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Focus hybrid
Hardness Full-contact, Semi-contact
Country of origin Kerala, India
Creator Parashurama
Famous practitioners Thacholli othenan
Aromal Chekavar
Simhalan Madhava Panicker
Jasmine Simhalan
Unni Aarcha Chekavar
Renakeerthy Chekavar
Arattupuzha velayudha Panicker
Kurooli Chekon
Sri Vallabhassery Govindan Vaidyar
Vidyut Jamwal
Olympic sport No
Official website http://www.kalaripayattu.org/
Meaning "Practice in the arts of the battlefield."

Kalaripayattu (pronunciation: [kɐɭɐripɐjɐtːɨ̆]) is an Indian martial art which originated in the west coast of the then Tamilaggam, during the early 13th Century AD. It is considered to be one of the oldest fighting system in existence.[1] It is now practiced in Kerala, in contiguous parts of Tamil Nadu and among the Malayali community of Malaysia. It was originally practiced in northern and central parts of Kerala and the Tulunadu region of Karnataka.[2]

Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.[2] Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the Northern style from Malabar region in north Kerala, the Central style from inner Kerala and the southern style from Ancient Tamil Nadu and Travancore. The southern style is a Mixture of all the Tamil Martial Arts style like Varma Kalai/Adi Murai, Silambam (Kuravanji style) and Locks and Throws borrowed from Malyutham is classified as the southern kalaripayattu. The Northern style is just another derivative of the Southern Style.

The original style was practiced in Kerala primarily by the Ezhavas, the kalari has Buddhist origins related to Ezhava community, who where believers of Shaivism and Buddhism. Other castes like Nairs learned the trade from ezhavas. The southern style, was practiced largely by the Nadars and has features distinguishing it from its other regional counterparts.[3] Northern kalaripayattu is based on elegant and flexible movements, evasions, jumps and weapons training, while the southern "Adi Murai" style primarily follows the hard impact based techniques with priority on empty hand fighting and pressure point strikes. Both systems make use of internal and external concepts.

Some of the flexibility training methods in northern Kalaripayattu are applied in Keralan dance forms[2] and kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Some traditional Indian dance schools still incorporate kalaripayattu as part of their exercise regimen.


A Gurukkal with his student


Kalaripayattu was first documented around the 13th or 14th century AD. Chekavars are pioneers of kalari.

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.[citation needed] More specifically, martial arts were taught in the payattu kalari, meaning fight school.[citation needed]

Kalaripayattu became more developed during the 9th century[clarification needed] and was practiced by warrior clans of Kerala to defend the state and the king. In the 11th and 12th century, Kerala was divided into small principalities ruled by nair Chieftains that fought wars among themselves. In such wars, one-on-one duels or ankam were fought by Chekavar on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high.[4][page needed] Ever since the pre-medieval era, Kaniyar, the traditional astrologer caste men of Kerala, particularly from northern region, were assigned as the preceptors of Kalaripayattu, hence, till the last century, they were known as Panickar and Asans in northern and southern regions of the state, respectively.[5][6][7] Many of their families still maintain what remains of their old Kalaris , as heritage.

The Mappila Muslims adopted and practiced Kalaripayattu as their own. The ballads of North Kerala refer to Muslims trained in Kalaripayattu. For instance, the hero of the northern ballads Thacholi Othenan (Manikoth Thacholi Udayanakurup) bowed before Kunjali Marakkar, the Muslim commander of the Zamorin, and offered him presents before opening his kalari. The traitor who killed Thacholi Othenan was also a Mappila discipline of Mathilur Gurukkal. Some Mappilas were trained in Hindu institutions known as Chekor Kalaris. The Paricha Kali is an adaptation of Kalaripayattu, and the Mappila tradition of this art is called Parichamuttu.[8]

It is mentioned that some Ezhava panikkars had between 8,000 to 9,000 disciples, who were trained as fighting forces for the local rajahs.[9] One of the most prominent Ezhava panikkars was Arattupuzha Velayudha Panikkar, whose kalari was located at Alappuzha.

It is known from the vadakkan pattukal ballads that Chekavar were the pioneers of kalari in Kerala. They held the monopoly of the trade to practice and achieved a high degree of expertise.[2] The most famous of them was Unniyarcha chekavar of Keralan folklore, a master with the urumi or flexible sword.

Decline and revival[edit]

Kalaripayattu underwent a period of decline when Velu Thampi Dalawa terminated chekavar ezhava warriors from the Travancore army in the 1800s. These terminated soldiers indeed joined British army and went on and killed Velu Thampi Dalawa. The British eventually banned Nairs from practicing kalaripayattu and the Nair custom of holding swords, so as to prevent rebellion and anti-colonial sentiments.

The resurgence of public interest in kalaripayattu began in the 1920s in Tellicherry by Ezhava kalari trainers, as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India[2] and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.[10] 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 Commando (2013).


Kalaripayattu has three regional variants that are distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns.

Northern kalaripayattu[edit]

Northern kalaripayattu (vadakkan kalari) is practised 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.[2] The northern Brahmin immigrants contributed their skills through the "Salai"s which were educational institutions imparting various branches of knowledge including military arts.

