Vital Spots, Manual Therapies, and the Martial Arts in South Asia

As already noted, the earliest textual references to marman are found in contexts of war. In many warlike combat practices in historical South Asia and in contemporary India we find martial practices that address specific parts of the body, perceived as particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, these are often paired with manual therapies and medical theories. Arion Ro§u (1981) has explored the connections between marman spots and martial traditions of mallavidya or mallayudha “wrestling,” which have been and partly still are prevalent in many parts of India, especially in Gujarat and Karnataka. These traditions are described in different Sanskrit texts, such as the Mallapurana or the Manasollasa (Wujastyk 1998, 244).[1] Several studies on North Indian wrestling practices agree on practitioners enjoying dual roles; wrestlers may administer massages and often offer other therapeutic treatments, such as setting of fractured bones, both to copractitioners and for patients (Alter 1989; 1992b; Lambert 1995; 2012). Johari (1984) maintains that pahalwan wrestlers of North India have a concise knowledge of the marman spots, which they deploy during massage as part of their training routine. In contemporary North India today, such wrestlers can also be observed offering their services or selling medical preparations on the streets; they set fractured bones and administer therapeutic massages (Lambert 1995, 93; Alter 1989).

Similar combinations of martial art forms and therapeutic applications can be described in kalarippayattu, practiced in the Southwest Indian state of Kerala, and the closely related varmakkalai of Tamil Nadu. Both comprise of medical and combat techniques and extensively deploy vital spots of the body, called marmmam and varmam respectively.

  • [1] The Mallapurana and the Manasollasa are dated to the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries ce respectively (Wujastyk 1998, 244).
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