The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam) in Two South Indian Martial Traditions

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To Heal and/or To Harm:

The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam)
in Two South Indian Martial Traditions [1]

Phillip B. Zarrilli, University
of Wisconsin-Madison

Part I

Varma Ati
The Vital Spots in the Ethnographic Present
Traditional Transmission and Current State of Knowledge
The Vital Spots and Ayurvedic History and Principles
Sources for the Study of the Vital Spots

Definition of the Vital Spots
Details of the Vital Spots in the Kalarippayattu Tradition
Comparative Chart of Vital Spot Distribution in the Body
Comparative Locations of Kalarippayattu’s “Practical Vital

Part II

Details of
the Vital Spots in the Varma Ati Tradition

The Esoteric/Subtle Powers of Attack and the Marmmam of
the Subtle Body

Concluding Discussion: Local Knowledge and Having a “Doubtless


Part I

Martial and fighting arts have existed
on the South Asian subcontinent since antiquity but have only recently begun
to receive scholarly attention.[2] Based on field
work conducted between 1976 and 1989, this essay focuses on the central role
that the vital spots (Skt. marman; Mal. marmmam; Tam. varmam)
play in two closely related South Indian martial traditions still practiced
today–kalarippayattu of Kerala State and varma ati of Tamil Nadu
State and Travancore District of Kerala State. [Figure #1] Kalarippayattu
and varma ati share with antique Sanskrit medical sources a fundamentally
similar concept of the vital spots and their role in martial and medical practice.
In both martial traditions, knowledge of the vital spots was historically the
most important part of a practitioner’s training since one’s life as well as
livelihood depended on gaining the practical ability to attack the vital spots
in order to kill, stun, and/or disarm an opponent, to defend one’s own vital
spots, and to heal injuries to the vital spots affecting the circulation of
the wind humor. As a practical, hands-on art, fighting art applications (prayogam)
to specific vital spots and treatments for penetration of the same spots have
typically been inseparably linked and taught in tandem. Due to the life-threatening
nature of knowledge of the vital spots, this knowledge has always been the most
secretive and last-taught part of a student’s training, and is tratitionally
given only to students in whom the master has complete trust. This two-part
essay identifies both the common and unique ways in which these two martial
systems interpret the vital spots and make use of their interpretations in practice.
In Part I that follows, after introducing both kalarippayattu and varma
in the ethnographic present, I briefly discuss the vital spots in Ayurvedic
history. Following a description of the textual sources available for specific
study of the vital spots, I provide a working definition of “vital spot” based
on these sources. Part I concludes with a detailed account of the vital spots
in the kalarippayattu tratition.



The compound word, “kalarippayattu,”
is a recent, 20th century invention which refers to the system of martial practice
belonging primarily to Kerala (especially the old Malabar region)[3], and contiguous parts of Tulu-speaking Coorg District, South
Kanara[4]. Among practitioners of a variety of
styles and lineages, the common elements in this martial system include preliminary
techniques of exercise (meippayattu) [Figures #2, 3, 4] which, when combined
with seasonal full-body massage [Figure #5] and daily application of medicinal
oil to the entire body, prepare the practitioner’s bodymind for advanced practice
and fighting; combat with a variety of wooden practice or combat weapons [Figures
#6-7]; techniques of empty-hand fighting used to attack, defend, or for disarming
an opponent; special breathing and meditation exercises; knowledge of the body’s
vital spots (marmmam) which one must learn to attack and defend; a specific
class of medical treatments (kalari or marmmacikitsa) for injuries
received in training or combat (bruises, muscle pulls, broken bones, penetration
of the vital spots) or diseases affecting the wind humor; and rituals circumscribing
practice and combat (not universal today). The idiomatic word, kalari,
refers specifically to the tratitional roofed pits which served as a temple
for worship, a gymnasium for martial exercise, and a clinic for treatments.

Masters possess highly detailed
palm-leaf [Figure #8] or hand-written manuals containing a variety of information
including the mythological history of the art, rituals circumscribing practice,
sacred formulas (mantram) to be accomplished to attain special powers
of practice, short-hand verbal commands (vayttari) for all exercises
and techniques, and instructions on locations of the vital spots as well as
treatments of injuries.

According to both oral and written
traditions the sage Parasurama is believed to have founded the art and the first
kalari. The system of treatments and massage, and the assumptions about
the body which inform practice are derived from Ayurveda, the tratitional medical
system or “science” by knowledge of which “life” (ayuh) can be prolonged.
Oral tratition traces lineages of martial practice back to the brahman teacher,
Drona, of Mahabharata lore, and some techniques are assumed to have been handed
down from Sanskritic Dhanur Vedic (“science of archery”) sources[5].

Masters are known as either gurukka[6]l or asan, and in the past were given honorific
titles, usually Panikkar or Kurup[7]. From approximately the 11th/12th century A.D. on, when this
particular martial system crystalized into somthing akin to what is still seen
today, it was practiced by specific sub-groups of Nairs of Kerala, as well as
one sub-caste of (Yatra) brahmans, Christians, Muslims, and one specific sub-group
of Illavas (also known as Tiyyas). After the introduction of firearms, and especially
after British colonial rule was fully established in the 19th century, kalarippayattu
underwent a period of decline but was preserved by the few families which continued
to practice. Over the past fifteen years there has been something of a renewal
of interest in the indigenous martial art although it must compete for students
with karate and a variety of other street-wise martial arts familiar
to Malayalis from popular movies.

Varma Ati


The kalarippayattu practiced
in the old Travancore region of Southern Kerala and adjacent Kanyakumari District
of present day Tamil Nadu has become almost indistinguishable from a group of
closely related Tamil-based arts variously called ati tata (hit/defend),
ati murai (law of hitting), varma ati (hitting the
vital spots), or chinna ati (Chinese hitting)[8]. Some general features of the Tamil martial arts clearly distinguish
them from kalarippayattu, especially the more distant “northern” styles
summarized above. The Tamil arts are tratitionally practiced primarily by Nadars,
Kallars, and Thevars (Raj 1977:109). They do not practice in special roofed
pits but rather in the open air, or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches.
Masters are usually known as asan. The founder and patron saint is believed
to be the sage Agasthya rather than Parasurama, and at least some of its practitioners
were once called Agasthiyars or Siddha yogis, refering to the fact that practitioners
were tratitionally expected to practice a highly esoteric form of yoga meditation[9]. Although in both traditions the master is paid
respects, and given absolute devotion and authority, much less formalized ritual
(especially puja practice) circumscribes varma ati practice and
treatments. Oil is not applied to the body daily for training, nor are there
preliminary training exercises. Practice and fighting techniques emphasize practical
applications and/or empty-hand techniques from the first lesson, and initial
steps/exercises include attacks and defenses aimed at the body’s vital spots
[Figures #9, 10. 11]. Some masters teach fighting with long staffs, short sticks,
and weapons including the unusual double deer horns. A similar set of treatments
including a variety of massage therapies is practiced by masters of this system,
but it is part of the Dravidian Siddha medicinal system and not Ayurveda[10].

The linguistic, social, religious,
historical, technical, and geographical differences briefly recounted above
suggest that kalarippayattu and varma ati are closely related
but distinct systems of martial practice. Historically, it is probable that
the degree of relationship between the two arts depended directly on proximity,
with the kalarippayattu styles and traditions of Malabar quite distinct
from those of the Tamil practitioners, while those in southern Kerala were not
only similar, but were probably mixed styles of practice.

During the past thirty years the
mixing of both the two distinct systems and particular styles within each system
has increased in direct proportion to the mobility of the population. The styles
of kalarippayattu tratitionally practiced in the north in “pit” kalari
can be found in south and central Kerala; likewise, a few masters trained in
Tamil arts live, practice, and teach their arts in north and central Kerala.
A number of masters intentionally practice and freely mix both. Somewhat anachronistically,
my own initial training took place in Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala
located in the far south, but the style was “northern” kalarippayattu
taught by Gurukkal Govindankutty Nair whose family home is in Tellicherry–the
region of North Malabar most distinctly associated with the northern styles
of kalarippayattu. More recently, while studying kalarippayattu
in Cannannore in the far north of Kerala, I was also taught selected varma
techniques C. Mohammed Sherif had learned from a varma ati master
and now includes in his own teaching repertory.

For these and a complex host of
other reasons which cannot be detailed in this essay, many practitioners and
journalists alike today call the first system of practice described above “northern”
kalarippayattu, and all the martial arts of Travancore and Kanyakumari
District (whether kalarippayattu or Tamil arts), “southern” kalarippayattu.
Although some practitioners insist on differentiating between “southern kalarippayattu
and the Tamil arts, in common parlance “varma ati” or “ati tata
are used interchangeably with “southern kalarippayattu.11
While this phenomenon of genre blurring is sociologically important, for historiographic
and ethnographic purposes, I will follow Sreedharan Nair’s lead and keep these
related systems distinct (1963:18), and use kalarippayattu to refer to
the specific system of martial art associated with Kerala, and old Malabar in
particular, and varma ati to refer to the one or more martial systems
practiced (especially by the Nadars) in South Travancore and Kanyakumari District,
Tamil Nadu.

The Vital Spots
in the Ethnographic Present

In the popular imagination, a martial
master’s powers of attack and revival can appear miraculous. Stories and lore
abound. K.P.K. Menon’s 1967 account of the life of Chattambi Swamigal, the great
scholar-saint of southern Kerala (1853-1924) records how this great holy man
was known as a master of many tratitional arts, including wrestling, healing,
yoga sastra, and marma vidya (the art of the vital spots). Menon
records the following account of the swami’s use of his knowledge of the vital
spots to lay low some troublesome youth, and then to revive them:

One day he was on his way from Kollur
to Alwaye with two disciples. When he had reached the spot in front of the church
at Edappalli, his progress was interrupted by a band of young men who were drunk.
Asking his companions to hold him by the back, he held his stick horizontally
in front of him and with bated breath he bounced forward. Those who felt the
touch of the stick fell to the ground. Thus he continued his journey without
difficulty. It was only the next day on his way back, after he had administered
the counter stroke that the ruffians were able to get up and move away[12].

Like other such stories, a mere
tap with a finger, hand, or stick to one of the vital spots can incapacitate
an attacker.

Masters like Kalathil Krishnan Vaidyar
of Alavil (Cannannore District) recount numerous stories like the following
about their skills at revival:

There was a young boy who wanted
to buy tickets to go to the local cinema. So he went to someone’s property to
pluck cocoanuts. Unfortunately, when he climbed the tree, it fell over with
him on it. He clung to it as it fell and landed against a wall. He was unconscious
when he was taken down. A modern medical specialist was called. Several ayurvedic
doctors were also called. But no one could revive him.

A taxi came to pick me up and took
me to the place. [After learning what had happened], I asked for a sari and
a bronze vessel. I covered his body with the sari [so that no one could see
the revival technique I was performing], applied pressure to one nerve and the
boy urinated into the bronze vessel. The boy immediately regained consciousness
and I was given a gift of 101 rupees.

The secret of this technique I will
only given to one of my students on my death bed.

Like other miraculous healing narratives
in which the healer’s powers are sought as a source of final resort, Krishnan
Vaidyar conceals his revival techniques, embuing them with an aura of mystery.

