Martial Art of Kerala - Kalaripayattu

The History

Is there a link between eating fiery black pepper and the disposition to study martial arts ? Is it possible that a peppery diet is the reason why a martial culture has existed for thousands of years in a place tucked away in the south west-corner of India ? The place is called Malabar and over the centuries has been famous in the annals of trade and commerce as the most prolific source of that tiny seed that can take the roof off your mouth. Could it have been that the martial culture evolved in order to protect that vital asset? No one really knows. But that culture does not even now albeit a little ravages by the urbanization of modern times. Everyone has been heard of Karate and Judo. These days martial art training is big business. But where did it all start?

Around the year 520 A.D, a budhist monk called Bodhidharma arrived in China which was then ruled by Emperor Wu of the Ling dynasty. It was a time when monks travelled far and wide to teach the eight-fold path which their Lord had proclaimed braving attacks from the bandits that frequented every major caravan route. Bodhidharma wandered into China from his home in South India. He settled in Shaolin temple and began to teach Zen Buddhism and meditation. His teachings included the philosophy of peace and non-violence and he advocated the novel concept that it was perfectly possible for a man to defend himself against all attacks without using lethal weapons. As a young prince, Bodhidharma has to study the art of fighting and he had learnt to fit his new philosophy. His teachings soon spread until they covered the whole of what is now considered to be the Oriental world.

But what were those techniques learned in his father's court that formed the embryo for Bodhidharma's new ideas? Some people think that they could have been an early form of Kalaripatu. And that is how we come back to Malabar for scholorscan show that a martial culture has existed for many centuries in that hot and sultry corner of India. Is it really the father of martial arts?

Formed from two Sanskrit words, Kalari and Payat, it literally means a military training ground. In those days, the Hindu families of the area formed groups for their own protection and advancement. Each of these groups had their own Kalari and Kavu, a shrine for their diety. The Kalari become the centre of many activities. Not stopping at Payat, martial education, other more scholarly enterprises were included so that the end result was the improvement of both body and mind. Each Kalari was in the charge of a guru who played a very significant role in the community . Arguments were often settled by duels under the guru's supervision.

The traditional kalari lies on an east-west axis and can be 18, 32, 43 or 52 feet long. The width must be exactly half the length. The floor and walls are made of mud, beaten till it is smooth and level. The roof, supported by pillars that spring only from the side walls,are cantilevered and covered with plaited palm fronds. There is only one entrance and that is in the east wall. Like the temple, the kalari is considered a sacred place. Especially hallowed is the south-west corner called the poothara, which is reserved for the reigning goddess and it is here that the weapons are stored under her protection. Next to this is the guruthara, the place where a lamp is kept burning in reverence to all the gurus of the kalari. It is here the current guru stands to receive gifts presented to him by his students during their initiation on Vijaya Dashami day.

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:
- It is a good exercise to alert the body and mind.
- It is a very good visual art.
- It is useful for self-defence.

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:
· Meikaruthu: power of the body.
· Manakaruthu: power of the mind.
· Ankakaruthu: power to combat.
· Ayudhakaruthu: power to wield weapons.

The 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.

The Cycle

As the crowding of the village roosters herlads the dawn of each day, students begin their training. Teh session begins by the students changing into traditional costume - first the T-shaped koopeenam then, after applying medicated oil to each others body, they put on a garment called a kachha which gives support to the main muscles of the body. Putting on the katcha itself is a rigorous exercise which helps to loosen up stiff muscles. One end is tied to a pillar. The student steps back and, with the cloth taut, begins to wind himselfinto it with an elaborates series of movements called kachha kettal.

The student cannot begin his training until he has made his obeisance to the goddess. This he does in a war dance-like ritual called poothara thozal. Only a swift and experienced eye can see that the choreography of this 'dance' is full of offensive and defensive movements.

The Stages

Kalari payattu is divided into 4 stages. They are meipayattu or maithari (body), kolthari (sticks), angathari (metal weapons), verumkai (without weapon or empty hand). If one desires to become a teacher (Gurunathan) of Kalaripayattu, further 3 more stages have to be completed viz. Chiktsavidhikal (treatment), manthrathantra (rememberane of God etc), marmagnanam (knowledge of Marmas or pressure points). The student who excells himself in the 7 qualities will be normaly selected for the training of Guru.

The first, maithari, is aimed at physical fitness, muscle control and developing the power of concentration. As he learns, the student recites the rythemic vaithari which describes in Malayalam each movement that he performs.

Kolthari is the second stage when the first weapon, a wooden staff, is brought into the training. The students start with a long staff about 63 inches long and move on to a shorter one as they improve. When they can confidently deliver about one hundred blows in a minute, the guru will allow them to try the ottakol, shaped like an elephant's tusk. When wielded by an expert, the otta becomes a lethal weapon.

The student is now ready to move to the next stage, ankathari. this gives him the taste of really dangerous weapons like the dagger, sword, spear and mace. At the begining they learn to fight with matched weapons. As they develop their skills the guru encourages opponents to use different weapons.

Most dangerous of all is the urumi. The first time the guru brings it out, the students face usually pales visibly. It is like a sword with a flexible blade which, when twirled correctly, produces a most terrifying sound. Its razor-sharp blade has left its scar on many warriors and if not handled properly can inflict deep wounds.

After he learned to use all classical weapons, the student has to learn to do without them. He begins training in unarmed combat called verumkai (unarmed). He has taught to pit his skills.

If he receives the full confidence of his guru, the student is allowed learn the inner mysteries - marma adi - death blows. The guru must feel certain that the student will never misuse his knowledge.

But Kalaripayatu is not all violence. Mercilfully it has its gentler aspects. A part of the guru's training is in herbal medicine. It originated with the need to tend the wounds's of the warriors. Today, the guru is the physician to all the villagers. His skills range from bone-setting to healing internal ailments. He is adept at message with medicated oils which he himself prepares with great care. holding on to ropes that he suspends from the roof of his kalari, he uses is feet to massage the patient varying the pressure as he thinks fit.

Each guru has his own personal book of herbal medical recipes which he keeps a closely guarded secret passing it onto only when he retires. And tgus is completed the cycle of Kalaripayatu. The preservation of life in the presence of adversity. So it should be with every martial art.


Weapons and their use

Kettukari or Shareeravadi

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.

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, made of the toughest portions of the tamarind tree. 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.

Gadha (Mace)

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.

Val Parija (Sword and Shield)

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 Vaitari.

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 (Dagger)

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 (Spear)

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, Ambum villum (bow and arrow), Venmazhu (axe), Kathuthala, and Trisool), but have almost vanished from the Kalaries of today.

Verum Kai (Barehand)

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.

Copyright © Pradeep Thekkottil