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Traditional Kerala (South India) Massage Therapies

by Phillip Zarrilli

General Principles and Rules Governing Kalarippayattu Massage Therapies
Positive Therapies: Massage and Exercise
The Special Yoga Massage, Nadi Sampradayam
Other Massage Treatments
Training and the Accomplishment of the Master


(Phillip Zarrilli received traditional training in kalarippayattu and its therapies from Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar of the CVN Kalari, Thiruvananthapuram (beginning in 1976), as well as from C. Mohammed Sherif of the Kerala Kalarippayattu Academy, Kannur. He is in the process of setting up his own traditional kalari in the UK where he will give regular training in the martial art as well as massage therapies described here. As of January 1, 1999 he is Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Surrey. He regularly conducts workshops for the Centre for Performance Research, Aberystwyth, Wales. His comprehensive ethnography of this tradition, When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Practices and Discourses of Power in Kalarippayattu is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in July, 1998).



The State of Kerala along India's southwestern coast has an antique tradition of massage therapies intented for health maintenance, strengthening, rejuvenation, or as physical therapies. Vayaskara N.S. Mooss, a member of one of Kerala's most distinguished lineages of Ayurvedic physicians, notes that while the standard classical works on Indian medicine by Charaka and Susruta mention massage therapies, it is only in Kerala that one still finds these traditions practiced today.[1] My focus here is on the specific massage therapies of Kerala's martial masters--those who practice kalarippayattu.

In addition to his expertise as a martial artist, Kerala's traditional kalarippayattu practitioners are also highly skilled massage therapists. As a practicing therapist, the kalarippayattu master follows the fundamental principles of India's traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda, when giving treatments. The kalari master's medical practice is a kriyaprayogam--treatment by direct application to or manipulation of the body. Treatments are of four types: (1) health-giving and maintaining full-body massages, (2) muscle and body-strengthening applications, (3) treatments for specific injuries or pathological conditions including bruises, dislocations, bone breaks, general weakness of the muscles and limbs, or complex crippling injuries, and (4) emergency counter-applications for potentially deadly shocks or blows to the body's vital spots. Applications are primarily massage treatments with the hands, arms, or feet. Internal medicines are also prescribed as necessary.

What distinguishes the kalarippayattu master's medical expertise from that of many other Ayurvedic specialists is his psychophysical training as a martial artist and his practical knowledge of the body's vital spots (marmmam). His psychophysical training gives him extraordinary control over his body, and therefore over his ability to control the vital energy or wind (prana vayu). The assumed efficacy of treatments is in part based on his ability to control and channel this life-force in his body and limbs when giving massage therapies.

The traditional setting for both health-giving and pathological therapies is the kalari or place of training itself. When every village had its own kalari, it was common knowledge that the treatments noted above were available from the local master. In both rural and some urban areas, masters still receive and treat patients informally when they come to his home or kalari. In addition to the informal, personal, and very local context of traditional treatments, there are also kalari "clinics" modelled on a more Western bio-medical model of health care delivery with separate waiting and treatment rooms, dispensaries for prescriptions, etc.

Traditionally therapies and treatments are given by the gurukkal himself and/or by an advanced student who serves as his assistant. However, at the Shafi Dawa Khana, Urdu for "Recovery Hospital," near Calicut in northern Kerala, traditional kalarippayattu therapies have become part of a larger all-encompassing therapeutic system that includes not only kalarippayattu therapies but yoga, Unani medicine, Ayurveda, as well as natural and homeo medical principles and practices administered by a large staff of doctors and therapists.

The practice of kalarippayattu exercises as well as therapies are related primarily to the circulation and condition of the wind/breath or wind humor (vayu; vata). Ayurvedic physician V.K. Varrier explained the importance of the wind humor, vata:

Without vata there is no movement [within the

channels of the body]. Only when vata acts can phlegm

(kapha) and fire (pitta) act. Every function of the body

is dependent on the condition of the vata. If

the vata is put in order, all else can come to

order. Whatever the disease, when it gets to

a pathological state, it is vata that must first

be brought under control.

