Vedi cultural centre

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Feb 06, 2006

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Flag of India  ,
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

There is a tiny paragraph in my guide book about a cultural centre in the middle of nowhere, which specialises in the Keralan martial art Kalaripayattu.

From then on it was a matter of persuading Marcus that we could spare the time and money to go... Well I basically said I was going! He didn't take much persuading once I said the words 'exercise' and 'cookery classes', adding to the latter that we obviously get to eat the results. So I made the arrangements to study Kalari, cookery, Kathakali make up and Karnatic music (Indian singing).

When we arrived I realised we had actually spent very little time talking to others so far. Because we have avoided spending much time in tourist areas, we have rarely bumped into other travelers. In fact we were musing yesterday that we had never seen another traveller on a bus or train, coming to the conclusion that in the off-season India was far too big, with too many forms of transport to realistically meet anybody. It was interesting to see what kind of person came to 'cultural centres', for what and for how long... ok I admit that I ashamedly expected them all to be hippies. I was half right; there was a mix of language students, Hatha yoga enthusiasts and one guy from Bristol who had been practicing Kalari for 6 months.

Ironically I enjoyed the martial arts the least of all the subjects. This was due to the fact that Kalari takes a long time to progress beyond the basic stages of balancing exercises. To give the art a bit of perspective, Kalari is very much to do with mind over matter and is recognised as the forerunner to Kung Fu. Hey if that's not enough for you, Jackie Chan was an avid fan! The easiest way to see the form is to watch 'Armour of God' or the 'Matrix', both supposedly excellent examples. The recent 'Catwoman' also has Halle Berry performing badly (apparently). Its origins can be traced to the 9th century, when feudal lords in Kerala were constantly waging wars over their small kingdoms. Each region had a small band of hired warriors for protection, who prided themselves on their great mental strength and ability to fight with their eyes closed. Watching the 'senior student' (they have only three levels - student, senior student and master), I could see that the actions draw so much of their character from animal movement. There are actually many stances named after animals (The Boar, the Lion, The Serpent etc) and the senior student kept on about the ferocity of an animal... but then he also said that an angry person cannot fight... so the jury's out on whether or not you're allowed to show aggression (!). To be honest, none of us had a clue what he was saying as he didn't really speak English. He kept asking me random questions I didn't understand, and I had to invent random answers, which he was strangely quite pleased with.

Kalari is literally translated to mean 'gymnastic' and I found it fascinating to be told that a specialised form of massage has developed alongside the art. The massage utilises the typical Keralan ayurvedic treatments (lots of oil and herbs - see later), but also involves two men warming, then forcibly bending and stretching the muscles... yikes. The students start this treatment at the age of 4, so you can imagine how flexible they are by 20.

So there are four stages of learning the art; Meippayatt (balancing exercise to control the body), Kolthari (stick fighting) and Ankathari (felicity in using metal weapons like swords and daggers). They commonly use Ottas (curved sticks), Urami (flexible swords more popular with women) and Kettukari (long sticks). The more talented students are allowed to stage four - learning the secrets about the human marma (108 pressure points in the body) and the techniques of Verum Kai Prayogam (Bare hand fighting). This is the finale of what is at least a decade long process to be 'Master', which relatively very few people have attained (for those interested knowledge today is gleaned from the likes of the late CV Narayanam Nair and Churakkal T Sreedharan Nair who wrote the book 'Kalarippuyatt' in 1937).

ANYWAY! I'll stop being a geek and tell you that I basically spent the whole week walking up and down the pit with my arms above my head.

Mental strength? Balance? Who knows why! It was one of those things where you knew that if you were really dedicated and were staying there for 6 months, that you'd really make an effort and actually believe that some good was going to come from the lack of blood to your arms. I realised awfully quickly (try 20 mins into my first lesson) that this was some kind of test straight out of Kill Bill. He who drops his arms shall be beaten. Well not quite, but the teacher did look at me with disgust.

So there you go. Think I'll stick to what I love, although it won't stop me trying other things... glutton for punishment I've already found a boot camp in Indonesia...

