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Kalaripayattu, also known simply as Kalari, is an Indian martial art that originated in modern-day Kerala, a state on the southwestern coast of India. Kalaripayattu is known for its long-standing history within Indian martial arts. It is believed to be the oldest surviving martial art in India. It is also considered to be among the oldest martial arts still in existence, with its origin in the martial arts timeline dating back to at least the 3rd century BCE.
|Also known as||Kalari, Kalari Payat|
|Country of origin||India|
|Creator||Parashurama (as per legend)|
|Famous practitioners||Parashurama, Unniyarcha|
|Meaning||"Practice in the arts of the battlefield"|
Kalaripayattu is mentioned in the Vadakkan Pattukal, a collection of ballads written about the Chekavar of the Malabar region of Kerala. Kalaripayattu is a martial art designed for the ancient battlefield (the word "Kalari" meaning "battlefield"), with weapons and combative techniques that are unique to India.
Like most Indian martial arts, Kalaripayattu contains rituals and philosophies inspired by Hinduism. The art also bases medical treatments upon concepts found in the ancient Indian medical text, the Ayurveda. Practitioners of Kalaripayattu possess intricate knowledge of pressure points on the human body and healing techniques that incorporate the knowledge of Ayurveda and Yoga. Kalaripayattu is taught in accordance with the Indian guru-shishya system. Kalaripayattu differs from many other martial arts systems in the world in that weapon based techniques are taught first, and barehanded techniques are taught last.
Unlike other parts of India, warriors in Kerala belonged to all castes. Women in Keralite society also underwent training in Kalaripayattu, and still do so to this day. Keralite women such as Unniyarcha are mentioned in a collection of ballads from Kerala called the Vadakkan Pattukal, and are praised for their martial prowess.
The word Kalaripayattu is a combination of two Malayalam words - kalari (training ground or battleground) and payattu (training of martial arts), which is roughly translated as “practice in the arts of the battlefield.” The word Kalari is also found in Sangam literature. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam in the Sangam era. The word kalari also appears in the Puram (verses 225, 237, 245, 356) and Akam (verses 34, 231, 293) to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training in target practice, horse and elephant riding. In that period and during later periods, the word used for military and military service was chevam. They specialized in one or more of the important weapons of the period including the spear (vel), sword (val), shield (kedaham), and bow and arrow (vil ambu). The combat techniques of the Sangam period were the earliest precursors to Kalaripayattu.
Elements from the yoga tradition as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were incorporated into the fighting arts. A number of South Asian fighting styles remain closely connected to yoga, dance and performing arts. Some of the choreographed sparring in Kalaripayattu can be applied to dance and Kathakali dancers who knew Kalaripayattu were believed to be markedly better than other performers. Some traditional Indian classical dance schools still incorporate martial arts as part of their exercise regimen.
According to legend, Parashurama is believed to have learned the art from Shiva, and taught it to the original settlers of Kerala shortly after bringing Kerala up from the ocean floor. Other theories postulate that certain tribal groups inhabiting ancient Kerala founded Kalaripayattu in order to defend themselves against threats from similar groups. During the medieval period, modern-day Kerala was divided into a number of principalities. Feuds and duels were common at the time, and Kalaripayattu was used for warfare and settling disputes. The accounts of that period are described in the Vadakkan Pattukal, a collection of ballads from Kerala. Kalaripayattu began losing prominence beginning with the European invasions of Kerala. Once European colonization began, the usage of firearms began to surpass the usage of traditional weaponry such as swords, and spears. The resurgence of public interest in Kalaripayattu began in the 1920s in Thalassery, as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout southern India and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.
Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods. Regional variants are classified according to geographical location in Kerala; these are the Northern style from the Malabar region in northern Kerala, and the Southern style from southern Kerala. Northern Kalaripayattu, or "Vadakkan Kalari" is based on elegant and flexible movements, evasions, jumps and weapons training, while the southern "Thekkan Kalari" style specializes in hard, impact based techniques with priority on hand-to-hand combat and pressure point strikes. Both systems make use of internal and external concepts. Warriors trained in Kalaripayattu would use very light, and basic body armor, as it was difficult to maintain flexibility and mobility while in heavy armor. In the modern era, Kalaripayattu is often used by practitioners of Keralite dance styles, such as Kathakali and Mohiniyattam.
Traditions and methods of teaching of Kalaripayattu varied between different regions of Kerala. Kalaripayattu is taught in a specialized training ground known as a kalari. Each kalari is built in accordance to Hindu architectural treatises such as the Vastu Shastras and Shilpa Shastras, along with various religious traditions and customs native to Kerala. The presiding deity of Kalaripayattu is said to be Bhadrakali or Bhagavathy. Before every training session in the kalari, salutations are provides to the presiding deities and obedience is paid to the kalari temple. Students apply tilak or tikka on their foreheads and upon the forehead of the idol of the presiding deity using soil from the ground of the kalari. The traditional training uniform used in Kalaripayattu is the kachakettal, a loincloth that is either red and white or red and black in colour. Along with traditional attire, oral commands, or vaithari, are given by the guru during training sessions, and are given in Sanskrit or Malayalam.
