Country of origin India India
Parenthood Historic
Olympic sport No
Also transliterated: Kalaripayat
Kalari Payat
Kalari Payatt
Kalari Payattu
Kalari Payatta
Part of a series on
Indian martial arts
Wrestling: Malla-yuddha  · Pehlwani  · Musti yuddha  · Mukna  · Inbuan wrestling
Kalarippayattu: Silambam  ·
Marma ati  · Kuttu Varisai
Notable Practitioners
Phillip Zarrilli  · Jasmine Simhalan  · Gobar Guha  · Gulam  · Guru Hargobind  · John Will

Kalaripayattu (Malayalam: കളരിപ്പയറ്റ്), (Tamil: களரிப்பயட்டு) is an Indian martial arts originated in South India and is one of the oldest fighting systems in existence,[citation needed] it is practiced in present day Kerala and in contiguous parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka[1].

It was practiced primarily by the Nairs, the martial caste of Kerala,[2] and Ezhavas[3]. It was also practiced by a few Mappilas and Syrian Malabar Nasranis [4].

The Nadars practiced a similar form of martial art called Adi murai or Southern kalaripayattu. Some features of this Tamil Martial arts distinguished them from northern and central kalaripayattu. [5][6][7]

Kalari payat includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.[1] Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the northern style of the Malayalis, the southern style of the Tamils and the central style from inner Kerala. Northern kalari payat is based on the principle of hard technique, while the southern style primarily follows the soft techniques, even though both systems make use of internal and external concepts.

Some of the choreographed sparring in kalari payat can be applied to dance[1] and kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Some traditional Indian dance schools still incorporate kalari payat as part of their exercise regimen.[8]



The term kalari payattu is a tatpurusha compound from the words kalari (Malayalam:കളരി) meaning school or gymnasium and payattu (Malayalam:പയററ്) derived from payattuka meaning to "fight/ exercise" or "to put hard work into". In Tamil, kalari payattu is a compound from the words kalari meaning war fight and payattu derived from payattuka meaning "learning exercise"

Belying the assumption that the compound itself might have an equally antique use as the singular kalari and payattu, the unpublished Malayalam Lexicon notes that the earliest use of the compound, kalarippayattu is in Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer's early twentieth century drama Amba when it is probable that the systems of martial practice assumed a structure and style akin those extant today. M.D. Raghavan has suggested that kalari was derived from the Sanskrit khalrikג (parade ground, arena) while Burrow shares the generally accepted opinion that khalrikג and its root, khala- (threshing floor) are Dravidian loan words.



Oral folklore ascribes the creation of kalari payat to the Hindu gods. Historically, the art can be traced to the Middle Ages, or ca. the 11th to 12th century, more specifically to the account by historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai who attribtues the birth of kalari payat to an extended period of warfare between the Tamil Kingdoms Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century AD.[1]

The art was disseminated through the kalari, which served as active centres of learning before the modern educational system was introduced. Still in existence, these institutions were schools where students could assemble together and acquire knowledge on various subjects ranging from mathematics, language, astronomy and various theatrical arts. Martial arts were taught in the payattu kalari, meaning fight school.

Kalari payat became more developed during the 9th century and was practiced by a section of the Nair community, warrior clan of Kerala, to defend the state and the king. In the 11th and 12th century, Kerala was divided into small principalities that fought one-to-one wars among themselves. These duels or ankam were fought by Chekavar on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high.[9] The right and duty to practice martial arts in the service of a district ruler was most associated with Nairs and Ezhavas.[1] The Lohar of north Kerala were Buddhist warriors[10] who practiced kalaripayat.

The writings of early colonial historians like Varthema, Logan and Whiteway shows that kalari payat was widely popular and well established with almost all people in Kerala transcending gender, caste and communal lines. It is said to have eventually become as prevalent as reading and writing. Among some noble families, young girls also received preliminary training up until the onset of menses.[1] It is also known from the vadakkan pattukal ballads that at least a few women of noted Chekavar continued to practise and achieved a high degree of expertise.[1] The most famous of them was Unniarcha of Keralan folklore, a master with the urumi or flexible sword.

The earliest western account of kalari payat is that of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa (c. 1518).[1]

The more part of these warriors when they are seven years of age are sent to schools where they are taught many tricks of nimbleness and dexterity; there they teach them to dance and turn about and to twist on the ground, to take royal leaps, and other leaps, and this they learn twice a day as long as they are children, and they become so loose-jointed and supple that they make them turn their bodies contrary to nature; and when they are fully accomplished in this, they teach them to play with the weapon to which they are most inclined, some with bows and arrows, some with poles to become spearmen, but most with swords and bucklers, which is most used among them, and in this fencing they are ever practising. The masters who teach them are called Panikars.

