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Focus hybrid
Hardness Full-contact, Semi-contact
Country of origin India
Creator Shiva, Agastya or Parashurama according to local myths
Famous practitioners Aromal Chekavar
Simhalan Madhava Panicker
Jasmine Simhalan
Grandmaster Shifuji Shaurya Bhardwaj
Olympic sport No
Official website
Meaning "Practice in the arts of the battlefield."

Kalaripayattu (pronunciation: ) is a martial art which originated as a style in Kerala[1] during the 13th Century AD.[2] The word kalari first appears in Sangam literature to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. The word kalari tatt denoted a martial feat, while kalari kozhai meant a coward in war.[2] Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training. It is considered to be one of the oldest fighting system in existence.[3] It is now practiced in Kerala, in contiguous parts of Tamil Nadu. It was originally practiced in northern and central parts of Kerala and the Tulunadu region of Karnataka.


  • History 1
    • Decline and revival 1.1
  • Styles 2
    • Northern kalaripayattu 2.1
    • Southern kalaripayattu 2.2
      • Southern Kalari Schools 2.2.1
    • Central kalaripayattu 2.3
    • Various kalaris as specified in Vadakkan Pattukal 2.4
  • Techniques 3
  • The Kalari Payatu festival and origin 4
  • Marmashastram and massage 5
  • Weapons 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Early written evidence of martial arts in Southern India dates back to the Sangam literature of about the 3nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam in the Sangam era. The word kalari appears in the Puram (verses 225, 237, 245, 356) and Akam (verses 34, 231, 293) to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. The word kalari tatt denoted a martial feat, while kalari kozhai meant a coward in war.[2] Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training[4] in target practice, horse and elephant riding. They specialized in one or more of the important weapons of the period including the spear (vel), sword (val), shield (kedaham), and bow and arrow (vil ambu). The combat techniques of the Sangam period were the earliest precursors to kalaripayat.[5] References to "Silappadikkaram" in Sangam literature date back to the 2nd century. This referred to the silambam staff which was in great demand with foreign visitors.[6][7]

In the 3rd century, elements from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were incorporated into the fighting arts.[8] A number of South Asian fighting styles remain closely connected to yoga, dance and performing arts. Some of the choreographed sparring in kalaripayat can be applied to dance[9] and kathakali dancers who knew kalaripayat were believed to be markedly better than other performers. Until recent decades, the chhau dance was performed only by martial artists. Some traditional Indian classical dance schools still incorporate martial arts as part of their exercise regimen.[10]

Kalaripayat had developed into its present form by the 11th century, during an extended period of warfare between the Chera and Chola dynasties.[8][9] Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.[9] Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the Northern style from Malabar region in north Kerala, the Central style from inner Kerala and the southern style from Thiruvitankoor. The northern style was practiced in Kerala primarily by the Pada Nairs, a sub group of Nairs and Thiyyas, The thiyya chavers are known as'Chekavas' a sub group of Thiyyas. The famous vadakkan pattukal or the northern ballads contains the stories of these medieval Kalari warriors. These ballads are divided into two groups-the 'Thacholi pattukal', which tells the story of the Nair Thacholi family and the 'Puthooram Pattukal', which tells the story of Thiyya Puthooram family. The southern style, was practiced largely by the Nadars and has features distinguishing it from its other regional counterparts.[11] Northern kalaripayattu is based on elegant and flexible movements, evasions, jumps and weapons training, while the southern "Adi Murai" style primarily follows the hard impact based techniques with priority on empty hand fighting and pressure point strikes. Both systems make use of internal and external concepts. Some of the flexibility training methods in northern Kalaripayattu are applied in Keralan dance forms[9] and Kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Some traditional Indian dance schools still incorporate kalaripayattu as part of their exercise regimen.

Tamil sage Agastya is regarded as the founder and patron saint of southern kalaripayat, silambam and varmam -an ancient science of healing using varmam points for varied diseases.[9] along with Lord Parasurama, especially in Kerala.

The art was disseminated through schools known as kalari, which served as centres of learning before the modern educational system was introduced. Still in existence, kalaris served as meeting places for the acquisition of knowledge on various subjects ranging from mathematics, language, astronomy and various theatrical arts. More specifically, martial arts were taught in the payattu kalari, meaning fight school.

