The Cultural Transition
The changes that
were taking place at the basic strata of society influenced the
superstructural elements of ideological and cultural life. This
observation is applicable to 'Kalari' system also. The shift of
importance from the early medieval 'Salais' to the medieval 'Kalaris'
implies a transference of emphasis from the temple-oriented Brahmin
settlements to the newly developed agrarian settlements, which gave
importance to cash crops production and trade.
of the characteristic features of these medieval agrarian settlements is
their relative isolation, which resulted in the localisation of goods
and services. Local dialects, cults, cultural expressions and such other
traits of different sub-regions in Kerala sprang up from the
Medieval principalities and chiefly families maintained military groups
of their own. This practice of maintaining local militia can be traced
back to the period of Nadu formation in Kerala during the Perumal rule.
The Perumal had a capital force of thousand groups of soldiers under
thousand 'Nayakas' or 'Nayar' captains.
Each of these groups consisted of ten soldiers. Similarly, the 'Nadu'
chieftains had the 'Hundred Organisations' under them. Medieval
inscriptional records speak of such military organisations like the
'Munnurruvar', the three Hundred; 'Anjuttuvar', the Five Hundred;
'Arunuttuvar', the Six Hundred and 'Ezhunuttuvar', the Seven Hundred of
different 'Nadu' divisions.
These local militia with some of their old features continued to exist
in the subsequent period of the principalties in the name of
'Changatham', 'Chaver', 'Lokar' and 'Akampati Janam'.
It is believed that these bands of soldiers belonging to different
communities in the middle ages must have risen out of such companions of
honour, originally conceived as body guards of the rulers and local
authorities and developed into a landed aristocracy supporting the
established order with military power.
The fighters' function was
not limited to settling rivalry among political authorities alone.
Often, they were invited for settling disputes between ordinary people.
This practice of fighters for judicial purposes resulted in the
emergence of a peculiar institution of 'Ankam', (single combat).
Interestingly, this institution of 'Ankam' with the same name was
prevalent in Sri Lanka, which developed there around the Kandyan country
in the middle ages. The subject matter of a moving folk narrative in
Malayalam is the tragic story of an 'Ankam' fighter who lost his life
while fighting for settling a dispute between two members of family.
Regular income in the treasury during the rule of the princely states
in Kerala included the fees levied on 'Ankam' combats, which was to be
collected from the disputing parties. Thus, the martial spirit of Kerala
was actively participating in the social and political life of Kerala in
the middle ages.
Medieval travellers have left
behind their observations on the 'Kalari' system in Malabar. These
writings by foreigners generally contain an idea that 'Nairs' alone
formed part of the soldiers of the kings. The social groups of Kerala
who practised and mastered the techniques of Kalarippayattu included,
besides 'Nayars', the 'Izhavas', 'Pulayas', 'Parayas', Christians and
The 'Tottam' invocation songs of the 'Teyyam' performance of North
Malabar refer to some 'Pulaya' heroes who conducted eighteen 'Kalaris'
in different parts of the region. Heroic lays of the central Travancore
mention a Paraya hero, Chengannur Ali who was a master of the techniques
Some of the celebrated heroes of Malayalam folk songs belong to the
Izhava community. They are usually called 'Chekor'. There were Muslim
Gurukkals who were masters in the Tulu techniques. The Christians of
Kerala too had their own military men. The native records of
principalities mention some Christian local chieftains and their
soldiers who were well-versed with traditional warfare.
Each 'Desam', which was a unit of administration in traditional Kerala,
had its 'Kalari' and each 'Kalari' was under the supervision of its
guru, who was differently known in different areas as 'Panikkar',
'Kuruppu', etc. Originally, these were only names of profession but
later they became names of sub-caste.
That these were once upon a time names of profession is further
supported by the fact that both these names are found as suffixes not
only among Nayars but also among other caste-groups of Izhavas and
Kaniyans and even among non-Hindu communities. The 'Kalaris' imparted
training in literacy, body-building and warfare/weapony.
