Kerala Travel » Kerala Travel Guide » Kalaripayattu
Plan Your Tour


The Cultural Transition

The changes that were taking place at the basic strata of society influenced the superstructural elements of ideological and cultural life. This observation is applicable to 'Kalari' system also. The shift of importance from the early medieval 'Salais' to the medieval 'Kalaris' implies a transference of emphasis from the temple-oriented Brahmin settlements to the newly developed agrarian settlements, which gave importance to cash crops production and trade.

One of the characteristic features of these medieval agrarian settlements is their relative isolation, which resulted in the localisation of goods and services. Local dialects, cults, cultural expressions and such other traits of different sub-regions in Kerala sprang up from the socio-economic formation.

Medieval principalities and chiefly families maintained military groups of their own. This practice of maintaining local militia can be traced back to the period of Nadu formation in Kerala during the Perumal rule. The Perumal had a capital force of thousand groups of soldiers under thousand 'Nayakas' or 'Nayar' captains.

Each of these groups consisted of ten soldiers. Similarly, the 'Nadu' chieftains had the 'Hundred Organisations' under them. Medieval inscriptional records speak of such military organisations like the 'Munnurruvar', the three Hundred; 'Anjuttuvar', the Five Hundred; 'Arunuttuvar', the Six Hundred and 'Ezhunuttuvar', the Seven Hundred of different 'Nadu' divisions.

These local militia with some of their old features continued to exist in the subsequent period of the principalties in the name of 'Changatham', 'Chaver', 'Lokar' and 'Akampati Janam'.

It is believed that these bands of soldiers belonging to different communities in the middle ages must have risen out of such companions of honour, originally conceived as body guards of the rulers and local authorities and developed into a landed aristocracy supporting the established order with military power.

Social Function

The fighters' function was not limited to settling rivalry among political authorities alone. Often, they were invited for settling disputes between ordinary people. This practice of fighters for judicial purposes resulted in the emergence of a peculiar institution of 'Ankam', (single combat).

Interestingly, this institution of 'Ankam' with the same name was prevalent in Sri Lanka, which developed there around the Kandyan country in the middle ages. The subject matter of a moving folk narrative in Malayalam is the tragic story of an 'Ankam' fighter who lost his life while fighting for settling a dispute between two members of family.

Regular income in the treasury during the rule of the princely states in Kerala included the fees levied on 'Ankam' combats, which was to be collected from the disputing parties. Thus, the martial spirit of Kerala was actively participating in the social and political life of Kerala in the middle ages.

Social Base

Medieval travellers have left behind their observations on the 'Kalari' system in Malabar. These writings by foreigners generally contain an idea that 'Nairs' alone formed part of the soldiers of the kings. The social groups of Kerala who practised and mastered the techniques of Kalarippayattu included, besides 'Nayars', the 'Izhavas', 'Pulayas', 'Parayas', Christians and Muslims.

The 'Tottam' invocation songs of the 'Teyyam' performance of North Malabar refer to some 'Pulaya' heroes who conducted eighteen 'Kalaris' in different parts of the region. Heroic lays of the central Travancore mention a Paraya hero, Chengannur Ali who was a master of the techniques of Kalarippayattu.

Some of the celebrated heroes of Malayalam folk songs belong to the Izhava community. They are usually called 'Chekor'. There were Muslim Gurukkals who were masters in the Tulu techniques. The Christians of Kerala too had their own military men. The native records of principalities mention some Christian local chieftains and their soldiers who were well-versed with traditional warfare.

Each 'Desam', which was a unit of administration in traditional Kerala, had its 'Kalari' and each 'Kalari' was under the supervision of its guru, who was differently known in different areas as 'Panikkar', 'Kuruppu', etc. Originally, these were only names of profession but later they became names of sub-caste.

That these were once upon a time names of profession is further supported by the fact that both these names are found as suffixes not only among Nayars but also among other caste-groups of Izhavas and Kaniyans and even among non-Hindu communities. The 'Kalaris' imparted training in literacy, body-building and warfare/weapony.

