The Kalaripayattu

The Kalaripayattu | What is Kalaripayattu | Martial Art of Kerala | Origins of Kalaripayattu | Styles of Kalaripayattu | Kalaripayattu Stages | Kalari Treatment | Silambam Weapon | Thekan Weapons | Vadakkan Weapons | The Oldest Martial Arts

Kalarippayattu is a Dravidian martial art practiced in Kerala and contiguous parts of neighboring Tamil Nadu of Southern India. It incorporates strikes, kicks, grappling, martial dance, and weaponry, as well as healing techniques.

Although its origin and growth are shrouded in mystery, the ancient ballads and-foreign accounts have left detailed notes on its practices and the physical culture it promoted. As an institution, the Kalari has greatly influenced the cultural life of Kerala society.

The villages of medieval Kerala had a kalari, a temple, and a public tank for bathing, – a rare combination of religion, hygiene, public health and defense. Although the Kalari system was an offshoot from the Hindu way of life, it was shared by all people, irrespective of caste and religion, as a common legacy.

Kalaripayattu is the oldest existing martial art form, dating back more than 2000 years and said to be the forerunner of popularly known Chinese martial arts, as the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma took this knowledge from India to China.

The practice of Kalaripayattu is said to originate from the Dhanur Vedic texts encompassing all fighting arts and described by the Vishnu Purana as one of the eighteen traditional branches of knowledge. Kalaris are the schools where training in this martial art form is imparted by Gurukals or masters.

The term Kalarippayattu is a tatpurusha compound formed from the words kalari meaning school or gymnasium and payattu derived from “payattuka meaning to fight or to exercise or to put hard work into.

When it is probable that the systems of martial practice assumed a structure and style akin those extant today.

Belying the assumption that the compound itself might have an equally antique use as the singular kalari and payattu, the unpublished Malayalam Lexicon notes that the earliest use of the compound, Kalarippayattu is in Ulloor Parameswaram’s early twentieth century drama, Amba.

Although M.D. Raghavan suggested that Kalari was derived from the Sanskrit khalÅ«rikā, Burrow has alternatively suggested that khalÅ«rikā (“parade ground, arena”) and its Sanskrit root, khala- (“threshing floor”) are Dravidian loan words.

This martial art form is indigenous to the Southern Indian state of Kerala which, legend has it, was created by the warrior saint Parasurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, by throwing his axe into the sea which receded till the point where it fell. Parasurama then established forty-two kalaris and taught twenty-one masters of these kalaris to protect the land he created.

Kalaripayattu is a traditional psycho-physiological discipline emanating from Kerala’s unique mytho-historical heritage as well as a scientific system of physical culture training. The historical antecedents of this martial art form combines indigenous Dravidian systems of martial practice such as ‘varma ati’ or ‘marma adi’ with an influence of Aryan brahman culture which migrated southwards down the west coast of India into Kerala. There are two distinct traditions in Kalaripayattu—the Northern and the Southern schools.

In the Northern tradition the emphasis is laid on progressing from body exercises to combat with weapons and last of all to unarmed combat. In the Southern tradition the patron saint of Kalaripayattu is the sage Agastya whose strength and and powers of meditation are legendary. It is said that when the Lord Shiva married the Goddess Parvati at Kailasa in the North, all gods and goddesses went to attend the wedding and with this shift in weight the world tilted, so much so, that Agastya was sent to the South to restore the balance.

The art is trained in an enclosure called ‘Kalari’, which is 21 feet by 42 feet. The entrance faces the east. In the south-west corner is a seven-tiered platform called the “poothara”, which houses the guardian deity of the kalari. These seven steps symbolise seven abilities each person requires. They include Vigneswa (Strength), Channiga (patience), Vishnu (commanding power), Vadugashcha (the posture), Tadaaguru (training), Kali (the expression) and Vakasta – purushu (sound). Other deities, most of them incarnations of the Bhagavathi or Shiva, are installed in the corners.

Lord Rama, legend has it, was mentored by Agastya to acquire the weapons, which defeated the demon king Ravana. In the southern tradition the emphasis is primarily on footwork, movement and the ability to strike at vital points or ‘marmas’ in the opponents body of which 108 points are considered lethally vulnerable.Crafted in ancient South India drawing inspiration from the raw power and sinuous strength of the majestic animal forms – Lion, Tiger, Elephant, Wild Boar, Snake, and Crocodile. Kalaripayattu laid down the combat code of the Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas. Shrouded in deep mystery and mists of secrecy Kalaripayattu was taught by the masters in total isolation, away from prying eyes.

Following the collapse of the princely states and the advent of free India – Kalaripayattu has lost its significance as a mortal combat code. In a Phoenix-like resurrection, Kalaripayattu is today emerging in a new avatar – an ancient art form – a source of inspiration for self-expression in dance forms – both traditional and contemporary, in theatre, in fitness and in movies too.