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Soc Sci Med. 1989;28(12):1289-309.

Three bodies of practice in a traditional South Indian martial art.

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  • 1Department of Theatre and Drama, University of Wisconsin-Madison 53706.


This paper describes three interconnected conceptions of the body in kalarippayattu, the martial tradition of Kerala, South India. It traces continuities and discontinuities among concepts and practices recorded in classic source texts and contemporary martial practice for each of the three 'bodies of practice'. The first is the fluid body of humors and saps. The second is the body as superstructure composed of bones, muscles, and vital spots (marma-s), which supports the fluid body. The concepts and practices of the first two bodies are based on the regional tradition of Ayurveda. They constitute the external physical body (sthula-śarira). The third, subtle or interior body (suksma-śarira) is thought to be encased within the physical body. It provides an experiential map of practice and is the basis for higher stages of meditation. The long-term practice of the martial art (1) makes the body fluid so that healthful congruence of the humors occurs, (2) establishes an intuitive and practical knowledge of vital points (marma) useful in fighting (prayogam) and in treating injuries, and (3) purifies the subtle body and awakens the internal vital energy (prana-vayu) that is manifest as the power (śakti) of the master in combat or medical practice. The paper concludes with a discussion of the interrelationship between these three concepts of the body in the accomplished practice of the martial practitioner.

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