For those who witness a Chattambi
Swamigal or a master like Kalathil Krishnan Vaidyar render an attacker unconscious,
suddenly revive someone who appears to be dead, or supposedly attack a vital
spot by simply pointing or looking, a martial master’s powers can seem as miraculous
as those of the ancient yogis whose powers who were said to be able to tame
and control people, animals, as well as the elements. Helping create this impression
today are cheap popular editions of information on martial techniques and the
vital spots which, along with other “pulp” paperbacks on everything from astrology,
to dating, to home remedies, are available at book vendor’s stalls at train
stations or bus stands. In 1983 for about Rs. 3-5 [$.25-.35] anyone could purchase
C.K. Velayudhan’s Kalarippayattu and the Pointing Vital Spots (Kalarippayattu
and Marmmacuntaniyum
) which advises its readers on the esoteric methods
of attacking the vital spots by pointing–an important part of the tratition
to which I will return later.

The 64 “practical vital spots” (abhyasamarmmangal),
their contents, and how to point at those vital spots with the forefinger while
reciting a sacred formula (mantram) should be learned not only by reating
this book but also by obtaining some practical training from an expert master
on the vital spots…[This knowledge] can only be used at a time when his life
is in danger. At that time he can point at the enemy’s vital spot with his forefinger
and recite the ‘pointing magic formula’ (cuntumantram). If he uses the
sacred formula known as ‘Sri Bhadrakali Mantram’ without any mistake, he can
defeat his enemy.

Popular stories have made such an
indelible imprint on the Malayali imagination that the concept of the vital
spots is a commonplace in vernacular folk culture. When someone wishes to refer
to a person who knows a subject so well that he has a special knowledge of the
particular knack necessary to do something, marmmam may be used to refer
to such knowledge, whether in earnest or in jest. Connoisseurs of the well-known
Kerala dance-drama, kathakali, may refer to the acting of a great performer
like Krishnan Nair as “knowing the vital spots (marmmam) of acting,”
i.e., he can act a role with brilliant attention to its specific details. In
response to an article by freelance journalist K.K. Gopalakrishnan in which
he was critical of a kathakali performance of a new play (“People’s Victory”),
Arikkattu Setuumadavan wrote to the editor, “From his article, the writer very
clearly knows the vital spots (marmmam) of kathakali.” Likewise,
a politician might be referred to as one who “knows the vital spots (marmmam)
of politics”–a tongue-in-cheek reference to a politician’s ability to win influence
by applying pressure at the right points through influence pedaling.

Just as common as such vernacular
uses of the term marmmam, are other tales which make light of the complexities
and difficulties of obtaining and using this knowledge. K.K. Gopalakrishnan
shared the following story which humorously reflects the dilemma faced by a
master who possesses the knowledge to kill:

Once upon a time there was a kalari
master who knew the vital spots very well. He had a controlled mind, and treated
everyone and everything with the proper and appropriate degree of respect. In
short, he was a model master. One day a cow wandered into his family compound.
The cow began to eat all the vegetation and plants in the compound, and was
making a complete nuisance of himself. The master wanted to get the cow out
of his compound, and so he picked up a nearby stick. He raised the stick and
was about to beat the cow on his hind leg when he realized, ‘Oh, there is a
vital spot there. I can’t hit him there.’ He raised the stick to beat him on
the buttocks and again realized, ‘Oh, there is a vital spot there too. I can’t
hit him there.’ And again he raised the stick to beat him on the head, but realized,
‘Oh, there is a vital spot there. I can’t hit him there.’ By this time he was
totally confused since wherever he looked all he saw on the cow were vital spots.

Transmission and Current State of Knowledge


This final story can be read as
humorously reflecting the often confused state of knowledge which exists regarding
the vital spots among practitioners, leaving him frozen in a state of confusion,
seeing vital spots everywhere. Given the esoteric and highly secretive nature
of this tratitional branch of knowledge, it is virtually impossible to know
precisely how much practical knowledge anyone possesses of the subject since
a master’s reluctance to impart information, whether to his own students or
to a researcher asking probing questions, may be due either to a genuine desire
to follow tratition and keep secret what he knows, or his use of this tratitional
discourse of secrecy as a veil behind which to hide the fact that he really
doesn’t have the full knowledge of the vital spots a master is supposed to have.

The tratitional secrecy associated
with the concept of the vital spots is antique, as reflected in Monier-Williams’
definition of the Sanskrit marman, which reflects the secondary vernacular
Malayalam meansings discussed above: “the core of anything, the quick…anything
which requires to be kept concealed, secret quality, hidden meaning, any secret
or mystery” (1984 [1899]:791). In keeping with the potentially deadly nature
of knowledge of the vital spots, transmission of this knowledge in the extant
South Indian martial arts is usually surrounded by protective rituals and a
discourse of secrecy. Moolachal Asan’s varma ati text, Agastyar Cutiram,
records the following typical admonition to a teacher about when and to whom
to teach this knowledge:

This [knowledge of the varmam]
has been made for everyone in the world to know. You should know this perfectly.
People may come and try to praise you, but don’t give this out. Rather, watch
[a student] for 12 years and only then give this knowledge. Do not give this
to anyone who is cruel, but only to one who is a Siva yogi[13].

A kalarippayattu master’s
text records the following conditions under which the vital spots might be taught
to a student:

If you have ten students, you have
to take care of their hearts, you must maintain care over their development,
and you must sustain their devotion. But of these there may be only one who
emerges as part of your soul, like a son. To him you can give the knowledge

Only the student thought of as having
complete purity of heart, devotion, and complete faith and trust in the master
(gurutvam) is to be taught.

You take him to the kalari,
close the door, offer prayers and puja to the various deities, and prostrate
yourselves before the deities. Then perform special puja to all the deities.
Only then do you begin to teach him.

When knowledge of the vital spots
is taught, it is carefully guarded, done in secret, may involve the repetition
of mantram and other special rituals to protect the student from injury
when learning, and seldom given completely to any one student even within a
family. When it is taught, it is taught fragmentarily and gradually. As one
long-term practitioner told me, “no one parts with this knowledge completely.
A student today is very lucky if he is given 70% of one master’s knowledge.
At least 30% will always be left out.[14]

Whatever the reasons for keeping
knowledge of the vital spots secret, as one informant told South Asian scholar
Ananda Wood during his research on tratitional modes of acquiring knowledge
in Kerala, “many people make exaggerated claims of their skill and knowledge
in marma vidya” (1985:115). My own field experience confirms this observation.
For example, one kalarippayattu gurukkal who is excellent in his
mastery of massage and his own style of training was more than happy to share
full knowledge of several of his texts on the vital spots with me; however,
it had been so long since he’d been called upon to use the knowledge contained
in his texts that he was unable to clearly explain the locations, symptoms of
injury, or methods of attack of a number of specific spots.

Another practitioner in his late
20’s whom I will called “David,” was born into a Nadar family where the grandfather
was a tratitional practitioner of varma ati. Although this young man’s
father had not learned varma ati, David was consumed with a passion to
learn the martial and medical system and began training at his grandfather’s
feet from a young age. But as so often happens, masters only gradually reveal
the secrets of practice to their students, even within their families, and often
vow, like Kalathil Krishnan Vaidyar, to withhold revelation of their most secretive
techniques until “on my death bed.”

Unfortunately, David’s grandfather
died in 1982 before he was able to share knowledge of the location, methods
of attack, and treatments of all the vital spots, leaving David unable to decipher
and use as much as three-fifths of the original palm-leaf manuscript he inherited
which recorded all of the tratitional techniques. Frustrated, he sought out
other masters to teach him how to use and interpret his family’s text. However,
so much variation existed between his own family’s text/practice and that of
other masters he consulted that numerous contratictions and inconsistencies
appeared. David is still unable to clearly interpret and use much of his family’s
text. So contratictory can versions of the vital spots be that, as Balachandran
Master laughingly told me, “you will either become a renunciant or a mental
case. If you just go to one master, fine. You learn what he knows [even if that
is incomplete] and there will be no confusion; but if you go to more than one

I do not think that the confusion
reflected in these stories is a recent phenomenon. As early as 1957 in his preface
to Sreedharan Nair’s comparative study (in Malayalam) of Sanskrit, Tamil, and
Malayalam sources on the vital spots, Narayanan wrote soberly about the condition
of knowledge of the vital spots:

We have all heard alot about the
vital spots. But usually what we hear is unclear or full of fantastic information.
To achieve a systematic life, a clear and perfect knowledge is needed. But in
naming, locating, and explaining the vital spots, even what teachers say is
uncertain. (Nair 1963)

It is certainly the case that a
gradual breakdown in the process of transmission as well as lack of practice
in using some techniques has resulted in confusion and uncertainty among some
of today’s masters. However, like others who wish to preserve systems of tratitional
knowledge from the past, Narayanan, problemmatically assumes an idealized past:

At one time there were well developed
laws of martial, massage, and vital spot practice. When we look to Kerala’s
past, we can believe that at one time there was both a scientific and full knowledge
of these vital spots.

This picture of an idyllic past
in which knowledge was perfect assumes that in this “Kali Yuga” all knowledge,
morality, and the quality of life has literally “degenerated.[15]
In contrast to this idyllic picture of a past in which knowledge was perfect,
I would suggest that, like other esoteric and secretive systems of practice/knowledge,
contentiousness, confusion, and lack of clarity has always surrounded this specialized
and potentially very dangerous system of attacking/defending the vital spots
of the body, and that the multiple interpretations of the vital spots we find
today are due to the fact that the martial traditions have by necessity always
been relatively closed and secretive about their techniques of deadly practice.

To summarize thus far, knowledge
of the vital spots is not a “seamless” non-contratictory body of “scientific”
information practiced in exactly the same way or with exacting precision by
all those who claim to be masters of the martial tratition, but rather a cultural
commonplace in South India which has found many forms of popular expression,
been open to many interpretations, and which in some ways has fallen into misuse.
I will situate the concept and practice of the vital spots within three interpretive
communities in which they developed (antique Ayurvedic physicians, kalarippayattu,
and varma ati), accepting the fact that numerous contratictions exist
both between their interpretations as well as within each tratition.

The Vital Spots
and Ayurvedic History and Principles


The earliest textual evidence of
the concept of the vital spots dates from as early as the RgVeda (@ 1200
BCE) where the god Indra is recorded as defeating the demon Vrtra by attacking
his vital spots (marman) with his vajra (Fedorova 1990). From this and
numerous other scattered references to the vital spots in Vedic and epic sources,
it is certain that India’s early martial practitioners knew and practiced attacking
or defending vital spots; however, we possess no martial texts from antiquity
comparable to the Sanskrit medical texts in which a systematic knowledge of
the vital spots is recorded[16].

By the time that Susruta’s classic
Sanskrit medical text had been revised in the 2nd century A.D., (Kutumbiah 1974:xxx)
107 vital spots of the gross, external, physical body (sthula-sarira)
had been identified and defined as an aid to surgical intervention:

the areas where muscles, vessels,
ligaments, bones, and joints meet together […]which by virture of their nature
are specially the seats of life (Singhal and Guru 1973:132). [Figure #12]

Susruta knew the importance of avoiding
vital spots in surgery, identified illnesses caused by direct and indirect injury
to them, and diseases situated in them. He asserted that direct penetration
of many vital spots was fatal, and classified these trauma as sadyah-pranahara
(causing death within one day) or kalantara-pranahara (causing death
within 14 days to one month). He also observed that death could be caused by
extracting a foreign object from a wound to a vital spot (visalyaghna),
that some wounds to the vital spots might result in maiming or deforming injuries
(vaikalyakara), and other times penetration of vital spots only resulted
in painful injuries (rujakar). Of the 107 vital spots he identified,
Susruta listed 51 as leating either to immediate death, death within twenty-four
hours, or one month. Limited emergency measures included surgical removal of
the foreign body and amputation. Susruta established a close connection between
combat and medical intervention. Surgery was called salya, which referred
to “foreign bodies of every kind…but…specifically…the arrow, which was
the commonest and most dangerous foreign body causing wounds and requiring surgical
treatment” (Kutumbiah 1974:144).

