Originating in Kerala, India, Kalaripayattu is often referred to as “the original martial art” that many claim spread to China via Bodhidharma in the 5th century, giving rise to today’s various Chinese Martial Arts styles. While there is little historic evidence to support this notion, it is still to this day among one of the oldest fighting systems around.
The earliest reference to this form of martial art stems from Sangam literature dating back to the 3rd century B.C. The word “kalari” means both “battlefield” and “combat area.” During this period, warriors were trained in military tactics and also specialized in the use of weapons namely, spears, swords, shields, as well as bows and arrows. These combat techniques were said to be the origins of Kalari as a martial art.
After almost a century of suppression under British rule, interest in Kalaripayattu surged during the 1920s as traditional arts were rediscovered in South India and then again in the 1970s when martial arts became popular worldwide. Today, Kalaripayattu schools can be found all over the country.
The martial art has been featured in several recent films, and its popularity continues to grow with the establishment of a national tournament in 2013. The most recent tournament this May attracted about 1,000 participants from 24 Indian states.
There are three regional versions of Kalaripayattu based on the particular location in Kerala. Each style is unique in terms of attack and defense methods. There is the northern style from the Malabar region in North Kerala, which is largely weapon-based, while the southern style of Thiruvitankoor is hard impact, focusing on empty hand combat. The central style of inner Kerala is a combination of both.