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Varma kalai (Tamil: varmakkalai, Malayalam: marmakkala, Sinhala: maru kalā, Telugu: marmavidyakaḷa, Sanskrit: marmavidya) is a Indian term meaning "art of vital points". It is a component of traditional massage, medicine, and martial arts in which the body's pressure points (varma or marma) are manipulated to heal or cause harm. The healing application called vaidhiya murai is used in ayurveda and siddha medicine (siddha vaidyam) to treat patients suffering from paralysis, nervous disorder, spondylitis and other conditions. Its combat application is known as varma adi or marma adi meaning "pressure-point striking", and can be done either empty-handed or with a blunt weapon such as a stick or staff. Usually taught as an advanced stage of Indian fighting systems, strikes are targeted at the nerves, veins, tendons, organs and bone joints.
Folklore traces varma kalai to the god Shiva who is said to have taught it to his son Murugan. While disguised as an old man, Murugan passed the knowledge of varmam to the sage Agastya who then recorded it and disseminated the skill among his students. Siddha medicine is also attributed to Agastya. The Sushruta Samhita (c. 4th century) identifies 107 vital points on the human body of which 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick. Sushruta's work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda which was taught alongside various martial arts. With numerous other scattered references to marma in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that South Asia's early fighters knew and practised attacking and defending vital points.
Knowledge of the body's vital points in India was not just confined to humans but also elephants. Known as nila, learning these points on an elephant's body was and remains necessary for mahouts. Prodding particular nila with a stick elicits various responses such as bringing the animal under control or making them kneel. Warriors would learn to attack certain nila on opposing war-elephants during battle, which could either kill or frighten the animals. The national museums of Sri Lanka have documented at least 86 nila and their functions. Dr Felix Mann suggests that the reason why the African elephant hasn't been trained to the same extent as the Asian elephant is because the nila of the African animal are unknown.
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- Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1992). "To Heal and/or To Harm: The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam) in Two South Indian Martial Traditions Part I: Focus on Kerala's Kalarippayattu". Journal of Asian Martial Arts 1 (1).
- Luijendijk, D.H. (2005). Kalarippayat: India's Ancient Martial Art. Paladin Press. ISBN 1-58160-480-7.
- Stevens, B; From Lee to Li, HarperCollins 2009 ISBN 9780007347414
- Master Murugan, Chillayah (20 October 2012). "Silambam and Varma Kalai Art". Silambam. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
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- Felix Mann (1962). Acupuncture: The Ancient Chinese Art of Healing and How It Works Scientifically. London: William Heinemann Medical Books Ltd.