Knowledge of the vital spots shares
the general Ayurvedic principles that health is a state of humoral equilibrium.
Susruta identified seven kinds of diseases, one of which was samghata-bala-pravrtta,
“the traumatic type…caused by an external blow or…due to wrestling with
an antagonist of superior strength” (Susruta, Suthrasthana XXIV, 6; Bhishagratna
trans., 1963:230). All combat injuries fall into this class. Susruta related
them to the primary humoral body by explaining that traumatic injuries enrage
the wind humor in the area of injury. The first action of the attending physician
should thus aim to calm the ‘enraged wind humor (vayu).[17]

The legacy of identification, classification,
and treatment of the vital spots established by Susruta, and in South India
by Vagbhata, was a rational system based on humoral theory and therapeutic intervention
applied to observations of wounds received in combat. It was certainly never
a closed, secret tratition since its purpose was to save lives whenever possible.
This medical tratition was eventually passed to martial specialists for whom
the combat application (prayogam) of their specialized knowledge was
just as important as medical intervention (cikitsa)18.

Textual Sources for the Study of
the Vital Spots [19]


Kalarippayattu masters possess
one or more of three types of texts on the vital spots: (1) those like the Marmmanidanam
(“Diagnosis of the Vital Spots”) which are ultimately derived from Susruta’s
Samhita and ennumerate each vital spot’s Sanskrit name, number, location,
size, classification, symptoms of direct and full penetration, length of time
a person may live after penetration, and occasionally symptoms of lesser injury;
(2) those like Granthavarimarmma cikitsa which also identify the 107
vital spots of the Sanskrit texts and record recipes and therapeutic procedures
to be followed in healing injuries to the vital spots; and (3) much less Sanskritized
texts like Marmmayogam which are the kalarippayattu practitioner’s
handbook of empty-hand practical fighting applications and emergency revivals
for the 64 “most vital” of the spots (kulabhysamarmmam). As we shall
see in more detail below, all these kalarippayattu texts could be characterized
as rather straightforward descriptive reference manuals cataloguing practical

In contrast to the straightforward
descriptive nature of these kalarippayattu texts are the varma ati
master’s highly poetic Tamil texts which were tratitionally taught verse by
verse as the student sang each verse, thereby committing each to memory. Some
texts like the Varma Cuttiram located at the University of Madras manuscript
library (#2429) are relatively short (146 sloka) and may focus on only
one aspect of practice. Much longer texts like Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram
[“Songs [concerning] the Breaking and Wounding of the Vital Spots”] include
more than 1,000 verses and provide names and locations of the vital spots, whether
it is a single or a double spot, symptoms of injury, methods of emergency revival,
techniques and recipes for treatments of injuries not only to the vital spots
but also to bones, muscles, etc. As a comprehensive medical text its purpose
is clearly sung:

    10.1 Oh leader of the world, since
    human beings [receive] cuts, fall down, [recive] blows,

    10.2 lose their grip and fall
    down from high places–for all these reasons parts of the body are broken,

    10.3 and for these same reasons
    for so long now people have

    suffered or died, and the vital
    spots of their bodies

    may have been wounded.

    10.4 Because of all the suffering
    caused by these injuries, I am going to recount the various oils, internal
    medicines, and tablets [to give].

    The text admonishes the student
    as he learns these verses to

    12.1 Proceed by giving massage
    with the hands, legs, and bundles of medicinal herbs,

    12.2 with confidence set fractures.
    I am explaining all this

    carefully, so listen and follow
    what I say.

    12.3 With piety take your guru
    and god in mind, and treat other lives as your own.

    12.4 With thinking and doing together
    as one, search out the

    vital spots, fractures, and wounds.

These texts reveal that the varma
system was tratitionally a highly esoteric and mystical one since only
someone who had attained accomplished as a Siddha yogi could be considered a master
of the vital spots. In keeping with the commonplace Tamil expression, “without
knowing oneself first, I cannot know about others,” the poet who authored Varma
Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram
explicitly states, “Only by practicing the five stages
[of yoga kantam] in the six ataram [locations within the subtle
body for meditation and generation of internal vital energy] will you get [a clear
understanding] of the 108 vital spots (varmam)” [17.1]. Tirumular’s classic
definition of a Siddha is implicit in this practice–“‘Those who live in yoga
and see the divine light (oli) and power (cakti) through yoga are
the cittar‘” (Zvelebil 1973:225; Tirumantiram 1490)[20].

As anthropologist Margaret Trawick
Egnor notes, “the language of Siddha poetry is notoriously esoteric; modern
students of it say it was deliberately made so, so that the Siddha knowledge
would not become public” (1983:989). The difficulties of interpreting the obscurities
of these texts on the vital spots is, as Zvelebil has pointed out, in keeping
with the nature of all Siddha poetry:

Whenever the Siddhas use ambiguous
language, it is on purpose; they are obscure because they want to be obscure…In
fact, according to the living cittar tratition, the texts are a closed
mystic treasure-box bound by the Lock of ignorance, and only a practising Siddha
yogi is able to unlock the poems and reveal their true meaning (1973:229).

According to tratition, only a practising
Siddha yogi can unlock the secrets of the texts and apply them in locating,
attacking, and/or healing the vital spots.

of the Vital Spots


Given its relationship to the antique
Sanskrit medical sources, kalarippayattu‘s medical texts define the vital
spots in terms whose source is certainly Susruta. For example, the anonymous
undated, Marmmanidanam, in the possession of a north Kerala master records
the following:

If a person is hit anywhere in his
body with a punch, and the strength of the pain [where he has been hit] constantly
fluctuates, increasing and then decreasing, this is known as a marmmam.
Flesh, bones, tendons, veins, arteries, and joints, all these six are places
of marmmam. These are the seats of life (jivan).

This definition combines Susruta’s
anatomical understanding of the vital spots with the martial practitioner’s
rational observations of the throbbing pain produced when a vital spot is hit
or penetrated. Other definitions, like the following from Marmmarahasyangal
(“The Secrets of the Vital Spots”), are less explicit: “If at any place there
is injury from weapons or hits due to which death occurs, this is known as a
vital spot.”

The varma ati texts I have
examined do not give a precise anatomical definition. In keeping with the more
esoteric and poetic nature of Tamil cittar literature, the vital spots
are explained suggestively, as in this passage from Varma Oti Murivu Cara

14.1. Only by searching have you
discovered the secret of the secrets of all these details [of the varmam].

2. If you understand and locate
the wonderful places where [the varmam are situated] which are hidden
[inside the body], (you will experience these as) being cooling places [if injured][21].

What is common to Sanskrit, Malayalam,
and Tamil sources is that the vital spots are places where the life force in
the form of the internal breath or wind (prana-vayu) is situated, and
therefore vulnerable to attack. Filliozat has traced the organic sense of breath
and the association between wind and breath from the period of the Vedas through
the classical Ayurveda of Susruta and Caraka and the psychophysiology of yoga
(1964:185). Wind spread throughout the body and was understood to be responsible
for all activity, just as atmospheric wind was thought to be responsible for
all natural activity. Within the physical body, specific activities were identified
with specific forms of wind or breath. The term prana or the compound
prana-vayu refers not just to breath, but to breath-as-life, or the essential
vital energy of life itself. Typically, kalarippayattu master Gurukkal
Govindankutty Nayar equated the wind with the vital energy:

Prana is the vayu
which rules the body as a whole. Prana is the controlling power of all
parts of the body. Vayu is not just air, but one sakti (power).
That is what rules us completely. Prana means jivan, ‘life,’ individual

Varma ati master Sadasivan
Asan of Trivandrum defined the vital spots as “where the vital force passes
when there is an injury.” In keeping with the imporance of the breath as it
has been defined by the classical Siddha therapeutists like Roma Rsi[22],
Moolachal Asan explained in more detail the relationship between the vital breath
or wind and the vital spots:

If a person has no breath, there
is no varmam. Vayu (breath) is varmam. Varmam are
those places where the breath collects while doing meditation. Varmam
means breath comes through the ida and pingala nadi (channels
of the subtle body). A healthy man takes 21,600 breaths per day. The channels
through which the breath passes are called varma nila where if you strike,
the vayu will be stopped, and then symptoms will be shown. Then the blood
will clot. When the breath is blocked, various diseases will result.

Some masters maintain that the key
to a full understanding of the vital spots is through knowledge of astrology.
As one informant asserted, “The heart of the vital spots is time (kalam),
and time is ultimately controlled by the stars.” One’s internal life force (jivan
or prana-vayu) is constantly circulating throughout the body in conjunction
with the periodic 15 day cycles of the waxing and waning of the moon. Raju Asan
of Vizhinjam explained to me that

an expert in varmam must
know and be able to spot specifically where the jivan is located at any
given time. The life force is only in one specific vital spot at any specific
time. And only if you attack this specific spot where the life force is located
at that time will it have its full effect.

Therefore, a master would have to
know that on the first day of the new moon the life force is located in the
vital spot at the tip of the nail of the big toe, in the nakannmarmmam.
For masters who follow this esoteric logic, the vital spots listed in medical
texts are simply places (sthanam) on the physical body. Only when the
vital energy is located in a particular place at a particular time is it actually
a marmmam in the original sense of the word–a spot on the body which,
if hit or penetrated, will result in death, i.e., the stoppage of the vital
energy. Following this logic, only a master fully accomplished in Siddha yoga,
astrology, as well as the practical techniques of fighting applications would
have the requisite skills to be able to successfully locate and attack the particular
vital spot vulnerable at the specific moment of attack.

Details of the
Vital Spots in the Kalarippayattu Tradition


As illustrated in Figure #13, among
kalarippayattu practitioners following the Susruta tratition, the majority
identify 107 as the total number of vital spots. The master-as-physician ideally
knows all 107 in order to give treatments for injuries to the spots themselves
and to give massage therapies without applying pressure directly to the spots
and thereby causing injury. Two typical kalarippayattu texts, the Marmmanidanam
and Marmmarahasyangal, both follow Susruta’s Samhita in using
43 names to identify a total of 107 vital spots. Examining the Marmmanidanam
more closely [Figure #14], of the 43 names given, 9 located on the limbs identify
4 vital spots each, 26 identify two spots each, 6 are single spots located along
the center line of the torso, one name identifies a total of 8 spots in the
neck, and one name identifies 5 spots on the skull. In contrast to simpler texts
like the Marmmarahasyangal which only records the locations of the vital
spots, the medically-based Marmmanidanam is similar to Susruta’s Samhita
in ennumerating each vital spot’s name, number, location, size, classification[23], symptoms of direct and full penetration, length
of time a person may live after penetration, and occasionally symptoms of lesser
injury. Reating like a manual for a battlefield surgeon faced with recognizing
and treating bladed wounds to the vital spots, the Marmmanidanam contains
vivid descriptions of these injuries, but no information of practical use to
the martial artist on attack, defense, or counter-applications for emergency
treatments to the vital spots. Typical of the majority of the text is the entry
on the first vital spot with the Sanskrit name, talahrttu:

In the sole of the foot and the
hand, straight in front of the middle finger is the marmmam talahrttu.
There are four which are 1/2 finger in width and which are mamsa marmmam.
[If injured] at first the pain is not strong, but it slowly increases with continuous
bleeding. The color of the blood is like the color of blood when you are washing
meat. The flow of blood is gradual. [As a result], the body becomes pale. The
five senses lose their capacity [to feel]. The injured person will live for
a maximum of one to one and




#1= Susruta’s Samhita

#2= Marmmanidanam (“Diagnosis
of the Vital Spots”)

#3= Marmmarahasyangal (“Vital
Spot Secrets”)

#4= Chandran Gurukkal, Azhicode

#5= Kalattil Krishnan Vaidyar, Alavil

#6= Moolachal Asan, Mekkamandapam

#7= Sadasivan Asan, Trivandrum

#8= Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram
(“A Set of Songs [concerning] the Breaking and Wounding of the Vital Spots”)

Susruta Kalarippayattu Varma

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8

[names] 43 43 43 54 55 108 108 108


arms 22 22 22 24 16 14 10 10[24]

legs 22 22 22 22 14 14 11 11[26]

stomach 3 3 3 3 9 9

chest 9 9 9 7 21 [torso]45 34 34[60]

back 14 14 14 17 38 * 16 16[28]

neck/head 37 37 37 35 9 25 37 37[57]

TOTAL: 107 107 107 108 107 108+
108^ 108[195]

*=Sadasivan Asan includes those
on the back in his count of the torso.

