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ancient arts

Sai Priya Chodavarapu

Kalaripayaṭṭu is an ancient martial art that originated in India and, a part of the enormous corpus of India’s cultural traditions. Like Yoga, it is a complete discipline that combines physical and mental training, self-discipline, with the art of body massage and traditional Āyurvaidika medicine. Phillip Zarrilli describes kalari as a ​​”mode of cultural praxis through which bodies, knowledges, powers, agency and selves/identities have been and are repositioned through practice.”

Origins of Kalaripayaṭṭu

Paraśurāma, the warrior incarnation of Viṣṇu, is said to have thrown his paraśu or battle-axe out into the sea from Gokarṇa to Kanyakumari, on the coast of Mangalore. As the axe sank, a strip of land rose up out of the waters, that became Kerala, also called Paraśurāmakṣetram or Bhārgavakṣetram. After pulling Kerala out of the ocean, Paraśurāma taught the martial art to 21 disciples so that they may maintain peace in the land. There exist palm leaf manuscripts in the possession of ancient families that have learnt and preserved Kalaripayaṭṭu for generations that attest to the fact that Paraśurāma was their first guru. The word kalari presumably comes from the Sanskrit term khalūrikā, which refers to a military training ground, or possibly from the Tamil word kalam meaning ‘arena or area for drama, gladiatorial, or gymnastic exhibitions’, and the root of the Malayalam ‘payattu’ is Tamil payil, ‘to train or practise’. Ancient palm leaf manuscripts often specify the size, placement and orientation of the kalari. References to many of the sword and shield techniques, archery, weaponry etc. employed by Kalaripayaṭṭu are found in texts such as the Agni Purāṇa and the Nāṭya Śāstra from circa 14th century.

Kalaripayaṭṭu styles that were practiced in the old Travancore region of Southern Kerala and the adjacent districts of Kanyakumari were also continued to be practiced by non-Nair castes such as the Nadars and Sambavars. The Southern styles decidedly purport a more Tamil origin, and differ from Northern ones — they trace their foundations to Sage Agastya rather than Paraśurāma, practice in open spaces than in special roofed pits, and their masters are known as asans. They also incorporate more of the “vital spots” techniques, called varma ati or chinna ati, tracing the tradition to the 108 vital spots identified by Sage Agastya in his text Varma Oti Murivu Cara Cuttiram and Agastyamuni’s student Bhogar’s Varmaśāstram, written in Tamil. The medicinal treatment that is linked with is identified as Dravidian Siddha medicine rather than Āyurveda. A considerable mixing of styles and arts has occurred in the past few decades, and a number of masters frequently mix both southern and northern techniques.

Transmission through Guru-Śiṣya Paramparā

Student instruction begins at the age of eight with a ritual initiation ceremony conducted at the gurukula by the master of the kalari, called the Gurukkal. The Gurukkal is venerated as the living representative of the Gods in the entire lineage of gurus in the kalari tradition, starting with Paraśurāma. While the number of Gods varies depending on the tradition of the family and of the Gurukkal, the kalari falls under the protection of its guardian deity Bhagvatī, the Goddess Durgā; or Bhadrakāḷi, or Paradevathai, identified as a blend of Śiva and Śakti.

Practicing the martial art, especially at advanced levels with combat weapons was an exclusive right granted to certain sections of society that were specifically designated to serve the ruler with utmost loyalty. From the 11th-12th century, this right and duty was the exclusive right and domain of the Nairs, however, a few Brahmin sub-castes as well as a few others, such as one subgroup of the Illavas called the Tiyyas along with some Christians and Muslims were conferred this right and duty of training in arms and to fight duels to the death.

The Nairs

The Nairs are a warrior class indigenous to Kerala, whose military accomplishments brought them great privilege, fame and standing in society. They roamed about armed with a dagger and sword that never left their side, following a rigorous disciplined life; they fought on foot and were skilled in archery and the use of a spear. Young Nair boys and even girls would train from an early age in military knowledge, and the art of Kalari was important as the code of conduct and honor. Early medieval Kerala was made of a number of smaller kingdoms, and each was equipped with several thousand Nair warriors. Kalaripayaṭṭu, therefore, was not only central to the heritage of the Nair caste but even integral to the fabric of society, being widely known and practised.

Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer from the 16th century, described the life of a Nair, their dedication to the craft and their relationships with their Gurukkal and their sworn loyalty to their king.

“For the Nair, combat is a personal affair. Even though there may be a thousand men engaged in a battle, the Nair will avenge his king. He advances alone to meet his opponents, strong in his own science of combat, confident in his own ability to handle his weapons. The Nair are agile and highly skilled, fearless and disdainful of pain.”

Principles of Kalaripayaṭṭu

The art and tradition has, through its rigor and moral rectitude, maintained a pristine purity of thought, transmission of tradition and philosophy for centuries. Kalaripayaṭṭu is a living testimony of the code of conduct and sense of honor for the warrior practitioners.. In fact, it was their belief that once a sword was drawn, it must not be put back without being stained in blood. Its ten principles, rooted in its motto ‘nitya thozhil abhyāsam’ or ‘practice makes perfection’, which are cultivated in its practitioners, have been enumerated by the masters of Kalaripayaṭṭu as follows:

  1. Acadakkam — discipline
  2. Gurutvam — respect for the Guru
  3. Krithyaniṣṭha — regularity in ones practice
  4. Śaktiyulla śarīram manasu — strength of body and mind
  5. Kṣama — patience
  6. Vinayam — humility
  7. Manusvatvam — humanity
  8. Pāramparya Bahumānam — respect for tradition
  9. Ātmābhimānam, Dhīratā — self-esteem and courage
  10. Śānti — peace

The dark walls of the kalari, the scent of burning myrrh, the chanting of mantras and the ritual and spiritual atmosphere that is created play an important role in the formation of the character and the attitude of the student towards life. Kalari, therefore, is not a practice reducible to its set of “virtuosic body-techniques”; but rather, exists as a “set of potentialities of self, power, and agency inherent in che complex set of practices, discourses and representations through which a practitioner’s experience of practice is historically and contextually negotiated”. (Zarrilli, 1998)

Meditation and Spiritual Practice:

India’s martial arts developed within a highly philosophical and religious setting, and are therefore closely linked with such beliefs. Cultivating ekāgratā, the ideal phycological, physical and respiratory state of the ideal martial arts practitioner is said to take place when the “whole body becomes an eye” — meyya kannakuka — alluding to the concept of intuitive development of the mental state of ekāgratā or the sole focus of concentration (such as that exhibited by Arjuna in the Mahābhārata), with which an adept warrior is able to sense his entire environment at all times. Cultivating ekāgratā means to cultivate one’s deeper nature, and their recognition of their sense of self. As stated in the Agni Purāṇa, “He who has steadied his eye’s vision — both mental and physical — can vanquish even Yama, the god of death; vanquishing Yama means first of all vanquishing oneself.” The development of this advanced mental state along with physical hyper-awareness and sensibility is achieved only through continuous and disciplined practice of yoga, meditation, and prāṇāyāma, and not simply engaging with the art on a purely physical plane. The nature of the breath, and the ability to control breathing is linked with the quality of life, and with longevity. As Philip Zarrilli puts it,

“the practitioner’s ‘self’ is reconstituted through long-term practice to achieve agency, power and a type of behaviour which can be deployed personally, socially, even cosmologically.”

Mudra and Mantra

The use of mudras to evoke certain stances and states of mind while on the battlefield are seen in the practice of Kalaripayaṭṭu. The Nairs would combine the use of mudras with the chanting of certain mantras, while mentally concentrating on a particular nerve plexus or a psychic centre to produce what can only be called mystical or superhuman effects. The capacity to do this is cultivated through a meditative practice over years and even decades.

