Thursday, December 01, 2005

Kalarippayattu - Ancient Indian Martial Art

Kalarippayattu is the only form of the most ancient traditional systems of physical, culture, self-defence and martial techniques still in existence. It is believed to have had its origin in Kerala, the tiny state situated South West of India.

It was believed that the ‘Nayakanmar’ were given the charge of Kalaris. These Nayakanmar gradually came to be called the ‘Nayars’, in some regions, special titles like ‘Kurup’, ‘Nambiar’, ‘Panikar’ etc. The ‘Nayar’ who had charge of a particular Kalari or group of Kalaris for the training and upbringing of warriors was called the ‘Gurukkal’ (meaning teacher or instructor) of the Kalari or Kalaris. Kalaris were established in all the ancestral homes of those Nayars to impart training in the methods of welfare.

In Sanskrit language, the word ‘Khaloorika’ denotes a place where weapon training is practiced. It is believed that it was from the Sanskrit term ‘Khaloorika’, that the word ‘Kalari’ came into use in Malayalam for similar institutions imparting training in martial arts. Such institutions were there throughout the country where similar training was imparted. In each region, they are known by different names according to the differences, in the regional languages as ‘Akhad’, ‘Garadi’ etc. All these terms are believed to have originated from the Sanskrit term ‘Khaloorika’ as in the case of the ‘Kalari’. The system of physical and weapon training imparted within the Kalari came to be called ‘Kalarippayattu'.

There are two forms of Kalari, one Vatakkan ‘Northern’ and another one Tekkan ‘Southern’. In Vatakkan, three types viz Arappukkai, Pillattaanni and Vatteel tirippu were the most important and they had wide publicity. It is believed that Sage Agastya was the Guru of Tekkan form of Kalari. The Tekkan type was more important than Vadakkan. But the use of different kinds of weapons and the beauty of performance made the Vadakkan Kalari become famous.

Kalaris were primarily of two types, the first being smaller known as ‘CheruKalari’ (cheru means small) or KuzhiKalari (kuzhi means the portions formed by caving in the earth) and the second one known as ‘AnkaKalari’ (Ankam means fight). It is called KuzhiKalari because the floor of the Kalari is built at a level lower than the surrounding land by removing soil to achieve the necessary depth. CheruKalari or KuzhiKalari was built for the purpose of impailing physical and weapon training. It was in this Kalari that systematic training in scientific exercises in Kalarippayattu was imparted. Remnants of such ancient ‘Kalaris’ are seen at some places in Kerala even now and the similarity in size and shape they bear to each other is ample proof for the existence of this type of Kalaris throughout the region from very ancient days.

‘AnkaKalari’ was a Kalari constructed temporarily for the purpose of fighting duels to decide any quarrel between the local rulers or for a cause of revenge for some reason or other. This Kalari would be constructed in such a place as to enable all persons in the locality to arrive and witness the duel conveniently. ‘Ankathattu’ meaning a platform for fighting duels also used to be constructed for the purpose and it belonged to the same class as ‘AnkaKalari’. The platform would be constructed four to six feet above the ground level engaging famous carpenters for the work. Before the date fixed for the duel, the Ankakathattu would be handed over to the fighters after elaborate rituals.

Construction of the Kalari

While constructing the traditional ‘KuzhiKalari’, the building has to be so constructed as to face the east. The entrance should be at the east side. The length should be east west. The Kalari floor is first prepared by digging the ground up to 4 ft. depth and removing the inside soil.

Certain conventions have been observed from time immemorial while selecting the site for the construction of the Kalari. The most acceptable location for this purpose is the south-west portion of the land. In old days, Kalari used to be constructed in the land in which there were aristocratic houses. The ‘Ankachekavanmar’ (those who dedicated their lives to fighting duels on behalf of the local ruler) belonged to the aristocracy and had their Kalaris established in the same compound. The inside of the Kalari thus constructed will measure 42 ft. by length (east-west), 21 ft. by width (north-south). The floor of the Kalari should be leveled properly so that there will be no undulations or projections hampering the ease of movements while practicing.

