Unni had reached the capital of Travancore and was granted an audience with King Marthanda Varma. Read the first part of the story here.
The next day when Unni turned up at the palace at the appointed hour, he found the fort gates locked and bolted from the inside. Normally, there would be guards posted at the entrance, but today they too were missing. Puzzled, Unni took a walk around the fort and found all the doors locked and secured and no guards at any positions. When he came back to the original entrance, he knew that the great king Marthanda Varma had prepared some sort of test for him. Moving a few feet back he drew his sword and held his shield in position then taking several measured paces backward he effortlessly somersaulted over the wall.
Now, Marthanda Varma knew he would do this. So he had asked his men to bury a forest of spears into the courtyard of the fort with their vicious, pointed ends sticking up into the air. When Unni was in mid-air he saw the forest of spears and realised that the king had prepared a harder test for him than he had imagined. He took a split second decision and used his shield to land and then without wasting the force of the jump, sprang back up somersaulted over the fort wall to the street outside. All this jumping in and jumping out, happened in a few seconds. When he landed back on the street outside, he found two guards standing at the entrance to the fort.
“Please tell His Highness that I had come to meet him at the exact hour he had asked me to, but found the door locked,” Unni told the guards and walked away.
When he had gone a few paces, a palace attendant came running towards him and told him that the king was waiting for him in the audience hall. King Marthanda Varma was very pleased with Unni’s show of skill and immediately appointed him to teach Rama Varma, Marthanda Varma’s nephew and successor. Since Unni was now a teacher to a royal student, he was given the title – Gurukkal. Kallanthanttil was his family name and hence he came to be known as Kallanthattil Gurukkal.
Kallanthattil Gurukkal trained not just the future king Rama Varma but a great many others. Several of his students were famous practitioners of kalaripayattu in their own right. The bards tell many stories about the skills of several of Gurukkal’s students. Here is one of them with a touch of the comic.
Those were the last years of king Rama Varma’s reign. As usual the annual religious festival was in progress. All kinds of people had gathered at the capital city of the kingdom of Travancore. There were scholars from different kingdoms with whom King Rama Varma held discussions every day. Then there were martial arts experts for whom the king had a soft corner, since he himself was an expert. In spite of being old, the king was still physically fit and was rumoured to give any skilled warrior a run for his money. The capital city wore a festive look. The streets were decorated with marigold garlands and festoons of tender coconut leaves interspersed with strings of heady herbs.
It was early morning. A young warrior who had come to the capital in the hope of displaying his skills in front of the great king was standing on the steps of the temple tank. He was known by his family name of Mundyoor. Clad only in a strip of cloth that covered the bare essentials, he was smearing oil over his body in preparation for a bath.
Just then he noticed an elderly man with a pot of ghee on his head and a stick under his arm walk by. Though the pot was large and seemed heavy the man walked briskly. Mundyoor was attracted to the stick he held tightly under his arm. It was a highly polished stick with a beautifully carved head. For no good reason, Mundyoor wanted to own that stick.
“You there,” he called out aloud. “I want that stick that you’re carrying. Give it to me right now.”
“You are young,” said the elderly man “I am old. I am the one who needs a stick to get by.”
“Give it to me right away. Make yourself another,” said young Mundyoor who was now keener than ever to have the stick.
But the old man continued walking and did not slow down or look at Mundyoor.
“If you don’t give me the stick, I’ll take it from you anyway,” he threatened.
“Try,” said the old man and continued walking.
Mundyoor ran after him caught one end of the stick and pulled. The stick didn’t move an inch. He then used both hands and pulled. Still the stick remained under the old man’s arm. The next time Mundyoor grasped the stick the old man turned right with a peculiar movement. Now Mundyoor’s fingers were locked on the stick. He could not move them a hair’s breadth. So he had to follow the old man through the market. People looked up from what they were doing and laughed at the near naked young man holding on to the edge of a stick that was under an old man’s arm and following him around like a dog on a leash. But Mundyoor had no choice. He followed the old man through crowded streets holding on to the end of the stick. A small crowd started following the duo. Soon it swelled and became a large crowd of laughing, joking people.
Finally, the old man reached a shop, deposited his pot of ghee, got paid for it. All this time he continued to hold the stick under his arm and Mundyoor was forced to stand behind him wearing only a strip of cloth between his legs. By then the laughing, joking crowd following them had become quite large. As soon as the old man finished his business at the shop, a soldier came running and told him that the king wanted to meet him immediately. The news of the near naked man following an old man at the end of a stick had spread like wild fire and reached the palace too. The king was amused and intrigued.
The old man started walking towards the palace and Mundyoor was forced to follow. He grew increasingly uncomfortable when he thought about his clothes, or the lack of them. His family was known to the king. Someone in his family had been married to someone in the king’s family a few generations ago. The king had seen him a few times when he had come over to witness martial arts displays.
When they reached the audience hall the king greeted the old man and then looking at Mundyoor spoke in a friendly manner.
“Hey Mundyoor! What’s this?”
At this Mundyoor could no longer bear his humiliation. He realised that in spite of being a young and able warrior he had allowed himself to be trapped by the old man because of his arrogance and foolishness. He burst into tears.
“Why don’t you free that young warrior?” the king asked the old man.
“As you please,” said the old man and still holding the stick under his arm turned left in a particular way. As soon as he did this Mundyoor was able to free his hand.
“Now go have your bath and a good meal,” said the king kindly. He clapped his hands and two attendants appeared. “Take care of this young warrior,” and turning to Mundyoor, he said, “Do come back after your meal for the discussions and displays.” The young warrior left with the attendants.
As King Rama Varma was himself a kalaripayattu expert, he knew that the move that the old man had used on Mundyoor was not a common one. He grew curious.
“Please remind me where I’ve seen you before,” he said to the old man.
“My lord, it was during the Battle of Kayamkulam,” said the old man. “Your highness might remember this incident. You were on horseback and jumped over the high walls of the Kayamkulam fort. As your horse cleared the wall, someone sprang up and cut both its forelegs. You were forced to jump away before the horse tumbled and crashed. That someone who cut the horse’s legs, was me.”
“Oh!” said the king and smiled. That was a move the Gurukkal had taught him.
“And who was your guru?” he asked.
“The same one who taught you,” the old man replied.
At this the king rose from his seat and embraced the old man. He showered him with gifts and invited him to stay at the palace for a few days.
Irrespective of the years that go by, or the paths chosen, everyone feels a rush of affection when they see their old classmates.
Sign up to receive Pen Page, my email newsletter directly into your inbox. It usually has a folk tale, a note from me, blog excerpts and my take on what I’ve been reading. You may unsubscribe any time.