A martial art called Kalaripayattu or kalari for short, described to be among the oldest form of martial arts in the world, is being practiced in the southern state of Kerala in India. The term kalaripayattu or kalari is mentioned in the Rigvedda (The Knowledge of Verses), the oldest of the sacred books of Hinduism, and Atharvaveda, the second oldest Indian writings.
The term kalaripayattu is a combination of two words – kalari and payattu. Kalari is means training ground or battle ground while payattu means training or fight.
Many movements and postures in the art of kalari are believed to be inspired by the raw strength of animals and are also named after them. There is a strong belief that this art was developed in the forests when hunters had observed the fighting techniques of different animals. The movements include spinning, kicking and jumping.
The kalari training helps a student of this martial art attain mental peace as well as physical strength and flexibility. This martial art can be used for unarmed or hand-to-hand battle and for fights using, wooden sticks called muchan, daggers, sticks and sword with shield.
A kalari student has to go through several stages of training: the meithari, the kolthari, the angathari and the verumkai.
The meithari involves physical exercises to develop stamina, strength, balance and flexibility. The exercises, which include kicks, jumps, circular sequences and low stances on the floor, aims to develop mental alertness that helps understand the self defense moves that will be undertaken in the later stages of training.
The training starts with a series of physical exercises. The meipayatu or exercises with the body develop agility and strength. The training also include the marichulukal or acrobatics to tone the body and help develop agility and reflexes. Another series of exercises called the kaikuththipayattu, involving putting hands on the floor, that strengthens the body and improves breath control. The kalaripayattu students also have to undertake chuvataddi (meaning stances and attacks) and kaithada, which means block with hands. The student also has to learn the stance of different animals such as the rooster, lion, wild boar, snake, elephant, horse, cat and peacock.
The next level of training called kolthari involves the use of wooden weapons, including cane weapons, cheruvadi (a strong wooden staff), gada (a wooden club) and ottakkol (curved stick). This stage is designed to develop “dristi sthirata,” which means seeing clearly with stability that will allow one to deal with attacks by assessing the situation and taking appropriate action. The kolthari also helps in building confidence, alertness and balance of the body.
The angathari, third stage of training, involves the use of metal weapons such as kattaram (dagger) and kuntham (spear). After the trainee completes the training on the use of kuntham, he undergoes training for the more sophisticated forms of combat – sword and shield, and finally the dangerous urumi.
The urumi is a flexible whip-like long sword, usually made from steel or brass, between 122-168 centimeters long. Sometimes, the urumi has multiple blades attached to a single handle. The urumi is used as a whip, which is effective when used against several attackers or opponents.
During the verumkai, considered the advanced stage of kalaripayattu training, students learn bare-handed fighting moves such as throwing, locking, gripping, blocking, kicking and striking. The student is also taught the Marma Chikilsa, a treatment for injuries on the marmas (vital points) of the human body. Damages to marmas lead to illness, chronic conditions or emotional insecurity for which the Gurukkal has the treatment.
The kalaripayattu also incorporates a massaging technique designed to repair physical damages and to promote blood circulation as well as enhance the body’s flexibility. There are three types of massage – the sukha thirummu, the katcha thirummu and the raksha thirummu. The sukha thirummu relieves the body from aches and muscular pains while the katcha thirummu increases a person’s flexibility and physical endurance. On the other hand, the raksha thirummu aims to heal different types of ailments.
Nowadays, the art of kalaripayattu is being revived and there is renewed interest among Indians and even martial arts enthusiasts from other countries. Kalaripayattu training schools have started operating in various parts in Kerala. The training among locals starts at seven years of age and take years for them to master the art. During the training, the students have to use a kachha, a six feet long and one foot wide red-colored fabric that is tied around their waist.
The Kalaripayattu Federation of India, which is based in Kerala, promotes this martial art by staging competitions to encourage interest in this martial art.