Kalarippayattu: Wikis


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Also known as Kalaripayat, Kalari Payatta, Kalari Payatt
Country of origin Kerala, India
Creator unknown
Parenthood Historic
Olympic sport No
Part of a series on
Indian martial arts
wrestling: Malla-yuddha  · Pehlwani  · Mukti yuddha  · Mukna  · Inbuan

Kalarippayattu: Silambam  · Varma ati  · Kuttu Varisai
Thang-Ta  ·
Sarit Sarak

Notable Practitioners
Phillip Zarrilli  · Jasmine Simhalan  · Gobar Goho  · Gulam  · Guru Har Gobind  · John Will

Kalarippayattu (Malayalam കളരിപയറ്റ്,pronounced [kaɭəɾipːajətːɨ̆]) is a Dravidian martial art from Kerala, India. Possibly one of the oldest fighting systems in existence,[1] it is practiced in Kerala and contiguous parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka[2] as well as northeastern Sri Lanka and among the Malayalee community of Malaysia. The word is spelled variously as kalari payat, kalarippayatta, kalaripayatt and many others depending on the dialect and romanisation system used.

It includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.[2] Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the northern style, the southern style and the central style. Northern kalari payat is based on the principle of hard technique, while the southern style primarily follows the soft techniques, even though both systems make use of internal and external concepts.

Some of the choreographed sparring in kalari payat can be applied to dance[2] and kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Some traditional Indian dance schools still incorporate kalari payat as part of their exercise regimen.[3]



The term kalari payittru is a tatpurusha compound from the words kalari (Malayalam:കളരി) meaning school or gymnasium and payattu (Malayalam:പയററ്) derived from payattuka meaning to "fight/ exercise" or "to put hard work into".

Belying the assumption that the compound itself might have an equally antique use as the singular kalari and payattu, the unpublished Malayalam Lexicon notes that the earliest use of the compound, kalarippayattu is in Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer's early twentieth century drama Amba when it is probable that the systems of martial practice assumed a structure and style akin those extant today. M.D. Raghavan has suggested that kalari was derived from the Sanskrit khalūrikā while Burrow is of the opinion that khalūrikā (parade ground, arena) and its Sanskrit root, khala- (threshing floor) are Dravidian loan words.


South Indian state of Kerala, where kalari payat originated


Phillip Zarrilli, a professor at the University of Exeter and one of the few Western authorities on kalaripayattu, estimates that kalaripayattu dates back to at least the 12th century CE.[2] But if we refer to the ancient records,we can believe that it has been existing for the past 3000 years.It orginated long before Kung Fu, Karate etc. The historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai attributes the birth of kalarippayattu to an extended period of warfare between the Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century CE.[2] From the 11th or 12th century the right and duty to practice the martial art in the service of a ruler was most associated with specific groups of Ezhava , Nair as well as some Christians and Muslims were given this right and duty.[2]

In addition, Among at least some noble families, young girls (unniarcha) also received preliminary training up until the onset of menses.[2] We also know from the vadakkan pattukal ballads that at least a few women of noted Chekavars continued to practise and achieved a high degree of expertise.[2] Ankam were fought on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high, purpose-built for ankam.[4]

The earliest western account of this art is that of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa (c. 1518).[2]

The more part of these warriors when they are seven years of age are sent to schools where they are taught many tricks of nimbleness and dexterity; there they teach them to dance and turn about and to twist on the ground, to take royal leaps, and other leaps, and this they learn twice a day as long as they are children, and they become so loose-jointed and supple that they make them turn their bodies contrary to nature; and when they are fully accomplished in this, they teach them to play with the weapon to which they are most inclined, some with bows and arrows, some with poles to become spearmen, but most with swords and bucklers, which is most used among them, and in this fencing they are ever practising. The masters who teach them are called Panikars.

The writings of early colonial historians like Varthema, Logan and Whiteway shows that kalari payat was widely popular and well established with almost all people in Kerala transcending gender, caste and communal lines. It is said to have eventually become as prevalent as reading and writing. Kalari payat became more developed during the 9th century and was practiced by a section of the Ezhava and [Nair]] community, warrior clan of Kerala, to defend the state and the king. The ancient warrior spirit was also retained throughout the centuries by the warrior chieftains of ancient Kerala known as the Mamanka Chekavar. The iconic Thacholi Othenan Kurup was elevated to heroic status in all of Kerala. The Lohar of north Kerala were Buddhist warriors[5] who practiced kalaripayat.

