Origins of Kalaripayattu

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Kalarippayattu is a Indian martial art practised in Kerala and contiguous parts of neighboring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It incorporates strikes, kicks, grappling, and weaponry, as well as healing techniques. Some of its choreographed sparring can be applied to dance.

The word “kalari”, and ancient martial arts that may have been precursors to kalarippayattu, are mentioned in Sangam literature from the 2nd century BCE. The word “kalari” appears in the Puram and Akam to describe to both a battlefield and combat arena. The word “kalari tatt” denoted a martial feat, while “kalari kozhai” meant a coward in war. The earliest evidence of marmam pressure points dates back to the Rig Veda where Indra is recorded to have defeated Vritra by attacking his vital pressure points (marman) with his vajra. Discovery Channel notes that Kalarippayattu may be one of the oldest martial arts in existence.

Phillip Zarrilli, a professor at the University of Exeter and one of the few Western authorities on kalaripayattu, estimates that kalaripayattu dates back to at least the 12th century CE.

The historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai attributes the birth of kalarippayattu to an extended period of warfare between the Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century CE.

From the eleventh or twelfth century the right and duty to practice the martial art in the service of a ruler was most associated with specific subgroups of Nairs. However, at least one subcaste of Brahmins, as well as some Christians and Muslims were given this right and duty.

In addition, a special subcaste of Ezhavas/Thiyyas called chekors were engaged to fight in ankam, public duels to the death to solve disputes between higher caste opposing parties. Among at least some Nair and Tiyya families, young girls also received preliminary training up until the onset of menses. We also know from the vadakkan pattukal ballads that at least a few women of noted Nair and Tiyya masters continued to practise and achieved a high degree of expertise. Ankam were fought on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high, purpose-built for ankam.

The earliest and most detailed western account of this art is that of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa (c. 1518). The more part of these Nayres when they are seven years of age are sent to schools where they are taught many tricks of nimbleness and dexterity; there they teach them to dance and turn about and to twist on the ground, to take royal leaps, and other leaps, and this they learn twice a day as long as they are children, and they become so loose-jointed and supple that they make them turn their bodies contrary to nature; and when they are fully accomplished in this, they teach them to play with the weapon to which they are most inclined, some with bows and arrows, some with poles to become spearmen, but most with swords and bucklers, which is most used among them, and in this fencing they are ever practising. The masters who teach them are called Panicals.

Kalarippayattu underwent a period of decline after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century.

The resurgence of public interest in kalarippayattu began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout South India and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.