Both men and women were admitted to the course. Medieval Malayalam
folklore bear testimony to the high level of expertise achieved by women
in Kerala in the fighting techniques.
Members of the royal families were trained in Kalarippayattu under
their family gurus who were endowed with property and special status.
Thamme Panikkar or Dharmothu Panikkar was the training master of the
royal family of the Zamorins of Calicut.
Subversion Of A Tradition
continued uninterruptedly until the occupation of Malabar by the English
East India Company in 1792 AD. The Company was particular in destroying
the traditional military character of the community of Malabar.
Kalaripayattu is the vibrant, traditional martial art form of Kerala
and is richly blended with its cultural heritage. The term 'Kalari'
denotes a gymnasium where proper training is imparted for mind as well
'Payattu' literally means training or exercise but in the present
context it connotes training in the traditional style of combat. After a
long set back during the colonial rule, the 'Kalari' systems in Kerala
are being revitalised with new enthusiasm.
The revival of this martial art has been made possible largely due to
the efforts of some families of 'Kalari' masters as well as the
encouragement offered by the cultural organisations and the Government
The Objectives Of The Art
The techniques of
Kalaripayattu were used at one time in the battlefields. In the modern
times, Kalaripayattu has no role in battlefields and its importance is
confined to three aspects:
- It is a good exercise to alert the body and mind.
- It is a very good visual art.
- It is useful for self-defence.
In Kalaripayattu, starting from simple breathing exercises, a person
can awaken the total dynamism of his body and can tune it in a way he
Moreover the study of Kalaripayattu will enable a person to develop
four powers ('karuthu') which are:
- Meikaruthu: power of the body.
- Manakaruthu: power of the mind.
- Ankakaruthu: power to combat.
- Ayudhakaruthu: power to wield weapons.
The Genesis Of A Great Art
There is no
recorded history of Kalaripayattu and the chronology of its development
is still in the midst of obscurity.
But the available historical evidence says that the form as practised
today, evolved between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.
Various mythological stories and legends are attributed to the origin
of the art, by the traditional 'Kalari' masters. According to them,
Parasurama, the mythical creator of Kerala, instituted 108 'Kalaris' all
over the land. This legend on the origin of the institution propagated
by Keralolpathi, still lingers in the minds of the Keralites.
Some masters believe that the 'Kalari' system originated out of the
wrath of Lord Siva while in his fury, to destroy Daksha yagna.
Parasurama, Lord Siva's disciple, is supposed to have studied this art
from him and handed it over to his 21 disciples in Kerala. All such
legends propagate the theory that this martial art was brought to Kerala
by the Brahmins.
The first historical interpretation of the origin of the 'Kalari'
system was given by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. He points out that this
fighting art emerged during the 12th century from the military exigency
of the "Hundred Years War" between the Cheras and the Cholas.
The theory that 'Kalaripayattu' originated during the 'Hundred Years
War' has been now discarded as the very occurrence of the war has been
questioned and hence, the possibility of the martial art having
originated during that period has lost ground.
Extent Of Tradition
usually described as an indigenous martial art of Kerala but similar
cultural traits and institutions are found in other regions of South
India and Sri Lanka. The 'Garadi' of the 'Tulu' speaking 'South Canara'
is an example.
It is interesting to note that the 'Tulu' system of training was
considered to be of higher level of learning by the traditional Malabar
system. The heroes of the folk narratives of north Malabar are eulogised
as masters of the 'Tulu' techniques. Further, some of the 'Kalari'
masters in Kerala trace their origin to the Tulu speaking areas in
Studies in the Sri Lankan martial traditions have shown that a good
deal of reciprocity of relations is traceable in the culture of Kerala
and Sri Lanka. The 'Kandyan Haramba Salawa 'and the 'Kalari' of Kerala
are comparable institutions.
A number of words such as 'Angam', 'Paniker', 'Carika', 'Sevakam',
'Palisha', etc. in the Sri Lankan language, in the context of medieval
'Angam' fight suggest their relationship with the system which prevailed
in Kerala in the middle ages.