+=Sadasivan Asan also includes “one
special secret spot” to give a total of 108.

^=Moolachal Asan also recognizes
two special vital spots not counted as part of the sastric 108.
See note #29.

one-half months. If the pain is
only slight, it can be assumed that only the edge of the vital spot has been
injured and it was not directly hit[24].

Although these texts give a general
idea of the location of the vital spots and may indicate that a spot is located
a specific number of finger widths (angulam) away–for example, two finger
widths below the nipple–only through hands-on instruction does a student discover
the precise location of each marmmam. Chandran Gurukkal maintains that
the only precise way of measuring the location of the vital spots is by taking
the measure of a person’s own finger width, and then using this specific measure
(marked on a string) to locate each of the vital spots. [Figure #15]. Locations
are usually taught either by marking each with rice paste or a special grass
[Figure #16], or by carefully touching/probing each spot on the student’s body
so that he feels the precise location. The text serves as a manual to which
the master refers while showing a student the location of each of the vital

Other than the specific information
on the location of each spot, the Marmmanidanam is as formulaic as the
Samhita, providing virtually the same information for all the vital spots
in each class, as the following entries for the seventeenth and eighteenth-named
vital spots illustrate for two vein (sira) marmmam.

In the center of the body between
the large and small intestine, nabhi marmmam is located. It is
the center of all the nadi. It is the measure of the palm. It is a sira
marmmam. If it is injured, [the result is] immediate death. Symptoms
include thick blood continuously flowing in large quantity resulting in anemia,
thirst, head spinning, breathing difficulty, hiccups. He will live a maximum
of seven days.

In between the breasts where the
abdomen and chest join, at the hole of the abdomen the hrdayam marmmam
is located. It is the measure of the palm and is connected with the sira
(veins). When injured, [the result is] immediate death. Symptoms include thick
blood continuously flowing in large quantity resulting in anemia, thirst, head
spinning, breathing difficulty, hiccups.

Again like the Samhita, Marmmanidanam
clearly differentiates between penetration of the vital spots and other battlefield-type
injuries, and provides additional practical information on amputation.

When an injury occurs at the vital
spots before the vital energy (vayu) travels upwards, the upper portion
should be immediately amputated at the point [of injury]. When amputation is
done the veins and joints shrink and bleeding stops, and therefore the person

If injury occurs where there is
no vital spot, even though bleeding results the person will not die; however,
if it is a vital spot which brings immediate death, then even if penetrated
with the tip of the stem of a grass, the person will not live. By some chance
due either to the skill of the physician or if the injury is not deep, even
if the person lives he will be handicapped…

If even a small cut or injury occurs
to a vital spot, it brings great pain. Just like this, even if treated well
many diseases affecting the vital spots create great difficulty.

Apart from the symptoms mentioned
above, you may also see [the following symptoms]: contortion of the body, faintness,
trembling of the body, a feeling that the heart is burning, disorientation,
and eventual death.

When an injury occurs where there
is no vital spot, even if there is great bleeding, the person will not die;
therefore, even if 100 arrows penetrate [where there are no vital spots], the
person will not die. A person who is pure and whose fate is to live a long life
on this earth will not die in any manner.

If the Marmmanidanam and
other similar texts tratitionally served the martial artist-as-physician as
a diagnostic field manual helping him identify the characteristic features of
battlefield-type cuts or penetrations of the vital spots, his practical training
taught him specific weapons techniques used to penetrate, cut, or defend some,
if not all of these 107 vital spots. Although most of today’s kalarippayattu
masters learned practical methods of attacking and defending the vital spots
while learning either empty-hand (verumkai) techniques or a special wooden
practice weapon (the otta) through which empty-hand techiques are taught,
many practitioners of the past probably learned the vital spots during training
with weapons like eighty-seven year old C.C. Velayudan Asan told me in 1983:

In my family tratition the vital
spots were learned while doing spear. The tip of the spear is very sharp and
small, and the vital spots are very small, specific points. The student first
learned thrusts to various body parts and specific spots, as well as how to
defend against those thrusts. One he began to learn these techniques, standing
at a distance he was taught to throw the spear at a human target aiming at specific
vital points. Only when he was able to hit all those specific places by throwing
the spear was he taught the specific names of the vital spots. In our tratition
we identified 36 death marmmam. There are 36 methods of attacking. Everything
is contained in those 36 methods of attacking the 36 death spots.

Those masters like Velayudan who
still practice tratitional combat weapons, especially sword/shield and spear,
still attack and defend the vital spots in their daily practice.

For treatment of penetrating injuries
to the 107 vital spots identified by Susruta, some masters also possess a second
type of text, like either the Granthavarimarmma cikitsa or Marmmani
, which record recipes for medicinal preparations and therapeutic
procedures for treatments. Regarding penetration of talahrttu described
above, the Granthavarimarmma cikitsa records the following course of

If talahrttu is injured you
give dhara [continuous pouring of any type of liquid on any part of the
body] with gingeley oil and ghee for three hours. After dhara is complete,
grind gingeley oil with butter and rub it on the place. To the top of the head
apply a mixture of jasmin flower and butter. After three hours it should be
wiped off. Then all over the body apply a mixture of water, oil, ghee, and Aloe
Vera(kattavala), or else if not, ghee, oil, and tender cocoanut water[25].

Masters still use these recipes
and therapeutic procedures to treat occasional injuries to the vital spots.

Although attacks and defenses of
specific vital spots are taught as part of all weapons practice, kalarippayattu
masters possess a third type of text which specifically ennumerates the names,
locations, symptoms of injury (laksanam), empty-hand techniques of attack
or defense, and emergency counter-applications (marukai, literally, “opposite
hand”) for blows to the 64 kulabhyasamarmmam–the “great practical vital
spots.[26]” These empty-hand techniques must have been
important when a practitioner lost or broke his weapon in combat, or when attacked
while unarmed. Although some masters maintain that the 64 practical spots are
“the most important vital spots of the 107,” and therefore are 64 of the same
107 vital spots identified by Susruta, others insist that perhaps only one-half
of the 64 practical vital spots are included in the 107 identified for medical

Among the 64 practical spots, some
masters classify them according to the results produced by their penetration
as either the “most vital” spots (kula-marmmam) whose direct penetration
could bring death or very serious injury if a counter-application is not applied;
“catch” spots (kolu-marmmam) whose direct penetration produces a freezing
pain which incapacitates an individual temporarily and may lead to death; or
“practice” spots (abhyasa-marmmam) whose penetration causes less serious
injury. In theory, only when a master intends to kill an opponent would he attack
the most vital spots. When wishing to disarm or incapacitate an opponent, he
would attack a catch spot. In the least dangerous situation he should overcome
an opponent by attacking a practice spot.

These differences reflect the fact
that, as Sreedharan Nayar noted in 1957, there is no uniformity about either
the titles or locations of these 64 practical vital spots. [Figure #17] Whether
part of Susruta’s 107 or not, these 64 spots are those which many kalarippayattu
practitioners learn during his advanced years of training in unarmed combat.

The following two examples from
Kunnhikannan Gurukkal’s Marmmayogam text, counterparts of the Susruta-based
nabhi and hrdaya marmmam recorded above, illustrate the
type of information in these manuals:

Jalapantam is one-half finger
width below the navel. Block with the left, take a right step and chop with





#1= Marmmadarppanam (Chirakkal
Sreedharan Nayar, 1957)

#2= Marmayogam (Kunnhikannan

#1 #2

[names] [37] [34]


arms 12 10

legs 10 10

stomach 3 3

chest 12 15

sides/back 7 7

neck 7 6

head 13 13

TOTAL: 64 64

right hand. He will lose consciousness
and urinate. [To revive your attacker] six finger widths above where the legs
join, at the center of the backbone, [apply the counter-application] punch.
Sometimes blood may ooze out [of thepenis]. Then apply pressure at the base
of the vertebral column [with the base of the palm].

Trisankupuspam (“three conch
flower”) [Between the nipples] below the chest and above the abdomen, this spot
is liquid in nature and shaped like the bud of the lotus a bit tilted to the
right and you must locate it with your heart. Defend the hit with your left
and attack this spot with the right elbow. [To revive] just on the opposite
side of the back, punch.

The empty-hand (verumkai)
techniques recorded in these texts were tratitionally an integral part of kalarippayattu
training which were, according to Velayudan Asan, “taught last because the teacher
must have an understanding of the mind of the student” that comes from observing
him over a long period of time. These techniques are an extension of the student’s
preliminary training in kalarippayattu‘s poses, steps, and forms, and
only the student who has mastered the basic forms, developed consummate single-point
focus (ekagrata), and is able channel his inner vital energy (prana-vayu)
has the ability to make these techniques effective fighting techniques.

There are three ways of learning
empty-hand techniques. First, some techniques of attack and defense are implicit
in the first body exercise sequences students learn, even if he is at first
unaware of the fact that what he is learning has a practical application. There
are also a wide range of specific techniques of attack and defense taught as
separate forms, and then combined in sequences. [Figures #18-19] Finally, the
most complex and in many ways most important weapon in the kalarippayattu
system is the otta, a curved stick carved from a single block of the
hard tamarind tree practiced in eighteen separate sequences. Both sides of the
curved stick represent different arm/elbow positions, and all of the methods
of attack, defense, or locking and throwing an opponent translate directly into
empty-hand techniques. [Figure #20]

Specific empty-hand techniques include
those with the fist, elbow, tip of the index finger, butt of the hand, joined
finger tips of both hands, thumb, an extended knuckle, big toe, and forehead.
A few examples will illustrate. In Figures #21-22 Gurukkal Madhavan Panikkar
demonstrates how he defends an attack to his forehead with his left hand, and
returns an attack to his opponent’s sankapuspam-marmmam located between
the breasts with a right step forward and a thrust of the elbow. An alternative
move is to counterattack to mukkatappan marmmam (located at the bridge
of the nose) with a downward right cut with the outer edge of the hand [Figure
#23]. This same master defends against a right overhead blow to the forehead
with a double-hand block [Figure #24] by stepping forward with his left leg
and thrusting downward with his left elbow to tarippan marmmam [Figure

Some practitioners also learn to
hit or penetrate the vital spots with a cottaccan, a small stick designed
to be easily concealed in the hand [Figure #26]. The stick measures one ca[27]n–the distance between the outstretched thumb and
second finger. One type of cottaccan is the stick rounded on both ends,
occasionally tipped with brass, and always held by the palm in the middle of
the stick so that an equal amount of the stick extends from each side of the
palm. This style of cottachan is used to thrust with the forehand or
strike with the back of the hand. A second style of cottaccan is more
like a very small billy-club [see also Figure #26] which is held on the narrower
gripping-end and has a slightly larger club-end. This style of stick is used
for forehand and backhand thrusts, as well as blows delivered with a quick flick
of the wrist.

