Kalaripayattu is the traditional and exclusive martial art form of Kerala that is widely acclaimed as a synthesis of body control, treatment and armed and unarmed combat. Considered as the mother of all martial art forms, this legendary form of combat is seeped in history and mystery, dating back to more than 3000 years. Legend has it that it was first taught by sage Parasurama who is believed to have carved out the land of Kerala from the sea with his axe.
It is said to be the precursor of kung-fu and other Chinese martial arts that were practised at the famous Shaolin monastery in the 5th century. It was also the code of combat of the early Dravidian kingdoms of Tamilnadu, though not in its present form. It was an art form largely practised among the kshathriyas or the warrior clan and merits mention in the country’s epics and puranas, as a cousin of the ‘malla yuddha’ or present day wrestling and other sports. This art form is also known by different names such as ‘marma kalari’, ‘varma kali’and ‘varma ati’as it was essentially practised among the royalty and warring community.
Following the collapse of the princely states, and the emergence of modern methods of warfare, there was a time when Kalaripayattu began to lose its relevance but later on managed to revive itself. And in a Phoenix-like resurrection, ancient Kalaripayattu is today emerging in a new avatar, as a source of inspiration for self-expression in dance forms - both traditional and contemporary, in theatre, in fitness and in movies too, thereby winning universal attention.
In Kerala, this immaculate martial art form can be witnessed in its fullest, bearing all traditional and orthodox techniques and systems of treatment at the place of its origin, Kozhikode and the Malabar regions. This rich and glorious martial art tradition of Kerala is prevalent in two different styles of performance - the Vadakkan Kalari or north Kerala style and Thekkan Kalari or south Kerala style.
Kalari, the dynamic art of offence and defence, as all other sports, is seen as a way of increasing the overall stamina and specially training the physical body. It draws inspiration from the raw power and sinuous strength of majestic animal forms like the Lion, Tiger, Elephant, Horse and Snake. It is said to have influenced, in one way or other, all other indigenous art forms in the interiors of Kerala such as Theyyam, Kolkali, Velakali etc.
About the art
The term ‘kalari’ refers to the arena within whose periphery the martial art is performed. There are numerous aspects of Kalari such as ‘Meythari' or exercises to enhance flexibility of the body and ‘Kolthari' or training for competence in fighting with long wooden weapons, etc. And as in the case of any other art, Kalaripayattu also has a spiritual angle to it and is done only in utmost reverence, under guidance from a master, after paying obeissance to the deities concerned.
The traditional preceptor or the one who teaches and imparts training in Kalari is an accomplished master in the field with years of experience, some being expert physicians and healers of marma yoga. The master is addressed respectfully as ‘gurukkal’ by the shishyas or students.
Earlier, the training used to be imparted in strict gurukula style, with students from a very young age being recruited for the purpose. They would undergo rigourous physical and mental hardship to enhance their various faculties namely stamina, vigour, courage, concentration and so on. Nowadays, it is practised with less rigour and the rules have been slackened.
As part of the traditional Kalari sessions, the students have to go steadfastly go through a disciplined routine of ‘uzhichil’, ‘pizhichil’ and marma treatment to get their body and mind in shape so as to withstand the physical and mental hardship of the training involved.
Performers of classical dance forms like Bharathanatyam have opined that learning the fundamentals of Kalari have helped to enhance and excel in their performance, bearing testimony to the fact that martial art has had some influence in other performing arts. The basic principles of Kalaripayattu are an integral aspect of any classical art form, the focus being a balance of a strong mind in a strong body.
Presently some of the schools in Kerala are planning to incorporate some facets of Kalari in the curriculum, to be imparted by expert trainers, with the aim of inculcating strength and sportsmanship among students and to encourage and equip them in taking up sports activities like athletics.