Decline and revival

Kalari payat underwent a period of decline when the Nair warriors lost to the British after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century.[1] The British eventually banned kalaripayattu and the Nair custom of holding swords so as to prevent rebellion and anti-colonial sentiments. During this time, many Indian martial arts had to be practiced in secret and were often confined to rural areas.

The resurgence of public interest in kalari payat began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India[1] and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts.[11] In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularise the art, with it featuring in international and Indian films such as Ondanondu kaladalli ( Kannada ), Indian (1996), Asoka (2001), The Myth (2005), The Last Legion (2007), and also in the Japanese manga Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple.

Influence on other martial arts

Bodhidharma, was a Prince of the Tamil Pallava Dynasty and a Buddhist monk. During the early 5th century, Bodhidharma travelled from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu to Shaolin Monastery in china. He taught fighting skills to the chinese monks, which evolved into Shaolin Kung Fu and was heavily influenced by south Indian martial art forms such as Kalaripayattu, Silambam and Marma Adi. Japanese karate and some other asian martial art forms are said to have strong south Indian martial arts influence. Though these informations are disputed, it is accepted by many modern day historians.


There are several styles of kalari payat which can be categorised into three regional variants. These three main schools of thought can be distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns. The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk which uses photographs to show several kalari payat exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions.

Northern Kalaripayattu

Northern kalari payat is practiced mainly in North Malabar.[1] It places more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands.[1] Parashurama, sixth Avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the style's founder according to both oral and written tradition.[1] Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal or occasionally as asan, and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar.[1]

The northern style is distinguished by its meippayattu - physical training and use of full-body oil massage.[1] The system of treatment and massage, and the assumptions about practice are closely associated with ayurveda.[1] The purpose of medicinal oil massage is to increase the practitioners' flexibility, to treat muscle injuries incurred during practice, or when a patient has problems related to the bone tissue, the muscles, or nerve system. The term for such massages is thirumal and the massage specifically for physical flexibility chavutti thirumal which literally means "stamping massage" or "foot massage". The masseuse may use their feet and body weight to massage the person.

There are several lineages/styles (sampradayam), of which 'thulunadan' is considered as the best. In olden times, students went to thulunadu kalari's to overcome their defects (kuttam theerkkal). There are schools which teach more than one of these traditions. Some traditional kalari around Kannur for example teach a blend of arappukai, pillatanni, and katadanath styles.[9]

Southern Kalaripayattu

Jasmine Simhalan demonstrating kalari payat and silambam in Borobudur.

Southern kalari payat was practised mainly in old Travancore including the present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu[1] primarily by the Nadars and Mukkulathors.[1][5] Emphasising empty-hand techniques,[1][12] It is closely connected to Tamil silambam and Sri Lankan angampora. The founder and patron saint is believed to be the rishi Agastya rather than Parasurama.[1] Masters are known as 'asaan.[1] The stages of training are chuvatu (solo forms), jodi (partner training/sparring), kurunthadi (short stick), neduvadi (long stick), katthi (knife), katara (dagger), valum parichayum (sword and shield), chuttuval (flexible sword), double sword, kalari grappling and marma (pressure points).[9]

Zarrilli refers to southern kalari payat as varma ati (the law of hitting), marma ati (hitting the vital spots) or varma kalai (art of varma).[1] The preliminary empty handed techniques of varma ati are known as adithada (hit/defend).[1] Marma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots.[1] Weapons include bamboo staves, short sticks, and the double deer horns.[1]

Medical treatment in the southern styles is identified with siddha,[11] the traditional Dravidian system of medicine distinct from north Indian ayurveda. The siddha medical system, otherwise known as siddha vaidyam, is also attributed to Agastya.

Central Kalaripayattu

The Madhya Kalari(central style) of kalaripayat is practiced mainly in northern part of kerala although it is not to be mistaken with vadakkan(north) kalari.[1] It is not a composite of the northern and southern forms as in popular beliefs and has its own distinctive techniques, which are performed within floor paths known as kalam.[1] the madhya(central) kalari has many different styles, it gives heavy emphasis on the lower body strength and speed through thorough practice of various chuvadu, only after which you advance in to weaponry and advanced studies.[1]


Various kalari styles as specified in Vadakkan Pattukal,

kadathanatan kalari
Karuvancheri Kalari
Kodumala Kalari
Kolastri Nadu Kalari
Kurungot Kalari
Mathilur Kalari
Mayyazhi Kalari
Melur Kalari
Nadapuram Kalari
Panoor Madham Kalari
Payyampalli Kalari
Ponniyam Kalari
Puthusseri Kalari
Puthuram Kalari
Thacholi Kalari
Thotuvor Kalari
Tulunadan Kalari


