Kalari Payattu is an Indian martial art from the southern state of Kerala. One of the oldest fighting systems in existence, it is practiced in Kerala and contiguous parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well as northeastern Sri Lanka and among the Malayali community of Malaysia. It was practiced primarily by groups among Keralite castes such as the Nairs and Ezhavas, and was taught by a special caste named Kalari Panicker.
Kalari payat includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods. Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the northern style of the Malayalis, the southern style of the Tamils and the central style from inner Kerala. The northern style was practiced primarily by the Nairs, the martial caste of Kerala,and Ezhavas. The southern style, called adi murai, was practiced largely by the Nadars and has features distinguishing it from its other regional counterparts.
Northern kalari payat is based on the principle of hard technique, while the southern style primarily follows the soft techniques, even though both systems make use of internal and external concepts.
Some of the choreographed sparring in kalari payat can be applied to dance and kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Some traditional Indian dance schools still incorporate kalari payat as part of their exercise regimen.
The term kalaripayattu is a tatpurusha compound from the words kalari meaning school or gymnasium and payattu derived from payattuka meaning to “fight/ exercise” or “to put hard work into”. In Tamil, kalari payattu is a compound of (field; may be, battle field) and (study / learn, as in – teaching / – he learnt).
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the assumption that the compound itself might have an equally antique use as the singular kalari and payattu, the unpublished Malayalam Lexicon notes that the earliest use of the compound, kalarippayattu is in Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer’s early twentieth century drama Amba when it is probable that the systems of martial practice assumed a structure and style akin those extant today.
M.D. Raghavan has suggested that kalari was derived from the Sanskrit khal? rik? (parade ground, arena) while Burrow shares the generally accepted opinion that khal?rik? and its root, khala- (threshing floor) are Dravidian loan words. Oral folklore ascribes the creation of kalari payat to the Hindu gods.
It was first documented around the 11th or 12th century AD by the historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai, who attributed its creation to an extended period of warfare that took place between the Chera and the Chola dynasties in the 11th century. The art was disseminated through schools known as kalari, which served as centres of learning before the modern educational system was introduced.
Still in existence, kalaris served as meeting places for the acquisition of knowledge on various subjects ranging from mathematics, language, astronomy and various theatrical arts. More specifically, martial arts were taught in the payattu kalari, meaning fight school. Kalari payat became more developed during the 9th century and was practiced by a section of the Hindu community, warrior clan of Kerala, to defend the state and the king.
In the 11th and 12th century, Kerala was divided into small principalities that fought one-to-one wars among themselves. These duels or ankam were fought by Chekavar on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high. The right and duty to practice martial arts in the service of a district ruler was most associated with Nairs and Ezhavas. The Lohar of north Kerala were Buddhist warriors who practiced kalaripayattu. The traditional astrologer caste Ganaka / Kaniyar were the teachers of martial arts to young Nairs. Hence they were known as Panickar and Asans. A legendary belief had existed in connection with assignement of this duty to Kaniyar class by Parasuraman.
The writings of early colonial historians like Varthema, Logan and Whiteway shows that kalari payat was widely popular and well established with almost all people in Kerala transcending gender, caste and communal lines. It is said to have eventually become as prevalent as reading and writing. Among some noble families, young girls also received preliminary training up until puberty.
It is also known from the vadakkan pattukal ballads that at least a few women of noted Chekavar continued to practise and achieved a high degree of expertise. The most famous of them was Unniyarcha of Keralan folklore, a master with the urumi or flexible sword.
The earliest western account of kalari payat is that of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa (c. 1518).
The more part of these warriors 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 Panikars.
DECLINE AND REVIVAL: Kalari payat underwent a period of decline when the Nair warriors lost to the British after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century.
The British eventually banned kalaripayattu and the Nair custom of holding swords so as to prevent rebellion and anti-colonial sentiments. During this time, many Indian martial arts had to be practiced in secret and were often confined to rural areas.
The resurgence of public interest in kalari payat 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.
In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularise the art, with it featuring in international and Indian films such as Ondanondu kaladalli (Kannada), Indian (1996), Asoka (2001), The Myth (2005), The Last Legion (2007), and also in the Japanese manga Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple.
VARIATIONS: There are several styles of kalari payat which can be categorised into three regional variants. These three main schools of thought can be distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns.
The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk which uses photographs to show several kalari payat exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions.
NORTHERN KALARI PAYAT/ VADAKKAN KALARI is practiced mainly in North Malabar.
