The Malta Independent 9 May 2021, Sunday

Kalaripayattu And Shaolin Kung Fu

Malta Independent Sunday, 18 October 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

This is the third time that the Shaolin monks will be performing in Malta. What is so different this time?

The Shaolin monks have been touring the world since 1995. They have put on more then 4,000 shows for more than 4,000,000 people in four continents. They staged a show called The Best of China’s Monasteries on the two previous occasions they were in Malta, presenting their best marshal arts. This time, the show is called The Holy Mountain, which is the story of the Indian monk Tamo, the founder of Zen Buddhism who went to China to reform Buddhism. This happened 1,500 years ago and is the basic idea behind the show. For the first time, Indian Kalari fighters (this is the oldest marshal art in the world, approximately 5.000 years old) will perform with the Shaolin monks. We will show that the roots of many Shaolin exercises are in the Indian Kalaripayattu and it is very interesting to watch the differences and similarities between Indian and Chinese marshal arts.

Is this the first time that the monks will be performing on stage with the Indian fighters?

The show The Holy Mountain started in January 2008 in Vienna, where the Kalari fighters went on stage for the first time with Shaolin monks. Since then they have put on more than 100 shows in various countries, but it is the first time that they will be on stage together in Malta.

How do you rate the Shaolin monks and the Indian fighters?

Kalaripayattu was forbidden by the British government for hundreds of years, but it was still taught secretly. When the British left India about 60 years ago, Kalaripayattu was re-established and slowly some schools began teaching it again. We have to understand that Kalaripayattu, Yoga and Ayurveda have the same basic teaching – a sound mind in a sound body. So it is similar to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), as knowledge of the physical body is basic for all Kung Fu practitioners. Shaolin monks and Shaolin Kong Fu are much more popular all over the world, but I am sure that, in a few years, Kalaripayattu will be as popular as Shaolin Kung Fu.

What is the difference in training compared to many years ago?

I do not think the training methods have changed – and it is the toughest training imaginable. Up to 10,000 Shaolin students in different schools are taught 10 hours a day, seven days a week, how to train and keep their bodies in good shape.

Are the Shaolin monks considered to be the inventors of martial arts?

There is a Chinese saying that “all marshal arts have been created under the sun of Shaolin”. The Holy Mountain demonstrates that this is not really true, because the Shaolin monks used Kalaripayattu elements. The founder of Shaolin Kong Fu and Zen Buddhism, the Indian Monk Buddidharma – called Tamo by the Chinese – was actually a master of Kalaripayattu. So one finds many Kalaripayattu elements in Shaolin movements and exercises. With regard to Indian training, Yoga is a basic part of Kalaripayattu and Yoga movements are taught to Kalari students from childhood. One branch is very similar to the traditional Indian dance, but this will not be part of our show.

How much time is spent in training on a daily basis?

As mentioned earlier, Shaolin monks and the Indian Kalari fighters train seven days a week. Kalaripayattu is taught in a small room and it is very dangerous as really dangerous weapons are used.

What changes in culture and traditions has the monastery seen over the years?

The monastery has a 1,500-year-old history. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times and since the Cultural Revolution it has become one of the most important tourist spots in Henan province in the heart of China. It has more than two million visitors from China – mainly Buddhists, who go there to see the old temple and the monks. In recent years it has been completely restored to its original form. The monks who live in the monastery hold their religious services at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when the monastery closes to the public.

Are the monks considered to have special powers such as healing?

The Shaolin monks are all masters of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Part of their education is the knowledge of the flow of energy in every human body called qi. So many of the old monks heal not only themselves, but also people who come to the monastery with serious problems.

What kind of test does a person go through before being accepted as a monk?

Before you become a monk, you have to be not only in good physical condition but also follow the strict rules of Tamo, the founder of Zen Buddhism. These rules, which are very strict – especially for young people – have to be followed as long as the monks stay in the monastery. They can decide to leave and live a “normal” life whenever they wish.

Are all monks trained in martial arts?

The exercises of Kung Fu are body exercises to combat the stiffness caused by spending long hours in meditation. So all Shaolin monks know basic Kung Fu exercises, mainly to keep their body in good shape, but the exercises of hard Kung Fu, such as breaking bricks, iron bars and sticks on the body, is a special physical training that not all the monks undertake.

Is it a dying tradition?

No, it is not. Thousands of young people attend the schools around the monastery, but only those who have the physical and mental abilities can become a monk. Kung Fu and Tai Ji are basic exercises that are taught in all Chinese schools and are as popular as football in Europe or skiing in Austria. Of course, not every Chinese, who is training in a Kung Fu school will become a monk, but everyone knows about Shaolin Kung Fu and the special abilities of the monks in Henan province.

What or who keeps the tradition alive?

China is completely different to the western world. It keeps its traditions strong and it takes care of its old people and tries to draw on the wisdom and knowledge of past generations. It is an honour to find a master who teaches you traditional Chinese medicine, the movements of Tai Ji or the exercises of Kung Fu. So China’s traditions will always be part of China’s life, even in the industrial revolution currently taking place.

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