Gurukkal praying before puttara CVN Kalari, Ettumanoor

Initiation ceremony

Students begin training at approximately seven years old with a formal initiation ritual performed by the gurukkal. On the opening day of the new session, a novice (mostly Nairs , Ezhavas in the olden days) is admitted to the kalari in the presence of the gurukkal or a senior student and directed to place their right foot first across the threshold. The student touches the ground with the right hand and then the forehead, as a sign of respect. He is then led to the guruthara, the place where a lamp is kept burning in reverence to all the masters of the kalari, to repeat this act of worship. He then offers the master some money as dakshina in folded betel leaves and prostrates himself, touching the master's feet as a sign of submission. The guru then places his hands on the pupil’s head, blesses him and prays for him. This ritual - touching the ground, puttara, guruthara and the guru’s feet - is repeated everyday. It symbolizes a complete submission to and acceptance of the master, the deva, the kalari and the art itself.[citation needed]

The kalari

A kalari is the school or training hall where martial arts are taught. They were originally constructed according to vastu sastra with the entrance facing east and the main door situated on the centre-right. Sciences like mantra saastra, tantra saastra and marma saastra are utilized to balance the space's energy level. The training area comprises a puttara (seven tiered platform) in the south-west corner. The guardian deity (usually an Avatar of Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva) is located here, and is worshipped with flowers, incense and water before each training session which is preceded by a prayer. Northern styles are practiced in special roofed pits where the floor is 3.5 feet below the ground level and made of wet red clay meant to give a cushioning effect and prevent injury. The depth of the floor protects the practitioner from winds that could hamper body temperature. Southern styles are usually practiced in the open air or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches.[1] Traditionally, when a kalari was closed down it would be made into a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity.


Specific commands associated with each exercise are called vaytari.


Kaalkal literally means legs. In the kalari context, it refers to kicks as well as leg-raising exercises (kaal eduppu) to increase flexibility.

  1. Paada chakram (round kick- inside to outside)
  2. Paada Bhramanam (round kick- outside to inside)
  3. ner kaal (straight kick)
  4. kon kaal (right to left, left to right kick)
  5. veethi kaal (round kick - inside out)
  6. ner-kona-veethi kaal (combined kick)
  7. thirichi kaal (both side kick - kick straight turn around and kick)
  8. aga kaal (round kick - outside in)
  9. iruththi kaal (kick and sit)
  10. iruththi kaal 2 (kick and sit - turn and sit)
  11. soochi kaal (kick and side split sit)
  12. soochi kaal 2 (kick and side split sit - turn and side split sit)


Kaikuththippayattu is a compound of kai (hand), kuththi (hit) and payattu (exercise). Originating from the Tulunadan lineage, it has been adopted into most other styles. It consists of punches, leg moves, stretches, twists, and jumps performed in a particular sequence. It is preceded by warm-ups or mukakattu. Like most exercises in kalari payat, kaikuththipayattu is divided into 18 stages and its complexity increases from one level to another..


Chumattadi teaches how to attack and defend against multiple opponents from all sides. Divided into 18 stages, it consists of punches, cuts, throws and blocks. The movements are repeated in four directions. This exercise should be practiced with intense speed and power.


Meipayattu concentrates on flexibility. Also divided into 18 stages, it is said to make the practitioner aggressive and increase battle awareness. This exercise should be practiced with speed and agility.


Adithada comes from the words for hit (adi) and block (thadu). Unlike the exercises mentioned above, adithada requires two or more practitioners. When one exponent attacks, the other blocks and then counter-attacks.


Ottotharam teaches how to use attacks as a form of defense. As with adithada, it is practiced by two exponent but the number can be increased as the students gain experience.


Training is divided into four main parts consisting of Meithari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai.

Meithari (മെയ്ത്താരി)

Meithari is the beginning stage with rigorous body sequences involving twists, stances and complex jumps and turns. Twelve meippayattu exercises for neuro-muscular coordination, balance and flexibility follow the basic postures of the body. Kalari payat originates not in aggression but in the disciplining of the self. Therefore the training begins with disciplining the physical body and attaining a mental balance. This is crucial for any person and not necessarily a martial aspirant. This first stage of training consists of physical exercises to develop strength, flexibility, balance and stamina. It includes jumps, low stances on the floor, circular sequences, kicks, etc. An attempt is made to understand and master each separate organ of the body. These exercises bring an alertness to the mind, and this alertness helps one understand some of the movements and processes of the self defense sequences that are taught at later stages.