Both men and women were admitted to the course. Medieval Malayalam folklore bear testimony to the high level of expertise achieved by women in Kerala in the fighting techniques.
Members of the royal families were trained in Kalarippayattu under their family gurus who were endowed with property and special status. Thamme Panikkar or Dharmothu Panikkar was the training master of the royal family of the Zamorins of Calicut.

Subversion Of A Tradition

This system continued uninterruptedly until the occupation of Malabar by the English East India Company in 1792 AD. The Company was particular in destroying the traditional military character of the community of Malabar.

Kalaripayattu is the vibrant, traditional martial art form of Kerala and is richly blended with its cultural heritage. The term 'Kalari' denotes a gymnasium where proper training is imparted for mind as well as muscle.

'Payattu' literally means training or exercise but in the present context it connotes training in the traditional style of combat. After a long set back during the colonial rule, the 'Kalari' systems in Kerala are being revitalised with new enthusiasm.

The revival of this martial art has been made possible largely due to the efforts of some families of 'Kalari' masters as well as the encouragement offered by the cultural organisations and the Government of Kerala.

The Objectives Of The Art

The techniques of Kalaripayattu were used at one time in the battlefields. In the modern times, Kalaripayattu has no role in battlefields and its importance is confined to three aspects:

In Kalaripayattu, starting from simple breathing exercises, a person can awaken the total dynamism of his body and can tune it in a way he wishes.

Moreover the study of Kalaripayattu will enable a person to develop four powers ('karuthu') which are:

The Genesis Of A Great Art

There is no recorded history of Kalaripayattu and the chronology of its development is still in the midst of obscurity.

But the available historical evidence says that the form as practised today, evolved between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.

Various mythological stories and legends are attributed to the origin of the art, by the traditional 'Kalari' masters. According to them, Parasurama, the mythical creator of Kerala, instituted 108 'Kalaris' all over the land. This legend on the origin of the institution propagated by Keralolpathi, still lingers in the minds of the Keralites.

Some masters believe that the 'Kalari' system originated out of the wrath of Lord Siva while in his fury, to destroy Daksha yagna. Parasurama, Lord Siva's disciple, is supposed to have studied this art from him and handed it over to his 21 disciples in Kerala. All such legends propagate the theory that this martial art was brought to Kerala by the Brahmins.

The first historical interpretation of the origin of the 'Kalari' system was given by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. He points out that this fighting art emerged during the 12th century from the military exigency of the "Hundred Years War" between the Cheras and the Cholas.

The theory that 'Kalaripayattu' originated during the 'Hundred Years War' has been now discarded as the very occurrence of the war has been questioned and hence, the possibility of the martial art having originated during that period has lost ground.

Extent Of Tradition

Kalaripayattu is usually described as an indigenous martial art of Kerala but similar cultural traits and institutions are found in other regions of South India and Sri Lanka. The 'Garadi' of the 'Tulu' speaking 'South Canara' is an example.

It is interesting to note that the 'Tulu' system of training was considered to be of higher level of learning by the traditional Malabar system. The heroes of the folk narratives of north Malabar are eulogised as masters of the 'Tulu' techniques. Further, some of the 'Kalari' masters in Kerala trace their origin to the Tulu speaking areas in Canara.

Studies in the Sri Lankan martial traditions have shown that a good deal of reciprocity of relations is traceable in the culture of Kerala and Sri Lanka. The 'Kandyan Haramba Salawa 'and the 'Kalari' of Kerala are comparable institutions.

A number of words such as 'Angam', 'Paniker', 'Carika', 'Sevakam', 'Palisha', etc. in the Sri Lankan language, in the context of medieval 'Angam' fight suggest their relationship with the system which prevailed in Kerala in the middle ages.