Vata is always provoked by weakness in the

tissues, exhaustion, problems with the system internal channels (nadi), or when its movement is broken and denied

its normal action.

Vata may be kept in balance by the positive massage therapies and seasonal exercise practiced in the kalari or through other forms of psychophysical exercise such as yoga. Massage and exercise keep the vata coursing freely through the subtle body's channels (nadi). Conversely, vata complaints and pathological conditions are treated by manipulations and applications which unblock restricted channels.

Typical conditions and injuries treated by a kalari master include fractures (asthibangam); dislocations (sandhi bhramsam); general bruises (ksatam); major shocks to the body (abhighatam); major shocks to the vital spots of the body (marmmabhigatam); bruises to the chest (uraksatam); sprains (ulukku); "catch" in the hip (pidutham or kadi graham); generally weak or rheumatic condition (pesi sosam); cut or wound (murivu); swelling (of joints) (sopham); inability to lift a limb (apabahu); and general joint pain, arthritis, or rheumatism (vadam). All are attributable either to martial-related activities (injuries from exercise or external shocks/wounds) or pathological conditions affecting one's ability to exercise (weakness or muscular complaints). All are conditions affecting the wind humor.

The effect upon the wind humor in both positive/preventative care through massage/exercise and through hands-on treatment is understood to be achieved by combining oleation therapy (snehana) with formentation or"sweating" therapy (swedhana) . All treatments in the martial master's repertoire combine some form of external application of specially prepared medicinal oils (snehana) with hands-on manipulation of the body (swedhana). Rubbing or exercising any part of the body is understood to create "heat." This "heating" is understood to both open the pores of the surface skin allowing the medicinal oils to enter the body and to unblock restricted internal channels. Gurukkal Govindankutty Nair told me that

to get the maximum effect from the oil,

the soaking softens the spot of the body where

applied and it will ooze into the joint and

therefore the system with time so that the

effects of the medicinal contexts will

enter the system.

Consequently, when exercise is taken or when massage therapies are given, patients are required to wait for a specific period of time at the conclusion of the therapy with sufficient oil applied to the area so that it can "soak in." In exercise the student "cools down" naturally after practice. In treatments where bandages are applied, they are soaked in the treatment oil so that seepage continues after the patient leaves.

The antique authority Charaka identified many forms of "sweating"(swedhana) therapy which he classified in two types: (1) niragniswedhana, therapies producing sudation without the application of direct heat such as physical exercise, physiotherapy or massage, or sunbath, and (2) agniswedhana, therapies producing sudation with the application of direct heat [Suthrasthana XIV]. Some forms of kalari treatments also produce sudation by the application of direct heat in addition to massage. In these cases the oil (or pudding) is heated over fire and then applied.

After diagnosis of the condition, the preparation and selection of specific oils is the first important component of the therapeutic process. Traditionally each individual practitioner prepares his own medicines from recipes obtained from his master. Masters carefully guard their recipes, ranging in number from one to nine or ten. They only dispense their oils to their own patients. Given the time and tremendous expense involved in making traditional preparations, some masters make use of readily available oils produced in mass quanities by Ayurvedic medical companies manufacture and distributed through Ayurvedic pharmacies.

General Principles and Rules Governing Kalarippayattu Massage Therapies


Several rules govern the massage therapies practiced by kalarippayattu masters. The practitioner must consider the body type of the client: (1) the body characterized by the dominance of the wind humor (vata type) is lean and thin, with a small bony frame and relatively undeveloped muscles; (2) when bile dominates the body is of muscular, medium build (pitta type); (3) where phlegm dominates the body is fat, smooth, slow and pale (kapha type). The body type and condition determine the number of strokes and the pressure used, with healthier clients receiving more strokes and pressure, and with martial arts and dance students receiving the maximum pressure possible in order to build strength and gain flexibility.

Massage is not normally given to those suffering wind diseases, those with an excess of bile or suffering from stomach complaints, to very old men, or very young children. Massage of any type is best given in the cool season, and should be avoided in the hot season since the body is considered weak. The best time for massage is the early morning or before noon. Under some circumstances some massages may be given in the late afternoon (4-6p.m.).