In the 11th and 12th century, Kerala was divided into small principalities ruled by chieftains that fought wars among themselves. In such wars, one-on-one duels or ankam were fought by Chekavar on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high.[12] Ever since the pre-medieval era, Kaniyar, the traditional astrologer caste men of Kerala, particularly from northern region, were assigned as the preceptors of Kalaripayattu, hence, till the last century, they were known as Panickar and Asans in northern and southern regions of the state, respectively.[13][14][15] Many of their families still maintain what remains of their old Kalaris , as heritage.

The Mappila Muslims adopted and practiced Kalaripayattu as their own. The ballads of North Kerala refer to Muslims trained in Kalaripayattu. For instance, the hero of the northern ballads Thacholi Othenan (Manikoth Thacholi Udayanakurup) bowed before Kunjali Marakkar, the Muslim commander of the Zamorin, and offered him presents before opening his kalari. The traitor who killed Thacholi Othenan was also a Mappila discipline of Kadirur Gurukkal. Some Mappilas were trained in Hindu institutions known as Chekor Kalaris. The Paricha Kali is an adaptation of Kalaripayattu, and the Mappila tradition of this art is called Parichamuttu.[16]

It is mentioned that some panikkars had between 8,000 to 9,000 disciples, who were trained as fighting forces for the local rajahs.[17] One of the most prominent Ezhava panikkars was Arattupuzha Velayudha Panikkar, whose kalari was located at Alappuzha.

Horse Posture or Asva Vadivu
Snake Posture or Sarpa Vadivu
Rooster Posture or Kukkuta Vadivu
Lion Posture or Simha Vadivu
Elephant Posture or Gaja Vadivu
Peacock Posture or Mayura Vadivu
Cat Posture or Marjara Vadivu
Wild boar posture or VarahaVadivu

Decline and revival

The resurgence of public interest in kalaripayattu began in the 1920s in Thalassery, as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India[9] and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.[18] In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularise the art, with it featuring in international and Indian films such as Ondanondu Kaladalli (Kannada), (1996), Asoka (2001), The Myth (2005), The Last Legion (2007) and Commando (2013).


Kalaripayattu has three regional variants that are distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns.

Northern kalaripayattu

Northern kalaripayattu (vadakkan kalari) is practised mainly in North Malabar. It places more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands. Parashurama, sixth avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the style's founder according to both oral and written tradition. Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal or occasionally as asan, and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar.[9] The northern Brahmin immigrants contributed their skills through the "Salai"s which were educational institutions imparting various branches of knowledge including military arts.

The northern style is distinguished by its meippayattu - physical training and use of full-body oil massage. The system of treatment and massage, and the assumptions about practice are closely associated with Ayurveda.[9] The purpose of medicinal oil massage is to increase the practitioners' flexibility, to treat muscle injuries incurred during practice, or when a patient has problems related to the bone tissue, the muscles, or nerve system. The term for such massages is thirumal and the massage specifically for physical flexibility Chavutti Thirumal which literally means "stamping massage" or "foot massage". The masseuse may use their feet and body weight to massage the person.

There are several lineages/styles (sampradayam), of which 'thulunadan' is considered as the best. In olden times, students went to Tulunadu kalari's to overcome their defects (kuttam theerkkal). There are schools which teach more than one of these traditions. Some traditional kalari around Kannur for example teach a blend of arappukai, pillatanni, and katadanath styles.[12]

Southern kalaripayattu

Varma Kalai of Tamil Nadu is classified as Southern Kalaripayattu in South Kerala. The Southern Kalari masters are known as asaan.[9] The stages of training are chuvatu (solo forms), jodi (partner training/sparring), kurunthadi (short stick), neduvadi (long stick), katthi (knife), katar (dagger), valum parichayum (sword and shield), chuttuval (flexible sword), double sword, kalari grappling and marma (pressure points).[12] The southern style, was practiced largely by the Nadars and has features distinguishing it from its other regional counterparts.[11]

Zarrilli refers to southern kalaripayattu as varma ati (the law of hitting), marma ati (hitting the vital spots) or varma kalai (art of varma). The preliminary empty handed techniques of varma ati are known as adithada (hit/defend). Marma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots. Weapons include bamboo staves, short sticks, and the double deer horns.[9]

Medical treatment in the southern styles is identified with siddha,[18] the traditional Dravidian system of medicine distinct from north Indian ayurveda. The Siddha medical system, otherwise known as siddha vaidyam, is also attributed to Agastya.