Decline and revival

Kalari payat underwent a period of decline when the kalari warriors lost to the British after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century.[2] The British eventually banned kalari payat altogether so as to prevent rebellion and anti-colonial sentiments. During this time, many Indian martial arts had to be practiced in secret and were often confined to rural areas.

The resurgence of public interest in kalari payat began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India[2] and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.[6]

In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularise the art, with it featuring in international and Indian films such as Indian (1996), Asoka (2001), The Myth (2005), The Last Legion (2007), and also in Japanese Anime/Manga Series Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple.

Regional variations

There are several styles of kalari payat. The three main schools of thought can be distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns. The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk which uses photographs to show several kalari payat exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions.

Northern style

Northern kalari payat was practiced mainly in the northern Malabar region of Kozhikode and Kannur.[2] It places more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands.[2] Parashurama, sixth avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the style's founder according to both oral and written tradition.[2] Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal or occasionally as asan, and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar.[2]

The northern style is distinguished by its meippayattu - physical training and use of full-body oil massage.[2] The system of treatment and massage, and the assumptions about practice are closely associated with ayurveda.[2] 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 thulunadu 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.[4]

Southern style

Jasmine Simhalan demonstrating kalari payat and silambam in Borobudur.

Southern kalari payat was practised mainly in old Travancore including the present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu[2] primarily by Nadars and Ezhavas in Kerala.[2] It emphasises empty hand techniques.[2] The founder and patron saint is believed to be the rishi Agasthya rather than Parasurama.[2] Masters are known as 'asaan.[2] The stages of training are chuvatu (solo forms), jodi (partner training/sparring), kurunthadi (short stick), neduvadi (long stick), katthi (knife), Katara a (dagger), valum parichayum (sword and shield), chuttuval (flexible sword), double sword, kalari grappling and marma (pressure points).[4]

Zarrilli refers to southern kalari payat as varma ati (the law of hitting), marma ati (hitting the vital spots) or Varma Kalai (art of varma).[2] The preliminary empty handed techniques of varma ati are known as adithada (hit/defend).[2] Marma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots.[2] Weapons include bamboo staves, short sticks, and the double deer horns.[2]

Medical treatment in the southern styles is identified with siddha,[6] the traditional Dravidian system of medicine distinct from north Indian ayurveda. The siddha medical system, otherwise known as siddha vaidyam, is also attributed to Agasthya.

Closely related to southern kalari payat is silambam, the art of stick fighting. It supposedly originated in the Kurinji hills of Kerala some 5000 years ago where natives were using bamboo staves to defend themselves against bandits and wild animals. "Salambal" is a common word used to denote the sound of fast flowing rivers/springs, the chirping noises of birds, the murmur of leaves, the noise created by a talking crowd, the whooshing, whirring and clanging sound of weapons etc. When long sticks, swords and chain flails are used they produce the "sala sala" sound which is called salambal. Thus silambam became the name of the martial art that uses long sticks, swords etc.

Central style

Central kalari payat is practiced mainly in Thrissur, Malappuram, Palakkad and certain parts of Ernakulam districts.[2] It is a composite of the northern and southern styles that includes northern meippayattu preliminary exercises, southern emphasis on empty-handed moves and its own distinctive techniques which are performed within floor drawings known as kalam.[2]

Various kalari styles

Various kalari styles as specified in Vadakkan Pattukal,

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
Tulunadan Kalari


Gurukkal praying before puttara CVN Kalari, Ettumanoor

Initiation ceremony

Students begin training at approximately seven years old with a formal initiation ritual performed by the gurukkal. On the opening day of the new session, a novice (mostly Nairs , Ezhavas in the olden days) is admitted to the kalari in the presence of the gurukkal or a senior student and directed to place their right foot first across the threshold. The student touches the ground with the right hand and then the forehead, as a sign of respect. He is then led to the guruthara, the place where a lamp is kept burning in reverence to all the masters of the kalari, to repeat this act of worship. He then offers the master some money as dakshina in folded betel leaves and prostrates himself, touching the master's feet as a sign of submission. The guru then places his hands on the pupil’s head, blesses him and prays for him. This ritual - touching the ground, puttara, guruthara and the guru’s feet - is repeated everyday. It symbolizes a complete submission to and acceptance of the master, the deva, the kalari and the art itself.