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.[2] 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 Tulunadu 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.[4]

Southern kalaripayattu[edit]

Variations of the Traditional Tamil Martial Art called Adi Murai given by Sage Agattyar under one roof is classified as Southern Kalari. Masters are known as asaan.[2] It is practiced largely by the Nadar, Kallar and Thevar castes and has features distinguishing it from its other regional counterparts.[3] The stages of training are chuvatu (solo forms), jodi (partner training/sparring), kurunthadi (short stick), neduvadi (long stick), katthi (knife), katar (dagger), valum parichayum (sword and shield), chuttuval (flexible sword), double sword, kalari grappling and marma (pressure points).[4]

Zarrilli refers to southern kalaripayattu 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.[2]

Medical treatment in the southern styles is identified with siddha,[10] 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 kalaripayattu[edit]

Main article: Central kalaripayattu

The Madhya Kalari (central style) of kalaripayattu is practiced mainly in the Northern parts of Kerala. Its diverse distinctive techniques, with heavy emphasis on application, are performed within floor paths known as kalam.[1] The Madhya(central) Kalari has many different styles which place heavy emphasis on lower body strength and speed through thorough practice of various chuvadu, only after which participants advance into weaponry and advanced studies.[2]

Various kalaris as specified in Vadakkan Pattukal[edit]

Kadathanatan Kalari
Karuvancheri Kalari
Kodumala Kalari
Kolastri Nadu Kalari
Kurungot Kalari
Mathilur Kalari
Mayyazhi Kalari
Melur Kalari
Nadapuram Kalari
Panoor Madham Kalari
Payyampalli Kalari
Ponniyam Kalari
Puthusseri Kalari
Puthuram Kalari
Thacholi Kalari
Thotuvor Kalari
Tulunadan Kalari

Practitioners of Kalaripayattu[edit]

Kalaripayattu was largely practiced by the Ezhavas, who were Sri Lankan Tamils, Nadars of Tamil Nadu, Panickers of Tuticourin and Nairs of Kerala. But today, Northern Kalaripayattu is being taught to everyone in Kerala, while Varma Kalai/Adi Murai is taught in Tamil Nadu and Angampora in Sri Lanka.


Jasmine Simhalan performing steps and postures

Kalaripayattu techniques are a combination of steps (Chuvatu) and postures (Vadivu). Chuvatu literally means ‘steps’, the basic steps of the martial arts. Vadivu literally means ‘postures’ or stances are the basic characteristics of Kalaripayattu training. Named after animals, they are usually eight in number. Styles differ considerably from one tradition to another. Not only do the names of poses differ, the masters also differ about application and interpretation. Each stance has its own style, power combination, function and effectiveness. These techniques vary from one style to another.[2]

The Kalari Payatu festival and origin[edit]

Main article: Kalari

A kalari 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[citation needed], tantra saastra[citation needed] and marma saastra are utilized to balance the space's energy level. The training area comprises a puttara (seven tiered platform) in the south-western corner. The guardian deity (usually an avatar of Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva) is located here, and is worshiped 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.[2] Traditionally, when a kalari was closed down it would be made into a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity.

Marmashastram and massage[edit]

Main article: Marmam

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. 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 marman with a vajra.[11] References to marman also found in the Atharva Veda.[12] 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.[13] Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita.[14] Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.[15] 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.[15]

As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgeable in the field 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 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. Kalaripayattu has borrowed extensively from Ayurveda and equally lends to it.[citation needed]


Although no longer used in sparring sessions, weapons are an important part of kalaripayattu. 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 kalaripayattu today.

Weapons historically used in kalaripayat
Ambu & Villu (Ambum Villum)
Arrow & Bow
Small Club
Hook Spear/Elephant goad
Forward Curved Sword
Weapons currently used in kalaripayat
Kalaripayattu weapons.jpg
Short Stick
Chotta chan/Marma(Varma)Kol
1 span stick
Towel/Sash/Long strip of cloth
Double edged short sword
Churika 1025 AD.JPG
Deer-horn dagger
Mara pidicha Kataram/Katar (dagger)
Fist Dagger
Curved stick (Reverse hand Grip)
Urumi/Churuttuval/Surul Val
Flexible sword

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Discovery Channel
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalaripayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ a b Green, Thomas A., ed. (2001). Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 176–177. ISBN 9781576071502. 
  4. ^ a b c Luijendijk, D.H. (2005). Kalarippayat: India's Ancient Martial Art. Paladin Press. ISBN 1-58160-480-7. 
  5. ^ L.Krishna Anantha Krishna Iyer (Diwan Bahadur) ;The Cochin tribes and castes; 1909
  6. ^ Thurston, Edgar; Rangachari, K. (1909). Castes and tribes of Southern India 3. Madras: Government Press. p. 180. 
  7. ^ K. Thulaseedharan ;Studies in Traditional Kerala Society; 1977
  8. ^ Mappila Muslims: a study on society and anti colonial struggles (2007), Hussain Randathani, Other Books, p. 70
  9. ^ Maritime India: trade, religion and polity in the Indian Ocean (2010), Pius Malekandathil, Primus Books, p. 46
  10. ^ a b Zarrilli 1992
  11. ^ Mariana Fedorova (1990). Die Marmantheorie in der klassischen indischen Medizin.
  12. ^ Subhash Ranade (1993). Natural Healing Through Ayurveda (p. 161). Passage Press. Utah USA.
  13. ^ Zarrilli, Phillip B. A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and Ayurvedic Paradigms. University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  14. ^ G. D. Singhal, L. V. Guru (1973). Anatomical and Obstetrical Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery Based on Sarira-Sthana of Susruta Samhita.
  15. ^ a b J. R. Svinth (2002). A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports. Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]