Interest in learning Varma Kalai has budded in students of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, after the release of Indian Movie.

Southern Kalari Schools

  • Nadar Thekkan Kalari, Kanyakumari.
  • Suraj Thekkan Kalari, Bangalore.
  • Adi Murai Academy, Chennai.
  • Agasthya Bharatha Kalari Sangam, Kochi.
  • Nava Bharatha Kalari Sangam, Kochi.
  • Anjaneya Kalari Sangam, Trivandrum.
  • Aswa Kerala Kalari Sangam, Trivandrum.
  • Ulakudaperumal Marma Thirumu Kalari Sangam, Trivandrum.
  • Indian School of Martial Arts, Trivandrum.
  • Buddha Kalari, Trivandrum.
  • Maruthi Kalari, Trivandrum.

Central kalaripayattu

The Madhya Kalari (central style) of kalaripayattu is practiced mainly in the Northern parts of Kerala. Its diverse distinctive techniques, with heavy emphasis on application, are performed within floor paths known as kalam.[1] The Madhya(central) Kalari has many different styles which place heavy emphasis on lower body strength and speed through thorough practice of various chuvadu, only after which participants advance into weaponry and advanced studies.[9]

Various kalaris as specified in Vadakkan Pattukal

Kadathanatan Kalari
Karuvancheri Kalari
Kodumala Kalari
Kolastri Nadu Kalari
Kurungot Kalari
Mathilur Kalari
Mayyazhi Kalari
Melur Kalari
Nadapuram Kalari
Panoor Madham Kalari
Payyampalli Kalari
Ponniyam Kalari
Puthusseri Kalari
Puthuram Kalari
Thacholi Kalari
Thotuvor Kalari


Jasmine Simhalan performing steps and postures

Kalaripayattu techniques are a combination of steps (Chuvatu) and postures (Vadivu). Chuvatu literally means ‘steps’, the basic steps of the martial arts. Vadivu literally means ‘postures’ or stances are the basic characteristics of Kalaripayattu training. Named after animals, they are usually eight in number. Styles differ considerably from one tradition to another. Not only do the names of poses differ, the masters also differ about application and interpretation. Each stance has its own style, power combination, function and effectiveness. These techniques vary from one style to another.[9]

The Kalari Payatu festival and origin

A kalari is the school or training hall where martial arts are taught. They were originally constructed according to vastu sastra with the entrance facing east and the main door situated on the centre-right. Sciences like mantra saastra, tantra saastra and marma saastra are utilized to balance the space's energy level. The training area comprises a puttara (seven tiered platform) in the south-western corner. The guardian deity (usually an avatar of Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva) is located here, and is worshiped with flowers, incense and water before each training session which is preceded by a prayer. Northern styles are practiced in special roofed pits where the floor is 3.5 feet below the ground level and made of wet red clay meant to give a cushioning effect and prevent injury. The depth of the floor protects the practitioner from winds that could hamper body temperature. Southern styles are usually practiced in the open air or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches.[9] Traditionally, when a kalari was closed down it would be made into a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity.

Marmashastram and massage


It is claimed that learned warriors can disable or kill their opponents by merely touching the correct marmam (vital point). This is taught only to the most promising and level-headed persons, to discourage misuse of the technique. Marmashastram stresses on the knowledge of marmam and is also used for marma treatment (marmachikitsa). This system of marma treatment comes under siddha vaidhyam, attributed to the sage Agastya and his disciples. Critics of kalaripayattu have pointed out that the application of marmam techniques against neutral outsiders has not always produced verifiable results. The earliest mention of marmam is found in the Rig Veda where Indra is said to have defeated Vritra by attacking his marman with a vajra.[19] References to marman also found in the Atharva Veda.[20] With numerous other scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that India's early martial artists knew about and practiced attacking or defending vital points.[5] Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita.[21] Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.[8] Sushruta's work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda, which was taught alongside various Indian martial arts that had an emphasis on vital points, such as varma kalai and marma adi.[8]

As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgeable in the field of traditional medicine and massage. Kalaripayattu teachers often provide massages (uzhichil) with medicinal oils to their students in order to increase their physical flexibility or to treat muscle injuries encountered during practice. Such massages are generally termed thirumal and the unique massage given to increase flexibility is known as katcha thirumal. It is said to be as sophisticated as the uzhichil treatment of ayurveda. Kalaripayattu has borrowed extensively from Ayurveda and equally lends to it.