It places more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands. Parashurama, sixth avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the style’s founder according to both oral and written tradition. Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal or occasionally as asan, and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar.
The northern style 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 which literally means “stamping massage” or “foot massage”. The masseuse may use their feet and body weight to massage the person.
There are several lineages/styles (sampradayam), of which ‘thulunadan’ is considered as the best. In olden times, students went to thulunadu kalari’s to overcome their defects (kuttam theerkkal).
There are schools which teach more than one of these traditions. Some traditional kalari around Kannur for example teach a blend of arappukai, pillatanni, and katadanath styles.
SOUTHERN KALARI PAYAT/ ADI MURAI was practised mainly in old Travancore including the present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu primarily by the Nadars and Mukkulathors. Emphasising empty-hand techniques,It is closely connected to Tamil silambam and Sri Lankan angampora. The founder and patron saint is believed to be the rishi Agastya rather than Parasurama.Masters are known as ‘asaan.
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 sword), double sword, kalari grappling and marma (pressure points).
Zarrilli refers to southern kalari payat as varma ati (the law of hitting), marma ati (hitting the vital spots) or varma kalai (art of varma). The preliminary empty handed techniques of varma ati are known as adithada (hit/defend).
Marma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots. Weapons include bamboo staves, short sticks, and the double deer horns. Medical treatment in the southern styles is identified with siddha, the traditional Dravidian system of medicine distinct from north Indian ayurveda.
The Siddha medical system, otherwise known as siddha vaidyam, is also attributed to Agastya.
CENTRAL KALARI PAYATTU/MADHYA KALARI is practiced mainly in northern Kerala but is distinct from the northern (vadakkan) style. It makes use of many steps (chuvatu) practiced on floor paths known as kalam, and its techniques emphasize lower body strength and speed.
STYLES: Various kalari styles as specified in Vadakkan Pattukal,
Kolastri Nadu Kalari
Panoor Madham Kalari
TRAINING: Students begin training at approximately seven years old with a formal initiation ritual performed by the gurukkal. On the opening day of the new session, a novice is admitted to the kalari in the presence of the gurukkal or a senior student and directed to place their right foot first across the threshold. The student touches the ground with the right hand and then the forehead, as a sign of respect. He is then led to the guruthara, the place where a lamp is kept burning in reverence to all the masters of the kalari, to repeat this act of worship. He then offers the master some money as dakshina in folded betel leaves and prostrates himself, touching the master’s feet as a sign of submission. The guru then places his hands on the pupil’s head, blesses him and prays for him. This ritual – touching the ground, puttara, guruthara and the guru’s feet – is repeated everyday. It symbolizes a complete submission to and acceptance of the master, the deva, the kalari and the art itself.
KALARI: It is the school or training hall where martial arts are taught. They were originally constructed according to vastu sastra with the entrance facing east and the main door situated on the centre-right. Sciences like mantra saastra, tantra saastra and marma saastra are utilized to balance the space’s energy level. The training area comprises a puttara (seven tiered platform) in the south-west corner. The guardian deity (usually an avatar of Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva) is located here, and is worshipped with flowers, incense and water before each training session which is preceded by a prayer.
Northern styles are practiced in special roofed pits where the floor is 3.5 feet below the ground level and made of wet red clay meant to give a cushioning effect and prevent injury. The depth of the floor protects the practitioner from winds that could hamper body temperature.
Southern styles are usually practiced in the open air or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches. Traditionally, when a kalari was closed down it would be made into a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity.
EXERCISES: Specific commands associated with each exercise are called vaytari.
Kaalkal – literally means legs. In the kalari context, it refers to kicks as well as leg-raising exercises (kaal eduppu) to increase flexibility.
1.Paada chakram (round kick- inside to outside)
2.Paada Bhramanam (round kick- outside to inside)
3.ner kaal (straight kick)
4.kon kaal (right to left, left to right kick)
5.veethu kaal (round kick – inside out)
6.ner-kona-veethu kaal (combined kick)
7.thirichu kaal (both side kick – kick straight turn around and kick)
8.aga kaal (round kick – outside in)
9.iruththi kaal (kick and sit)
10.iruththi kaal 2 (kick and sit – turn and sit)
11.soochi kaal (kick and side split sit)
12.soochi kaal 2 (kick and side split sit – turn and side split sit)
Kaikuththippayattu : It is a compound of kai (hand), kuththi (hit) and payattu (exercise). Originating from the Tulunadan lineage, it has been adopted into most other styles. It consists of punches, leg moves, stretches, twists, and jumps performed in a particular sequence. It is preceded by warm-ups or mukakattu. Like most exercises in kalari payat, kaikuththipayattu is divided into 18 stages and its complexity increases from one level to another.