Massages are given either to a few parts of the body, or the entire body, and either may be administered while the patient is standing or lying down. Normally massage should not be performed in a room either too cold or too hot.

When the patient/student is in a standing position, the master also stands. When the patient/student lies on the ground, depending on the method of application the master either lies on the ground, or holds onto ropes suspended from the ceiling. Strokes are administered in one of four ways: (1) palm massage (kayyuliccil or samvahanam) is the lightest form; (2) forearm massage (mustiuliccil) uses a medium amount of pressure; (3) foot massage (kaluliccil or utsadanam) uses the most pressure; and (4) massage may employ hand-held bundles of specially prepared medicinal herbs wrapped in cloth (kili).

When administering massage, pressure is administered only "in the direction of circulation", down the legs from the hips, out the arms from the shoulders, and down the chest or back from the shoulders. During return strokes the hands pass over the body in the direction opposite to "circulation," but no overt pressure should be applied. The practitioner must know the potentially deadly spots (marmmam) of the body to avoid injury when passing over them.

Positive Therapies: Massage and Exercise


In a previous article we saw that Ayurveda has always promoted seasonal exercise and massage appropriate to one's constitution as a way of naturally establishing congruance among the three humors. The special kalarippayattu full-body massage (uliccil) administered with feet and/or the hands, is traditionally administered for one of three reasons: (1) as part of the training of the martial arts or dance student as an essential part of their body-preparation; (2) as an annual seasonal massage to maintain good health; and (3) as a therapuetic treatment. When given seasonally for general health or development of the martial student, the full-body kalarippayattu massage with hands or feet takes fifteen days to administer. Each day both pressure and number of strokes increase up to the mid-day of the massage period. On the 8th day the student takes rest and purges his system with a laxative, and then on the 9th through the 15th days the pressure and number of strokes gradually decrease so that on the last day the pressure and strokes are the same as the first day. Where the muscles are strong (thighs and buttocks), the strokes are circular. For the chest, stomach, and back the power applied must be less than legs, back, and arms.

When the full-body kalarippayattu massage is given by a Hindu master, it is circumscribed by ritual--worship with offerings of flowers, incense, and lighted lamps (puja) is traditionally performed to intiate the process on the first day, master and student pay respects to the deities of the kalari, and the student prostrates himself before the master. The student applies a special oil to his head, and then applies a different oil to promote flexibility to his entire body. The student lies face down on the mats as the master applies additional oil as required to the entire back of the student's body. Beginning on the student's right, the master then touches each of the important joints in the student's body, beginning with the head, then neck, shoulders, and small of the back. With the fingers touching the small of the back, he silently repeats a special set of sacred syllables (mantram) clearing obstructions in the way of the success of the massage, and effectively serving to "concentrate or fix the mind" (manasinne urappikukka) in the process to follow.

Whether administered with the master's hands or feet, the student's body position and the types and direction of strokes are similar. The massage begins with the student on his stomach, originating at the small of the back. After one side is complete, the student turns over on his back and his entire front side is massaged beginning at the place just below the navel. Just before the last stroke of the massage, the master touches the student's head and repeats the same mantram with which he began the process (changing the tense of the verb from present to past). The last stroke is then given down along the chest, across the navel, down the thighs, and off the body at the knees.

When leg massage is concluded, the master stands before the student who vigorously rubs the master's legs. At the end of the fifteen day period, the student traditionally gives special offerings (daksina) to the master, and may also present offerings to Lord Ganesh--the elephant-headed god of new beginnings.

Only given to very healthy students of the martial art (or dance), the special massage with the feet allows the master to apply his full body weight in administering a stroke. During the most intense middle days of the massage when the master is applying the most pressure, so deep and painful are the strokes that the student may cry out in pain and even have difficulty standing up when the massage is over. But stand up he must since immediately after the massage he must perform the complete set of kalarippayattu psychophysical exercises. Once on the earthen floor of the kalari, as the student begins to exercise, the pain gradually subsides. This massage, like other Ayurvedic therapies, is understood to have its full effect only over a period of time. It may be weeks or even months of more training before the student actualizes the flexibility and strength provided by the massage.