The Movements

After the salutations in favour of the superior elements, the student is given the first system of exercise called 'Angasadhana' for placing the soles of the feet. The firm step on the ground is called 'Akkachuvadu'; and movements of the sole in jumps are known as'chattachuvadu'.

The circular movement is known 'Vattachuvadu'. The student, during his feet exercise moves from eastern side to the western side. The feet and hands are raised and moved according to the sequences and in strict accordance with 'Vaythari' of 'gurukkal'.

These practices including 'Meippayattu' for several months make the student fit for the training in the use of weapons. After imparting the body training, a student is initiated to the use of weapons. The 'Muchan', also called 'Cheruvati' is a smaller stick about 22 inches in length and used to give powerful blows and also to resist the blows from others.

Then, he is initiated to the use of metallic weapons like 'Kathi' (dagger), Sword, 'Kuntham' (spear) and 'Urumi'. The Gada is also practised in some ''Kalaris'. The training in the use of metallic weapons requires more dexterity and agility of the body.

The combatants trained in the use of these weapons were recruited as the soldiers in the medieval and late medieval period in Kerala.

The Impact

Kerala, as a distinct socio-political region from the rest of south India, has witnessed a large number of classical and folk art forms. Many of these art forms have an uninterrupted continuity over centuries, as an integral part of socio-religious life of people in this territorial division.

Their origin is shrouded in mystery and it's not possible to trace in the absence of authentic sources. However, most of these art forms had developed during the medieval period when Malayalam language and literature had found their natural growth on account of new historical forces and the interactions made by different ethnic and social groups.

In all forms where the human body plays an important role, one can see the common element of physical culture or body-system. The art forms of Kerala visualise this fact in form and content. The physical culture or body system is a matter of rigorous training that has to be materialised through conscious and constant practices.

Infuence On Dance Forms

For classical arts like Kathakali, or Koottiyattam, the body is the sole means of expression. Therefore, body is to be prepared for this high function through a rigorous course of physical exercise. It can be done only by daily massage with medicated oils, which is intended to develop suppleness and grace for articulating the expressive capacity of the various parts of the human body.

In reality, the artist or the dancer is trained in the 'Kalari' system and taught the body exercises with severe discipline. In foot movements of the body, and the 'Tandava' dance, which is both masculine and vigorous, the artist requires the dynamic skill imparted through the 'Kalarippayattu'. Therefore, even a training centre of Kathakali is known as 'Kalari', being devoted to the development of physical culture.

The medieval period in Kerala had witnessed frequent wars and invasions among the ruling chieftains and these aspects had already promoted the 'Kalari' system and had brought into training, a large number of combatants. The impact of this new development could be seen on performing arts like Kathakali that many of these ruling houses had patronised just as they had patronised the medieval soldiers or retrainers.

The growing awareness for developing a proper physical culture through 'Kalarippayattu' had really contributed to the expression and growth of the classical art forms. In the same way, the body training became an essential requirement for performing many of the folk dances of the region.

These art forms had been patronised by the peasants, artisans and labourers. The common man's aesthetic imagination had greatly subscribed to the growth of these art forms in Kerala. Many of them have a religious and ritual background and are performed in sacred centres or in the local village shrines of gods and goddesses.

One of such art forms widely prevalent in Kasaragod and Cannanore districts is 'Poorakkali'. As an art form, it demands the rigorous training of the artist to develop a strong physical culture of the body with quick movements. Massage and physical exercise as found in Kalarippayattu are essential requirements for performing this art, as the dancer has to do acrobatics while the entire group moves on in circle.

The performance is closely related to the peasant culture of the region. This performance had also originated in the medieval period after the development and growth of Kalarippayattu. Most probably, this art form must have come into prominence to maintain the physical culture and the religious rituals associated with the local shrines.

Effect On Ritual Art Form

Another ritual art form, which is indebted to the 'Kalari' system is the performance of 'Teyyam'. Many heroes are deified and worshipped by the village folk. The heroes like Kativanur Veeran, Mandappan, Pumarutan, Tacholi Othenan and Oor Pazhassi are some of the famous Teyyam deities in North Malabar.

