Martial arts are codified systems of combat practices learnt for a variety of reasons like self defense, competition, physical health and fitness. It helps in mental, physical and spiritual development. Tamil Nadu served as the birthplace of several Tamil martial art techniques – Varma Kalai, being a distinctive and selective art form that takes a great amount of time, skill and patience to master. The Tamil name ‘Varma Kalai’ means ‘The Art of Vital Points’.
According to the Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva taught this martial art to his son, Lord Murugan. Further, Lord Murugan taught this art to sage Agasthiya, who was the foremost of Siddhars during the time of Sangam Literature. Agasthiya spread knowledge of this art form to the rest of the Siddhars and it is evident from the presence of Agasthiyar’s shrines depicting this art form in Kutralam (Panchayat town in Tirunelveli district, Tamilnadu)
Kings of all four major Tamil dynasties – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava – patronized this art form to selected schools and they paid nivandhanams (donations with high respect) for it. Varma Kalai is taught by teachers called Aasan (Tamil – master) and grandmasters called Periyaasan.
Varma Kalai teachers are highly selective over their choice of students. Besides the knowledge of this martial art form, they are required to have an understanding of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Yoga, military tactics, horsmanship, elephant riding, charioteering and Hindu philosophy (Saiva, Vaisnava, Saktha, Koumara, Boutha, Samana) etc.
Varma Kalai martial artists are not allowed to teach the art to others until they receive Deeksha (giving a mantra/ initiation) from the Aasan or Periyaasan.
Varma Kalai is classified into 4 types:
Thodu Varmam – ‘Thodu’ means touch in Tamil. Around 96 vital points in the body are triggered by touch. It is not fatal, but results in the disabling of the victim’s body, organ movements and function.
Padu Varmam – It refers to the 12 vital points in the body, which when triggered results in death or severe effects on the victim.
Thattu Varmam – This involves vital points that are held and used by the master alone. It is kept confidential until the master passes on the knowledge to the selected disciple.
Nooku Varmam / Meitheenda Kalai – As the name indicates, Tamil word ‘Nooku’ means look or contact. The Tamil word ‘Meitheenda’ means ‘without touching’. The triggering of the vital points is done by focusing or concentrating on the target. It takes several years of practice to become an expert in it.
In the human body there are 108 Varmams / Vital points. They can be given as:
1. Head to Neck : 25
2. Neck to Navel : 45
3. Navel to Arm : 9
4. Arms : 14
5. Legs : 15
Also according to Siddha Medicines and their healing therapy on the human body called Vaidhya murai, the vital points are explained as – 64 points in Vadha Varmam, 24 points in Pitha Varmam, 6 points in Kaba Varmam, 6 points in Ul Varmam and 8 points in Thattu Varmam.
The art was taught only to selected individuals, but due to strict requirements for new students it never gained large numbers of adherents. Due to its secretive nature, Varma Kalai was largely unknown even in India. The release of a bi-lingual film, Indian, directed by Shankar, where Padmashri Dr. Kamal Haasan etches the role of a Varma Kalai expert, enhanced the popularity of this art form and generated a resurgence of interest in the art. Currently Varma Kalai, is practiced in Tamilnadu and Kerala as part of other martial art forms like Kalari (swords and sharp instruments are used) and Silambattam (Bamboo cane is used).