Just as the master is able to control the vital energy (prana-vayu), raise his internal power (sakti), and channel both out through his hands/arms during exercise or in armed and unarmed combat, likewise he controls and applies his vital energy and power through his hands, feet, and forearms for healing. His vital energy is understood to course through his limbs as he administers therapeutic massages. He channels the appropriate degree of power into each stroke, and his own vital energy and power are transmitted directly through the palm, foot, or forearm into the student/patient's body, thereby stimulating the internal wind of the student, or quieting the enraged wind humor when giving a massage as a treatment.

The special kalarippayattu massage (uliccil) effects the humoral balance and the alignment of the body, as well as the channels and centers of the subtle body. According to a number of masters, this massage originates and terminates at the small of the back opposite the navel region (corresponding to muladhara-cakra) at the point of confluence many of the major channels of the subtle body. Administering massage strokes out from and back to this region stimulates and circulates the internal wind (vayu) to move through the channels (nadi) of the subtle body, and thereby enhances the student's gradual embodiment of correct form through which strength and power emanate outward from the navel region. The massage process begins by slowly stimulating the region of the small of the back, and hips. Gradually the patterns of the strokes extend outward from the navel region through the limbs (the legs, upper torso, arms)--the internal wind, stimulated and manipulated by the master, is circulated as it should be during exercise.

Gurukkal Govindankutty Nair explained that the full body massage concludes at the small of the back with a strong slap delivered with the palm of the right hand in the depression between the hips in order to "awaken the vital energy and all the channels which originate here." Similarly, in the midst of the massage, to complete strokes to the face and head, a firm slap is delivered directly to the top of the head where sahasrara-cakra is located to "awaken the senses." In both strokes and slaps the master transmits his own vital energy into the student with this massage, and further implants the correct form in both physical and subtle bodies.

The Special Yoga Massage, Nadi Sampradayam


In addition to the full-body kalarippayattu massages discussed thus far, a very few practitioners also adminsiter and teach a special form of yoga massage known as nadi sampradayam--a hand/finger massage specifically intended to clear the channels of the subtle body. Chandran Gurukkal, the master from whom Phillip Zarrilli learned the massage in 1989 who teaches and practices both kalarippayattu and yoga, points out that this massage "opens the channels of the subtle body because they tend to become blocked with phlegm. Through this massage the tension within the channels decreases and therefore flexibility of the body will increase." What differentiates this form of full body massage from the kalarippayattu full-body hand massage is that the strokes are specifically given with the fingers as they trace the lines of the internal channels, rather than the more generalized strokes of the kalarippayattu massage given with the palm of the hand (or the soles of the feet).

Additional special restrictions must be followed when receiving this delicate and intricate form of massage therapy--the student must rest during the fourteen days of the massage, and for fourteen days thereafter; one cannot be overly exposed to the sun while receiving the massage; yoga practitioners may continue to practice yoga during the evening hours if receiving the massage in the early morning, but may not take any other form of vigorous exercise. Because of the strength of the strokes administered, if one were to take heavy exercise, one would become fatigued and lose strength. At the conclusion of the massage one should feel completely rejuvenated.

Other Massage Treatments


In addition to their positive health or strength giving massages, martial masters also treat a variety of injuries. They conduct their diagnosis primarily with their hands. In addition, the master's hands should be able to judge the relative temperature of the injured area of the body. He touches the injured area, and quickly moves his hand to an unaffected area to judge the difference in heat. If there is heat in the injured area, it indicates the flow of blood and fluids is restricted. This is interpreted as a complaint of the wind humor, and a suitable treatment is initiated.

During Phillip Zarrilli's apprenticeship to Govindankutty Nair, he helped treat or witnessed a wide range of conditions typically treated by kalari masters with their specially prepared medicinal oils and/or massage therapies. They included:

(1) minor bruises treated simply with oils or

ointment and hand massage;

(2) dislocations requiring relocation of the joint

and massage;

(3) bone breaks requiring setting and massage;

(4) major bruises or shocks requiring special

kili application;

(5) general weakness requiring extended complex


(6) complex special cases such as polio, rheumatic

conditions, accute arthritis, or crippling

injuries requiring extended multiple therapies.

and (7) emergency counterapplications with the hands

or special manipulations of the limbs to counteract an an injury to one of the body's vital spots.