The performance of such teyyams is closely connected to the 'Kalari' system as the dancer or the artist has to present the martial dance also. He imitates the transformation of a hero with divine power and as such performs all actions of a combatant, fighting with sword and shield in the hands.

His footwork and body action demand excellent training as imparted in the 'Kalari' system. Apart from these ritual performances, there are secular art forms like Tacholikkali and 'Kolkkali'.

They also demand excellent body training to make the artist quick in body movements. Like Poorakkali, these arts forms had developed as an integral part of peasant culture during the medieval period. In brief the 'Kalari' system and its growth in the medieval feudal order had greatly influenced the development of classical and folk art forms.

Oil massage, physical exercise, acute body-bending, use of shield and sword are the common features of many of these art forms and Kalarippayattu. In reality the 'Kalari' system has not only influenced the growth of these art forms but it has shaped the trends of medieval culture of Kerala society.

The Revival Of A Great Art

During the modern period, although Kalaripayattu had lost its significance under the British rule, the devoted gurukkals with all their efforts transmitted the tradition from one generation to the other. They kept alive the 'Kalari' tradition and the know-how in the rural areas as a matter of charity and cured many body ailments through physiotherapy.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when European circus companies came to Malabar in places like Tellicherry, some of the native gurus, well trained in the 'Kalari' system found it easy to imitate some of the body practices adopted by circus artists.

This new attempt was made under the leadership of late Keeleri Kunhikannan Gurukkal in Tellicherry who initiated several circus groups in Kerala and became the father of Indian circus. In a land, where the 'Kalari' gymnastic tradition was deeply rooted, the new experiments in circus training became a great success.

In reality, the Indian tradition of circus has something to do with 'Kalari' gymnastic training and body culture. After independence, some attention had been given by the Government and other agencies to promote Kalaripayattu and its training. These activities have been responsible to create considerable interest in this physical art form.

Historical Antecedents

The institutions of 'Kalari' are generally traced to the period immediately after the disintegration of the Perumals of Kodungallur in the first quarter of the twelfth century A.D. It was an integral part of the socio-political system of medieval Kerala.

Politically, the land of Kerala was divided into a number of principalities and minor chieftaincies. The alignment and enmities of these power centres resulted in constant warfare. Small scale skirmishes and large-scale fightings were not uncommon among these local and regional authorities.

In such a set-up, each power centre was forced to maintain a body of fighters at the beck. Systematic training and strict rules of discipline for fighters were indispensable for an effective working of the system. It was in such circumstances that the 'Kalaris', which provided the institutional base for the body building and training in combat, became not only necessary but also essential.

During the Chera period (C, 800-1125 A.D.) there were in Kerala several 'Salais', which were institutions for imparting training in letters, weaponry and many other branches of medieval learning including traditional sciences, black magic, etc. The 'Salais' were attached mostly to temples.

These institutions enjoyed liberal patronage from the ruling houses. The members of the 'salais' were Brahmin students who played an important role in upholding the rights of the 'Brahmin sabhas' and the power of their royal patrons.

These 'Salais' can be equated with the 'Ghatikas', which were in no significant way different from the 'Salais'. Thus, the tradition of South Indian martial training with its institutional support can be traced back to the early medieval period.
'Kalari' - Structural Features
Indigenous folk narratives and technical literature furnish long lists of different types of 'Kalaris'. The popular 'Pattukatha', ballads of Malabar speak of 'Ankakkalari', 'Totuvor Kalari', 'Totukalari', etc., without giving any details of the structure and function.

Technical writings are more specific about the structure and function of the 'Kalaris'. 'Netumkalari', 'Kurumkalari', 'Totukalari', 'Cherukalari' are mentioned by them.

