The tradition of Kalaripayattu

The tradition of Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu is the oldest existing martial art form, and its tradition dates back more than 12,000 years. The word Kalaripayattu comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Khaluriga,’ which means warfare. It is the most dangerous martial art because of the application of power and speed to ‘marma’ (pressure) points of the body. According to tradition, this art originated from the Dhanurveda, which encompasses all the fighting arts. It is  one of the eighteen traditional branches of knowledge according to the Vishnu Purana.

Origins of the Kalaripayattu tradition

Kalaripayattu is indigenous to the Southern state of Kerala, which the sixth incarnation of Vishnu Lord Parashuram is said to have created from the ocean. In order to protect this land, Parashuram passed his knowledge of Kalaripayattu to his 21 disciples. According to tradition, he then sent these disciples to various parts of Kerala. Keralites therefore consider Kalaripayattu to be God’s own martial art that has the power to protect God’s own country. The knowledge of this art has passed through many generations, from its beginning to the present day.

Because the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma took Kalaripayattu from India to China in the fifth century, Kalaripayattu is also the predecessor of Chinese martial arts. Once it was brought to China, practitioners of Kalaripayattu merged the art with existing fighting forms. This merging marked the birth of Kung Fu.

Later in the tenth century, the Portuguese traveler Durad Barbossa recorded in his travel log that he witnessed the Nair warriors practicing this art.

Kalaripayattu is part of the honour, inheritance and culture of India, especially of the Keralites. Their warrior clan believed that fighting for the sake of the country was a great honour and practiced the art as their birthright. Centuries ago, the Travancore armies fought many wars using these techniques, including three wars against the Dutch navy. Veluthampi the Great and Pazhassi Raja are just two of many warriors who used this martial arts against the British. Intimidated by these freedom fighters, the British banned the martial art during their rule in India. Those who wished to preserve the art had to practise Kalaripayattu in secret.

The two schools

There are two distinct traditions of teaching: the Northern and the Southern schools. In the Northern tradition masters lay the emphasis on progressing from body exercises to combat with weapons, and finally to unarmed combat. In the Southern tradition, the patron saint of Kalaripayattu is the sage Agastya, whose strength and powers of meditation are legendary. The Southern tradition emphasizes footwork, movement and the ability to strike at ‘marmas’ in the opponent’s body, 108 of which are lethally vulnerable.

One who practises Kalaripayattu learns how to fight and defend oneself. But he does not only strengthen the body. Rather, he trains the body and mind together through the spiritual nature of the art. Once the body and mind are strong, the two are synchronised into one channel, a crucial part of the practitioner’s spiritual progress. Kalaripayattu therefore has an essential role to play in eradicating the root causes of moral degeneration. Additionally, it helps students to grow physically and mentally strong to become confident, respected and disciplined citizens of India.

At this time of the century, the tradition of Kalaripayattu is trying to stay alive, gasping for breath in this modern era. Guru Balachandran Nair, also known as Satguru Hanuman Das, is one of the few masters who still dedicates his life to keeping the tradition alive.