According to some masters within
both the kalarippayattu and varma ati traditions, even if a practitioner
knows the specific locations of the vital spots, if someone simply hits or even
penetrates a spot it may have little result, or at the most produce a numbing,
freezing pain. It certainly will not lead to death. The only way to actually
kill an opponent when attacking a vital spot is to have learned a special knack
for “opening” the vital spot being attacked. This interpretation of the vital
spots assumes that the vital spots are normally hidden or “closed,” and only
when the spot has been “opened” can a penetrating attack result in death. Among
the various ways masters understand what it means to “open” the vital spots
are the following:

(1) The position of the body/limb
and/or direction of attack must “open” the vital spot to allow a deadly attack.
For example, the varmam located between the third and fourth knuckles
of the hand is “hidden inside” when the hand is held flat. If someone attempts
to push on or penetrate the vital spot while the hand is flat, there will be
no deadly result. Only when the hand is made into a fist is this particular
varmam “opened” for penetration from a particular direction.

(2) A second interpretation suggests
that when hitting/penetrating a vital spot, the first hit with a blunt instrument
or part of the body is intended to “awaken” or “open” the vital spot. Once opened,
the quickly delivered second blow/penetration is the death blow.

(3) A third explanation is that
a only a blow to the vital spot on the top of the head awakens and activates
all the other 63 vital spots so that a deadly attack may be delivered.

Equally as important as the ability
to attack and defend the vital spots is the practitioner’s ability to revive
an individual whose vital spots have been penetrated. When a vital spot is penetrated
by a sharp weapon, death results when vital energy goes “up” or “out” through
the wound. When there is penetration with a blunt object, the vital energy or
internal wind is stopped at the point of penetration, and the entire structure
may collapse and death may result. The inner system of channels (nadi)
reverberates from the shock, and emergency counter-application must be given
within a prescribed period of time to restore circulation of the wind humor
as well as structural balance.

The fundamental measurement used
to determine the time within which a counter-application must be given is the
nalika–the basic time unit in astrology. One nalika is the period
during which one star stands, and there are sixty nalika in a twenty-four
hour period, i.e., one nalika equals 24 minutes. For example, Sreejayan
Gurukkal’s Kulamarmmangal records how the counter-application for penetration
of karnnapilikakanna marmmam, located four finger widths above the ear,
must be given “within eight nalika and eight vinalika” on the
“opposite side four fingers above the ear.”

Kalarippayattu masters administer
opposite hand (marukai) applications to “straighten out” a channel after
it has collapsed and contracted when struck, and to thereby unblock the stopped
and enraged internal wind. The antique Indian counterpart of modern emergency
revival techniques, these are usually a strong slap with the palm of the empty
hand to precisely the same spot on the opposite side of the body. The counter-application
restores structural balance, stops the blockage of the flow of the internal
wind humor, and thereby brings the patient out of immediate danger. The master’s
ability to produce an effective counter-blow and bring the person out of danger
is dependent upon his embodied ability to transmit the appropriate degree of
energy/power (sakti) when channeling his own vital energy through the
palm in the form of the slap.

In addition to counter-applications,
kalarippayattu masters also use some general revival techniques when
the precise marmmam penetrated is unknown. When an unconscious patient
is brought to Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar and all he knows is that the injury
was above the waist, he gives the following set of counter-applications intended
to get the patient out of immediate danger: a firm slap with the palm to the
top of the head, followed by the application of pressure with both palms to
the patient’s ears, followed by a twisting and jerking of the legs while applying
pressure to certain vital spots. The head is slapped because this is understood
to be the central “channel of the vital energy.” Pressure is immediately applied
to the ears to compress the effect of the slap on the vital wind. The legs are
jerked and twisted to stimulate the vital energy/wind to begin recirculating.

Once the superstructure is out of
immediate danger of collapse, the patient’s humoral imbalance (also resulting
from penetration of the vital spot) is treated through massage therapy and prescribing
internal medicines. The counter-application and ensuing quieting massages are
complimentary emergency and longer-term therapies.

When the practical texts are examined
closely and compared to the Susruta-based medical texts, five further observations
can be made, each of which will be elaborated below: (1) although the names
of the practical vital spots are occasionally the same Sanskrit names as in
the medical texts, more often the names are colloquial and descriptive Malayalam;
(2) all of the attacks and defenses recorded are executed with the empty-hands;
(3) likewise, the symptoms of injury never indicate that the vital spot has
been cut with a sharp weapon like a sword, arrow, or spear, but rather are the
result of either a blow or penetration of a spot with a blunt instrument–either
a part of the body or perhaps a stick; (4) the empty-hand attacks described
are intended to temporarily incapacitate an opponent with the most typical results
being paralysis, numbness, loss of consciousness, waisting of the limbs, mental
agitation, and/or internal injury causing vomiting of blood; and (5) as long
as a counter-application is given within the stipulated time period, only rarely
does a text indicate that an attack to one of these 64 spots with a blunt object
or part of the body will result in death.

More common than Sanskrit names
are colloquial, descriptive ones like the vital spot located four finger widths
below the ears known as “lip twister” (cirikotan), or “lightening flash”
(itiminni), referring to the flash of light one sees when hit between
the eyebrows. A few names are descriptive of the shape of the empty-hand used
to attack the spot such as “like the serpent’s hood” (ittirapatti) where
the attacking hand takes the shape of a serpent’s hood.

Even in those versions of the practical
vital spots that use the same Sanskrit names as Susruta’s Samhita, the
information provided is quite different. For example, the Samhita records
the vital spot ksipram as located “at the junction of the thumb and index
fingers.” It is classified as kalantara-pranahara (death within fourteen
days to one month) and is said to lead to “death from convulsions.” As noted
above, texts derived from the Samhita like the Marmmanidanam,
record details similar to those in the original text, in this case the following:

In between the thumb and the forefinger
is ksipram…Due to [the injury] of the two winds (ayamam and
aksepakam), paralysis and strong pain [result]. He will be unable to
move the limbs of the body. Gradual death will come within one to one and one-half

Quite in contrast is the ksipram
recorded in one master’s text which identifies the symptoms of injury as “the
hand goes limp; thirst, belching, and burning sensation; nerves become taught;
possible unconsciousness.” More typical than use of the Sanskrit ksipram,
this spot is called “finger vital spot” (angulamarmmam) by one master,
while in Kunnhikannan Gurukkal’s Marmmayogam this same spot is named
“the sneezing hand finger press” (tumbikaiviraluni). “Sneezing hand finger”
clearly describes the result of the practical application recorded in the text:
“Block and catch hold of the palm and apply pressure. [The opponent’s] hand
will be immobilized.”

Some descriptions, like that for
kaikulappan marmmam in Kunnhikannan Gurukkal’s Marmmayogam,
clearly indicate that these empty-hand techniques were to be used to disarm,
immobilize, and then revive an attacker:

Inside the elbow, below the bend
[in the arm] is kaikulappan. Block and apply pressure with the right
hand. [The attacker’s] hand will be weakened and the weapon will fall from his
hand. [Apply the counter] above that in the middle of the bend [of the elbow]
and the shaking of the hand will be stopped.

In keeping with the emphasis on
self-defense, in the texts I have been able to study in detail, only one vital
spot, vayuccini (“spreating out the air”) located “in the depression
on top of the head where the hair circles” indicates that death might result
from a blow or penetration: “If injured, difficulty in breathing, burping, etc.
will occur. The head shivers. If the pupils of the eyes turn up, death occurs”
(Nayar 1957).

To summarize, it is clear that the
Susruta-based 107 vital spots and the 64 practical vital spots were complimentary
systems equally important to the tratitional kalarippayattu martial/medical
practitioner. It was to the Susruta-based system of 107 vital spots that the
martial practitioner learned to aim the trusts and cuts of his weapons on the
battlefield, and it was also this system which guided the practitioner in locating
the vital spots, identifying symptoms of battlefield-type injuries, avoiding
these spots while giving massage therapies, and in treating penetrating wounds.
Complimenting this weapons-based system were the 64 vital spots of the empty-hand
practical repertoire with its techniques for defense, disarming an opponent,
and temporarily stunning/disabling an opponent[28].


[The conclusion of this essay will
appear in the next issue of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. It details
the vital spots in the Tamil varma ati tratition, describes the esoteric/subtle
concept of the vital spots of the subtle body, and concludes with a discussion
of the local nature of this knowledge which requires the practitioner to have
a “doubtless mentality” in practice.

Part II

[Note: Part I of this essay appeared
in Vol. I, #1 of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. After introducing
the two South Indian martial arts being considered, kalarippayattu of
Kerala and the Tamil varma ati, Part I briefly described the vital spots
in the Sanskrit Ayurvedic medical system, and detailed the vital spots in the
kalarippayattu tratition. In Part II that follows varma ati is
featured, followed by a description of an esoteric understanding of the vital
spots, and concluding with a discussion of the local nature of this knowledge
and the “doubtless mentality” that is required of the practitioner.]

Details of
the Vital Spots in the Varma Ati Tradition


As illustrated in Figure #13, practitioners
of varma ati usually agree that 108 is the sastric number of vital
spots identified by the Sage Agastya[29]. But
unlike Susruta’s 107 which is the total number of vital spots identified by
43 names, 108 is the number of names for the vital spots. Since some names identify
single spots, and others are double, the number of vital spots can total more
than 200[30]. For example, the Varma Oti
Murivu Cara Cuttiram
, records 46 of the 108 vital spots as single and 62
as double, for a total of 170 [44.2].

Of these 108 vital spots, 96 are
classified as minor spots (thodu varmam) and 12 as the major deadly vital
spots (padu varmam)31. The most vulnerable/dangerous padu
are those which, when penetrated deeply enough, cause instant death.
The more numerous minor spots are not as dangerous when penetrated but cause
great pain while incapacitating an attacker[32]. Tamil scholar M. Manickavasagam of the University of Madras
explained that the difference between the two types of vital spots is due to
how close the vital wind passes to the surface of the skin, i.e., when the vital
wind is near the surface and therefore more exposed to stoppage through penetration
it is a padu varmam, and when the vital wind “goes around the side and/or
circle the spot” it is a minor (thodu) vital spot.

Similar to kalarippayattu
practical texts, the information in varma ati texts provides colloquial
names, specific locations, symptoms of injury/penetration with a blunt instrument
or part of the body, and methods of emergency revival. For example, Varma
Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram
records the following for one of the 12 deadly

45.1 Kontakkoli is correctly
located at the top of the head.

Listen to the symptoms if it is
seriously injured.

45.2 My dear student, his head collapses
completely and there is spontaneous ejaculation.

45.3 Life-endangering convultions
and chilling of the body

occurs. If directly affected, death

45.4 You must know that even though
an expert physician

treats this injury the patient will

Varma Cuttiram, one of the
many manuscripts in the possession of Moses Thilak in Madras, records the following
name, location, symptoms, and counter-application for another of the 12 deadly
vital spots: [see Figure #16]

In between the eyebrows just one
rice grain (nil) below,

the name of the center is tilada

As you strike, if it breaks, he
will die.

The deadly center is tiladakalam.

If the spot is struck [without it
naturally breaking],

he will open his mouth and look
at the sky.

He will be there for 3 and 3/4 nalikai
[90 minutes].

I will teach you the quieting techniques.

Grasp the hair [tied in a knot on
top of the head] and

make him sit up,

and slap at the center of the crown
of the head.

[Massage] the pinkalai [the
two nadi running up

the back of the neck to the ears].

Chew dried ginger and blow it [into
the nose and ears].

When you give boiled rice water,
you noble soul,

it is certain that he will be alright[34].