A few examples will illustrate the martial master's repertory of therapies. Bruises are one of the most common injuries treated by the kalari master. In spite of ritual protection, the use of weapons in training inevitably results in fingers, arms, ribs, etc. getting hit and badly bruised. When a bruise occurs during a training session, the master immediately massages the joint, some using an ointment made from cenjallyam kulambu, the gum of a tree. Cenjallyam is ground into a powder and mixed with gingeley oil to make a thick, clear paste. To the thick paste a little water is added resulting in a white ointment. The ointment is applied directly to the joint and the finger is massaged by firmly pressing and pulling from the joint at the hand out to the tip of the finger. Cenjallyam is used primarily for emergency treatments to reduce pain and swelling. Application may be made for 1, 3, 5, or 7 days.

One of the most common causes of bruise injuries brought to Gurukkal Govindankutty Nair's urban kalari in Trivandrum are sports injuries. Such cases are often treated with simple application of medicinal herbal oil and massage. For bruises the oil preparation is specifically intended to reduce pain and swelling. For stiffness, a different oil will be used to "loosen" the joint and "return normal activity." When fractures are treated not only does the therapist set the bone with splints and a temporary plaster, he also has the patient return every three or seven days to have the injured area massage with herbal oils to insure that the wind humor continues to circulate to speed the mending of the bone.

Masters also give treatments for very bad bruises, sprains, muscle pulls, swollen or painful joints, and occasionally for strengthening with bags of specially prepared and decocted herbs bound in cloth bags (kili) dipped in heated oils. One master has five different kili preparations in his repertoire, each for a different injury or condition. Regardless of different ingredients and purposes, all special kalari kili are applied in the same way--the bag is dipped in a heated oil and applied with simple massage strokes to the weak or injured area of the body for 3, 5, or 7 days in each cycle of treatment.

Another of the unique therapies administered by kalarippayattu masters are counterapplications for injuries to the body's vital spots. It is the body's 107 or more vital spots that are attacked and defended in traditional martial practice; therefore, it was essential for the martial master to know how to treat penetration of these spots since they can cause anything from incapacitation to instant death. Counterapplication to a vital spot which has been penetrated is usually by administering a firm slap with the palm of the hand to the opposite side of the body, or by administering a set of manipulations to the body's limbs.[2]

Training and the Accomplishment of the Master


The ability to control the vital energy and power in administering massage therapies is acquired by apprenticeship to the martial master. His own progress toward psychophysical accomplishment in practice per se is inseparable from his abilities as a potential healer. As he discovers the internal aspects of practice through exercise, and thereby gains an intuitive ability to allow his internal energy to course through his body and limbs, and as he is able to control and channel his power, he may eventually be allowed to begin to give massage therapies.

The student is usually introduced to "hands-on" therapies by learning hand massage for seven days, and later foot massage for an additional seven to fifteen days. After ritually initiating the process, the master instructs the student as he demonstrates the massage on a student. The student learning the massage then administers the entire massage with the master giving corrections. The advanced student receiving the massage can also tell if too much or too little pressure is applied by the novice. When the first strokes are taught, the master may place his own hands on those of the student and literally guide and manipulate them.

Once the initial course of instruction is complete, the student is on his own. He is often put in charge of massaging the young students in training at a kalari. In this arduous repetitious administration of massage, the fledging masseur eventually learns the correct amount of pressure to apply for appropriate body types and constitutions, and further develops the practical ability to focus his concentration, control his power, and channel his energy out through his limbs, gradually sensitizing his hands and feet for more difficult tasks of diagnosis and therapy. The practical ability to direct the flow of his vital energy becomes sedemented in his embodied practice.



[1] Ayurvedic Treatments of Kerala (Kottayam: Vaidyasarathy Press, 1983), vii.

[2] For further information see Phillip Zarrilli, "To Harm and/or to Heal," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 1, 1 and 1, 2, 1992.

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