After the salutations in
favour of the superior elements, the student is given the first system
of exercise called 'Angasadhana' for placing the soles of the feet. The
firm step on the ground is called 'Akkachuvadu'; and movements of the
sole in jumps are known as'chattachuvadu'.
The circular movement is known 'Vattachuvadu'. The student, during his
feet exercise moves from eastern side to the western side. The feet and
hands are raised and moved according to the sequences and in strict
accordance with 'Vaythari' of 'gurukkal'.
These practices including 'Meippayattu' for several months make the
student fit for the training in the use of weapons. After imparting the
body training, a student is initiated to the use of weapons. The
'Muchan', also called 'Cheruvati' is a smaller stick about 22 inches in
length and used to give powerful blows and also to resist the blows from
Then, he is initiated to the use of metallic weapons like 'Kathi'
(dagger), Sword, 'Kuntham' (spear) and 'Urumi'. The Gada is also
practised in some ''Kalaris'. The training in the use of metallic
weapons requires more dexterity and agility of the body.
The combatants trained in the use of these weapons were recruited as
the soldiers in the medieval and late medieval period in Kerala.
Kerala, as a distinct socio-political region from the rest of south
India, has witnessed a large number of classical and folk art forms.
Many of these art forms have an uninterrupted continuity over centuries,
as an integral part of socio-religious life of people in this
Their origin is shrouded in mystery and it's not possible to trace in
the absence of authentic sources. However, most of these art forms had
developed during the medieval period when Malayalam language and
literature had found their natural growth on account of new historical
forces and the interactions made by different ethnic and social groups.
In all forms where the human body plays an important role, one can see
the common element of physical culture or body-system. The art forms of
Kerala visualise this fact in form and content. The physical culture or
body system is a matter of rigorous training that has to be materialised
through conscious and constant practices.
Infuence On Dance Forms
For classical arts like Kathakali, or Koottiyattam, the body is the
sole means of expression. Therefore, body is to be prepared for this
high function through a rigorous course of physical exercise. It can be
done only by daily massage with medicated oils, which is intended to
develop suppleness and grace for articulating the expressive capacity of
the various parts of the human body.
In reality, the artist or the dancer is trained in the 'Kalari' system
and taught the body exercises with severe discipline. In foot movements
of the body, and the 'Tandava' dance, which is both masculine and
vigorous, the artist requires the dynamic skill imparted through the
'Kalarippayattu'. Therefore, even a training centre of Kathakali is
known as 'Kalari', being devoted to the development of physical culture.
The medieval period in Kerala had witnessed frequent wars and invasions
among the ruling chieftains and these aspects had already promoted the
'Kalari' system and had brought into training, a large number of
combatants. The impact of this new development could be seen on
performing arts like Kathakali that many of these ruling houses had
patronised just as they had patronised the medieval soldiers or
The growing awareness for developing a proper physical culture through
'Kalarippayattu' had really contributed to the expression and growth of
the classical art forms. In the same way, the body training became an
essential requirement for performing many of the folk dances of the
These art forms had been patronised by the peasants, artisans and
labourers. The common man's aesthetic imagination had greatly subscribed
to the growth of these art forms in Kerala. Many of them have a
religious and ritual background and are performed in sacred centres or
in the local village shrines of gods and goddesses.
One of such art forms widely prevalent in Kasaragod and Cannanore
districts is 'Poorakkali'. As an art form, it demands the rigorous
training of the artist to develop a strong physical culture of the body
with quick movements. Massage and physical exercise as found in
Kalarippayattu are essential requirements for performing this art, as
the dancer has to do acrobatics while the entire group moves on in
The performance is closely related to the peasant culture of the
region. This performance had also originated in the medieval period
after the development and growth of Kalarippayattu. Most probably, this
art form must have come into prominence to maintain the physical culture
and the religious rituals associated with the local shrines.
Effect On Ritual Art Form
Another ritual art form, which is indebted to the 'Kalari' system is
the performance of 'Teyyam'. Many heroes are deified and worshipped by
the village folk. The heroes like Kativanur Veeran, Mandappan,
Pumarutan, Tacholi Othenan and Oor Pazhassi are some of the famous
Teyyam deities in North Malabar.
