Thursday, December 01, 2005

Kalaripayattu - one of the oldest martial arts

The Initiation Ceremony

A student is initiated into the Kalari usually at the age of seven, on an auspicious day or on the opening day of the new session. The guru or a senior student will direct him to enter the kalari properly by placing his right foot first, touching the ground with right hand and placing the same on the forehead. Then he is led to the guruttara to perform the same worship. He has to put some money in folded betel leaves as offering dakshina for the master and bow and prostrate before him, touching his legs. The guru places his hands on the pupil’s head, blesses him and prays for his boon. This worship; touching the ground, Poottara, Guruttara and the guru’s feet, is to be repeated everyday. The bowing represents complete submission to the Kalari deities, Kalari master, its rules and discipline.

Kachakettal and Uzhichal

The traditional dress used in Kalari is known as Kachha and its wearing method is Kachha Kettal. Even though Kachha means only dress, it has a special connotation. The Kachha is referred to in the Northern ballads as a long cloth with 64 Muzhams(one Muzham is equal to 16 inches). The present day Kachha used in Kalari is of 5 to 6 feet length and one feet width. It is to be wrapped in a particular method which gives maximum tightness to the hip and support cover to the naval region. The belief that power is generated from the naval, is the basis of the art of Kachha Kettal. The Kachha is also believed to be the protector of one’s prana, the life force. All the heroes of the ballads who succumbed to fatal wounds, have lived till they instruct their fellowmen untie their Kachha.

It is a practice to apply gingely oil or medicated oil before kalarippayatt. This renders coolness and flexibility to the body and invigorates the veins and muscles. Application of this oil reduces body temperature, while performing exercises.

The students of Kalarippayatt have to undergo a course of Uzhichal or massage with special medicinal oil like Mukkoot or Arakuzhambu. Usually an Uzhichal course lasts for 14 days. At the time of uzhichal, the student has to follow strict restrictions in his daily routines. He should not expose himself to the sun for a long time, should take only the prescribed food and drink and should follow strict celibacy. Some restrictions are to be followed for 14 days more after the uzhichal is over.

The massage is done with hands for the young and with legs the for elders. This is technically called Kai Uzhichal and Chavitti Uzhichal respectively. Massage is considered to be one of the integral parts of Kalari training, which helps the body to attain a healthy constitution as well as flexibility, nimbleness and suppleness. Moreover, massage enables proper blood circulation and removal of excess of fat. It helps in the easy manoeuvrability of the body for turning and twisting.

Kalari has also developed a traditional orthopaedic system which is widely popular all over the state, expecially for the setting of displaced bones.


Kalarippayatt is designed in four successive stages of training Meippayatt, Koltari, Ankatari and Verum Kai prayogam. The Meippayatt is a series of body control exercises, systematically designed and practiced according to Vaytari or verbal instructions. It is also known as Meiotukkappayatt; that which gives proper orientation to the body, suppleness and flexibility. This also gives a natural mastery to the body for swift movements in attack and defence. After mastering Meippayatt, the student is initiated into the next stage of fighting with wooden weapons called Koltari. Mastering Koltari leads to the Ankatari or technique of fighting with metal weapons. Listly the student will be imparted training in empty hand fighting techniques called verumkai prayogam. Selected, well-disciplined and dedicated students will be given training in Marma prayogam or attack on the vulnerable points of the body. In earlier periods, training was given in the use of many other weapons like axe, three-proned spear, and ponti. Archery was also included in the scheme of training. All exercises in Kalari are performed in strict accordance with Vaytari or systematically developed verbal instruction given by the Guru. The Vaytari is designed specially to give strength, flexibility, endurance, reflex, nimbleness and precision. The Kalarippayatt course extended throughout the year. Today, most of the Kalaries except C.V.N.Kalari, Thiruvananthapuran and Kozhikode and a few others, impart training through short term courses of three months duration.

Vativu, Chuvatu and Atavu

In Kalarippayatt, different poses or vativus are designed and developed to get concentration for perfect power and force in carrying out a particular action or for being in readiness for action. There are eight such vativus namely-Gaja Vativu(elephant pose), Aswa Vativu(horse pose), Simha Vativu(Lion pose), Varaha Vativu(boar pose), Matsya Vativu(Fish pose), Marjar Vativu (Cat pose), Kukkuta Vativu (Cock pose) amd Sarpa Vativu(Serpant pose), one more Vativu-mayura Vativu (Peacock pose) is slo practiced in some kalaries. Each Vativu has its own style, power combination, usefulness and effectiveness. Apart from these Vativus, there are basic foot positions and movements, which are technically called Chuvatus. These are designed to give more power, precision and concentration to the action against the opponent. In chuvatu, the attention is centred on the role of the feet. There are five such basic Chuvatus – Vatta Chuvatu, Aakka Chuvatu, Neekka Chuvatu, Kon Chuvatu and Ottakkal Chuvatu. These Vativus and Chuvatus are scientifically combined to form what is called Atavus.