The kalari

A kalari is the school or training hall where martial arts are taught. They were originally constructed according to Vastu Shastra 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-west corner. The guardian deity (usually an avatar of Bhagavathi, Kali Mata or Shiva) is located here, and is worshipped 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.[2] Traditionally, when a kalari was closed down it would be made into a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity.

Internal training

Practitioners meditate to develop inner energy.

Aside from being an art of self-defence, the ancient Indian saints and ascetics formulated kalari payat as a form of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development. They realised that the greatest accomplishment is not martial skill but moksha or enlightenment, so martial arts served as a vehicle to attain higher levels of spirituality and thereby attain self realisation. A fully trained practitioner should be conscious of any movements in the surrounding area and be prepared to defend themselves at all times. Having developed a sufficient level of prana, one could stabilise their opponent through choondu marma for example. Folklore even tells of masters who acquired supernatural powers through meditation.


Specific commands associated with each exercise are called vaytari.


Kaalkal literally means Legs (Kaal - Leg). Leg exercises referred as "Kaalkal" in Kalaripayattu. Here is the list of all Kaalkal exercises. This exercise also called Kall Eduppu (leg raising).

  1. Ner kaal (straight kick)
  2. Kona kaal (right to left, left to right kick)
  3. Veethi kaal (round kick - inside out)
  4. Ner-kona-veethi kaal (combined kick)
  5. Thirichi-kaal (both side kick - kick straight turn around and kick)
  6. aga-kaal (round kick - outside in)
  7. iruththi-kaal (kick and sit)
  8. iruththi-kaal-2 (kick and sit - turn and sit)

kaikuththippayattu (Kai - hand, kuththi - hit, payattu - practice) is one of kalari exercises. It consists of punches, leg moves, stretches, twists, jumps together in a particular sequence. Like, most of Kalaripayattu exercises this one is also divided into 18 stages. All of these starts with Mukakattu, warm up. Complexity increases as one progresses to higher levels. This Kalaripayattu exercise is from Tulunadan Kalari adopted to most of other styles.


Chumattadi is one of Kalari exercises. This will teach the practitioner how to attack and defend multiple opponents from all over sides. It consists of punches, cuts, throws, blocks, etc. Practitioner will repeat steps in all 4 directions. Like, most of Kalaripayattu exercises this one is also divided into 18 stages. This exercise should be practiced with intense speed and power.


Meipayattu is one of Kalari exercise. This mainly concentrates on body flexibility. Some books say that this will also make a person aggressive and increase battle awareness. Like, most of Kalaripayattu exercises this one is also divided into 18 stages. This exercise should be practiced with speed and at most flexibility.


Adithada (adi - hit, thadu - block) is one of kalari exercise. All of the Kalaripayattu exercises mentioned above, like Kaikuththippayattu, Chumattadi, Meipayattu will be practiced by a single person, without any opponent; but for this one, we need two students. when one student hits / punches / kicks another one blocks, and then these students will change their roles. This can also be practiced by more than two students.


Ottotharam is one of Kalari exercise. This exercise will teach practitioner how to use attack against attack as a method of defense / attack. It is from "Attack is the best way to defend" school of thought. This exercise needs two students to start with, and can also be practiced by more than two students.


Training is mainly divided into four parts consisting of Meithari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai.

Meithari (മെയ്ത്താരി)

Meithari is the beginning stage with rigorous body sequences involving twists, stances and complex jumps and turns. Twelve meippayattu exercises for neuro-muscular coordination, balance and flexibility follow the basic postures of the body. Kalari payat originates not in aggression but in the disciplining of the self. Therefore the training begins with disciplining the physical body and attaining a mental balance. This is crucial for any person and not necessarily a martial aspirant. This first stage of training consists of physical exercises to develop strength, flexibility, balance and stamina. It includes jumps, low stances on the floor, circular sequences, kicks, etc. An attempt is made to understand and master each separate organ of the body. These exercises bring an alertness to the mind, and this alertness helps one understand some of the movements and processes of the self defense sequences that are taught at later stages.

