. One such master of martial arts was Kallanthattil Gurukkal. It’s interesting how we rarely get to know the name of the particular individual. Here Kallanthattil is the family name and Gurukkal, the title given to him. But, what was his given name? No one knows. It has been lost in the folds of time. For the sake of narrative convenience, let’s call him Unni, a very common name given to boys in Kerala.   

While still a boy, Unni had heard of the fame of the king of Kozhikode as a martial arts guru. Not only was the king an excellent practitioner of kalaripayattu, he was also a famed guru. He took in only a select few as his disciples and tested them rigorously before admitting them to his class. Unni wanted to learn from the king, no less. Luckily, he passed all the rigorous tests that the king set. The king liked the slender boy from Kolathunadu and was kind to him, instructing the palace attendants to arrange for the boy’s food and stay while he studied under him. Soon an auspicious day and time were set and Unni began learning under his royal guru. Unni was not only intelligent but also meticulous and hard working. The king was pleased with his newest disciple.

After a year of learning the king called Unni and asked him, “How many people can you defend yourself from?”

“I can easily defend myself if ten thousand people attack me,” replied Unni without batting an eyelid.

“Ah!” said the king gently. “You need to learn some more.”

At the end of each year, the king asked Unni the above question and as the years went by the number in Unni’s reply decreased from ten thousand to five thousand and then to hundreds and tens and each time the king ended the conversation saying, ‘you have to learn some more’.  Thus time slipped by.

One evening the king called his favourite disciple to him again. Several years had gone by after the first conversation and Unni was no longer a slender boy but a tall and well-built young man. His body exuded the feline grace of a warrior and even when he was relaxed and at ease; he gave the impression of a crouched tiger preparing to make a spring at the opportune moment. The king noted all these details with satisfaction. His gaze also did not miss the carefully combed and oiled hair pulled into a neat side bun, the crisp mundu tied securely at the waist and the red upper cloth that was knotted above it in warrior fashion.

“Unni, how many people can you defend yourself from?” asked the king.

“One, I think,” said Unni quietly.

“Ah!” said the king smiling. “There is more to learn. The body has to become the eye.”

Unni went to his quarters and the king went back into the palace.

The next morning after the usual classes, Unni was sitting inside the bathhouse built by the side of the tank and smearing himself with oil before the regular bath. The sun had not yet climbed high and the morning had not lost its freshness. After oiling himself Unni stepped out of the bathhouse. The previous evening itself the king had instructed two of his most trusted guards to stand on either side of the doorway with spears and attack Unni the moment he emerged. The king hid himself to watch what was happening. Unni knew nothing about this and came out of the bathhouse as usual. As soon as he emerged the two guards attacked him with their spears. In a lightning quick reflex action Unni somersaulted to avoid the spears. The king emerged from his hiding place clapping. He checked the spear points. There was oil on them. The spears had been so close that the oil from Unni’s body was smeared at their tips. But there was no wound on Unni. His reflex had been so quick.

The king smiled and patted his disciple.

“This is what I meant when I said that the body should become the eye. Just like the eyelid closes and prevents any harmful object from entering the eye, the body of a warrior should learn to react with quick reflexes. You have passed your test. Your education is now complete. You have my permission to leave anytime you want to.”

Unni fell at the feet of his guru and sought his blessings. Then he went to have his bath and the king withdrew into the palace to attend to his royal duties.  

Unni stayed at the palace a few more days. Then he left after paying the king whatever gurudakshina he could afford.   

He wandered through many kingdoms of the time and finally reached Kayamkulam. Here the king requested him to train his troops. Unni stayed at the place for some time teaching his skills to the soldiers of Kayamkulam. But then he did not stay long as he did not like the activities of the king and fell out with him.

Unni then reached Travancore where the great and famous king Marthanda Varma was the ruler. He was a great warrior and also an expert in kalaripayattu.

Marthanda Varma had been on the lookout for a teacher to train the crown prince, his nephew Rama Varma, who would succeed him. He had called many martial arts experts and tested their skills. He had found them all wanting. He was in a foul mood not knowing how to proceed. It was at this time that his informers told him that the martial arts exponent who had been training the Kayamkulam soldiers had now come to Travancore and was seeking an audience with the king.

“What do the people say about him?” asked the king.

“My lord, he is extraordinary,” said the informer. “The Kayamkulam king is a fool to anger him and let him leave his kingdom.”

“Who was his guru?” asked the king.

The informer hesitated. The rivalry between Kozhikode and Travancore was well known.

“The king of Kozhikode was his guru.”  

“Ah!” the king smiled and his eyes glinted with pleasure. “I have great respect for the skills of my rival. Ask this man to come and meet me at twelve in the afternoon.”

He dismissed the informers, then called two of his personal guards and gave them some instructions. If the disciple of the king of Kozhikode was prodigious, he, Marthanda Varma would prepare an exceptional test for him, he thought.  

What was the test Marthanda Varma had prepared? Would the young warrior pass the test? Or would he die trying? Click here to read the second part of the story.

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