Sreedharan Nair’s 1957 Malayalam
translation of Agastyamuni’s student Bhogar’s Tamil Varmasastram records
the following narrative account of one of the less dangerous 96 minor vital
spots, mukkuvarmam (“nose vital spot”):

If a punch or hit comes to the center
of the nose, there is loss of the senses, the lights dim, blood flows from the
nose, and faintness occurs. For this give a suitable blow to the top of the
head. This remedy should be done.

There are two types of results of
penetration of a vital spot–those impossible to revive and resulting in death,
and those which it is possible to revive. According to Moolachal Asan, penetration
of one of the deadly 12 vital spots with a part of the body or blunt instrument
which is one matram (or angulam) deep would be impossible to revive.
However, when a death spot has been penetrated only one-half a matram,
the patient can be revived.

Although varma ati texts
record no specific techniques of attack or defense of the vital spots, each
master’s techniques provide him with a repertoire of methods of empty-hand attacks
and defends of the vital spots. [Figures #27, 28, 29, 30] With many of its basic
defensive and offensive techniques taught in four directions to guard against
attack from all sides, varma ati techniques always open within an evasive
move and/or block since philosophically one is never supposed to attack first.
When a counter-attack is launched to one of the vital spots, some are to be
attacked straight ahead, some from a 45 degree angle, and others must be caught
inside and pulled in order to achieve the full result.

Like kalarippayattu, varma
techniques include a variety of methods of attack with the hands, fingers,
elbows, etc., and some masters provide esoteric explanations of the potentially
deadly significance of each part of the hand:

The thumb is the mother finger of
the hand. The right index finger is the guru. The second [middle] finger
is Saturn, god of death. The third finger is directly connected to the heart,
and the fourth is for tantric practice…When you want to kill an opponent use
the second finger of death [to penetrate a vital spot]. If you only want incapacitate
your opponent you use Saturn supported by the guru finger so that you only penetrate
half-way [and therefore do not cause death].

One unique method of empty-hand
training for attacking the vital spots was explained to me by Raju Asan. Chelayan
Asan taught him the appropriate amount of pressure to apply and depth of penetration
for each type of attack by having him apply each technique with the fingers,
hands, or fist to the trunk of a bananna log–a surface which approximates remarkably
well in its texture and resistance to penetration skin and muscles.

Like the kalarippayattu system,
according to varma ati practitioners when a vital spot is penetrated
the internal wind or vital energy is understood to be stopped. While they too
recognize the concept of counter-applications (marutattu) [Figure #31]
for each vital spot, the predominant mode of emergency revival is to make use
of one of 12 to 16 adangal–methods of massaging and stimulating special
revival spots among the 108. Since all the vital spots are understood to be
connected through the internal channels (nadi) to these 12 (or 16) revival
spots, stimulating the appropriate vital spot through application of one or
more of these adangal techniques “straightens the channel” that had contracted
and collapsed so that the internal wind can pass again, and, as the Varma
Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram
records “brings [the injured] back to consciousness.”

One simple adangal Chelayan
Asan uses to revive “70% of all injuries” is to directly stimulate kavalikaalam
with his thumb [Figure #32]. When spasms occur and/or the face begins to contort
from penetration of a vital spot, Chelayan Asan simultaneously stimulates amakaalam
in the calf and koncanimarmmam in the ankle [Figure #33]. Were koncani
to be stimulated without also pressing amakaalam, there would be an adverse
affect on the patient.

A more complex revival technique
in the varma ati repertoire is illustrated by Chelayan Asan’s techniques
of counteracting penetration of nerumarmmam located between the breasts.
Pressure is first applied with the knee against vayukaalam [Figure #34]
in the small of the back while the patient is supported on the opposite side
at nerumarmmam. Next, the master rubs down along [Figure #35] the patient’s
sides. Then, lifting the head under the chin upward [Figure #36], he slaps the
top of the head on unnimarmmam [Figure #37], and concludes the series
of applications by reaching under the patient’s shoulders from behind, gripping,
lifting sharply [Figure #38], and shaking the patient.

Before performing any of these techniques,
varma ati practitioners are admonished to take in mind their guru, momentarily
focus their mind through meditation (dhyana), and only then apply their
specific techniques. When applying any adangal, the practitioner must
be careful to “not apply more pressure than needed” since that could lead to
further injury. And when giving an adangal, the Varma Oti Murivu Cara
instructs the practitioner to

84.3 …inhale the adequate amount
of air needed, and hold it firm

84.4 Keeping the breath inside,
and knowing the correct period [of application], without hesitation do this
and you will have success and bring him back

to consciousness.

As with kalarippayattu emergency
revivals, once a patient has been revived and is out of immediate danger, a
variety of external therapies and internal medicines are prescribed.

When called upon to give an emergency
revival for someone injured in a vital spot, varma ati practitioners
are also instructed to differentiate between cases which are treatable and those
which are not. The Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram advises the practitioner,

11.2…If, after determining that
the condition [of a patient] is very serious and he is going to die, leave that

11.3 [If the symptoms do not indicate
that the patient is going to die, stay] correctly read the symptoms of a wound,

11.4 and through treatments preserve
each life, except for that of the cruel person (kacataru) whom you should
never treat…

A number of specific entries, like
the following for katirvarmam located “below the neck where you wear
jewels,” are explicit in instructing the master not to treat someone injured
in this vital spot if the appropriate period for attempting counter-application
has passed:

86.1 Hear me for I am telling you
the different symptoms

when katirvaramam is affected.

86.2 Others will become frightened
because his eyes will

protrude, his head collapse, and
the neck will bend forward.

86.3 Following this he will have
troublesome vomiting and

hiccoughs. I tell you the period
[for counter-

application] is 34 katikai.

86.4 I tell you, do not do the impossible.
Do not give him medicine, but leave him [to die].

Masters are advised to read a wide
variety of signs before determining whether to treat a patient:

13.1 When you see bad symptoms from
which you know death

may arise, leave.

13.2 Good man, if the symptoms you
see are positive, surely

you can apply your touch (adankal)
and cure the


13.3 If you see symptoms indicating
the life will pass away,

able man, never go there [to give
a revival or


13.4 If you stand as firm as a pillar,
you will see very clearly the drama [of the symptoms] and find the correct [diagnosis].

When someone approaches Moolachal
Asan to give an emergency revival, he watches for the following signs, “all
of which indicate sure death;”

If the messenger scratches his head
while asking.

If he argues with you.

If he arrives leaning on a walking

If he indicates the place where
the injury has occured.

If he reports the leg is broken
at the mid forleg.

If any of the following cuts/injuries
resulting in the vital energy “going out,” i.e., death, are reported to him,
Moolachal Asan will not go to attempt a revival:

If the small of the back or back
of neck is broken.

If the big toe is cut off just below
the nail line.

If the center foreleg is broken
in two.

If the points of the hipbone are

Moolachal Asan explained that if
any master attempts to treat a case whose signs are hopeless, “it will bring
misfortune to him.”

The Esoteric/Subtle
Powers of Attack and the Marmmam of the Subtle Body


Thus far my description of the vital
spots has focused on those particular places on the gross, physical body (sthula-sarira)
which, when penetrated or cut in a certain way, may cause death. As we have
seen, the symptoms of injury from either a weapon or a blunt object are based
on rational observation of the physiological results of penetration. However,
just as the practitioner’s entire training process begins with the external,
gross body and is understood to eventually move inward toward the discovery
of the interior, subtle body (suksma-sarira) commonly thought to be encased
within the physical body and made visible through the practice of particular
forms of meditation (see Zarrilli 1989b), likewise is there understood to exist
a more esoteric, subtle means of attacking the vital spots by looking (nokku-marmmam)
or pointing (cundu-marmmam). Such attacks are made on either the 107-108
vital spots of the gross, physical body, or the completely separate set of 32
vital spots of the interior, subtle body (suksma-sarira). No actual physical
blow, cut, or thrust with a weapon or empty-hand is said to be needed by a master
who has been able to develop the higher mental powers (manasakti) to
be able to make such attacks.

Belief in these subtle powers is
a logical extension of the yogic paratigm of practice and accomplishment through
which the individual is able to concentrate his powers through meditation in
order to control everything in his environment. As South Asian religions scholar
Lee Siegel describes it,

Through ascetic practices, wandering
sannyasis were (and are) believed to attain supernatural powers, the powers
of Shiva, siddhis, which, like every other aspect of life and death in
India, have been systematically catalogued and normatively categorized: animan
(the power to become minute or, for the magician, disappearance) and mahiman
(the power to become large); laghiman (the ability to become light, to
levitate) and gariman (the power to become heavy); prapti (the
skill of obtaining things, effecting materializations, or, as explained by the
tratitional commentators on the Yogasutras of Patanjali [3.45], having
the ability to touch the moon with one’s fingertip); prakamya (the power
to will things so–telekinesis); isitva (a power over the will of others–hypnosis)
and vasitva (a power to subdue one’s own will–self-hypnosis). Demonstrations
of any of these skills are proof of holy perfection and perfect holiness (1991:150).

And, as we know from the Dhanur
Vedic tratition and numerous epic sources (Zarrilli, forthcoming), techniques
for actualizing such powers have always been an integral part of advanced Indian
martial practice. As Krishnan Vaidyar succinctly stated, “In order to practice
advanced techniques of the marmmam a person must be spiritually pure,
have concentrated patience, and not become easily upset.” To have attained the
ability to attack the vital spots by pointing or looking would be, like other
yogic powers, a demonstration of a master’s “holy perfection and perfect holiness.”

Most practitioners today have only
heard stories about masters of old who had supposedly become accomplished in
such powers, and most do not rule out the possibility that at one time in the
past a master, like the heroes of the epics, might actually have been capable
of developing such higher powers. As mentioned earlier, cheap paperbacks like
Kalarippayattu and Marmmamcuntaniyum provide the public with some tantilizing
information on these seemingly miraculous powers of attack by looking:

There is a bone in the neck known
as kalayellu. If

anyone points his finger at this
spot which is nearly

one inch from the kalayellu,
the victim will fall

unconscious and his urine and excrement
will come out.

This can be cured by lifting the

Magical, short-hand formulas are
recorded for some attacks, such as “a, a, kai ta ma va. Olinnumuttuinnakam.”
The author explains what the shorthand, apparently copied from an old manuscript,

…if we point at the elbow with
the thumb,

the breath will be stopped, a kind
of mucous will be

discharged through the mouth, and
the victim will

also start bleeding. If not cured,
the victim will die

within forty-one days. But, after
doing this vital

spot, if remedial measures are quickly
taken, the

victim will be saved, i.e., by pointing
at a spot one

inch on the right side of the forearm
from the elbow.

Beyond these popular accounts, a
few practitioners still believe in, practice, and animatedly discuss how one
gains such powers. Gurukkal P.K. Balan of Kecheri told me that to properly develop
this ability to attack the vital spots, one had to develop special mental powers
“in the look” as well as “in the voice” by practicing special meditation on
the kalari deities.

Not surprisingly, the only master
I have ever met who could offer a comprehensive account of this paratigm of
subtle practice and its specific techniques was someone equally trained in kalarippayattu
as well as advanced yoga meditation. As part of his own most advanced training,
Chandran Gurukkal, a young, unassuming teacher of both yoga and kalarippayattu
from Azhicode, Cannannore District, was initiated into, but never completed,
the higher meditation techniques intended to allow him to develop these special
powers for attacking the marmmam. During one of our lengthy discussions
of the vital spots, Chandran described the first time he witnessed his own teacher
demonstrating these powers:

One day my master came to my house.
We were relaxing

in my house chatting, when my master
pointed to a cock

[on the threshing floor in front
of the house] and asked,

‘Why is it standing still?’ I said,
‘I don’t know.’ So

the master told me to throw some
stones at the cock. I

obliged him. But still the cock
stood there. I went to

catch it. It would run a few feet,
and then stand still.

