Commonwealth Games Blogs

The original Fight Club

MUMBAI, INDIA - My last posting was about extremes, and this posting about finding Kalaripayattu, one of the world's oldest martial arts, in one of Mumbai's newest and most exclusive neighbourhoods, follows suit.

The glistening towers of Hiranandani Gardens, made famous by the Slumdog Millionaire movie, are surrounded by neatly trimmed parks and lofty palm trees. It seems hardly the place to take a dip into India's ancient past.

And yet in a parking lot across from one of the area's top hotels, Belraj Soni led me to a large well built shack topped in corrugated iron sheeting.

He unlocked the metal door, which had turned golden brown with rust during the last months of rain. The entrance led down a couple meters to reveal a vast underground room with a mud floor.

"This is a traditional Kalari," said Belraj proudly of his new centre, called Belraj Kalaripayattu.  "It is the only underground Kalari in India outside of Kerala."  Most groups outside of Kerala train in modern halls and gymnasiums.

As we descended into the room, the air became moist and cool, an escape from the beating sun outside. The hall runs east-west along its longer margin, and has small stoops around the perimeter for oil lamp offerings to various Hindu gods. In the weeks to come, the floor will be given a full makeover with "cow shit," said Belraj. "For the first day there is some smell, then there is no smell."

To view Anjali's photo essay on Kalaripayattu, CLICK HERE

The centre has been out of commission for the last couple months because of flooding during the monsoons. "That time it was for swimming classes," Belraj says with a laugh.

Old and New

I couldn't help ask Belraj how he got here from his home in rural Kerala. Belraj and his brothers trained in Kalaripayattu from childhood living with their guru, until they became experts themselves.

But rural Kerala is a long way away from the skyscrapers of Mumbai and when Belraj first arrived here two years ago, he didn 't speak more than a couple words of English.

For some perspective on the economics of the situation, a 22 ft. x 44 ft. one-bedroom apartment in this area can cost upwards of a million dollars, and this training centre was a bungalow.

The reason for the real estate is another extreme of sorts. The 28-year-old vice chairman of India's JMJ business empire, Sachin Joshi, became Belraj's student. After a couple of years of study, he snapped his fingers and got a traditional Kalari constructed opposite his hotel.

"He's a big man," explains Belraj.

A demonstration of the past

Relocating to the fancy 24-hour gym (complete with smoothies and protein shakes) at Joshi's hotel across the street, Belraj gave me a demonstration of the basic movements of Kalaripayattu.

The art was an interesting combination of groundwork and leg swings that relied on muscle control as well as flexibility and balance. Essentially the art form is half dance and half deadly combat sport. There are also clear ties to various forms of yoga and Ayurvedic (herbal) medicine.

And like most things in India, the beginnings of the sport are wrapped up in the divine. It's said that Parashurama, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu and the creator of Kerala, created 108 Kalaris all over the region.

You can see Belraj's demonstration in the embedded video. I must tip my hat to him for suiting up for the occasion - he was suffering from a fever when I met him.

If you are interested, there are plenty more videos available online with various other aspects of the tradition - movements, both armed combat and unarmed combat

After Belraj's demonstration, he taught me the basics. I went back and fourth in the gym, half falling over as I swung my legs back and fourth, trying to keep my balance.

"Any other moves?" I asked Belraj.

"You should focus on this for next months," he answered.

That bad, eh?

Anjali Nayar will be blogging for before and during the Commonwealth Games, which begin Oct. 3 in Delhi. For real-time coverage, follow her on Twitter.