Kalaripayattu, Kerala

Kalaripayattu, Kerala

Often known as Kalari, Kalarippayattu is an ancient Indian martial art, that originated in ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala, a state on the southwestern coast of India. Known for its long-established history within Indian martial arts, Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest extant martial arts in India. The term Kalaripayattu is derived from a combination of two Malayalam words –Kalari which means battleground or training ground and payattu means training of martial arts, which translates as‘Practice in the arts of the battlefield’.

Kalaripayattu includes a variety of techniques such as strikes, grappling, kicks, joint locks, and weapon training. It is also known for its unique acrobatic movements, which are used to dodge attacks and gain an advantage over opponents. The training includes physical conditioning, flexibility, and meditation techniques.Kalaripayattu aims to achieve harmonious coordination between the mind and body, and it also emphasizes the development of expertise in traditional medicinal practices that are native to the region.

Kalaripayattu has significantly influenced other martial arts in the region, including silambam, thang-ta, and varma kalai. It has also gained popularity worldwide, with practitioners in countries such as the United States, Europe, and Australia.

In recent years, efforts have been made to preserve and promote Kalaripayattu as India’s cultural and sporting heritage. It is also recognized as one of the official sports in the state of Kerala.


Early History:

The origins of Kalaripayattu can be traced back to the ancient kingdom of Kerala in South India. The exact origins of the martial art are uncertain, but it is believed to have been developed by the warrior class known as Nairs, who used it for self-defense and combat training. Kalaripayattu was also influenced by other ancient Indian martial arts and Ayurvedic medicine.In its early history, Kalaripayattu was primarily used as a means of self-defense against wild animals and hostile tribes. However, as Kerala became more organized and developed a system of kingdoms and dynasties, Kalaripayattu became an important part of the military training of warriors.

Medieval History:

During the medieval period, Kalaripayattu evolved and incorporated techniques from other martial arts, such as Silambam, Thang-ta, and Varma Kalai. It was used in various battles and conflicts throughout Indian history, and practitioners gained a reputation for their skill and bravery on the battlefield.

However, Kalaripayattu faced a period of decline in the 16thcentury asmartial artswere suppressed by the ruling Zamorins of Calicut. The Zamorins banned the practice of Kalaripayattu in an attempt to weaken the power of the Nairs, who were the main practitioners of the martial art. Despite this, Kalaripayattu continued to be practiced in secret by dedicated practitioners.

Modern Practice:

During the year 1804, the Britishers banned Kalaripayattu in Kerala in reaction to the Kottayathu War, a revolution against British rule in Kerala led by the Keralite king Pazhassi Raja.The ban was implemented after the death of Pazhassi Raja on November 30, 1805, which resulted in the closure of most of the major Kalari training grounds in Kerala. However, many gurukuls of Kalaripayattu continued to teach martial art in secret despite the ban. Prominent gurukkals such as Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal, Kovilkandi Kelu Kurup Gurukkal, and Maroli Ramunni Gurukkal, learned and preserved Kalaripayattu, thus keeping the art form alive into the early twentieth century. Their efforts to preserve the martial art also led to the revival of Kalaripayattu in Kerala in the 1920s.

In the 20thcentury, efforts were made to revive and promote Kalaripayattu as India’s cultural and sporting heritage. Several institutions and organizations were established to train and teach martial art, and it gained recognition and popularity both within India and abroad.

Today, Kalaripayattu is widely practiced and is considered one of the oldest surviving martial arts in the world. It has also influenced other martial arts and combat systems in the region. Kalaripayattu schools can be found in many parts of India, particularly in Kerala, as well as in other countries around the world. The martial art is also recognized as an official sport in the state of Kerala, and efforts are being made to preserve and promote it as a cultural heritage of India.


According to legend, Parashurama, the sixth avatar and the warrior form of Lord Vishnu is believed to have learned the martial arts from Lord Shiva. He latertaught it to the original settlers of Kerala, after raising the land of Kerala from the ocean floor. In a Malayalam song, it is mentioned that Parashurama created Kerala and is credited with establishing the first 108 kalaris across the state. Additionally, he instructed the first 21 Kalaripayattu gurus in Kerala on the art of combat and defeating their enemies.

Distinguished Practices in different regions of Kerala

Kalaripayattu is practiced in different regions of Kerala with slight variations in techniques and styles. Some of the variations found in the different regions of Kerala include:

  • Northern Kerala– In this region, the emphasis is on the use of weapons, including the long stick, curved sword, and shield. The practitioners use acrobatic movements and jumps in their techniques.
  • Southern Kerala– In this region, the focus is on bare-handed combat techniques, with an emphasis on hand strikes, kicks, and grappling. The practitioners use fluid and circular movements in their techniques.
  • Central Kerala– This region emphasizes the use of weapons and bare-handed techniques equally. The practitioners use short sticks, knives, and swords, along with hand strikes and grappling.
  • Malabar region– The practitioners in this region emphasize quick movements and lightning-fast strikes. They also use various weapons, including swords, sticks, and spears. These regional variations reflect the local cultures and traditions of the respective regions of Kerala. However, despite these differences, the fundamental principles of Kalaripayattu, such as the coordination of mind and body, remain consistent throughout the state.

Kalaripayattu has two major styles - the Northern Style and the Southern Style, which are sometimes referred to as Vadakkan and Thekkan respectively. These styles differ in their techniques and movements and have distinct regional variations.

  • Northern Style– The Northern Style of Kalaripayattu is primarily practiced in the Malabar region of Kerala, and emphasizes the use of weapons such as the urumi (a flexible sword), churika (a small knife), and mace. This style also incorporates acrobatic movements, such as flips and jumps, and is known for its fast and dynamic footwork.
  • Southern Style – The Southern Style of Kalaripayattu, on the other hand, is primarily practiced in the Travancore region of Kerala and focuses on empty-handed combat and self-defense techniques. This style places a strong emphasis on grappling and joint-locking techniques and also incorporates breathing exercises and meditation into its practice.
Sum up

Kalaripayattu is a martial art that has deep roots in the culture and history of Kerala. With a history that dates back centuries, Kalaripayattu has evolved and adapted over time, giving rise to distinct regional styles and variations. The practice of Kalaripayattu emphasizes the coordination of mind and body, as well as the development of physical strength, agility, and mental discipline. Today, Kalaripayattu continues to be practiced and celebrated both in Kerala and beyond, as a testament to its enduring cultural significance and the continued passion and dedication of its practitioners.

Copyright 2012-2024 Indiamap Digital Private Limited. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy | Terms of Use