Kalaripayatu – Kerala’s Martial Art

A glimpse at one of the oldest sports of Kerala

Having paved the way for Kung fu and Karate, Kalaripayatu is not only one of the oldest and most artistic, but also the most lethal display of athleticism on the otherwise serene topography of Kerala. A trip to one of the most internationally identifiable tourist destinations in India falls bland if you do not get a bite of this age old martial art form. Its primary aim is to coordinate body and mind by means of massaging, learning feats and how to handle weapons such as swords. “Kalari” refers to gymnasium in the local language of Malayalam and “payatu” translates into fight or hard work.

Wild conjectures have often peppered the story of Kalari. The most fascinating one believes that it was an underground movement that swept the Hindu Nair community of Kerala in the 19th century. This spectacular form of martial arts was learnt by the youth to oppose the suppression of the colonial rule of the British. The young men of the community met secretly and sharpened their skills at this artistic warfare, in anticipation of a confrontation with intruders. This was banned by the British in order to smother the anti-colonial sentiments. Of course, this story remains the most enthralling one till date. Other stories ascribe the origins of Kalari to Hindu Gods and the clash between the Chola and Chera dynasties in the 11th century.

Even before these folklores emerged, it is said that the famous Buddhist monk, Bodhidharama, travelled to China and preached at the Shaolin temple in 525 A.D. He tutored his disciples in an extraordinary set of exercises in order to make them stronger. This technique is believed to have been inspired from Kalarippayattu. The technique then travelled to Japan and developed into modern day martial art forms. Unlike modern renditions of everything around us, Kalari mud rinks are still found in the interiors of Kerala. These form the learning and practicing ground for young students as well as professionals. In fact the popularity of Kalaripayatu in tourism has brought about a surge of desirability to learn. This is heartening to see, as many other sportsare predictably losing sheen across the country. If you explore the villages, you are bound to stumble upon working Kalari rinks even till date.

Kalaripayatu has evolved in several vernacular styles, which are largely segregated by region. The northern style is attuned to Ayurveda where a full body massage is integral. It is more weapons inclined than the southern style, where use of hands is more prevalent. In the central style, the lower body plays a vital role in display of strength of speed.

The sight you are likely going to see at a Kalari session is a wide, high roofed bare hall with Kalari weapons lining the walls. These consist of shaft, shields and daggers. The students start with prayers to an eight tiered deity headed by Lord Shiva, a serpent lamp made of black stone and a symbolic weapon of their master. They are then massaged by experts with medicinal oilsbefore they begin the astonishing performance of an artistic form of warfare.

One such school still exists in the northern part of Kerala. The Udaya Kalari Sangham is run by Mr. Devaraj on the Chombal beach near Mahe. A dexterous display by professionals can be seen at about 6.30 pm with prior booking.

Another cultural centre which provides a great platform to Kalari and other art forms is Fort Kochi’s Greenix Village. This is a tourist savvy set up for promoting a plethora of Kerala’s art and culture, all under one roof.

New age Kalari has found a foot-holding in the urban setting as well. Attakalari fits in the premise of contemporary dance, having been inspired by the strong athletic movements of Kalaripayatu and mingling it with dance. This popular fusion art form is extremely popular with new age dancers. Bangalore based Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts was started by Jayachandran Palazhy in 1992. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

READ MORE IN THIS 360° SERIES

Leave a Reply