Historically, all Keralites of the Hindu community, men and women alike, would undergo mandatory training in Kalaripayattu beginning at the age of 7 or 9 and lasting until the end of their education. By the 11th century AD, members of other communities also began practicing the art. According to noted historian Professor A. Sreedharan Menon, "each desam or locality had a kalari with a guru at its head and both boys and girls received physical training in it." Warriors, soldiers and others who wanted to pursue a martial career would continue their training for the rest of their lives. Generally, two styles of Kalaripayattu are acknowledged among Kalari practitioners: the Northern Style and the Southern Style. These two systems are quite similar, but have developed their own specialties and differences over time. The styles are variations that various masters have adapted and modified according to their understanding of the art. Development and mastery of Kalaripayattu comes from the tradition of constantly learning, adapting and improving the techniques by observing what techniques are practical and effective. While importance is placed on observation of tradition, Kalaripayattu has also been adapted based on encounters with other combative techniques. A Kalari practitioner might encounter new fighting techniques from an enemy combatant. The Kalari practitioner would need to learn how to anticipate, adapt to and neutralize these new techniques. This is especially seen in the Southern style of Kalaripayattu, which is believed to have been adapted and modified during wars with Tamil kingdoms to counter martial arts like Silambam, which was one of the main martial art forms practiced by Tamil soldiers at the time.
A smaller, regional style of Kalaripayattu called Tulunadan Kalari, is referenced in texts such as the Vadakkan Pattukal, but it is largely restricted to the Tulu Nadu region in northern Kerala and southern Karnataka. Other smaller, regional styles are also said to exist in isolated regions of Kerala, but these styles are becoming increasingly rare, and difficult to find. Examples include Dronamballi, Odimurassery, Tulu Nadan Shaiva Mura, and Kayyangali.
The Northern style is also known as, Vadakkan Kalari, and is generally regarded as the "original," form of Kalaripayattu. This system places more emphasis on physical flexibility exercises rooted on the slogan Meyy kanavanam, meaning, "make the body an eye." These exercises are done individually, as well as in combinations. After that meypayattu (a concept similar to kata in Karate) is taught. These are a combination of flexibility exercises with offensive and defensive techniques, however, the actual techniques are taught very much later. Traditionally, the number of meypayattu may differ as per the teaching methods of the guru. Training is usually done in four stages, the first stage being Meipayattu (training stances), followed by Kolthari (practice with wooden weapons), Angathari (practice with metal weapons) and finally Verum kai (barehanded combat). Generally, the majority of the Kalaris (schools that teach Kalaripayattu) start training with weapons within 3 to 6 months. Some Kalaris only allow one weapon to be learned per year. After long stick and small stick fighting, iron weapons are introduced. Weapons training begins with the dagger and sword, followed by the spear. Not all modern schools use specialized weapons. Traditionally, bows and arrows were commonly used in Kerala and students were trained in these techniques, but is rarely taught today.
Kalaripayattu has three forms, which are distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns. They are Arappa Kayy, Pilla Thangi, and Vatten Thiripp.
The Southern style is also known as Thekkan Kalari. The origin of Thekkan Kalari is a subject of much debate and controversy. It is a style of Kalaripayattu that is said to have been altered and influenced by Sage Agastya. It may have been altered from the Northern style of Kalaripayattu to fight combatants trained in Adi Murai and Silambam from Tamil Nadu during various wars and skirmishes with Tamil kingdoms. It is essentially a style which combines Kalaripayattu with certain elements of Adi Murai and Silambam. Other sources suggest that martial arts such as Varma Kalai and Adi Thadi may also have influenced the Southern style. While the Southern style is less commonly practiced in Kerala compared to the Northern style, it is revered in Kerala as a combination of the teachings of both Parashurama and Agastya. It is predominantly practiced in some regions of the southern parts of Kerala, particularly in areas near Kanyakumari. While many of the exercises of the Southern style are identical to the Northern Style, it is more combative and martial in nature, and places heavy emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, hard impact techniques, and footwork, rather than emphasizing flexibility like the Northern style. It starts with the training in Chuvadu, a system of various combinations of fighting techniques similar to Muay Thai and Judo. Immediately after that, sparring with a partner is introduced as part of the training. These pre-determined techniques are repeatedly trained. After a basic proficiency in unarmed combat is established, weapons training begins with a small stick. Small stick training is usually done with two combatants, armed with a stick or dagger. These are primarily defensive techniques. Fighting techniques with two combatants having the same weapons include sparring with long stick, sword, etc. During the duration of this training, the refining of un-armed combat also progresses. As the student gains more experience, a small amount of knowledge pertaining to the Marma points (pressure points) is also taught to the student if deemed appropriate by the Gurukkal.