The additional yoga classes they gave us were surprisingly good. I had a few preconceptions and had to slap my writs for being so narrow minded! There was no chanting, which probably would have pushed me over the edge.... just a few humming prayers to start and then a range of 'sun salutations'. I don't know about the sun worship but the stretches were really good first thing in the morning, and the peace and calm of absolute silence could definitely be addictive. I have written more about the philosophy later in 'Pondicherry'.

The singing was inspiring but very exhausting. I only really did scales, but I now appreciate the Indian temple wailing is not easy!

The make-up was something else. I had to sit there whilst the man (with extremely expressive eyebrows...) explained the theory and then put arsenic based paint on my face... nice. The red colours contained mercury and the yellow sulphur. They use these natural stones for the base colour and freshly mash them on heavy granite piece with a round pestle. They then mix the colours with coconut oil to apply. The black is collected by holding a tile over an oil lamp and scraping off the soot... I couldn't get the stuff off quick enough! They also put the seed of a Flower of Solanum in the lower eyelid to dilate the blood capillaries, turning them red. I didn't let him do that though as I wasn't willing to suffer for my art.

I also had an ayurvedic massage whilst I was at the centre. Roused at 7am I trundled down to the little mud hut outside the Kalari pit. Inside a little old woman told me to strip naked and then told me to lie on a big slab of wood. It was absolutely covered in oil so I had problems trying to get on it not trying to get too much on my face (haha..). The lady then came in and poured a bucket of oil all over me! She spent an hour moving my limbs around. It was good for relaxation but definitely not a sports massage! I wondered how it was good for Kalari, but I suppose the emphasis is upon suppleness, which the gentle stretching provides. It was an experience getting off the table, being handed a bucket of yellow mashed lentils and being told to cover myself in it for the oil to come off!!

The cookery was brilliant. Oh the guy who taught us gets the prize for nicest guy in the world. He has taught at the centre for 27 years and yet doesn't tire of new people being absolutely useless with a coconut grater.

I've written one of the tastiest recipes for you below!

A coconut grater by the way looks very evil (see photos) but I'm sure you can use pre-grated stuff, or cut out the meat and process it if you understandably don't feel the need to buy one from an Asian store and strap it to your kitchen table....


100g Beans (small dried Haricot are best)
1.5kg Pumpkin
tsp Turmeric Powder
1 Tbs Chili powder
1 Tbs Cumin seeds
1 small bulb garlic
6 stalks of fresh curry leaves (not the same as bay leaves!) about 8 leaves per stalk
2 Dried red chilies
1 Tbs black mustard seeds
1 coconut
3 Tbs oil (preferably coconut or gingelly)
Salt to taste

1) Rinse beans, add 1.5 litres water to large pan, cover and let boil for 30 mins/until they are close to crumbling in fingers. This is quicker if done in a pressure cooker.
2) Deseed the pumpkin and remove skin. Chop into 2cm cubes
3) Take coconut, hack into husk (with your handy machete... errm... improvise!) and peel off excess hair. Catch water and drink!
4) Grate coconut/buy grated/cut out meat with knife and process (hard to do). Separate into two piles.
5) Put tsp turmeric powder, 1 tbs cumin seeds, 3 curry leaves and all the garlic in one of the coconut piles.
6) Wash pumpkin cubes and add to beans. Add tsp turmeric, 1 tbs chili powder and one cup of water. Stir after 10 mins and add salt.
7) Blend or finely process the seasoned half of the coconut mix
8) Wait another 15 mins for pumpkin to be kind of mushy then add the coconut mix into a well in the middle. Cover up the well with bean/pumpkin mixture and leave for one min then stir in completely. Take off the heat.
9) Heat oil in a wok and add mustard seeds, when they pop add the red chilies (cut into quarters), then the curry leaves. When the leaves crackle add the other pile of unseasoned coconut. Turn constantly and don't let burn!
10) Add pumpkin mixture to wok and mix together.
11) Serve with rice, tomatoes and cucumbers!
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