Meippayatt is the body control exercise designed in special sequence. It gives perfect control and flexibility to the body and is a combination of vativu and Chuvatu with body movements, holds, kicks, jumps and cuts. There is a traditional saying that a kalari master is one, who has converted his body into an eye.

Before training in Meippayatt, students are taught various leg exercises. The basic leg exercises are Nerkal, Veetukal, Konkal, Thrichukal, Iruthikkal and Pakarachakkal. The Nerkal is lifting the leg straight in the air till the knee touches the chest. This process with right foot is called Valatukal and with left, Etatukal – right up forward kick and left up forward kick. The Veetukal is the application of leg in the high swinging are or circling kick. The Konkal is kick high to right or left ankles. In Iruthikkal or kick and sit, one will lift his leg like the Nerkal and bring back that leg and ist on the ground. The Pakarachakkal is a combination of Nerkal on either side in continuation. At first, the leg is pushed up in the air and without placing it on the ground the body will be turned into the opposite direction while the leg will be swinging in the air.

Some basic differences can be noticed in style, movements and even in the application of Meippayatt in different areas of Kerala. There are different styles like - Vattakkan, Madhya Kerala and Tekkan;(Northern, Central Kerala and Southern). The regional differences in styles, might be due to the innovative differences of regional masters of ancient days. Such regional variations gave rise to differences in vaythari. The dialectical variations of language and character of each region also contribute to this change of vaythari.

Kettukari or Shareeravadi

After achieving perfect body control through Meippayatt, the Kalari student will be initiated into the training of Koltari or fight with wooden weapons. There are three types of wooden weapons used in the present day Kalaries Kettukari, Muchhan and Otta.

The Kettukari is a long rod made of solid cane with either the height of the practitioner from foot to the eyebrow or 12 span in length. In Koltari ankam, though there are 18 graded sequences or stages, at present only 7 or 8 of them are retained and practised in the Kalaries. This fight with a twelve spanner rod, combines blows, blocks and locks allied with jumps and leaps for attack and defence. Fawcett in his ‘Nayars of Malabar’(1895) gives the following description of the fight with Shareeravati.

“The opponents who faced each other with the Shareeravadi, stood 30 feet apart, and as if under the same stimulus, each kicked one leg high in the air, gave several lively bounces, held their staff horizontally in front, came down slowly on the haunches, placed the staff on the ground, bent over and touched it with their forehead. With a sudden bounce they get again to their feet and after some preliminary pirouetting, went for each other tooth and nail”.

The Koltari practice is considered as a preparatory stage for the use of spear, sword and other deadly weapons. Most of the attacks with Panteeran combines attack on head, temple, ribs, knee and groin. These attacks and its warding off are done according to the accompaniment of Vaytari. Regular and systematic practices installs natural reflexes in the body which wards off any attack on any part of the body. There are also special techniques of twisting and circling the staff called Vativeesal. Several folk tales elaborate the perfection of this technique. As one of them goes, many a local here could walk in the rain by brandishing the staff over the head, without being drenched. In the more advanced stages of Kettukari, there are locking and unarming techniques with the staff itself.

Cheruvadi or Muchhan

A Muchhan (Three Spanner rod) or Cheruvadi, is a strong wooden staff, usually 22 inches in length and bout 2 inches in diameter. The Amaram or holding end, will be thicker than Muna or the using end. The Cheruvadi training requires more precision and speed that the 12 spanner. The use of Cheruvadi consits of attack , counter-attack, defence, use of locks, and unarming techniques. Variuos Vativus and Chuvatus are combined in this graded attack and defence combinations. An expert can execute not less than 150 blows per minute with this seemingly simple weapon. Close range fight with the Muchhan is a basic training for the close range metal weapons like knife and dagger.

Otta (Curved Staff)

There is a folk saying in North Malabar that Otta ‘payattiyal Urakkattum payattum’ (one who is proficient in Otta can even fight while sleeping). This shows the importance attached to this curved wooden staff, which is considered as the perfect weapon Kalarippayatt.

An Otta is a short staff of about 18 to 20 inches in length, shaped like a sickle, curved at the middle and terminating in a squared butt end. The holding end will have 4” diameter and the using end, 1” diameter. Usually, the end will have a butt like projection. It was believed that this weapon is inherited from the Lord Ganapati. The special feature of Otta is that it comprises of thrusts directed at the vital points of the human body called Marmas. The main features of Ottapayatt are combat at close quarters and locks. The nimbleness of the wrist, readiness of the legs for instant advance and retreat and quick mental reflexes are essential for this fight.