Chagatai : It teaches how to attack and defend against multiple opponents from all sides. Divided into 18 stages, it consists of punches, cuts, throws and blocks. The movements are repeated in four directions. This exercise should be practiced with intense speed and power.
Meipayattu: It concentrates on flexibility. Also divided into 18 stages, it is said to make the practitioner aggressive and increase battle awareness. This exercise should be practiced with speed and agility.
Adithada : It comes from the words for hit (adi) and block (thadu). Unlike the exercises mentioned above, adithada requires two or more practitioners. When one exponent attacks, the other blocks and then counter-attacks.
Ottotharam : It teaches how to use attacks as a form of defense. As with adithada, it is practiced by two exponent but the number can be increased as the students gain experience.
Stages: Training is divided into four main parts consisting of Meithari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai.
Meithari: It is the beginning stage with rigorous body sequences involving twists, stances and complex jumps and turns. Twelve meippayattu exercises for neuro-muscular coordination, balance and flexibility follow the basic postures of the body. Kalari payat originates not in aggression but in the disciplining of the self. Therefore the training begins with disciplining the physical body and attaining a mental balance. This is crucial for any person and not necessarily a martial aspirant. This first stage of training consists of physical exercises to develop strength, flexibility, balance and stamina. It includes jumps, low stances on the floor, circular sequences, kicks, etc. An attempt is made to understand and master each separate organ of the body. These exercises bring an alertness to the mind, and this alertness helps one understand some of the movements and processes of the self defense sequences that are taught at later stages.
Kolthari : Once the student has become physically competent, they are introduced to fighting with long wooden weapons. The first weapon taught is the staff (kettukari), which is usually five feet (1.5 m) in length, or up to the forehead of the student from ground level. The second weapon taught is the cheruvadi or muchan, a wooden stick three palm spans long, about two and a half feet long or 75 cm. The third weapon taught is the otta, a wooden stick curved to resemble the trunk of an elephant. The tip is rounded and is used to strike the vital spots in the opponent’s body. This is considered the master weapon, and is the fundamental tool of practice to develop stamina, agility, power, and skill. Otta training consists of 18 sequences.
Ankathari : In this both opponents are armed with chuttuval and paricha.
Once the practitioner has become proficient with all the wooden weapons, they proceed to Ankathari (literally “war training”) starting with metal weapons, which require superior concentration due to their lethal nature.
The first metal weapon taught is the kadhara, a metal dagger with a curved blade. Taught next are the sword (val) and shield (paricha). Subsequent weapons include the spear (kuntham), trident (trisool) and axe (venmazhu). Usually the last weapon taught is the flexible sword (urumi or chuttuval), an extremely dangerous weapon taught to only the most skillful students. Historically, after the completion of Ankathari, the student would specialize in a weapon of their choice, to become an expert swordsman or stick fighter for example.
Wetumka :Only after achieving mastery with all the weapon forms is the practitioner taught to defend themselves with bare-handed techniques.
These include arm locks, grappling, and strikes to the pressure points (marmam). This is considered the most advanced martial skill so the gurukkal restricts knowledge of marmam only to very few trusted students.
Marmashastram and massage: Practitioners meditate to develop inner energy. It is claimed that learned warriors can disable or kill their opponents by merely touching the correct marmam (vital point). This is taught only to the most promising and level-headed persons, 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 comes under siddha vaidhyam, attributed to the sage Agastya and his disciples.
The earliest mention of marmam is found in the Rig Veda where Indra is said to have defeated Vritra by attacking his marman with a vajra. References to marman 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 practised 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 field of traditional medicine and massage.
Kalari payat teachers often provide massages (Malayalam: uzhichil) with medicinal oils to their students in order to increase their physical flexibility
or to treat muscle injuries encountered during practice. Such massages are generally termed thirumal and the unique massage given to increase flexibility is known as katcha thirumal. It is said to be as sophisticated as the uzhichil treatment of ayurveda. Kalari payat has borrowed extensively from ayurveda and equally lends to it.
TECHNIQUES/ATAVU :Atavu in kalari payat are a combination of steps (chuvatu) and stances (vadivu). There are five steps and northern styles have ten postures (Ashta Vadivukal). Each stance has its own power combination, function and set of techniques. All the eight postures are based on animals.