Conventional Kalari Deities

A person trained in Kalarippayattu was supposed to risk even his life for causes considered noble during the old days. Qualities like courage and confidence embodied in an austere sense of discipline was instilled along with the training. For this purpose, an arc-shaped seven stepped platform is constructed in the south-west corner inside the Kalari. This is called the ‘Poothara’. Those who practice Kalarippayattu, first worship these deities irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. The Poothara can be said to be the sanctum-sanctorum of the Kalari. An arc is drawn on the Kalari floor with the corner, where walls on the southern and western sides join as the centre of the arc. This will be in the shape of the arc, seven steps are constructed. The seventh step is used as the platform on which the idol made in the stone and having the shape of lotus-bud is installed. The idol above the seventh step is the abode of the presiding deity of the Kalari (Kalari Paradevata or Goddess of Kalari).

Next to the ‘Poothara’ on the western end of the Kalari is the abode of Lord Ganapathi (who is fabled to be the god who clears all obstacles in the path of any endeavor. This is the Ganapathi Peedham or the Ganapathi Thara (the seat of Lord Ganapathi). The space between the Poothara and the Ganapathi Thara is dedicated to the ‘Naga God’ (Snake God). There is no platform for this. To a little north of the Ganapathi Thara, two small square platforms with four supporting feet for each made in wood are placed. These are called Guru Peedhams. The first one is dedicated to the four traditions and 21 Gurus and the second one to the Gurukkal, the chief instructor of the Kalari. In addition to the above, each corner is dedicated to gods or goddesses of war and weapons.

After completion of constructions of the Kalari building, worship is offered for all the above deities by a priest. The Gurukkal conducts floral worship at the Poothara and all other places dedicated to each deity before resuming his duties. Similarly, the students (trainees) also have to bow down to and worship all the Kalari deities before they start practicing. They also have to bow down and touch the feet of the Gurukkal in reverence before starting each course of training and before and after the training on any particular day.

The trainees, after entering the Kalari placing their right foot inside first and paying homage to the Kalari and Kalari deities, smear the body with oil (usually gingelly oil) and start practicing in right earnest. This practice is always started from the eastern end of the Kalari. The positions of the Guru is at the western end. This convention regarding the positions of the Guru and the disciple is to be followed throughout the training in the Kalari.

While practicing the various exercises for physical control, the trainee has to move from one end of the Kalari to the other and back length-wise. For any movement the trainee has to stand first at the eastern end facing the west and then move to the western end doing the exercises. When he reaches the western end, he will turn back facing the east and repeat the exercises necessary, till he reaches the eastern end. There again, he will turn back facing the west. In this way, the exercises will go on over and over again.

After the training for the day is over, the students leave the Kalari first, the Guru being the last person to do so. In old days, the Guru, before leaving the Kalari after the students, used to perform certain rituals and lock the door of the Kalari after coming out. It was the convention that no one should enter the Kalari after the Guru left, and only on the next day, after the Guru opened the door and entered the Kalari would the trainees get inside. The flowers offered in worship of the deities on the previous day would be picked up and after lighting the lamps worship done afresh with offer of fresh flowers. This is observed as a daily ritual even today in Kalaris.

Apart from the physical abilities qualities like concentration, confidence, bravery and fearlessness are achieved by the rigorous training in Kalarippayattu. Boys and girls from the age of seven onwards were enrolled in the Kalari and underwent years of training and continued regular practice even after they were trained.
As given to the Kathakali artists, a special type of massage is given to the Kalari trainees. For this special kind of massage medicated oil is used. This massage is done by the Guru who employs his feet. While on the face and other parts, massaging is done only by the hands. This type of massaging is special to Kalaris and it enables the trainee to attain an ease of movement. The sense of discipline is instilled in the minds of the trainees by virtue of the practice of this system. The trainee obeys the commands of the Guru not only inside the Kalari, but also even outside it. The Guru is also responsible for creating and cultivating virtues among his disciples and shall himself be a model of nobility and virtue worthy of emulation by the disciples.

