Kerala Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu, Kerala's traditional martial art


Kalaripayattu is the vibrant, traditional martial art form of Kerala and is richly blended with its cultural heritage.It is usually described as an indigenous martial art of Kerala evolved between the 9th and 12th centuries AD. It is believed that Parasurama, the mythical creator of Kerala, instituted 108 'Kalaris' all over the land. But similar cultural traits and institutions are found in other regions of South India and Sri Lanka.

The term 'Kalari' denotes a gymnasium where proper training is imparted for mind as well as muscle. The 'Kalaris' imparted training in literacy, body-building and warfare/weapony.

Both men and women were admitted to the course. 'Payattu' literally means training or exercise or training in the traditional style of combat.

Each 'Desam', which was a unit of administration in traditional Kerala, had its 'Kalari' and each 'Kalari' was under the supervision of its guru, who was differently known in different areas as 'Panikkar', 'Kuruppu', etc. Originally, these were only names of profession but later they became names of sub-caste.

The objectives of the art

The techniques of Kalaripayattu were used at one time in the battlefields.  Kalaripayattu

is a good exercise to alert the body and mind, very good visual art,  useful for self-defence.

Starting from simple breathing exercises, a person can awaken the total dynamism of his body and can tune it in a way he wishes. It will enable a person to develop four powers 'karuthu' which are:

1)       Meikaruthu: power of the body.

2)       Manakaruthu: power of the mind.

3)       Ankakaruthu: power to combat.

4)       Ayudhakaruthu: power to wield weapons. 

The Movements


First is the  salutations in favour of the superior elements then  the student is given the first system of exercise called 'Angasadhana' for placing the soles of the feet. The firm step on the ground is called 'Akkachuvadu'; and movements of the sole in jumps are known as 'Chattachuvadu'.

The circular movement is known 'Vattachuvadu'. The student, during his feet exercise moves from eastern side to the western side. The feet and hands are raised and moved according to the sequences and in strict accordance with 'Vaythari' of 'gurukkal'.

These practices including 'Meippayattu' for several months make the student fit for the training in the use of weapons. After imparting the body training, a student is initiated to the use of weapons. The 'Muchan', also called 'Cheruvati' is a smaller stick about 22 inches in length and used to give powerful blows and also to resist the blows from others.

Then, he is initiated to the use of metallic weapons like 'Kathi' (dagger), Sword, 'Kuntham' (spear) and 'Urumi'. The Gada is also practised in some ''Kalaris'. The training in the use of metallic weapons requires more dexterity and agility of the body.

Indigenous folk narratives and technical literature furnish long lists of different types of 'Kalaris'. They are 'Ankakkalari', 'Totuvor Kalari', 'Totukalari', 'Netumkalari', 'Kurumkalari', 'Totukalari', 'Cherukalari' etc.,

Oil massage, physical exercise, acute body-bending, use of shield and sword are the common features of many of these art forms and Kalarippayattu.

The rigorous training

The 'Kalari' training is based on an elaborate system of physical exercises. The practical experience of the body movements strengthens the knowledge of a disciple. Constant practice adds to agility and strength. At the age of seven, the student is recruited for his training under a 'Gurukkal'.

Oil massage or 'Uzhichal' is an essential part of the training. The verbal commands of the 'Gurukkal' known as 'Vayttari' are obeyed and repeated to grasp the body movements. Each combination of step and gesture is known as 'Adavu'. Each of them helps to recollect memory and leads to correct movements.

The training or the system has a metaphysical dimension as it was practised everywhere in Kerala. The students arrive at dawn with empty stomach. They are wrapped in a six feet long and one feet wide cotton cloth tightly wound around their waist. This cloth is named 'Kachha'. The combatants generally used to wear red-kacha made out of silk over which a belt is also tied to strengthen the waist.

 Major Components

Meythari: This pre-set sequence of movements is the rudiment of Kalarippayattu. Actually, it is a body controlling exercise to master balancing in air and ground. There is a hidden secret element in these movements, every imaginable combination of offensive and defensive attacks and movements are included.

Kolthari: This section involves training in wooden weapons.

Ankathari: This is the combat training section of metal weapons.

Verumkaie: Self-defence with empty hands. Here a student learns how to face an armed man, using only his limbs, and also learns vital points and locks.

Kalarichikitsa: Kalarippayattu masters of yesterday and today are ayurvedic doctors. Marma therapy, massage therapy, Bone setting, Yoga therapy, Pizhichil, Dhara, Kizhi are the important branches of 'Kalari' treatments.

Kalari Massage: As food is a necessity for an organism from birth to death, so is massage to the human organism. Massage excites the internal resources and provides nourishment in the form of proteins, glucose and other vitalising chemicals, which are within the system. It also works as a cleanser and helps the organism in discharging toxins out of the body through sweat, urine and mucuous, thus rejuvenating the body.

Although the 'Kalari' is an empty space, for a student, that space has all meaning of life and the supernatural. It is an abode of deities and the several generations of gurus who had initiated the disciples into training from generation to generation. The student makes a ritual touch of earth with right hand and propitiates the goddess of earth. The touching of the forehead with right hand shows his reverence to the deities of knowledge. Both peace and destruction are symbolised in the '''Kalari''' space.

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