Physician, heal thyself ! This is indeed a profound exhortation. The following article describes not only a different approach to medicine but to the doctor too. For, Marma Chikitsa, the ancient Indian massage system unites the patient and the healer.
This massage system is closely linked with the martial art of Kerala, Kalaripayat and its classical dance form, Kathakali.
Kalaripayat, the martial art form of Kerala is said to be the mother of all the various martial art forms of South-East Asia. Though particularly deadly and potent as a fighting form, it is yet whole and preserving, with a peaceful side to it, and a spiritual essence that has survived till today in the interiors of the lush-green, sensuous and lyrically swaying southern state of Kerala. Nature was the primal inspiration for Kalaripayat having borrowed heavily from the fighting movements of wild animals. Gradually, this came to be perfected and refined to such a degree that Kalaripayat assumed a far more subtle dimension. Weapon use was precise and they were wielded aesthetically, almost like in a dance. Urumi, the flexible sword belt is five to seven feet long and is unfurled at deadly speed. The gada, a heavy wooden mace, kundam or spear, otta kol, a short curved stick are some of the instruments of this highly evolved martial art. However, the most potent knowledge in Kalaripayat is the marma adi, (marma meaning nerve point), the secret art of attacking the vital nerve points. All this was recorded in the greatest detail in palm-leaf manuscripts called the Marma Sutras. Thus Kalaripayat became a comprehensive package of martial artistry, the secret science of marma adi, tantric rituals, meditation and the Ayurvedic method of healing or Marma Chikitsa.
Marma Chikitsa, a highly specialized and arduous system of healing, is principally a manipulation of the life-energies through the nerve channels. It is a deep exchange of forces that proceeds from a spiritual practice. Without this primary aspect Marma Chikitsa would simply be another effective massage system. But the profundity of ritual and self-consecration available through single-minded dedication renders it an abstract of highly evolved values. The healers model themselves on the ideal attributes of the Gods.
The goal of the treatment is healing of sickness and the restoration of health. But it is, in fact, the manner of healing, that is actually most important. A Kalari master, Mr. A.B George told me that a master healer does not even need to make contact with the subject, but can transmit the healing energy at will. This essence, this spiritual power, is the subtler aspect that distinguishes the Kalari art of healing from other oriental systems.
True to the meaning of the art which is its origin, Marma Chikitsa is performed with ritual as its heart. Francois Gautier, a French journalist living in Pondicherry, writes, `The master first arranges his instruments, oils, body packs and herbs in one corner of the room and after having lit an oil lamp, performs a puja purifying the room. He then makes the patient perform several asanas in order to evaluate the problem and relax the patient’s mind.’ Further, Gautier writes that `a good massage is a discipline, (in which) not only the body but also the mind has to participate in.’ He stresses that the patient must demonstrate discipline of a certain calibre in order to withstand the more rigorous forms of massage, and derive their full benefit. Consequently, certain rules also apply: stress, overexposure to sunlight, sleep during the daytime, strenuous exercises, loud music and conversation, as well as alcohol and sexual activity, are to be shunned. Discipline, therefore, is of paramount importance and value. The massage is performed by women too, albeit there are fewer women practitioners. Women are said to be better masseurs than men. The goddess Parvati is the ideal of women practitioners _ she is said to have, during the mythological churning of the ocean, cured her consort Lord Shiva’s ankle after it got sprained. The Kalari masters are trained in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. But their prestige lies in their expertise in massage and bone- setting. There was a report in an article a few years back of how a master repaired a fracture that was so bad that the bone of the arm protruded through the skin.
The master simply took hold of the arm, and in one movement set the bone in its proper place. Forthwith, he plucked a few leaves from a nearby tree, and applied its paste to the arm, followed by a light dressing. There was no need for a plaster, and in a few weeks time, the arm was as good as new. Similarly, the Kalari masters also prescribe home-made remedies for common ailments, which are far more efficacious and trustworthy than allopathic drugs.
