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HardnessFull-contact, semi-contact
Meaning"Practice in the arts of the battlefield."

Kalaripayattu (sometimes shortened as Kalari) is an Indian martial arts and fighting system that originated in Kerala and practiced by warriors of Kerala. There is a mention about Tulunadan Kalari in the Northern ballads of chekavar of Kerala. In Kerala, the warriors belonged to all castes.[1] It is considered by some to be the oldest martial art still in existence, with its origin dating back to the 3rd century BCE.[2] Although Kalaripayattu is called The Mother Of All Martial Arts[3], it is factually incorrect since historical evidence points to the origin of martial arts at multiple locations in the world, much earlier than Kalaripayattu.Angampora in Sri Lanka has close connection with Kalari.


Kalaripayattu has three schools, which are distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns. They are Arappa Kayy, Pilla Thangi, and Vatten Thiripp.


The primary source of Indian martial arts is in the Tamil language Sangam literature. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam in the Sangam era. The word kalari appears in the Puram (verses 225, 237, 245, 356) and Akam (verses 34, 231, 293) to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. The word kalari tatt denoted a martial feat, while kalari kozhai meant a coward in war. Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training[4] in target practice, horse and elephant riding. In that period and during later periods even up to now the word used for military and military service was chevam. The warriors or soldiers consisting it was called chekavars. 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 kalaripayat.[5][page needed] References to "Silappadikkaram" in Sangam literature date back to the 2nd century. This referred to the silambam staff which was in great demand with foreign visitors.[6][7]

Elements from the yoga tradition as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were incorporated into the fighting arts.[8] A number of South Asian fighting styles remain closely connected to yoga, dance and performing arts. Some of the choreographed sparring in kalaripayat can be applied to dance[9][page needed] and kathakali dancers who knew kalaripayat were believed to be markedly better than other performers. Until recent decades, the chhau dance was performed only by martial artists. Some traditional Indian classical dance schools still incorporate martial arts as part of their exercise regimen.[10][page needed]

Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.[9] Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the Northern style from Malabar region in north Kerala practiced by the Central style from inner Kerala and the southern style from Thiruvitankoor. 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. The fighters who used to fight with this technique never used body armors as it became more complicated to flex after using armor. Some of the flexibility training methods in northern Kalaripayattu are applied in Keralan dance forms[9] 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.[citation needed]

Techniques and Teaching[edit]

Jasmine Simhalan performing steps and postures

There are different traditions in Kalaripayattu and various methods were practiced in different parts of Kerala. Generally two systems are acknowledged. Namely Northern Style and Southern Style. Generally these two systems have very different approach of teaching even though many techniques can be identified as common. The styles are variations that various masters have adapted and modified according to their understanding of the art. The maturity of Kalaripayattu comes from the tradition of constantly learning, adapting and improving the techniques by observing what techniques are practical and effective. There is a great amount of respect and observation of tradition which helps preserve ancient knowledge, and this knowledge is improved upon by subsequent masters who utilize keen observation, research various techniques and variations to update the knowledge. The adaptability aspect is due to Kalaripayattu being designed for use in battle, and with time, the attacker would utilize new methods of attack which the Kalari practitioner needs to learn how to anticipate, adapt to and neutralize. Kalaripayattu is taught not just as a martial art, but as a way of life that shows respect and compassion to others.

Northern Style[edit]

This is the actual Kalari - payattu kalari Or otherwise known as Ayurveda kalari.This system generally gives much importance for physical flexibility exercises. These exercises are done individually and as combinations. After that meypayattu (equivalent of Karate kata) is taught.These are combination of flexibility exercises with attacking/defence techniques but the actual techniques are taught very much later. Traditionally the number of meypayattu may differ as per the teaching methods of the Guru. After the student learns meypayattu, stick fighting is taught. Generally a majority of the Kalaris (schools that teach Kalaripayattu) start training with weapons within 3 to 6 months. But some Kalaris allow taking each weapon once in a year only. After long stick and small stick fighting, iron weapons are introduced. Training is begun with the dagger, sword and then 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 it is uncommon now.

Southern Style[edit]

Southern style is not actually kalari, but is an another martial arts known as Adi Murai, varmakalai Or Adi thada which has it's origin from Tamil Nadu.It has a different set of exercises and no combinations are taught. It starts with the training in Chuvadus: a system of various combinations of fighting techniques like shadow boxing. Immediately after that, sparring with a partner is taught. These are pre-determined techniques trained repeatedly. Then weapons training begins with a small stick. Small stick training is done with two persons and generally only one uses the stick or dagger. These are defensive training systems. Fighting techniques with two persons having the same weapons include fights with long stick, sword etc. Immediately along with this, the refining of un-armed combat also progresses; additionally, a small amount of knowledge pertaining to the marma points (pressure points) is also imparted if the student is considered worthy.

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 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.[9][page needed]

Kalaripayattu performance
Kalaripayattu performance
Kalaripayattu performance
Kalaripayattu performance 4.jpg

Marmashastram and massage[edit]


It is claimed that learned warriors could disable or kill their opponents by merely striking 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 marmam with a vajra.[11] References to marmam are 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.[5][page needed] Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita.[13] Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.[8] 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.[8]

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]


Popular culture[edit]

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 south India[9][page needed] and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.[14][page needed] It has featured in international and Indian films such as

  1. Thacholi Othenan (film) (1964),
  2. Aromalunni (1972)
  3. Ondanondu Kaladalli (Kannada) (1978)
  4. Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989)
  5. Asoka (2001)
  6. The Myth (2005)
  7. The Last Legion (2007)
  8. Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja (film) (2009)
  9. Manasara (2010)
  10. Urumi (film) (2011)
  11. 7aum Arivu (2011)
  12. Commando (2013)
  13. Bajirao Mastani (2015)
  14. Baaghi (2016)
  15. Veeram (2016)
  16. Padmaavat (2018)
  17. Kayamkulam Kochunni (2018)
  18. Junglee (2019)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1992). "To Heal and/or To Harm: The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam) in Two South Indian Martial Traditions Part I: Focus on Kerala's Kalarippayattu". Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 1 (1).
  2. ^ Deleury, Guy (2005). India: The Rebel Continent. Macmillan. p. 89. ISBN 1403924880.
  3. ^ van der Veere, Arnaud (2012). Muay Thai. Meyer & Meyer Verlag. p. 8. ISBN 9781841263281.
  4. ^ Subramanian, N. (1966). Sangam polity. Bombay: Asian Publishing House. (Wayback Machine PDF)
  5. ^ a b Zarrilli, Phillip B. A South Indian Martial art and the Yoga and Ayurvedic Paradigms. University of Exeter.
  6. ^ Raj, J. David Manuel (1977). The Origin and the Historical Development of Silambam Fencing: An Ancient Self-Defence Sport of India. Oregon: College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Univ. of Oregon. pp. 44, 50, & 83.
  7. ^ Sports Authority of India (1987). Indigenous Games and Martial Arts of India. New Delhi: Sports Authority of India. pp. 91 & 94.
  8. ^ a b c J. R. Svinth (2002). A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports. Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.
  9. ^ a b c d e Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19563-940-7.
  10. ^ Luijendijk, D.H. (2008) Kalarippayat: The Essence and Structure of an Indian Martial Art, Oprat, ISBN 978-1-4092-2626-0
  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. ^ G. D. Singhal, L. V. Guru (1973). Anatomical and Obstetrical Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery Based on Sarira-Sthana of Susruta Samhita.
  14. ^ Zarrilli 1992

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

(Wayback Machine copy)