Originating in Kerala, India, Kalaripayattu is often referred to as “the original martial arts” 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.

rooster posture indian martial arts Kalaripayattu
A female martial artist stands in rooster posture
Ranjan Mullaratt

Kalaripayattu and other South Asian martial arts have also influenced and inspired yoga, dance, and the performing arts. According to Black Belt magazine,

“The first written records of Indian combat appeared in the Lotus Sutra (600-500 B.C.), in which it was written that nata (a form of boxing) was learned through dancing.”

Kalaripayattu is taught in training halls or schools known as a “kalari.”

These kalaris served as centers of learning before the education system was formalized. Subjects taught at these plaecs included mathematics and languages as well as astronomy and acting. Kalaris that taught payattu, known as “kalari payattu,” served as de facto fighting schools.

Training usually starts out with lessons in balance and flexibility, requiring speed, agility and body coordination. Those who wish to become masters often study Ayurveda medicine and human anatomy, including understanding the vital nervous points.

Most Kalaripayattu practitioners are also versed in massage and treatment to care for and heal injured muscles. Kalaripayattu is still considered a functional style because it is a mixed martial art making use of striking, wrestling, and ground fighting.

Quite possibly one of the oldest Kalaripayattu practitioners, Meenakshi Gurukkal, 74, has been practicing for 68 years. Her father encouraged her to start learning as a young child despite the fact that there were only a few girls learning at that time.

According to an article from The News Minute, “around 150 students learn Kalaripayattu in her school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam…Techniques have been passed down through generations, written in a palm ‘booklet’, grey and delicate with age.”

indian martial arts Kalaripayattu pose
An indian sanpar martial artist practicing ancient martial arts techniques

Meenakshi said that apart from teaching, she practices only when she has a show and averages 60 performances per year. Her school runs on a no fees basis and was started with her husband, Raghavan Master. According to The News Minute, he wanted to make “Kalaripayattu accessible to everyone.” Meenaskhi, who has been teaching Kalaripayattu at the school since she was 17, believes they have accomplished their goal.

V.A. Shiad, national secretary of the Indian Kalaripayattu Federation, tells The Hindu newspaper that the martial art has “quietly grown into a popular sports form among enthusiasts.” And Ranjan Mullaratt, the guru for the 19-member team from Karnataka says in the same article that:

“Young people are keen to take up the martial art form and it was gaining ground fast.”

This renewed interest has also spread overseas, as there are now Kalaripayattu federations in 32 countries. Kalaripayattu will be eligible to be considered for the Olympics once there are at least 40 countries with federations. As a result, this can only help in bringing Kalaripayattu further into the global spotlight.

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