Kalaripayattu techniques are a combination of steps (Chuvadu) and postures (Vadivu). Chuvadu literally means 'steps', the basic steps of the martial arts. Vadivu literally means 'postures' or stances which are the foundations of Kalaripayattu training. They are named after animals, and are usually presented in eight forms. Styles differ considerably from one tradition to another. Not only do the names of poses differ, but their utilization and interpretation vary depending on the Gurukkal's preference, and the traditions of the Kalari. Each stance has its own style, combination, and function. These techniques vary from one style to another.
Marmashastram and massage
It is claimed that experienced Kalari warriors could disable or kill their opponents by merely striking the correct marmam (vital point) on their opponent's body. This technique is taught only to the most promising and level-headed students so as to discourage misuse of the technique. Marmashastram stresses on the knowledge of marmam and is also used for marma treatment (marmachikitsa). This system of marma treatment originated from Ayurveda, as well as Siddha medicine. Critics of Kalaripayattu have pointed out that the application of marmam techniques against neutral outsiders has not always produced verifiable results.
The earliest mention of marmam is found in the Rig Veda, where Indra is said to have defeated Vritra by attacking his marmam with a vajra. References to marmam are also found in the Atharva Veda. With numerous other scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that India's early martial artists knew about and practiced attacking or defending vital points. Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita. Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick. Sushruta's work formed the basis of the medical discipline Ayurveda, which was taught alongside various Indian martial arts that had an emphasis on vital points, such as Varma kalai and Marma adi.
As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgeable in the fields of traditional medicine and massage. Kalaripayattu teachers often provide massages (uzhichil) with medicinal oils to their students in order to increase their physical flexibility or to treat muscular injuries. Such massages are generally termed thirumal and the unique massage given to increase flexibility is known as katcha thirumal.
In India, the Indian Kalaripayattu Federation (IKF) in Thiruvananthapuram is one of the primary governing bodies of Kalaripayattu. It is recognized by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports of the Government of India. It received affiliation as a regional sports federation in 2015.
The Kerala Kalaripayattu Association (KKA) in Thiruvanathapuram is also a governing body of the martial art which is recognised by the Kerala State Sports Council.
In popular culture
In the Indian graphic novels Odayan and Odayan II – Yuddham, the title character is a vigilante who is highly skilled in Kalaripayattu, with the story itself being set in 16th century feudal Kerala. Little Kalari Warriors, a cartoon made by Toonz Animation India for Cartoon Network, features Kalaripayattu practitioners as the principal characters. Kalaripayattu is also seen in the Indian animated film Arjun: The Warrior Prince (2012). In the Indian role-playing game Ashwathama — The Immortal, which is based on Indian mythology, the fight scenes were choreographed using Kalaripayattu, with the movements of the characters being motion captured from real Kalaripayattu masters. Kalaripayattu is used as a fighting style for the character Connie Maheswaran in the American animated television series Steven Universe. Outside of Indian video games, characters in international games also use Kalaripayattu, such as Voldo in Soul Edge, Asura in Death Battle, and Zafina in the Tekken series among others. The style is also used by Cyril Rahman, Ethan Stanley and Shō Kanō in the Japanese manga TV series Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple. In 2019, a character of Indian origin was introduced for the first time in the Japanese manga, Agari. It features a character named Ravi, a Kalaripayattu master, as the protagonist.
While numerous documentaries have been made about or referencing Kalaripayattu, one of the earliest known documentaries on the subject is a BBC documentary titled The Way of the Warrior. Kalaripayattu was also documented in Season 2 of Fight Quest.
Kalaripayattu has also featured in international and Indian films such as:
- Thacholi Othenan (film) (1964),
- Aromalunni (1972)
- Ondanondu Kaladalli (Kannada) (1978)
- Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989)
- Thacholi Varghese Chekavar (1995)
- Asoka (2001)
- The Myth (2005)
- The Last Legion (2007)
- Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja (2009)
- Manasara (2010)
- Urumi (film) (2011)
- Commando (2013)
- Bajirao Mastani (2015)
- Baaghi (2016)
- Veeram (2016)
- Padmaavat (2018)
- Kayamkulam Kochunni (2018)
- Junglee (2019)
- Doctor, Fali E. (July 1973). "Kalari Payat – Ancient Art of India". Black Belt. pp. 23–25. Retrieved 6 November 2020.
- Thomas A. Green (2001). Martial Arts of the World: A-Q. ABC-CLIO. p. 225. ISBN 9781576071502.
According to oral and written tradition, the warrior-sage Parasurama, who was the founder of Kerala, is also credited with founding of the first kalari and subsequent lineages of teaching families.
- Hutan Ashrafian (7 July 2014). Warrior Origins: The Historical and Legendary Links between Bodhidharma, Shaolin Kung-Fu, Karate and Ninjutsu. The History Press. p. 71. ISBN 9780750957472.
- Phillip B. Zarrilli (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses, and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford University Press. p. 31. ISBN 9780195639407.
By oral and written tradition , sage Parasurama is believed to be the founder of the art and the first kalari.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Kalarippayattu.|
- Kalarippayattu - one of the oldest martial arts, Government of Kerala website
(Wayback Machine copy)