The Otta is also practised in accordance with Vaytari. It is the perfect combination of all the strong and forceful aspects of Meippayatt and Koltari. This also includes the techniques of ‘Verumkai Prayogam’ or unarmed fighting system. There are 18 atavus in Otta fight but at present only 12 are known to exist in Kalaries. This is popular only in the northern style of Kalarippayatt.


The club or gadha is another wooden weapon used for training in the kalaries. The use of this weapon requires strength, agility and perfect body control. It is heavy, and the strenuous wielding of which has to follow strict rules and regulations.

The holding end of gadha is only 3” in diameter but the diameter of the using end varies from 12” to 8”. This is usually carved out of Tamarind core, with length of 3 to 4 feet.


The third main stage in Kalari course, is the Ankatari or practice of deadly weapons like dagger, spear, sword and shield. In Northern style, the last phase of Ankatari is the training in Urumi.

The preliminary exercises with sword and shield, comes under Valvali, which form the basis of swordsmanship. In this, the sword is made to wind around the body in successive strokes along with speedy body movements.

The duel practised with sword and shield is called Val ankam or Puli ankam. Various types of strokes and thrusts are there in this style, followed by methods for receiving and parrying them with the shield. There are 18 atavus or sequences in sword fight which are practised as per Vaytari. Apart from sword versus sword there is another system of sword versus spear known as Mara Pitichu Kuntam. In this combat, one will be armed with sword and shield and the other, with spear only.

There are ancient treatises, on making swords, which give details of rituals. The Northern Ballads refer to blacksmiths who were specialists in this craft. The length of sword used in Kalaries ranges from 18” ti 24 “. and the blade will have a width of 1-1/2” to 2”. The sword should be light , sharp,tough and flexible. The shield is round in shape and 12” to 18” in diameter. It is used by passing the hand through the metallic or choir-chain and holding the wooden or metallic handle.

During the medieval days, the sword was the symbol of Kalari trained persons and they always carried one sword with them. Almost all the medieval travelers who came to Kerala, gave a good description of these Kalari trained men who were bold, straight forward, ready to challenge and die for any cause and were utmost true to their words.


Kattari is double edged dagger of 12” length and 2-1/2” width. It is curved in the middle and narrowing towards the end to form a sharp point. This is particularly used in close range combat. The hilt of this weapon forms a long protective cover to the forearm and this part can also be used for blocking and parrying the cuts and hits.


Kuntham or spear is another popular weapon used in the Kalaries. It is made of strong cane, 1” in diameter and 5” to 5-1/2” in length and one end is fixed with an iron blade in the shape of a leaf or bud. There are traditional instructions for the choice and treatment of cane to make it strong and smooth, for making Kunthams.

The Kuntham is held and used in almost the same way as the Kettukari. The tactics of blows, hits and stretchings are used in attacks and speedy wielding of the spear, for keeping the enemy at bay. There is a technique of throwing the spear with flawless accuracy and also blocking the same, with a quick twisting manipulation, which will return it to the thrower and hit him back, with force.


Urumi is the most popular weapon described in the Ballads of North Malabar. It is some what an exclusive weapon, popular in the northern parts. It has a long blade with spring like action, 41/2’ to 51/2’ in length and ¾” to 1” in width. It has a small handle with cover. As an urumi can be wrapped round the waist, it is the best weapon to be carried with ease. A woman can keep an urumi around her waist and use it, if required. Unniarcha, one of the heroines of the ballads of North Malabar, is said to be an expert in the use of this weapon.

While practicing urumi, shield is used for self defence. It is a dangerous weapon as it will coil round the user, if he fails to keep its correct speed, wrist-work and pose.

There were a number of other weapons on which practices were held in Kalaries and referred to in medieval literature(like ponti, bow and arrow, Venmazhu(axe), Kathuthala, and trisool), but have almost vanished from the Kalaries of today.

Verum Kai Prayogam

The Verum Kai Prayogam or unarmed fighting technique, is the fourth stage of Kalari training. This is a unique method of offence and defence. In this technique, various holds, grips and locks are combined with knuckle and elbow hits directed at Marmas or vital points of the opponent’s body. By this method, one can disable an enemy completely. Usually, knowledge of this kind is not passed on indiscriminately to any one but only to those with a disciplined life who guarantees that the knowledge will not be misused. There are a number of scholars who believe that the unarmed fighting techniques of Kalarippayatt is the base for the world famous Karate.

The system of Kalarippayatt had undergone changes and had taken up a number of regional variations. These variations gave birth to different styles and schools. There were Arappa Kai, Vatteen Tiruppu and Pilla Tangi in the Norther style, Kalam chavittu, Otimurisseri and Dronanpullil Sampradayam in the Central Kerala, and Adi-Tada in Southern Kerala. The popular system which spread to all parts of Kerala, today, is the Arappa Kai. It is a well graded combination of Meippayatt, training in wooden-weapons, metallic weapons and Verum Kai Prayogam.


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