The performance of such teyyams is closely connected to the 'Kalari'
system as the dancer or the artist has to present the martial dance
also. He imitates the transformation of a hero with divine power and as
such performs all actions of a combatant, fighting with sword and shield
in the hands.
His footwork and body action demand excellent training as imparted in
the 'Kalari' system. Apart from these ritual performances, there are
secular art forms like Tacholikkali and 'Kolkkali'.
They also demand excellent body training to make the artist quick in
body movements. Like Poorakkali, these arts forms had developed as an
integral part of peasant culture during the medieval period. In brief
the 'Kalari' system and its growth in the medieval feudal order had
greatly influenced the development of classical and folk art forms.
Oil massage, physical exercise, acute body-bending, use of shield and
sword are the common features of many of these art forms and
Kalarippayattu. In reality the 'Kalari' system has not only influenced
the growth of these art forms but it has shaped the trends of medieval
culture of Kerala society.
The Revival Of A Great Art
During the modern period, although Kalaripayattu had lost its
significance under the British rule, the devoted gurukkals with all
their efforts transmitted the tradition from one generation to the
other. They kept alive the 'Kalari' tradition and the know-how in the
rural areas as a matter of charity and cured many body ailments through
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when European circus
companies came to Malabar in places like Tellicherry, some of the native
gurus, well trained in the 'Kalari' system found it easy to imitate some
of the body practices adopted by circus artists.
This new attempt was made under the leadership of late Keeleri
Kunhikannan Gurukkal in Tellicherry who initiated several circus groups
in Kerala and became the father of Indian circus. In a land, where the
'Kalari' gymnastic tradition was deeply rooted, the new experiments in
circus training became a great success.
In reality, the Indian tradition of circus has something to do with
'Kalari' gymnastic training and body culture. After independence, some
attention had been given by the Government and other agencies to promote
Kalaripayattu and its training. These activities have been responsible
to create considerable interest in this physical art form.
institutions of 'Kalari' are generally traced to the period immediately
after the disintegration of the Perumals of Kodungallur in the first
quarter of the twelfth century A.D. It was an integral part of the
socio-political system of medieval Kerala.
Politically, the land of Kerala was divided into a number of
principalities and minor chieftaincies. The alignment and enmities of
these power centres resulted in constant warfare. Small scale skirmishes
and large-scale fightings were not uncommon among these local and
In such a set-up, each power centre was forced to maintain a body of
fighters at the beck. Systematic training and strict rules of discipline
for fighters were indispensable for an effective working of the system.
It was in such circumstances that the 'Kalaris', which provided the
institutional base for the body building and training in combat, became
not only necessary but also essential.
During the Chera period (C, 800-1125 A.D.) there were in Kerala several
'Salais', which were institutions for imparting training in letters,
weaponry and many other branches of medieval learning including
traditional sciences, black magic, etc. The 'Salais' were attached
mostly to temples.
These institutions enjoyed liberal patronage from the ruling houses.
The members of the 'salais' were Brahmin students who played an
important role in upholding the rights of the 'Brahmin sabhas' and the
power of their royal patrons.
These 'Salais' can be equated with the 'Ghatikas', which were in no
significant way different from the 'Salais'. Thus, the tradition of
South Indian martial training with its institutional support can be
traced back to the early medieval period.
'Kalari' - Structural Features
folk narratives and technical literature furnish long lists of different
types of 'Kalaris'. The popular 'Pattukatha', ballads of Malabar speak
of 'Ankakkalari', 'Totuvor Kalari', 'Totukalari', etc., without giving
any details of the structure and function.
Technical writings are more specific about the structure and function
of the 'Kalaris'. 'Netumkalari', 'Kurumkalari', 'Totukalari',
'Cherukalari' are mentioned by them.
A more scientific and specific categorisation of 'Kalaris' is in terms
of the measurement of the ground plan of the 'Kalari' Structure. Thus,
the following types can be identified:
- Aimpatteerati 52 ft.
- Nalpatteerati 42 ft.
