Madurai-based R. Rajendran is perhaps the most well-known exponent of Varma kalai, an ancient martial art that is not only used for self-defence but also for healing. Based on the principle of harmony between body, mind and soul, it is a unique neuro-martial art practiced to control the enemy without any external injuries and much effort.
Ameli Ziegler in conversation with R. Rajendran.
What are the origins of varma kalai?
India is a land of various ancient arts and one of them, the mother of all martial arts, an ancient science, is varma kalai. It originated in Tamil Nadu and was founded by Sage Agasthiar. According to local lore it is a divine art. Today the masters of Varmakkalai cure neural diseases without using equipment by just touching and depressing a vital point, but there was a time in the past when they also used it for self-defence.
How does this martial art work as a healing science? How could you treat and heal people without equipment?
At first, we analyse just by touching some vital points, which correspond to the disease. This takes about 20 minutes. For instance, we often are able to diagnose diseases accurately, even after the MRI and CT scan reports were said to be normal. For example, there was once a patient who still had pain even after a CT scan. But we diagnosed the disease and cured it with pressing, touching, or a compressive massage. But there is a lot more to do with Varma kalai. You have different points in your body where touching, hitting or kicking can either hurt or heal. As I said, there are some points for healing, but there several others some for hurting people, causing them to faint, wake up and even kill.
What are the other ways in which varma kalai is different from other martial arts?
Unlike other martial arts, physical fitness is not a must to learn and practice varma kalai. Even an old person sitting in a chair can do so.
How did you get interested in this ancient art?
My ancestors worked as the king’s bodyguards in medieval South India. To defend him they made use of varma kalai to impede the enemies or even kill them. My father was a soldier in the British Indian army during World War II. He also used Varmakkalai to defend himself and survive in warfare.
At the age of ten I started practicing Varmakkalai, because it was a tradition in my family and every male member knew it. Later on I developed the idea of popularising Varma kalai because it is a slowly disappearing art and I founded a training centre. Besides I also taught Kamal Hassan in the Tamil film Indian. I now have about ten centers in Tamil Nadu with nearly 500 fighters.
How do people become a Varmakkalai fighter or master?
If you are practicing it for about a few months you are just a student. After three years training you are awarded with the title “fighter” and after 12 long years you are allowed to call yourself a master, certified to treat and teach Varmakkalai. There is actually no end in learning and developing, life is a continuous improvement.
“It is such a unique, comprehensive martial art, which assimilates other martial art forms into it. Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kerala's `Kalarippayattu' and even our own `Silambam' have all drawn from Varma Kalai," asserts Rajendran, for whom the art is a family legacy. Equally well-known as the guru who taught Kamal Hassan the art form for the Tamil film ‘Indian’, Rajendran admits that public awareness of the art has improved after the success of the film!
Can you tell us something about how the competitions are organised?
There are a lot of competitions, local and national, and it is common for practitioners of the art to demonstrate what they learned and how they have developed. These competitions are really strict, which is important for the safety of the participants. They are not allowed to kick or hit at deadly points and not up from the breast.
Was there ever an instance where someone died?
No actually not, because I told you that we have strict rules in these competitions and if someone who is practicing Varmakkalai, kills a person, he is not allowed to continue to practice or train .
What are your plans for your future?
I want to start a new kind of course. It is about breathing, self-awareness and just living the right way without feeling sick and tired, because many people lose their religion and their spirituality because they are caught up in a competitive world and want to earn more and more money.
How do you make varma kalai popular?
I have written four books on various aspects of the martial art. I also write a popular column in a Tamil weekly. Besides I conduct free coaching camps on the martial arts and healing aspects of varma kalai. Of course, if we want to preserve the art from and ensure its popularity it must be introduced as a subject in colleges and universities.