My master teased me, ‘Why can’t
you catch it?’ In this way,

I saw that my master could control

Chandran Gurukkal explained that
unlike other interpretations of these powers, the vital spots attacked through
accomplishment in higher meditational techniques are completely separate from
the 64 or 107-108 vital spots of the gross, physical body which he identifies,
treats, and attacks/defends as part of his regular kalarippayattu martial/medical
practice. The vital spots which his master could attack by looking or pointing
were the “yoga marmmam“–a set of 32 vital spots associated with the
subtle body [Figure #39]. He explained that since the yoga marmmam are
part of the subtle body, they are connected to the internal subtle channels
(nadi), and to attack them is to “influence the mind.” Just as the martial
master gains access to other more subtle powers of practice through gaining
accomplishment in a variety of meditational techniques (Zarrilli, forthcoming),
the power to attack these subtle yoga marmmam can only be generated
through special meditation techniques.

To develop the mental power (manasakti)
to be able to

attack these marmmam, one
must undergo brahmacharya and

fasting for 48 days. During that
period one can only take

water of the tender cocoanut…One
who learns this can

never think ill of others. You have
to develop the utmost


During this period, one must repeat
a special mantram lakhs of times. This is called yoga mantram
and once it is accomplished, any of the 32 yoga marmmam may be attacked
simply by pointing…Dhayanamurt[35]i is taken
as the visual

object of meditation while repeating
this mantram. During the 48 days, the person must visualize the different
wheels or centers (cakra). The first thing he will feel is a slight tremor
in the muladhara [the center where all the body’s subtle channels are
joined]. He feels the heat travelling up the body, and when it reaches the head
he feels as if there is a light. This visualizing and experience is repeated.
Each day all 7 adharam [places on which to focus for meditation] are
visualized and the mantram is repeated. Each day there are repetitions
for 7 nalika beginning at 3:15a.m., and again in the evening (at 2 nalika
before sunset) one does repetitions for another 7 nalika. The rest of
the day I had to go on doing pranayama,

Figure #39: The 32 Yoga Marmmam

visualizing the breath blowing through
my nadi throughout the body.

Like all esoteric methods of meditation,
the results of practice are understood to have a direct physiological affect.
Chandran Gurukkal described the physical effects he experienced when learning
these techniques:

I was asked to stand in a particular
place. While standing there my master channeled his mental power (manasakti)
to a particular one of these yoga marmmam through his index finger. He
affected each of these marmmam this way.

His first ‘attack’ was to visuddhi
marmmam at sakti dhamani. The effect was I could not move.
Even if an elephant

had been there to move me, it wouldn’t
have been able to.

He pointed his finger for six seconds
only. The master could

have put me in a permanent lock
like this. It was up to him to release me. If it would have been held for a
very long time, it would have been very dangerous [to my health].

Second, he pointed at Sivadamani.
My blood felt like it was boiling inside, and I also felt giddiness. Here he
only pointed for two seconds. The master said that if he

had continued for a few seconds
longer, I would have

vomited blood.

Next came Visnudamani. I
began to shiver with cold and

was unable to move. My teeth were
chattering. This too he

only held for two seconds. Then
Brahmadamani, and I felt as if I was intoxicated with liquor as I lost all control
of my body and was like a paper blowing in the wind. Then at the muladharam.
I felt as if there was a heavy load on my head. I couldn’t move my legs. Finally
gurudamani. I was suffocating and was not able to inhale.

Each time my master demonstrated
one of these techniques he ended up sweating profusely.

Although initiated into the techniques
by which he might come to attain accomplishment in the ability to attack the
vital spots by simply pointing, Chandran Gurukkal’s training was interrupted
after sixteen days[36].

From Chandran’s point of view as
an insider whose experience has been equally shaped by exercising both the gross
and subtle bodies, the vital spots of each body possesses its own logic, yet
both exist in a complimentary and symbiotic relationship. As I have discussed
elsewhere (Zarrilli, 1989b) the wind, breath or vital energy is the conceptual
and practical link between the gross and subtle paratigms of the body. The subtle,
esoteric ability to be able to attack the vital spots of either the gross or
subtle bodies by pointing or looking is understood, like meditational practice
itself, to merely extend the capabilities developed through psychophysiological
exercise of the gross body, and to produce a physiological, rationally observable

Concluding Discussion:
Local Knowledge and Having a “Doubtless Mentality”


In conclusion, I want to return
to some of the vernacular meanings and folk stories surrounding the concept
of the vital spots with which I began this discussion. As a researcher who has
gathered fifteen different versions of the vital spots among today’s South Indian
martial practitioners, I feel something like the master who saw so many vital
spots on the cow in his compound that he became frozen in inaction, unable to
hit the cow anywhere. Were I to systematically collate all of these versions
into a master chart of the human body, we too would see vital spots materializing
everywhere we looked on the body! What are we to make of this variability?

As we have seen the basic concept
of the vital spots, first identified in the RgVeda as those places where the
vital energy is located, and which when penetrated have the potential to cause
death or serious injury, has remained relatively constant. But it has also been
a fluid concept, available to many modes of vernacular expression. Reflecting
the skill which a martial/medical practitioner had to have in order to precisely
penetrate a vital spot or revive someone, marmmam/marman/varman
also refer to the “core of anything, the quick.” Reflecting the secrecy which
necessarily surrounded this dangerous knowledge as well as the fact that these
spots are “hidden” unless one knows where they are or how to see them, marmmam
also refers to anything which is kept secret or hidden inside.

The concept of the vital spots has
also been subject to a variety of interpretations within particular interpretive
communities–Ayurvedic physicians whose understanding of the vital spots was
based on observations of battlefield injuries, martial practitioners whose life-time
of training was devoted to developing practical expertise in attacking and defending
the vital spots, and martial/meditational practitioners who developed an esoteric
interpretation and set of techniques for attacking/defending the vital spots
based on their experience of the subtle body. More specifically, kalarippayattu
and varma ati practitioners developed their own context-specific versions
of names, locations, and practical techniques of attacking, defending, and/or
treating the vital spots.

From the perspective of a kalarippayattu
or varma ati master who has been given full knowledge by a master within
a particular lineage of transmission, his own particular, local practice possesses
its own internal logic, coherence, efficacy, and therefore appears normative.
As Gurukkal Govindankutty Nair explained:

What we do is just follow [our particular]
tratition. Other kalari have their own explanations and theories. In
either case, if they simply believe it, it will have its own power. You must
follow your own [local] tratition. If you change the forms [you] have received,
it will not have its power (sakti).

Following Govindankutty Nair’s logic,
one’s powers of practice are derived from attaining accomplishment in those
particular techniques given as a gift to the student by his master.

Balachandran Master’s highly reflexive
yet humorous observation that as long as a practitioner learns only from only
one master the vital spots make complete sense, reflects the fact that a martial
practitioner’s knowledge of the vital spots must be “doubtless.” Unlike the
modern researcher or “David” whose understanding of the vital spots is a blurred
mass of confusion which results from attempts to cobble together coherence from
several different traditions of interpretation, the practitioner is supposed
to deveop full confidence in the efficacy of his own techniques. As Gurukkal
Govindankutty Nayar explained,

Being doubtless is the utmost target
of the student. Therefore, whatever you do should be made perfect. You should
never have doubts. Just do it!…You must have a doubtless mentality. Others
may not have full confidence in themselves yet, and so they may have some lingering
doubts. To have confidence you must have a pure heart and be true to yourself.
You must not be proud or vain. One of the first steps toward doubtlessness is
to have no pride; but you must have great belief in what you are doing. Then
only will you know what to do at the proper time.

When one is doubtless his practice
is instinctual. There is no premeditation, only action. He embodies the common
folk expression of the ideal state of the martial practitioner–“the body becomes
an eye” (meyyu kannakuka). What is done is done with the power and force
appropriate to the moment–whether in giving a counter-application to a vital
spot for revival, a healing stroke passing over a vital spot in a massage therapy,
or a potentially deadly blow or cut to a vital spot to disarm or kill an attacker.



This essay is part of my forthcoming book, Paradigms of Practice and Power
in a South Indian Martial Art
. It will include a comprehensive account of
kalarippayattu as well as translations of several versions of the vital
spots referred to in this essay.

I acknowledge with many thanks research
support provided during 1988-89 by the National Endowment for the Humanities
through a Senior Research Fellowship with the American Institute of Indian Studies
for my project, “The Science of the Vital Spots in Extant South Indian Martial
and Treatment Traditions.” Support for earlier research on these martial traditions
was provided by A.I.I.S., the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School,
the Richard Carley Hunt Memorial Post-Doctoral Fellowship of the Wenner-Gren
Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the Social Science Research Council.

I also wish to acknowledge all of
those practitioners who so generously assisted me in my research on the vital
spots in 1988-89: Gurukkal Govindankutty Nair (C.V.N. Kalari, Trivandrum, Kerala),
C. Mohammed Sherif (Kerala Kalarippayattu Academy, Cannannore, Kerala), Chandran
Gurukkal (Azhicode, Cannannore, Kerala), Sreejayan Gurukkal (Chembad, Kerala),
Kalathil Krishnan Vaidyar (Alavil, Kerala), K. Kunhikannan Gurukkal (Palathai,
Kerala), Sensei Moses Thilak (Maruma Adi Research Martial Arts Academy, Madras),
Moolachal Narayanan Asan (Mekkamandapam, Tamil Nadu), Sadasivan Asan (Trivandrum,
Kerala), David Asan (M.R.K. Kalari, Perurkada, Trivandrum, Kerala), Raju Asan
(Y.N.K. Kalari, Vizhinjam, Kerala), Chelayan Asan (Marma Chilksalayam, Kallara,
Kerala), Balachandram Master (Indian School of Martial Arts, Trivandrum, Kerala),
C. Sankaranarayana Menon Gurukkal (S.N.G.S) Kalari, Chavakkad, Kerala), Dr.
Gnanidass (Kattaukadai, Tamil Nadu), and James Devi Raj.

When I have been given permission
by masters to use their names for direct quotation I have done so; however,
given the sensitive and secret nature of some of the information provided to
me, sometimes masters have requested that their names not be used. I have also
occasionally changed names to protect the identity of a particular master. All
of the information that is provided here was freely given and masters were aware
of the type of research that I was conducting and that this information would
appear in publication. Not included here is any information or description of
techniques which masters requested remain secret.

On the early and medieval history of
kalarippayattu in Kerala see
Devi (1975, 1976), Narayanan (1972), and Pillai (1970). For specific studies
of kalarippayattu see (Nair 1957, 1963) and Zarrilli (1978, 1979, 1984,
1989b, and forthcoming). Much less research has been conducted on varma adi.
Although somewhat problemmatic in terms of research methodology, Raj’s three
studies of varma adi (1971, 1975, 1977) provide some useful basic information
on this tradition.

During the 19th and 20th centuries in the far south, distinctive styles of kalarippayattu
like dronamballi which at one time existed, have gradually merged with
Tamil Nadu’s varma adi system (Nair 1963:11-12).