Although no longer used in sparring sessions, weapons are an important part of kalaripayattu. This is especially true for the northern styles which are mostly weapon-based. Some of the weapons mentioned in medieval Sangam literature have fallen into disuse over time and are rarely taught in kalaripayattu today.

Weapons historically used in kalaripayat
Ambu & Villu (Ambum Villum)
Arrow & Bow
Small Club
Hook Spear/Elephant goad
Forward Curved Sword
Weapons currently used in kalaripayat
Short Stick
Chotta chan/Marma(Varma)Kol
1 span stick
Towel/Sash/Long strip of cloth
Double edged short sword
Deer-horn dagger
Mara pidicha Kataram/Katar (dagger)
Fist Dagger
Curved stick (Reverse hand Grip)
Urumi/Churuttuval/Surul Val
Flexible sword

See also


  1. ^ Super User. "Kalaripayattu History". 
  2. ^ a b c Suresh, P. R. (2005). polity. Bombay: Asian Publishing House.
  3. ^ "Internet Archive Wayback Machine". Archived from the original on 21 February 2009. 
  4. ^ Subramanian, N. (1966). Sangam polity. Bombay: Asian Publishing House.
  5. ^ a b Zarrilli, Phillip B. A South Indian Martial art and the Yoga and Ayurvedic Paradigms. University of Exeter.
  6. ^ Raj, J. David Manuel (1977). The Origin and the Historical Development of Silambam Fencing: An Ancient Self-Defence Sport of India. Oregon: College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, Univ. of Oregon. pp. 44, 50, & 83. 
  7. ^ Sports Authority of India (1987). Indigenous Games and Martial Arts of India. New Delhi: Sports Authority of India. pp. 91 & 94. 
  8. ^ a b c d J. R. Svinth (2002). A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports. Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  10. ^ Luijendijk 2008
  11. ^ a b Green, Thomas A., ed. (2001). Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 176–177.  
  12. ^ a b c Luijendijk, D.H. (2005). Kalarippayat: India's Ancient Martial Art. Paladin Press.  
  13. ^ L.Krishna Anantha Krishna Iyer (Diwan Bahadur) ;The Cochin tribes and castes; 1909
  14. ^  
  15. ^ K. Thulaseedharan ;Studies in Traditional Kerala Society; 1977
  16. ^ Mappila Muslims: a study on society and anti colonial struggles (2007), Hussain Randathani, Other Books, p. 70
  17. ^ Maritime India: trade, religion and polity in the Indian Ocean (2010), Pius Malekandathil, Primus Books, p. 46
  18. ^ a b Zarrilli 1992
  19. ^ Mariana Fedorova (1990). Die Marmantheorie in der klassischen indischen Medizin.
  20. ^ Subhash Ranade (1993). Natural Healing Through Ayurveda (p. 161). Passage Press. Utah USA.
  21. ^ G. D. Singhal, L. V. Guru (1973). Anatomical and Obstetrical Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery Based on Sarira-Sthana of Susruta Samhita.

Further reading

  • Balakrsnan, Pi (1995) Kalarippayattu: The ancient martial art of Kerala, C.V. Govindankutty Nair Gurukka 1995, ASIN B0006F9ONS
  • Denaud, Patrick (1996) Kalaripayat, Budostore, ISBN 2-908580-62-4
  • Elgood, Robert (2005) Hindu Arms and Ritual: Arms and Armour from India 1400-1865, Eburon Publishers, ISBN 90-5972-020-2
  • Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1992) "To Heal and/or To Harm: The Vital Spots in Two South Indian Martial Traditions"
  • Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1993) "Actualizing Power and Crafting a Self in Kalarippayattu", Journal of Asian Martial Arts

External links

  • Kalaripayattu at DMOZ
  • kalarippayattu - one of the oldest martial arts, Government of Kerala website
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