When you hear the word Kung Fu, your eyes envision lightning fast jabs and kicks; you smell sweat and your mind automatically fine tunes back to the time of Bruce Lee and his lesser Counterparts. But how many of the public knows about Bodhidharma? People associate kung fu with Bruce lee. But the truth is that he just popularized it even though he was a legend unto himself. But actually its roots go way back to the year 500. The early remnants of Shaolinquan or Shaolin Kung Fu as we know it today still bases upon the Martial Arts found by Bodhidharma. It was he who laid the groundwork for Kung Fu. And his origin is rumored to be South Indian, Specifically Tamil.
Bodhidharma was a Buddhist Monk from the 5th\6th Century CE. To his credit, he is seen as the transmitter of Ch'an( which is basically the Zen in Chinese) and the first Chinese Patriach. There are very few sources about Bodhidharma owing to the times he lived in, but the three most credible source are : Yáng Xuànzhī's (Yang Hsüan-chih) The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (547), Tánlín's preface to the Two Entrances and Four Acts (6th century CE), and Dàoxuān's (Tao-hsuan) Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (7th century CE).
When the origin of Bodidharma is looked in these sources, one can find that they vary in their accounts. Bodhidharma is said to be "from Persia" (547 CE), "a Brahman monk from South India" (645 CE), "the third son of a Brahman king of South India" (ca. 715 CE). They also differ regarding his arrival with one early account claiming that he arrived during the Liú Sòng Dynasty (420–479) and later accounts dating his arrival to the Liáng Dynasty (502–557).
Prince to Monk: Bodhidharma can be compared to the Budha himself in certain aspects. Like Budha, Bodhidharma was born a prince in the southern Indian kingdom of Pallava at around 440 A.D. He was to be the next king. But then destiny played its hand and he was exposed to the Buddha's teachings. He immediately saw the truth in the doctrine of Buddhism and decided to give up his esteemed position and gifted princely life to become a monk and study with the legendary Buddhist master Prajnatara who was the 27th patriarch of Buddhism. Bodhidharma rapidly progressed in his Buddhist studies and in time became an enlightened master. Master Prajnatara instructed his disciple to travel to China and spread the Mahayana teachings of Chan Buddhism to the Chinese.
In the south Indian state of Kerala (the homeland of kalaripayat), Bodhidharma is remembered as both a kalari master and as the "father of Han-Chinese Shaolin Fist". The Yi Jin Jing also credits Shaolin kungfu to Bodhidharma. Malays believe that Bodhidharma introduced preset forms into silat. All this would make him an important influence on Asian martial arts in general. However, both the attribution of Shaolin boxing to Bodhidharma and the authenticity of the Yi Jin Jing itself have been discredited by some historians including Tang Hao, Xu Zhen and Matsuda Ryuchi.
Man of Legends: Several stories involving Bodhidharma are legends now, more fiction than fact. One of them states that Bodhidharma refused to resume teaching until his would-be student, Dazu Huike, who had kept vigil for weeks in the deep snow outside of the monastery, cut off his own left arm to demonstrate sincerity. Another says that after either being refused entry to the Shaolin temple or being ejected after a short time, he lived in a nearby cave, where he "faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time".When he left, he left behind an iron chest; when the monks opened this chest they found the two books "Xi Sui Jing" (Marrow Washing Classic) and "Yi Jin Jing" within. The first book was taken by his disciple Huike, and disappeared; as for the second, "the monks selfishly coveted it, practicing the skills therein, falling into heterodox ways, and losing the correct purpose of cultivating the Real. The Shaolin monks have made some fame for themselves through their fighting skill; this is all due to having obtained this manuscript." Based on this assumption, Bodhidharma was claimed to be the ancestor of Shaolin martial arts.
The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952) identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Buddha himself. He is often called as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian"
In Popular Culture: Many books were written on Bodhidharma. Some prominent ones are "The Bodhidharma Anthology - The Earliest Records of Zen" - Jefferey L. Broughton, "Zen Buddhism: A History" Heinrich Dumoulin etc. A recent South Indian film 7um Arivu, loosely translated as 7th Sense had a brief portrayal of Bodhidharma. He is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian in many Japanese and Chinese artworks.
The contributions Bodhidharma has made to the spreading of Buddhism in China and beyond are immeasurable. The Mahayana teaching of Chan Buddhism was quickly assimilated into Chinese culture and began to spread throughout the country. In the 12th century, Chan Buddhism spread to Japan and then Korea. Today Chan Buddhism is strong and flourishing in countries all over the world.