In short, Kalarippayattu is a unique and magnificent art of physical culture and self-defense.

Methods of fighting with the weapons like Dhanus (bow and arrow), Sword, Spear, Churika (a different type of sword), Dagger, Urumi (a kind of flexible sword), Mace etc were practiced in the Kalaris.

Chuvadukal and Vadivukal

(Certain Poses and forms to be mastered)
The basic skill in the training of Kalarippayattu is the practice to achieve certain poses known as Chuvadukal. Basically, the Chuvadukal are divided into two. They are Aakkachuvadu and Neekkachuvadu. Taking a firm pose by firmly positioning the feet on the ground is called Aakkachuvadu. The positioning for a leap or for a careful move so as to avoid an onslaught or for making a sudden move backward etc. is called Neekkkachuvadu. These two types of Chuvadu are again classified into four. (1) Vatta kaal chuvadu (2) Neetta kaal chuvadu (3) Kone kaal chuvadu and (4) Otta kaal chuvadu. All these four Chuvadukal are thoroughly practiced first as they have generally to be used in all the exercises in Kalarippayattu, both in ‘Mey Payattu’ and in the ‘Payattu’ using weapons.


In order to get more force and effectiveness in action, the body is to be positioned in a suitable manner. In Kalarippayattu, accepting the Chuvadukal as the basis, different forms are adopted for the above purpose. They are known as Vadivukal. There are eight different types of positions. These positions are adopted in order to achieve greater force and effectiveness in attacking. Mastery in different Vadivukal helps to increase the effectiveness of these moves for attacks or defence and is, therefore, fundamental to achieving mastery in Kalarippayattu.

Mey Payattu

The word Mey Payattu means ‘body exercise’. This word has such regional variations as the terms Meyyirakkam, Meyyothukkam, Meyvazhakkam, Meyyadakkam etc. Before starting practice in the Meypayattu the trainee has to get himself acquainted with certain basic exercises for the legs and very difficult movements utilizing all parts of the body and also in various types of leaps and jumps. Applications of the various Chuvadukal, Vadivukal, leg exercises, leaps, bounds and other exercises are blended in a systematically graded series of movements in Mey payattu.

The Katcha

In former days, for training in Kalarippayattu, the trainees used to wear a particular dress or clothing called the ‘Katcha’. The Katcha is a long strip of cloth. There is a method for wearing the Katcha. Wearing the Katcha during practice session provides tautness to the hips and the abdomen and enhances the agility of movements and leaps.

Besides the above, there are many important details of the human physiology, which a Kalarippayattu trainee ought to know. There are certain vital points in the human body, where a hit or a blow received or a wound sustained may cause disability or even death. These vital points are called the ‘Marmas’. Devoted and faithful disciples are taught about the positions of those vital points.

All this knowledge of physiology is required for a Kalari trainee, because Kalari training is so comprehensive that it will not be complete if the unique system of treatment for various accidental illnesses like, bone-fracture, dislocation of joints, sprains and treatment for rheumatism, paralysis, low back pain, spondilities and various nervous disorders is not mastered.


1. Balakrishnan P., Kalripayattu: The Ancient Martial Art of Kerala, Published by C.V. Govindankutty Nair Gurukkal, Trivandrum, 1995.
2. Vijayakumar K. Kalarippayattu: Keralathinte Sakthiyum Soundaryavum (Mal.). Dept. of Cultural Publications, Thiruvananthapuram, 2000.
3. Vasudeva Gurukkal, E.P., Kalarippayattu: Karalathinte Tanatu Aayodhanakala, D.C. Books, Kottayam, 200.


Blogger Erik Mann said...

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11:44 AM  

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