In Malayalam, kalari means “place, open space, threshing floor, battlefield.”
(Burrow and Emeneau 1961:98) It derives from the Tamil kalam meaning
“arena, area for dramatic, gladitorial, or gymnastic exhibitions, assembly,
place of work or business.” (ibid) In Malayalam kalari also idiomatically
refers to that special place where martial exercises are taught. The root of
the Malayalam payattu is Tamil payil, “to become trained, accustomed,
practice,” while its nominative form means “practice, habit, word.” (Burrow
and Emeneau 1961:265) In Malayalam payil becomes payiluka, “to
learn, speak;” payttuka, “to exercise in arms, practice,” and finally
payattu having the idiomatic meaning, “fencing exercise, a trick.” (ibid)

Although the Tamil roots of both
kalari and payattu are antique and can be traced to as early as
the first century A.D. (Burrow and Emeneau 1961; Burrow 1947), their specific
idiomatic Malayalam meanings may be no older than the 11th or 12th centuries
when it is probable that the systems of martial practice assumed a structure
and style akin those extant today. Belying the assumption that the compound
itself might have an equally antique use as the singular kalari and payattu,
the unpublished Malayalam Lexicon notes that the earliest use of the compound,
kalarippayattu is in Ulloor Parameswaram’s early twentieth century drama,

Although M.D. Raghavan (1947) suggested
that kalari was derived from the Sanskrit khalurika, Burrow has
conclusively demonstrated that khalurika (“parade ground, arena”) and
its Sanskrit root, khala– (“threshing floor”) are Dravidian loan words
(1947; see also 1946). According to the St. Petersburg Lexicon, the first occurance
of khalurika is in Hemacandra’s Abhidanacintamani, dated about
the 12th century.

A cognate is the Tulu garadi
which refers to small shrines where worship of local heroes is held today.

A survey of the Dhanur Veda chapters of Agni Purana, the earliest compilation
of specific martial principles and techniques available to us from approximately
the 8th-9th centuries A.D., suggests a great deal of similarity.

is the plural of guru (master), indicating that he is the
living embodiment of all past masters in one’s lineage of practice, and to be
worshipped as such.

As Nagam Aiya records in the Travancore State Manual, Kuruppu was a title
which denotes an ancient section of Nairs charged with specific functions including
“instructors in arms to the Royal family of Travancore…” (1906:II,368-9).

According to Raj, in the Madurai, Tanjore, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli, and Nagerkoil
areas of Tamil Nadu this art is also known as silambam, refering to the
primary use of the flexible bamboo cane stick in training (1977:5). Another
closely related tradition is the kuthu varisai of Tanjore, Tamil Nadu.

Although practitioners of varma adi assume that the sage Agastya is the
same rsi mentioned in the Rgveda, Zvelebil clearly establishes there
more than one Siddha has assumed the name of the ancient, legendary rsi,
and that these early Agastyas are “a very different person (and legendary hero)
from the Siddha Akattiyar (1973:222).

See Trawick Egnor (1983) and Trawick (1987) for helpful discussions of similarities
and differences between the Siddha and Ayurvedic medical systems.

11 Only detailed historical,
linguistic, sociological and technical research will eventually determine the
precise relationship between this group of Tamil arts practiced, and the old
style of southern kalarippayattu.

It is probable that Chattambi Swamigal’s knowledge of the vital spots was learned
from varma adi masters since he is said to have attained mastery in “all
the sastras in Tamil,” and to have learned both yoga sastra and
the vital spots from a siddha in Maruthwamala on his way back to Travancore
from Kalladakurichi in Tamil Nadu.

Similarly, the Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram instructs the teacher as
follows: “You must not teach this to anyone who is short tempered or cruel,
but at the same time, I tell you, teach this to one who is pious and has patience.”
[19.4] [This and all other passages from this text were translated by James
Deva Kamala Arumal Raj with the author’s assistance.]

Even among students I have met who have followed tradition and studied with
masters for the requisite number of years, the vast majority have never been
taught full knowledge of the vital spots from one teacher. Students don’t have
the right to question a master about why they are not being taught. Their only
recourse for trying to gain a more complete knowledge of practice is to try
to learn what they can from different teachers.

According to Hindu belief, from the beginning of Brahma’s creation to the destruction
of all the worlds is only one of Brahma’s days–a Kalpa. Encompassed by a Kalpa
are the cycles through which the world passes–great Yugas or ages, each lasting
12,000 years of the gods or 4,320,000 human years. As Thomas Hopkins explains,
“Each Maha Yuga of 12,000 years of the gods is divided into four lesser
Yugas of declining length: the Krita Yuga lasting 4,800 years,
the Treta lasting 3,600, the Dvapara lasting 2,400, and the final
Kali Yuga lasting only 1,800 years of the gods. During this period dharma
steadily declines from its natural perfection in the Krita Yuga. In the
Kali Yuga unrighteousness is rampant, men are weak and unable to follow
their proper duties, rulers plunder their subjects, students disobey their parents
and teachers…” (1971:101)

The Dhanur Veda chapters of the Agni Purana contain no specific
information on the vital spots; however, we can assume that the weapons techniques
described there were used to attack these deadly spots.

Although this conception of the humoral body is used for combat injuries and/or
other traumas that require surgical intervention, a fundamentally different
concept of healing is used as well. Zimmermann noted that the surgical understanding
of the body in the classical texts lies outside the usual twofold scheme of
medical therapy by purifying (sodhana), and by quieting (samana)
(1980: 103). In Zimmermann’s terms one is “an operative art, which includes
the rational observation of anatomical facts and the fulfilment of practical
tasks” and the other is “expectant medicine” based on the concept of
humors and saps responding to seasonal variation (Zimmermann 1978:100). These
fundamentally different conceptions of healing operate complimentarily within
the martial master’s repertory of treatment strategies.

18 It is likely that
the close relationship between specialists in bonesetting/massage and martial
practice is an antique and pan-Indian phenomenon. Similar to their South Indian
counterparts discussed here, pahalvans (“wrestlers”) of north India traditionally
practiced bonesetting and massage for “bruises, swelling, joint pain, fractures
and other forms of injury…associated with fighting” (Lambert, 1991; see also
Alter’s extended study of wresting, 1989).

Although numerous palm-leaf and hand copied manuscripts dealing with the vital
spots have been collected in government manuscript libraries [the Madras manuscript
library houses numerous texts], and some have even been published (see Nadar,
1968; Nadar n.d.; Selvaraj, 1984; Nair, 1957), given the variability of interpretation
discussed above, the authority of a text is written in the practice of the master
who is the only one who can appropriately “read” and interpret his own texts
(Zarrilli, 1989a). As Ananda Wood asserts, “the direct instruction of an experienced
teacher is necessary to interpret such theoretical texts practically. A theoretical
text is fairly meaningless without such a teacher who knows the practical skills
and techniques himself. For example, a vital spot may be described in a text
as located two named measures below the nipple, but the lack of a standard measure
corresponding to the name in the text would mean that an experienced practitioner
would be required to interpret the text and point out the spot” (1985:115).

Within the Tamil Siddha yoga tradition, “the only way to make the soul immortal
is to make the body immortal also, and this is what the Siddha yogis aimed to
do” (Trawick 1983:938). This practice toward immortality is reflected in some
of the texts I have examined, in particular the Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram.
The text records that the normal nature of the breath (prana) is to “gradually
lose four lives” with each breath one takes, and that from this defect death
arises. James Devi Raj informed me that a normal cycle of breath consists of
an inhalation and exhalation. During normal inspiration, air is inspired from
the area eight viral (the width of the fingers) from the nose, while
during normal expiration the air goes to an area twelve finger widths from the
nose. Consequently, with each breath we are understood to “lose” four finger
widths of breath. This is the meaning of “losing four lives” with each cycle
of breath. The text goes on to record in the next verse that “typically this
defect is corrected [in one who is accomplished in yoga] and his vital points
will not be affected,” i.e., by becoming accomplished in pranayama, the
Siddha yogi’s breath is evened out, becoming twelve-by-twelve finger widths
(viral) so that with each breath one does not lose the typical “four

If a varmam is directly penetrated and the wind circulating within is
disturbed and partially blocked, the place is understood to become “cooled”
because the vayu is not circulating normally.

See Zvelebil’s extended discussion (1973:224ff.).

Classification is given as either a flesh, bone, tendon, vein, artery, or joint
vital spot.

[Translated by C. Mohammed Sherif with the author’s assistance.] In contrast
to this lengthy description, the Marmmrahasyangal records talahrttu
as “at the center of the sole [of the foot or palm].

For comparative purposes, the Marmmani cikitsa text of Mohammadunni Gurukkal
records the following treatment for injury to talahrttu: “If that place
is wounded, bleeding will not stop. That place will become swollen and the person
will have a fever. But if dhara is applied on that place with water,
the person will have some relief. After that, again apply dhara by using
the juice of the dvara flower, and mix it in tender coconut water. After
that grind gingelly seed in milk and mix it with butter and breastmilk, applying
it on the injured part. There will be some relief. If there is no releif, apply
dhara all over the body with ghee and oil. After that, apply the mixture
of butter and breast milk to the head.”

A few masters identify as many as 72 of these practical fighting spots.

One can
is equal to eight angulam–the length of the top of the thumb
from its tip to the knuckle.

Although only further historical, linguistic, and ethnographic research will
be able to provide an answer to the intriguing question of how and why these
two related ways of understanding the vital spots came to be equally important
in the kalarippayattu tradition, C. Mohammed Sherif of the Kerala Kalarippayattu
Academy in Cannannore shared with me a fascinating hypothesis for their differences.
Based on explanations given to him by his own teachers, Sherif pointed out that
the Susruta-based texts/techniques are derived from the practice of weapons-bearing
soldiers and physicians who served as part of an army in service to a ruler,
while the abhyasa marmmam techniques can be attributed to early buddhists.
These buddhists developed empty-hand techniques to defend themselves, and immediate
counter-applications to revive their attackers, thereby protecting themselves
while fulfilling their religious vow not to kill. When buddhism was eventually
repressed, this system of practice was absorbed into the kalarippayattu
tradition as a compliment to the weapons system of the traditional warrior.

Although almost all masters agree that Agastya identified 108 vital spots, occasionally,
as many as 116 vital spots are identified. Moolachal Asan includes a 109th spot
“located inside which you cannot touch,” and a 110th located in the eyes.

It should be remembered that for kalarippayattu masters when the great
practical vital spots not included in Susruta’s 107 are added to the
original 107, the total number of vital spots reaches approximately 140-150.

31 Since up to 6 of these
12 are often double spots, the actual number of deadly spots is usually 18.

In addition to these 108 sastric vital spots named in their texts, many
varma adi practitioners also identify and attack kochu or ullu
varmam, i.e., the numerous unnamed “catch” vital spots located in the
muscles which, if penegrated or hit cause a sharp, painful contraction.

Kalam literally means “time,” but here refers to those vital spots whose
symptoms recur even after initial revival and treatments have been administered.

[Translated by Usha and Moses Thilak with the author’s assistance]. The Varma
Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram
records information on name/location, symptoms,
and revivals in different sections of the text. For tilaka varmam this
text records its location as

[22.3] From the forehead, two finger
breadths below and between the two eyebrows is tilartavarmam.

Much later in verse 66 after all
108 vital spot names and locations have been ennumerated we find the symptoms
of injury for tilarta:

If tilartavarman is affected,
the mouth opens wide, and

he looks upward.

The head collapses [he enters a
come], and he can’t speak. After becoming unconscious, he will fall down.

I am telling you that if the penetration
is deep, he will

not live more than 3 and 3/4 naalikai.

Knowing these symptoms, patiently
give the treatment.

The counter-applications are given
in completely separate sections and not for individual vital spots.

Chandran Gurukkal explained that “Dhyanamurti is a form of Kali in her peaceful
guise. There is a particular verse (sloka) which is recited which describes
her in this form. When chanted, the picture comes into your mind.”

Chandran was called to his family home for a crisis. Had he completed the 48
day initiation, Chandran would have had to continue chanting the mantram
108 times daily either at 3:15a.m. or 2 nalika before sunset in order
to maintain these powers.

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