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The Mother Of All Martial Traditions

The very name Kerala conjures up visions of natural scenic beauty and various classical dance forms such as Kathakali and Mohiniattam. But Kerala also boasts of one of the oldest martial arts known as Kalaripayattu. The Malayalam word ‘Kalari’ means gymnasium while the term ‘Payattu’ means exercise in weaponry. Under the Kalaripayattu method even a weaponless defender can overcome an armed would-be attacker. This system lays great stress on body flexibility, hence students are trained right from the age of seven when it is much easier to practice supple body movements. But a well-experienced master can train students of any age. Three main styles of this art are taught in northern, central and southern Kerala.

Training in this martial art is imparted in four successive stages. The first phase involves a series of body control exercises which are practiced under verbal instructions. These exercises involve bodily poses, foot movements and postures which aim at developing in the student the ability to carry out powerful and precise action with full concentration against the opponent. The students are taught to execute various vigorous actions such as kicks and leaps.
Once this phase is mastered, the student goes onto the next stage in which three types of wooden weapons are used. One of these is a bamboo stick, about 170 centimeters long. The combatant can shower blows on his opponent with this stick at a speed of 120 per minute. Then there is a short stick about 60 centimeters long. The speed with which an expert uses this weapon can go up to almost 300 blows per minute. The third type of wooden weapon is a curved short stick which is used for attacking the vulnerable pressure points of the body. Then there is the wooden club which is extremely heavy. The user would need not only extreme stamina in wielding it but would also have to follow strict rules and regulations. The weapon measures about 3” in diameter at the base while the opposite side, which is to be used against the opponent, measures about 12″ to 8″ in diameter. The weapon is about 3 to 4 feet long.
The next stage entails the technique of fighting with metal weapons.

In this phase, the students are trained to use swords, daggers, spears, shields and other such deadly weapons. The student is taught to fight duels, using various types of strokes and thrusts and also the methods of warding off blows.
In the final stage the student is taught to fight using his bare hands. The best among the students are trained to attack the opponent at the most vulnerable, pressure points of the body. This enables the attacker to disable the enemy completely.
All injuries to the combatants were dealt with by a therapy which was unique to the kalari. This therapy is known as KalariMarmaChikitsa. This system which was developed by the ancient rishis and seers is based on the knowledge about the vital points of the body. It is a highly effective method of treating injuries and bruises. A practitioner, skilled in this therapy can heal wounds, successfully correct deformities and set bones. This therapy can correct all damages caused by accidents.Apart from the martial arts, subjects such as ayurvedic medicine, yoga, philosophy, astrology, architecture and geometry were taught in the kalari as per tradition.

The Construction of a Kalari

The construction of a kalari or gymnasium follows a unique style. It has to be built in a manner which ensures that that the entrance faces east. A hollow, measuring about four feet in depth, is dug out of the ground. It is 42 feet long running in an east to west direction and 21 feet wide from north to south. Mud is then used to level up the floor so that there are no undulations which would hamper the movements of those practicing the combat art.
Another feature of a kalari is the seven-tiered platform which is placed in the south-west corner. Known as Poothara in Malayalam (platform where flowers are kept), this structure houses the guardian deity of the kalari. Other deities, mainly the Mother Goddess and Shiva are installed in the corners. The students worship the guardian deity with flowers, incense and water every morning before starting their practice. Every kalari is run by a guru or a teacher who drills the students in the spiritual and physical disciplines needed to master the art of Kalaripayattu.

The History of Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu had always been a part of the martial traditions of Kerala right since ancient times. It is believed that the Chinese systems of Kung fu and Karate owe their origins to this martial art of Kerala. As per both Indian and Chinese historical sources it was introduced to China in the 4th century AD by a Buddhist monk named Bodhi Dharma. The 9th century saw the further development of Kalaripayattu. This martial art was practiced by the Nairs, a warrior community entrusted with the responsibility of defending the state and the king. This warlike tradition held sway throughout the centuries among the warrior chieftains of ancient Kerala known as the MamankaChekavers and the Lohars, the Buddhist warriors of North Kerala. Although it dates right back to hoary antiquity, Kalaripayattu became popular as a system of self-defense since the 12th century AD.Until about 500 years back local rulers in Kerala used to resolve their quarrels by fixing an Ankam or a duel to death between two duelists or Ankachekavars, each ruler being represented by one Ankachekavar. The combatants who were professionals trained in Kalaripayattu, used to fight their duels on the Ankathattu which was a platform about 4-6 feet high. Crowds would gather in the surrounding grounds to witness the combat. The platform and these grounds were together known as Ankakalari. The ruler who was represented by the winning duelist was considered as the victor.Till the 16th century all the local rulers depended completely on militia who were thoroughly trained in the art of Kalaripayattu. The skill of these professionals was tested at tournaments in the combat grounds.

However the advent of the European colonists in the 16 century marked the onset of the decline of Kalaripayattu. The physical power and training imparted at the Kalaris could not stand the warriors in good stead when pitted against the superior firepower of the Portuguese. They were hopelessly overpowered by the sophisticated weapons of the Europeans.

The invasions by the rulers of Mysore in the late 18th century adversely affected the supremacy of the local kings. The power and prestige of the militia declined and under the authority of the Mysore rulers, the kalari institution suffered a setback. Later on, in the 18th century, the rulers of the different regions in Kerala entrusted the responsibility of defending the region to a standing army which marked the further weakening of this martial art. But it was the British political domination which dealt a deathblow to the tradition of Kalaripayattu. In the year 1792 the British had established their supremacy over Malabar, North Kerala. The new rulers banned Kalaripayattu in 1793 after suppressing a local uprising. In 1804 the British authorities passed an order that those who concealed weapons or defied the ban on carrying arms would be deported for life. The same measures were resorted to in quelling an uprising in Travancore in Southern Kerala. The British successfully brought this traditional military system to an end by banning it completely. However, a band of devoted followers secretly practiced this martial art and imparted training in it so that it could be preserved for the sake of posterity. The traditional knowledge pertaining to Kalaripayattu was compiled by great seers and scholars at the beginning of the 19th century. Thus this art was safeguarded for the benefit of the future generations.
The early years of the 20th century saw the return of Kalaripayattu. Owing to the birth of the national movement in Kerala during that period, importance was given to national culture and education. A lot of stress was placed on the need to revive traditional institutions of merit. Thus the martial art of Kalaripayattu was restored once again. In 1958 the State Kalaripayattu Association was set up as a subsidiary organization of the Kerala State Sports Council. This organization conducts competitions at the district and state levels every year. Thus with a certain measure of assistance from the state, this art is witnessing a resurgence.

Kalaripayattu and its influence on the performing arts

The martial art of Kalaripayattu also sustains the various dance forms of Kerala such as Teyyam which call for extreme physical stamina. The performing artistes undergo the same training as the kalari combatants. As these dances portray stories of heroes and heroines, the artistes have to learn the skill of using weapons in order to depict mock combats. These performances also require bodily flexibility and agility which can be acquired only in a kalari. Thus owing to the close links between this martial art and the dance forms of Kerala, kalaripayattu is an integral part of the cultural heritage of the state.