Pressurizing the 108 vital points of the body is the principal factor in Marma Chikitsa. Of these, 96 are held to be minor while 12 are considered particularly vulnerable. It is here that the Kalari masseur makes his mark. A slow but strenuous massage of the entire body using varying pressure, sometimes with the hands and sometimes with the feet (holding on to a rope or bar above) is an important feature, somewhat akin to acupressure. In combat, these points are attacked so as to cause violent havoc in the nervous system.
Marma Chikitsa is a highly systematic and ordered form. But unless the spirit of individual effort on the part of the healer enters into the art and gives it its core of realization and unless the student takes care not to take the art for granted, the system would perish before the attractions of lucre and personal benefit. The very spirit of the art, its most needful and vital element, is dedication.
The difference underlying Marma Chikitsa and other forms of massage is a unique one. All massage systems mark fluid movements across the nerve channels. But in the Kalari massage, the nerve point itself is targeted. Its focus is on the principal points of the life-energy sheath. Energy originates here; it is what sustains the body. Being the most vulnerable points, they are activated by the flow of prana or subtle life-force that proceeds in a controlled flow from the healer’s finger-tips. No bigger in surface area than a grain of uncooked rice, it requires very sensitive handling and thorough knowledge of the human anatomy. Marma Chikitsa is of particular value when the disease itself is due to an imbalance of the nervous energy in the various pressure points.
According to Sensei A.B. George, who also teaches Karate in Delhi, there are 4,448 nerve systems in the human body. These nerve systems represent the health of the human body. As long as they are not obstructed or caught up in weakness, the body remains energetic. The massage aims at revitalizing these nerve systems not only to remove illness but to preserve health as well. The minutely mapped out nerve systems are responsible for maintaining the balance and center of gravity of the individual as well as other normal functions.
Particular oils are chosen for treatment of diseases. Diagnosis often begins, as in traditional Ayurveda, with measurement of the pulse. The aim is to remove not so much the illness as the cause of the illness.
True masters will pass on the secrets of the art only to those who are capable of rigorous discipline and intensive study upholding the purity of the tradition. However, even for those masters adept at Kalari, learning Marma Chikilsa is optional.
Today Marma Chikitsa stands apart as a most beneficial and comprehensive overview of a human being’s health. But it is perishing slowly, for it is restricted by the very form that gives it its beauty. There is no reason for the average practitioner to explore it or discover new pathways, or to know the deeper aspects for himself or herself. True practitioners are the handful that know that yogic meditation, contemplative seriousness and energetic originality and enquiry are the prime motives of this ancient system. Yoga is the counterpart of Marma Chikitsa.
Kalaripayat is more than a martial art. Its practitioners are called `dancers’. So it is not surprising that it has influenced classical dance forms. Consequently, the massage system has also found application in dance. I visited Sadanam Balakrishnan, a well-known Kathakali master. He believes that
Kalaripayat is actually responsible for the evolution of some of the movements of Kathakali. And in addition, the Kalari massage has become an integral part of Kathakali training.It is used not so much for healing as for working and manipulating the body so as to make it flexible and give it endurance. The character of the massage is rather strenuous, making it difficult to endure. It carries on for the first three years of Kathakali training without a break, irrespective of any difficulties or inconveniences including sickness. As such, with a little variation, Marma Chikitsa is being practised as a part of the tradition of dance in Kerala.
The treatment itself consists of a vitalisation of the entire system, and not merely one part, by a slow and expansive method. The results are deep and ingrained, and slow to show themselves.So, many have come to regard it as obsolete and crude. Science must intervene and complement wisdom to keep this healing system alive, and to make it applicable to modern conditions.
It is said that during the various stages of a person’s life, he depends successively on his outer physical health, then internal strength followed by the strength in the vital organs of the human body. At last, when the vital organs also begin to dissipate their energy, spiritual force alone remains to sustain the individual. According to Sensei George, it is the power of this concept that underlies and affirms the philosophy of Marma Chikitsa.
In sum, it could be said that Marma Chikitsa is dying for want of values. By its very nature it is not easily accessible. So the most profound aspect of the art remains something of a mystery. Marma Chikitsa is a sadhana, an endeavour, a religion, an ethos and an indication of a nation’s values.