Originating at around 3rd century BC in the Indian state of Kerala, Kalaripayattu is one of the most ancient martial art forms. It is also regarded as the “Mother of all martial arts” in the Indian sub-continent. Kalaripayattu or Kalari, has influenced several dance and theatre forms of the state of Kerala, alongside the modern martial art forms such as MMA and Jiu-Jitsu. People practicing this combating technique attribute its origin to Parashurama, a significant warrior deity from Hindu scriptures.
The word Kalari in Kalaripayattu means “battlefield,” and has been used to describe the combating technique since its origin. However, there are also some other accounts that dispute this meaning. According to some references, the name is derived from the local goddess “Khaloorika Bhagavathy,” while some other texts suggest that it is one of the names of Lord Shiva.
A variety of weapons are used in Kalaripayattu including swords, spears, staffs, shields, and daggers. These are considered as the standard weapons of a Kalari fighter. On rare occasions, some unusual weapons such as antlers, axes, bladed whips, or swords and maces are also used. In addition to the physical strength, Kalari fighters also possess significant knowledge about the human body, different pressure, and healing points, which are an integral part of ancient Indian medicinal science Ayurveda, and Yoga.
To practice Kalari, a person has to be highly disciplined. In schools where Kalari is taught, the students see their masters and fellow pupils as their own extended family, thus sowing a seed of a particular way of life which includes discipline, compassion, and respect for teachers, elders, classmates, immediate family and for the community as a whole. Kalari is considered primarily as an art of self-defense, wherein warriors are usually taught to avoid hostile confrontations.
Unlike other martial art forms, Kalaripayattu does not discriminate against women. There have been references from 16th century AD, in which there are mentions of a female warrior named Unniyarcha. The texts describe that whipped sword or Urumi, and regular swords were the weapons she’d regularly use.
There are different styles of this ancient martial art form, including some smaller and regional styles. However, the most significant of all is the Northern-style (Vadakkan Kalari), Southern-style (Thekkan Kalari), and a new technique, which is the amalgamation of elements from both northern and southern style, known as the Central style (Madhya Kalari). The Northern or “Vadakkan Kalari” includes elegant and flexible movements such as evasions, jumps, and weapons training. In contrast, the Southern “Thekkan Kalari” style consists of hard, impact-based techniques with priority on hand-to-hand combat and pressure point strikes. Warriors trained in Kalaripayattu would use very light, and elemental body armors during the ancient times, so they wouldn’t have to compromise on their speed and flexibility during the actual battle.
Kalaripayattu was taught to the soldiers of Chola, Chera and Pandya kingdoms of ancient South India. Forms and techniques inspired by animals such as Lion, tiger, elephant, wild boar, snake, and crocodile were incorporated in the animal forms of the martial art form. Specific techniques that are used in Kalaripayattu to enhance the flexibility of a human body are also followed in an ancient and the most significant dance form of Kerala, famously known as “Kathakali.” Additionally, the training for Kalaripayattu is done in unique premises that are designed using ancient Hindu architectural methods such as Vastu Shastra and the Shilpa Shastra, along with several religious and native customs subjective to the state of Kerala. Moreover, every session is started by chanting mantras for praising Lord Shiva and Goddess Bhadrakali. Notably, as per Hindu beliefs, Lord Shiva is the God of the destruction of the universe, while the Goddess Bhadrakali is the symbol of the defeat of the evil forces.
Despite being an essential part of the Indian culture, Kalaripayattu suffered a significant set back during the colonial era. The British colonizers did everything in their power, including raiding the houses of the practitioners and confiscating their arms to kill this indigenous martial art form. However, some masters, despite constant threat, saved the art form by continuing to train the youngsters in secret.
In modern times, Kalari has found a place in movies and theatre. What was once a fierce martial art, is now an expressive dance form. Kalaripayattu, as an art form, has quickly adapted to the modern Indian mindsets and culture.