KALARIPAYATTU – THE MARTIAL ART THAT THE BRITISH DREADED
My stint in martial arts was rather brief and happened when I was enrolled in a Karate class near my house. I was certainly very not eager to learn it but my parents aspired to make me an ‘all-rounder’.I earned a yellow belt and eventually was about to get a green when we decided to shift to a faraway place which naturally resulted in me abandoning it. However, that did lead to me developing a curiosity to know more about the other forms of martial arts, especially those that originated in India.
The Indian subcontinent is home to some of the world’s oldest martial art forms. Primarily used in warfare during ancient times, they are an indispensable part of our culture and tradition. The state of Kerala is renowned for one of the oldest surviving forms of martial arts – Kalaripayattu.A combination of two Malayalam words – Kalari (training ground or battleground) and payattu (training of martial arts), Kalaripayattu means “the practice in the arts of the battlefield.” The roots of this art are obscure. According to legend, Sage Parashuram, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is believed to have acquired it from Lord Shiva and taught it to the people of Kerala for their protection after bringing up the land from the ocean floor. A Malayam song eulogises the glory of the axe-wielding warrior sage, referring to the origin of the divine land, the establishment of 108 kalaris (specialized training grounds where it is taught) and his instruction to 21 gurus on the art of destruction of enemies. The earliest mention can be seen in Dhanurveda, an Upaveda of Yajurveda. The local poems of Kerala popularly known as ‘Vadakkan Pattukal’ describe the deeds of warriors indicating the practice of Kalaripayattu.
A martial art developed for self-defence and protecting the weak against enemies, Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry, and healing methods. Warriors trained in the art would use very light, and basic body armour, as it was difficult to maintain flexibility and mobility while in heavy armour.
There exist three styles of Kalari based on the regions where they are predominantly practiced – Northern, Central and Southern, of which the Northern and Southern styles are very popular. There are further regional variations in the Northern and Southern styles due to the differences in culture, lifestyle, geography, and other factors.
Before commencing the practice, one is supposed to apply oil to one’s body. Every session begins with a set of warm-up activities. The training takes place in four stages – Meipayattu (body control exercise), Kolthari (practice with wooden weapons), Angathari (practice with metal weapons), and Verumkai (bare-hand combat). The second stage, Kolthari, is where the person learns combat techniques using a wooden stick. In the third stage, the students are trained in using lethal metal weapons such as a dagger, sword and shield, the urumi (long flexible double-edged sword also called the spring sword), and a spear. The fourth stage, Verumkai means one without any weapon who faces an opponent who is either empty-handed or carries some weapons. The bare-hand fashion sequences include both situations of attack and defence. Each stage demands at least a year of rigorous efforts.
In addition, meditation is also a part of the curriculum as it ensures the mental well-being of students. Only the most committed and eligible pupils are taught the ‘Marma Vidya’. ‘Marma’ are the vital points in the human body, which if damaged could lead to severe injuries or even death. The Guru is also an expert in ‘Kalari Marma Chikitsa’, a healing technique that treats ailments relating to nerves, muscles, bones and marmas. The Guru also provides an oil massage to students to increase their flexibility and cure injuries.
‘Kalari’ refers to the place of practice. It is considered as sacred as a temple. There are certain guidelines as to how a Kalari should be built. Kuzhi (pit) Kalari is used for regular practice mostly by the practitioners of the northern Style. The location for the construction of Kalari is chosen based on Vastu Shastras. The mud is dug out four feet below the surface and is used for the four walls. The ground of the pit is made of red sand mixed with various herbs. The entrance of the Kalari should face the east.
The training focuses on the holistic development of a student. Certain morals and ethics are imbibed in the course of the training. All these aspects have made Kalaripayattu to be referred to as ‘the mother of all martial arts’.
During the 13th and 16th centuries, the art gained dominance. It became an important aspect of the Keralite society as it provided the youth with military training and discipline irrespective of their religion or sex. Children were trained right from the age of seven. During the 17th century, when guns and canons were commonly used, the use of traditional weaponry as associated with Kalaripayattu and the art itself started declining.
In 1804, in response to the Kottayathu War, an uprising against the British rule in Kerala led by the Keralite King Pazhassi Raja, the British banned the martial art form. They feared the lethal weapon techniques of this art as they were unable to comprehend its nuances. This led to many gurus teaching it covertly to students which also helped keep the art form alive. The 20th century saw the revival of Kalaripayattu as the general public interest towards martial arts grew through the 1970s.
It is believed that martial arts like Kung Fu seem to have originated from Kalaripayattu. There is much evidence of how the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma travelled from India to China and taught this martial art to his disciples.
Today, there are many professionally trained Gurukkals (the title conferred upon those who complete the Kalari martial training and Kalari Chikitsa) like Meenakshi Amma who have preserved this centuries-old martial art and are passing down the tradition to the next generation. It is only because of their dedicated efforts that the world today is aware of this invaluable heritage created by our ancestors, which might have otherwise been lost in the sands of time.