Shaolin Kung fu’s Indian Connection



With movie stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as brand ambassadors, the art of kung fu has wide appeal across the world. But far from its celluloid avatar, kung fu (an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts) calls on its practitioners to harness their mental energy in ways that take unusual patience, discipline and many years to master.


How amazing is it that one of the oldest forms of kung fu, Shaolin Kung Fu, and the Shaolin Temple itself, owe their origins to two Indian monks. Or so it is believed.

It is said that around 1,500 years ago, a dhyana master hailing from northern India, Buddhabhadra, travelled to China to preach Buddhism. The Chinese called him ‘Batuo’ and the ruling Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty ( 386 to 534 CE ) built a monastery to host this teacher. This monastery was the Shaolin Temple, built in 495 CE in the jungles atop Mt Song in China’s Henan Province. Thus, Batuo was the first abbot of Shaolin.

Shaolin Temple
Shaolin Temple|Wikimedia Commons

About 30 years later, another monk, Bodhidharma from Southern India, made his way to China and laid the foundations of Shaolin kung fu. According to Indian tradition, he is believed to be the third son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram who renounced royal life and adopted Buddhism. The Chinese called him ‘Damo’.

As the popular legend goes, he was welcomed by Emperor Wu of Liang but a dispute between them over Buddhist doctrine forced Damo to seek refuge at the Shaolin Temple. Here, he found the monks involved in some highly ritualistic and extravagantly religious practices. They were absorbed in the scholarly exploration of Buddhism, a form that was not followed by Damo, who believed that the philosophy was to be experienced rather than read and recited.

Dharma Cave
Dharma Cave

But when he set out to instruct them on his rigorous meditation techniques, which he thought to be the key to enlightenment, he realised that the monks’ poor health prevented them from focusing their attention as required. As a result, he devised a series of exercises to help strengthen their bodies and minds.

Damo wrote these down in a manual called Yijin Jing (Muscle Rehabilitation Classic) and had no idea that he was actually laying the foundation of what was to become famous as Shaolin kung fu. In addition, this form of Buddhism is said to have been the basis of what was later called Chan (or Zen in Japanese) Buddhism, and Damo is considered to be its First Patriarch.

Relief statue of Bodhidharma at Shaolin
Relief statue of Bodhidharma at Shaolin|Wikimedia Commons

However, this is just a popular legend with no concrete evidence to support the claim. The idea that Bodhidharma is the founder of Shaolin kung fu is based on a qigong (a form of Chinese exercise practice) manual written during the 17th century. The first of two prefaces of the manual traces this qigong style's succession from Bodhidharma to the Chinese General Li Jing via ‘a chain of Buddhist saints and martial heroes’. But this work is littered with errors and absurdities, once even including a character from Chinese fiction, the ‘Qiuran Ke’ as a lineage master, and cannot be taken as a legitimate source.

Also, the Japanese consider Bodhidharma to be a Persian-Central Asian who came to Shaolin in the 6th century CE. He is depicted in Buddhist art as an ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed person.

Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887
Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887

But the theory that Bodhidharma was a South Indian could also have some truth if he belonged to a royal family. This would have given him access to training in fighting. Also, Kalaripayattu, a South Indian martial art form that originated in present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu, traces its origin to the Sangam era (3rd century BC to 2nd century CE).

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