Kolthari (കോല്തരി)


Once the student has become physically competent, they are introduced to fighting with long wooden weapons. The first weapon taught is the staff (kettukari), which is usually five feet (1.5 m) in length, or up to the forehead of the student from ground level. The second weapon taught is the cheruvadi or muchan, a wooden stick three palm spans long, about two and a half feet long or 75 cm. The third weapon taught is the otta, a wooden stick curved to resemble the trunk of an elephant. The tip is rounded and is used to strike the vital spots in the opponent's body. This is considered the master weapon, and is the fundamental tool of practice to develop stamina, agility, power, and skill. Otta training consists of 18 sequences.

Ankathari (അങ്കത്തരി)

Ankathari in which both opponents are armed with chuttuval and paricha

Once the practitioner has become proficient with all the wooden weapons, he/she proceeds to Ankathari (literally "war training") starting with metal weapons, which require superior concentration due to their lethal nature. The first metal weapon taught is the kadhara, a metal dagger with a curved blade. Taught next are the sword (val) and shield (paricha). Subsequent weapons include the spear (kuntham), trident (trisool) and axe (venmazhu). Usually the last weapon taught is the flexible sword (urumi or chuttuval), an extremely dangerous weapon taught to only the most skillful students. Historically, after the completion of 'Ankathari', the student would specialize in a weapon of his choice, for example to become an expert swordsman or stick fighter.

Verumkai (വെറുംകൈ)

Only after achieving mastery with all the weapon forms is the practitioner taught to defend themselves with bare-handed techniques. These include arm locks, grappling, and strikes to the pressure points (marmam). This is considered the most advanced martial skill so the gurukkal restricts knowledge of marmam only to very few trusted students.

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 sidha vaidhyam, attributed to the sage Agasthya and his disciples. Critics of kalari payat 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.[7] References to marman also found in the Atharva Veda.[8] 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 practised attacking or defending vital points.[9] Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita.[10] Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.[11] 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.[11]

As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgeable in the field of traditional medicine and massage. Kalari payat teachers often provide massages (Malayalam: 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. Kalari payat has borrowed extensively from ayurveda and equally lends to it.


Techniques (atavu) in kalari payat are a combination of steps (chuvatu) and stances (vadivu). There are five steps and northern styles have ten postures (Ashta Vadivukal). Each stance has its own power combination, function and set of techniques. All the eight postures are based on animals.

Stances (Vadivu)
Gajavadivu Elephant stance
Simhavadivu Lion stance
Asvavadivu Horse stance
Varahavadivu Boar stance
Sarpavadivu Snake stance
Marjaravadivu Cat stance
Kukkuvadivu Rooster stance
Matsyavadivu Fish stance (Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar and the C.V.N. Style)
Mayuravadivu Peacock stance (Gurukkal P. K. Balan Style)
Steps (Chuvatu)
Vatta Chuvatu
Circular steps
Aakka Chuvatu
Inside steps
Neekka Chuvatu
Moving steps
Kon Chuvatu
Corner steps
Ottakkal Chuvatu
Single-leg steps


Although no longer used in sparring sessions, weapons are an important part of kalari payat. 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 kalari payat today.

Weapons currently used in kalaripayat
Kalaripayattu weapons.jpg
Long stick
Flexible sword
Short stick
Curved stick
Short sword
Weapons historically used in kalaripayat
Ambum Villum
Bow and arrow

See also


  1. ^ Kalaripayatta- Discovery Channel
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac 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. 
  3. ^ Luijendijk 2008
  4. ^ a b c Luijendijk, D.H. (2005). Kalarippayat: India's Ancient Martial Art. Paladin Press. ISBN 1-58160-480-7. 
  5. ^ KALARI
  6. ^ a b Zarrilli 1992
  7. ^ Mariana Fedorova (1990). Die Marmantheorie in der klassischen indischen Medizin.
  8. ^ Subhash Ranade (1993). Natural Healing Through Ayurveda (p. 161). Passage Press. Utah USA.
  9. ^ Zarrilli, Phillip B. A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and Ayurvedic Paradigms. University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  10. ^ G. D. Singhal, L. V. Guru (1973). Anatomical and Obstetrical Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery Based on Sarira-Sthana of Susruta Samhita.
  11. ^ a b J. R. Svinth (2002). A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports. Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.

Further reading

External links


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