A more scientific and specific categorisation of 'Kalaris' is in terms of the measurement of the ground plan of the 'Kalari' Structure. Thus, the following types can be identified: The nomenclature, which is on the basis of the measurement of the ground speaks about the size of the structure that ranges between twelve feet and fifty two feet. The most common among these is the 'nalpatteerati', (forty-two feet in length). All 'Kalaris' except the 'Panteerati' bear a width that is half of the length. 'Panteerati' is square with the same length and breadth.

The 'Kalaris' of the northern parts of Kerala are called 'Kuzhikkalari'. 'Kuzhi', meaning a pit because the soil is dug out from the ground of the structure. Generally a ''Kalari'' is 42 feet long and 21 feet wide, the enclosing space dug out to a depth of about 6 feet.

It is protected from the heavy rain and the sun by a gabled roof, which is thatched by plaited coconut leaves or palm leaves. Its sides are also covered with the same material. The surface of the ground is kept evenly rammed and smooth. 'Kannimoola', the southern-western corner of the ''Kalari'' ground is considered to be sacred to the 'Kalariparadevata'.

This is demarcated by a 'Poothara', platform of flowers, with varying number of steps in semi-circular shape narrowing towards the top. A place for the guru, preceptor, also is demarcated and this is called 'Guruthara'. There is a whole metaphysical belief system according to which the structure of 'Kalari' symbolized the universe.

This, along with several other features, betrays a layer of sanskritisation or adopting the paradigms of the great tradition of India but the material art form with all its techniques and expertise is at home in the far south, as a part of 'little tradition' or regional culture.

The Rigorous Training

The 'Kalari' training is based on an elaborate system of physical exercises. The practical experience of the body movements strengthens the knowledge of a disciple. Constant practice adds to agility and strength. At the age of seven, the student is recruited for his training under a 'Gurukkal'.

Oil massage or 'Uzhichal' is an essential part of the training. The verbal commands of the 'Gurukkal' known as 'Vayttari' are obeyed and repeated to grasp the body movements. Each combination of step and gesture is known as 'Adavu'. Each of them helps to recollect memory and leads to correct movements.

The training or the system has a metaphysical dimension as it was practised everywhere in Kerala. The students arrive at dawn with empty stomach. They are wrapped in a six feet long and one feet wide cotton cloth tightly wound around their waist. This cloth is named 'Kachha'. The combatants generally used to wear red-kacha made out of silk over which a belt is also tied to strengthen the waist.
Major Components
This pre-set sequence of movements is the rudiment of Kalarippayattu. Actually, it is a body controlling exercise to master balancing in air and ground. There is a hidden secret element in these movements, every imaginable combination of offensive and defensive attacks and movements are included.

This section involves training in wooden weapons.

This is the combat training section of metal weapons.

Self-defence with empty hands. Here a student learns how to face an armed man, using only his limbs, and also learns vital points and locks.

Kalarippayattu masters of yesterday and today are ayurvedic doctors. Marma therapy, massage therapy, Bone setting, Yoga therapy, Pizhichil, Dhara, Kizhi are the important branches of 'Kalari' treatments.

Kalari Massage:
As food is a necessity for an organism from birth to death, so is massage to the human organism. Massage excites the internal resources and provides nourishment in the form of proteins, glucose and other vitalising chemicals, which are within the system.

It also works as a cleanser and helps the organism in discharging toxins out of the body through sweat, urine and mucuous, thus rejuvenating the body.

The Rituals
Foremost Ritual: Obeisance To The Deities
Although the 'Kalari' is an empty space, for a student, that space has all meaning of life and the supernatural. It is an abode of deities and the several generations of gurus who had initiated the disciples into training from generation to generation.

The student makes a ritual touch of earth with right hand and propitiates the goddess of earth. The touching of the forehead with right hand shows his reverence to the deities of knowledge.

Then ' Lord Hanuman' and 'Garuda' are also propitiated with proper gestures and touches. The deities like seven mothers at 'Poothara' and gods like 'Shiva' are also propitiated. Both peace and destruction are symbolised in the '''Kalari''' space.