- Muppatteerati 32 ft.
- Patinetteerati 18 ft.
- Panteerati 12 ft.
The nomenclature, which is on the basis of the measurement of the
ground speaks about the size of the structure that ranges between twelve
feet and fifty two feet. The most common among these is the
'nalpatteerati', (forty-two feet in length). All 'Kalaris' except the
'Panteerati' bear a width that is half of the length. 'Panteerati' is
square with the same length and breadth.
The 'Kalaris' of the northern parts of Kerala are called
'Kuzhikkalari'. 'Kuzhi', meaning a pit because the soil is dug out from
the ground of the structure. Generally a ''Kalari'' is 42 feet long and
21 feet wide, the enclosing space dug out to a depth of about 6 feet.
It is protected from the heavy rain and the sun by a gabled roof, which
is thatched by plaited coconut leaves or palm leaves. Its sides are also
covered with the same material. The surface of the ground is kept evenly
rammed and smooth. 'Kannimoola', the southern-western corner of the
''Kalari'' ground is considered to be sacred to the 'Kalariparadevata'.
This is demarcated by a 'Poothara', platform of flowers, with varying
number of steps in semi-circular shape narrowing towards the top. A
place for the guru, preceptor, also is demarcated and this is called
'Guruthara'. There is a whole metaphysical belief system according to
which the structure of 'Kalari' symbolized the universe.
This, along with several other features, betrays a layer of
sanskritisation or adopting the paradigms of the great tradition of
India but the material art form with all its techniques and expertise is
at home in the far south, as a part of 'little tradition' or regional
The Rigorous Training
The 'Kalari' training is based on an
elaborate system of physical exercises. The practical experience of the
body movements strengthens the knowledge of a disciple. Constant
practice adds to agility and strength. At the age of seven, the student
is recruited for his training under a 'Gurukkal'.
Oil massage or 'Uzhichal' is an essential part of the training. The
verbal commands of the 'Gurukkal' known as 'Vayttari' are obeyed and
repeated to grasp the body movements. Each combination of step and
gesture is known as 'Adavu'. Each of them helps to recollect memory and
leads to correct movements.
The training or the system has a metaphysical dimension as it was
practised everywhere in Kerala. The students arrive at dawn with empty
stomach. They are wrapped in a six feet long and one feet wide cotton
cloth tightly wound around their waist. This cloth is named 'Kachha'.
The combatants generally used to wear red-kacha made out of silk over
which a belt is also tied to strengthen the waist.
This pre-set sequence of movements is the rudiment of Kalarippayattu.
Actually, it is a body controlling exercise to master balancing in air
and ground. There is a hidden secret element in these movements, every
imaginable combination of offensive and defensive attacks and movements
This section involves training in wooden weapons.
This is the combat training section of metal weapons.
Self-defence with empty hands. Here a student learns how to face an
armed man, using only his limbs, and also learns vital points and locks.
Kalarippayattu masters of yesterday and today are ayurvedic doctors.
Marma therapy, massage therapy, Bone setting, Yoga therapy, Pizhichil,
Dhara, Kizhi are the important branches of 'Kalari' treatments.
As food is a necessity for an organism from birth to death, so is
massage to the human organism. Massage excites the internal resources
and provides nourishment in the form of proteins, glucose and other
vitalising chemicals, which are within the system.
It also works as a cleanser and helps the organism in discharging
toxins out of the body through sweat, urine and mucuous, thus
rejuvenating the body.
Ritual: Obeisance To The Deities
Although the 'Kalari' is an empty space, for a student, that space has
all meaning of life and the supernatural. It is an abode of deities and
the several generations of gurus who had initiated the disciples into
training from generation to generation.
The student makes a ritual touch of earth with right hand and
propitiates the goddess of earth. The touching of the forehead with
right hand shows his reverence to the deities of knowledge.
Then ' Lord Hanuman' and 'Garuda' are also propitiated with proper
gestures and touches. The deities like seven mothers at 'Poothara' and
gods like 'Shiva' are also propitiated. Both peace and destruction are
symbolised in the '''Kalari''' space.