More than 1,500 years after it was set up in the misty, mountainous jungles of central China, the unique connection between the legendary Shaolin monastery and India continues.
Back in the day, a Buddhist monk from India is said to have inspired the founding of the monastery, famous now for its Kung Fu-trained monks. The evolution of Chan (Zen in Japan) Buddhism precepts central to the temple’s teaching is attributed to another Indian monk, possibly from the south.
Centuries later, a precocious 10-year-old, Diya Chalwad, the monastery’s youngest student from India, and the deadpan Harsh Verma, 24, the first Indian to be part of the elite Shaolin performing monks’ team, are keeping the connection alive. A third Indian, stuntman Arya Shergill, is doing a month-long course.
Chalwad, Verma and Shergill are among seven international disciples at the monastery. A sum of $1,000 a month covers their stay, meals and training. At Shaolin’s core, of course, are 300 Buddhist monks who have devoted their celibate and strictly disciplined lives to the temple.
Tell Chalwad about discipline and she rolls up her eyes. Hindi movie buffs will know her as Naomi in Rocky Handsome and Jhumki in Kick, but at Shaolin, she is just another disciple who has to follow the rules – wake up early, eat frugal meals, train for several hours, wash her own clothes over the weekend and get the occasional stick from the teacher for mistakes.
“I love Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, he is so funny,” she giggled while showing Hindustan Times around Shaolin, located outside the city of Dengfeng in Henan province.
It was a weekday and mostly Chinese tourists were milling around the spartan temple complex on the lookout for the fabled Shaolin monks in their monastic robes.
Chalwad was training for gymnastics in Mumbai when her parents heard about Shaolin from Verma, a distant relative, and sent her for a six-month course.
“Kung fu is about power. Gymnastics is about flexibility,” she said with all the seriousness of a 10-year-old while warming up to perform back flips and kung fu poses.
Living far from her parents and Dodo, the “cutest dog in the world”, what she misses is kulfi and paneer.
If for Chalwad a course at Shaolin is all about sharpening her gymnastic skills, for Verma the monastery has become a life-choice. He came to Shaolin in 2015 to recuperate from a knee surgery when he heard about the alternative system of medicine practiced at the temple.
Eighteen months later, he is here to stay.
“Initially, I could not do jumps. Then I learnt the five basic positions in kung fu. How to use the power…the power comes from the earth to your legs, from your hips and it flows through any channel of your body. In Shaolin kung fu, they say from the tip of your hair till the tip of your toenail, every part has to be used,” he said.
Evidently, Verma used them well enough to be inducted into the domestic Shaolin performance team that travels across China for stage shows. “I want to take this culture to India in the way that I have learnt it here. Open an institute. Not just a training centre but one that will preach the principles of Shaolin …one has to remember kung fu is just a small part of the culture in Shaolin,” he said.
India, of course, has been central to the Shaolin culture since it was set up in the late 5th century.
“The founder of Shaolin temple was from ancient India. His name was Batuo (or Buddhabhadra in Sanskrit and the monastery was built in his honour by a local king). Batuo translated sutras inside the temple,” Abbot Shi Yongxin, the senior-most monk at the temple, told Hindustan Times in a rare interview.
“Then we had Bodhidharma (who came around hundred years later). He is regarded as the founder of Zen (Chan) Buddhism. He taught and created Zen Buddhism.”
Shi added: “Shaolin has a long history. It contributed to the combination of Chinese customs, habits and traditions with ancient Indian culture and Indian beliefs. It has contributed a lot to the world.”
But despite the deep Buddhist links, the connection between Shaolin kung fu and Indian martial arts – especially Kerala’s kalaripayattu, as claimed by some –is yet to be established.
“It’s certainly true that the Shaolin temple was visited by Bodhidharma, but Bodhidharma was probably from southeastern Tamil Nadu and not Kerala,” said Phillip Zarrilli, professor emeritus at the drama department of Exeter University in the UK, who has learnt, researched and written on kalaripayattu.
“To my knowledge there is no direct linguistic or historical evidence to directly link kalaripayattu with Shaolin or Chinese martial arts. That there may have been earlier Indian embodied practices which combined elements of psychophysical or spiritual practices of breath control, embodied practices or techniques etc, which were taken to China by Buddhists; may certainly be the case,” Zarrilli said.
“But from my perspective as a scholar, there is no such direct evidence and it is problematic to say that kalaripayattu is the mother of all martial arts as some practitioners of kalaripayattu like to claim today.”
Ok, so the martial arts link is missing. But with written records of ancient Buddhist ties available, the future of India-Shaolin relations seem secure in the well-trained hands of its monks.