Gajavadivu: Elephant stance
Simhavadivu: Lion stance
Asvavadivu: Horse stance
Varahavadivu: Boar stance
Sarpavadivu: Snake stance
Marjaravadivu: Cat stance
Kukkuvadivu: Rooster stance
Matsyavadivu: Fish stance (Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar & C.V.N. Style)
Mayuravadivu: Peacock stance (Gurukkal P. K. Balan Style)
Vatta Chuvatu: Circular steps
Aakka Chuvatu: Inside steps
Neekka Chuvatu: Moving steps
Kon Chuvatu: Corner steps
Ottakkal Chuvatu: Single-leg steps
WEAPONS: Although no longer used in sparring sessions, weapons are an important part of kalari payat. This is especially true for the northern styles which are mostly weapon-based. Some of the weapons mentioned in medieval Sangam literature have fallen into disuse over time and are rarely taught in kalari payat today.
Weapons currently used in kalaripayat include
Kuruvadi: Short stick
Lathi: Long stick
Churika: Short sword
Maduvu: Deer-horn dagger
Otta: Curved stick
Urumi/Chuttuval: Flexible sword
Weapons historically used in kalaripayat
Ambum Villum: Bow and arrow
Kalaripayattu – the mother of all martial arts.
Legend traces the 3000-year-old art form to Sage Parasurama– the master of all martial art forms and credited to be the re-claimer of Kerala from the Arabian Sea.
Kalaripayattu originated in ancient South India. Kung- fu, popularized by the monks of the Shoaling Temple traces its ancestry to Bodhi Dharma – an Indian Buddhist monk and Kalaripayattu master. Crafted in 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 lost its significance as a mortal combat code. In a Phoenix-like resurrection, Kalaripayattu is today emerging in a new incarnation- 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.
Jackie Chan and the art of Kalaripayattu
A chance encounter with Hollywood actor Jackie Chan has changed the life of Kerala’s popular martial arts exponent, G Sathyanarayanan. Last year, Chan happened to see a CD the Kerala Tourism Department sent him, requesting him to be the brand ambassador of its tourism initiatives.Kerala Tourism could not get Chan, but Sathyanarayanan — who performed the traditional Kerala martial art Kalaripayattu in the CD — impressed Chan so much that the superstar invited him to be part of his new film. Sathyanarayanan flew to Shanghai for a 30-day shoot with Chan for The Myth; the film includes Tony Leung Ka Fai, Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat and television actor Sudhanshu Pandey. Since then, Sathyanarayanan has not looked back. “I am getting a number of offers from Hollywood. All because of Jackie Chan only,” he told rediff.com. According to Sathyanarayanan, a leading US filmmaker has offered him a key role as a martial arts fighter in a forthcoming, untitled film. “It is a great chance for me to work in Hollywood and present our traditional Kalaripayattu. I am taking this rich cultural art to Hollywood,” he said. Sathyanarayanan refused to divulge the details of the Hollywood film. “All I can say is that I have got a good role in it because the film is basically based on martial arts. The world will now see a lot of Kalaripayattu through the film,” he said.He said he has received enquiries from a few other film companies abroad about his expertise in Kalaripayattu. “It is all because of my Jackie Chan connection. You know, in the Jackie Chan film, I had a one-to-one fight sequence with him. He is simply superb,” Sathyanarayanan said. The Myth was earlier named Project So4.Sathyanarayanan said the film is set in an imaginary country called Sadai between China and India. “I play the role of the prince of Sadai,” he said.Recently, the production team of The Myth contacted Satyanarayanan for more inputs on Kalaripayattu scenes. “Some of the dialogues of the film are in Malayalam. They wanted those to be translated for the English version of the film,” he said. And when is Satyanarayanan going to the US for his next film?” Soon, I believe,” he says. Sathyanarayanan is the eldest son of Govindankutty Nair Gurukkal, who founded Kerala’s most famous Kalaraipayattu school: C V N Kalari. In the past, fighters from C V N Kalari have performed in several Asian countries like Japan as well as in Europe as part of the Indian government’s cultural exchange programmes.Kalarippayattu, considered to be the mother of all martial art forms, is a priceless asset to Kerala’s heritage. An intricate blend of physical prowess, mindset, martial techniques and indigenous medical system, this form of armed, close quarter, hand-to-hand combat is unique to Kerala.”It is a great feeling that Kalaripayattu is becoming a well-known martial art across the world. Now, foreign films are coming to endorse our great fighting skills,” said Sathyanarayanan.