Kalaripayaṭṭu and Āyurveda

The blend of martial arts with medicine is a unique trait of Kalaripayaṭṭu. The Gurukkal is trained in a special form of treatment, called kalaricikitsa, based in Āyurveda and perfected through being passed on through generations of Gurukkals. The Gurukkals specialize in the treatment of orthopaedic and nervous disorders, and in the preparations of herbs and medicines. In India, Āyurvaidika treatment takes into account astrological considerations, invocations of the Gods, along with physical medications. It is a system that is not solely based in empiricism, but rather, intimately connected with the metaphysical, cosmological, and philosophical foundations of the civilization itself. A human being is considered as a whole, his mind, body and spirit seen inseparable and therefore treated as one. All prescriptions regarding nutrition, food habits, methods of cleansing and purifying the body, control of respiration and the heart rate — prāṇāyama, yogāsanas are drawn from Āyurveda, Yoga sūtras and even haṭha yoga texts.

The Art of Massage

Kalaripayaṭṭu has its own unique system of massage using the feet, called Uzhichil. The masseuse holds ropes attached to the ceiling and uses them to control the pressure of his feet on the body of the person stretched out on the floor beneath. This method is used for the more agile athletes, and those that are frailer such as children, women and the elderly are subject to massage using the hands. The depth and strength of the massage are tailored based on the fighter’s needs. The practitioner is expected to follow certain lifestyle restrictions while undergoing massage treatments: rest, a bland diet, sexual abstinence and staying away from cold and heat. The art of massage (and combat) is also linked with the ancient Āyurvaidika knowledge of pressure points, or marman as pointed out by Suśruta in his treatise, Marma Sūtras.

Kalaripayaṭṭu as a Complex System

Kalaripayaṭṭu can be imagined as a complex, tiered system in which all of its arenas of operation do not occur in isolation, but are rather, interlinked to form an entire institution in itself. The four arenas, according to Zarrilli are:

  1. the literal arena: including the kalari itself where training takes place;
  2. the social arena: including the Saṅgham (the governing body which oversees the running of the kalari), the common lineage or style of practice to which the kalari belongs, and formal associations;
  3. the arenas of cultural production: which generate representations of the martial arts; including in media, traditional cultural performances during including calendrical or seasonal festivals — where the contribution of kalari to arts such as Kathakali or Velakali, the transposition of Kalaripayaṭṭu into dance forms, is brought to the fore;
  4. the arena of experience and self-transformation: the crucible of the individual’s experience where embodied practice helps shape a self, as well as creates an own style and interpretation of the body-in-practice.

Decline and Resurrection

At the end of the 17th century Kalaripayaṭṭu was declared illegal by the British, and remained banned till India’s independence in 1947, due to an encounter of a British Captain with a kalari warrior, and his subsequent, presumably embarrassing, defeat. It remained alive only through the dogged and secret transmission of its practice and traditions by its masters. The investment of such an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and resources by a society in order to preserve this system that aimed to create cultural specialists of such embodied practices speaks to the true importance of the personal, social, ritual and/or cosmological realities that are created, enacted and perpetuated. (Zarrilli, 1998)

Kalaripayaṭṭu is an inextricable part of Kerala’s cultural and mytho-historical landscape, as a rich and vibrant part of Kerala’s, and by extension, India’s, cultural, spiritual, and educational heritage. Kalaripayaṭṭu is regarded as the fount of martial arts across Asia, as the oldest of the extant ones, which influenced other martial traditions of China and Japan. It is time that Kalaripayaṭṭu is given the recognition it deserves on a global scale, the same attention that others such as karate, kung fu, judo, tai chi etc. have received, given its “elder brotherly” status to all Asian martial arts. Kalaripayaṭṭu almost fell into oblivion, but is now being revived and is going through a renaissance thanks to widespread interest and the efforts of a few masters.

Kalaripayaṭṭu must be elevated, both as a traditional psychophysiological discipline and a ‘scientific’ system of physical culture, whose practice cultivates untold mental, physical and spiritual benefits — and not just as a fighting skill with practical benefits. In the coming decades, one of the agendas within Indic revivalism must be to exalt Kalari to the status it deserves, as an art, science, and a marker of the fierce martial tradition — a form of kṣatriyatā that formerly pervaded the Indian soil and would be indispensable to our civilisation once again in this age.


  1. Zarrilli, P. B. (1998). When the body becomes all eyes: paradigms, discourses, and practices of power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian martial art. India: Oxford University Press.
  2. Denaud, P. (2009). Kalaripayat: The Martial Arts Tradition of India. United States: Inner Traditions/Bear.

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