Styles of Kalaripayattu

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There are many different styles of Kalarippayattu. If one looks at the way attacks and defences are performed, one can distinguish three main schools of thought: the northern styles, the central styles, and the southern styles.

The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk. Luijendijk uses photographs to show several Kalarippayattu exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions.

Northern kalarippayattu: (practiced mainly in the northern Malabar region of Kozhikode and Kannur) places comparatively more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands.

Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal (and only occasionally as asan), and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar. By oral and written traditions, Parasurama, the sixth Avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the founder of the art.

Northern kalarippayattu is distinguished by its meippayattu – physical training and use of full-body oil massage. The system of treatment and massage, and the assumptions about practice are closely associated with Ayurveda. The purpose of medicinal oil massage is to increase the practitioners’ flexibility, to treat muscle injuries incurred during practice, or when a patient has problems related to the bone tissue, the muscles, or nerve system.

The term for such massages is thirumal and the massage specifically for physical flexibility chavutti thirumal. There are several lineages (sampradayam), of which the arappukai is the most common nowadays. There are schools which teach more than one of these traditions. Some traditional kalaris around Cannanore, for example, teach a blend of arappukai, pillatanni, and katadanath styles.

Southern Kalaripayattu: In southern styles of kalarippayattu (practised mainly in old Travancore inluding the present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu), practice and fighting techniques emphasize empty hands and application from the first lesson.

In the southern styles the stages of training are Chuvatu (solo forms), Jodi (partner training/sparring), Kurunthadi (short stick), Neduvadi (long stick), Katthi (knife), Katara (dagger), valum parichayum (sword and shield), Chuttuval (flexible long sword), double sword and Marmma and kalari grappling. The southern styles of kalarippayattu have been practised primarily by a section Nairs and Ezhavas of kerala and a small section of Nadars, Kallars, Thevars, of estwhile Travancore areas.

Zarrilli refers to southern kalarippayattu as Varma ati (the ‘law of hitting’) or marma ati (hitting the vital spots). The preliminary empty-hand techniques of Varma ati and Adithada (hit/defend). Marma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots. Weapons may include long staffs, short sticks, and the double deer horns. Southern styles of kalarippayattu are not usually practiced in special roofed pits but rather in the open air, or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches. Masters are known as ‘asaan rather than gurukkal(in Northern style) .The founder and patron saint is believed to be the rishi Agasthya.

Medical treatment in southern styles of kalarippayattu—which does include massage—is identified with Dravidian Siddha medicine which is as sophisticated as—though distinct from—Ayurveda. The Dravidian Siddha medical system is also known as Siddha Vaidyam is attributed to the rishi Agasthya.

Varma Kalari – Neuro Martial Ar: A great warfare, part of southern style of kalarippayattu, practised by the Royal Thiruppad Nadans to defeat/kill the enemy without any external injuries are called Varmam or Marmam. Varma Kalari is the master of all arts, royal to its name, practised by special Asaans(super masters). An Asaan of special rank is a super master over 108 Kalaries, which were the real kingmakers like the ancient Gramavadins or Gramanis, a term applied to communities like Nadars and Ezhavas. They were the very ancient ruling tribes of India.

Chilambam: Chilambam is a stick fighting, part of southern style of kalarippayattu. This style supposedly originates from the Kurinji hills, present day kerala Kerala, 5000 years ago, where natives were using bamboo staves to defend themselves against wild animals. The natives called Narikuravar were using a staff called Chilambamboo as a weapon to defend themselves against wild animals, and also to display their skill during their religious festivals. The Hindu scholars and yogies who went to the Kurinji mountains to meditate got attracted by the display of this highly skilled spinning Chilambamboo.

Central Kalaripayattu: The central style (practiced mainly in Thrissur, Malappuram, Palakkad and certain parts of Ernakulam districts is ‘a composite’ from both the northern and southern styles that includes northern meippayattu preliminary exercises, southern emphasis on empty-hand techniques, and its own distinctive techniques, which are performed within floor drawings known as kalam.