Kolthari (കോല്തരി)

Once the student has become physically competent, they are introduced to fighting with long wooden weapons. The first weapon taught is the staff (kettukari), which is usually five feet (1.5 m) in length, or up to the forehead of the student from ground level. The second weapon taught is the cheruvadi or muchan, a wooden stick three palm spans long, about two and a half feet long or 75 cm. The third weapon taught is the otta, a wooden stick curved to resemble the trunk of an elephant. The tip is rounded and is used to strike the vital spots in the opponent's body. This is considered the master weapon, and is the fundamental tool of practice to develop stamina, agility, power, and skill. Otta training consists of 18 sequences.

Ankathari (അങ്കത്തരി)

Ankathari in which both opponents are armed with chuttuval and paricha

Once the practitioner has become proficient with all the wooden weapons, they proceed to Ankathari (literally "war training") starting with metal weapons, which require superior concentration due to their lethal nature. The first metal weapon taught is the kadhara, a metal dagger with a curved blade. Taught next are the sword (val) and shield (paricha). Subsequent weapons include the spear (kuntham), trident (trisool) and axe (venmazhu). Usually the last weapon taught is the flexible sword (urumi or chuttuval), an extremely dangerous weapon taught to only the most skillful students. Historically, after the completion of Ankathari, the student would specialize in a weapon of their choice, to become an expert swordsman or stick fighter for example.

Verumkai (വെറുംകൈ)

Only after achieving mastery with all the weapon forms is the practitioner taught to defend themselves with bare-handed techniques. These include arm locks, grappling, and strikes to the pressure points (marmam). This is considered the most advanced martial skill so the gurukkal restricts knowledge of marmam only to very few trusted students.

Marmashastram and massage

Practitioners meditate to develop inner energy.

It is claimed that learned warriors can disable or kill their opponents by merely touching the correct marmam (vital point). This is taught only to the most promising and level-headed persons, to discourage misuse of the technique. Marmashastram stresses on the knowledge of marmam and is also used for marma treatment (marmachikitsa). This system of marma treatment comes under siddha vaidhyam, attributed to the sage Agastya and his disciples. Critics of kalari payat have pointed out that the application of marmam techniques against neutral outsiders has not always produced verifiable results . The earliest mention of marmam is found in the Rig Veda where Indra is said to have defeated Vritra by attacking his marman with a vajra.[13] References to marman also found in the Atharva Veda.[14] With numerous other scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that India's early martial artists knew about and practised attacking or defending vital points.[15] Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita.[16] Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.[17] Sushruta's work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda, which was taught alongside various Indian martial arts that had an emphasis on vital points, such as varma kalai and marma adi.[17]


As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgeable in the field of traditional medicine and massage. Kalari payat teachers often provide massages (Malayalam: uzhichil) with medicinal oils to their students in order to increase their physical flexibility or to treat muscle injuries encountered during practice. Such massages are generally termed thirumal and the unique massage given to increase flexibility is known as katcha thirumal. It is said to be as sophisticated as the uzhichil treatment of ayurveda. Kalari payat has borrowed extensively from ayurveda and equally lends to it.


Techniques (atavu) in kalari payat are a combination of steps (chuvatu) and stances (vadivu). There are five steps and northern styles have ten postures (Ashta Vadivukal). Each stance has its own power combination, function and set of techniques. All the eight postures are based on animals.

Stances (Vadivu)
Gajavadivu Elephant stance
Simhavadivu Lion stance
Asvavadivu Horse stance
Varahavadivu Boar stance
Sarpavadivu Snake stance
Marjaravadivu Cat stance
Kukkuvadivu Rooster stance
Matsyavadivu Fish stance (Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar and the C.V.N. Style)
Mayuravadivu Peacock stance (Gurukkal P. K. Balan Style)
Steps (Chuvatu)
Vatta Chuvatu
Circular steps
Aakka Chuvatu
Inside steps
Neekka Chuvatu
Moving steps
Kon Chuvatu
Corner steps
Ottakkal Chuvatu
Single-leg steps



Although no longer used in sparring sessions, weapons are an important part of kalari payat. This is especially true for the northern styles which are mostly weapon-based. Some of the weapons mentioned in medieval Sangam literature have fallen into disuse over time and are rarely taught in kalari payat today.

Weapons currently used in kalaripayat
Kalaripayattu weapons.jpg
Short stick
Long stick
Short sword
Deer-horn dagger
Curved stick
Flexible sword
Weapons historically used in kalaripayat
Ambum Villum
Bow and arrow

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ http://books.google.co.in/books?id=hISikpYZ9hYC&pg=PA48
  3. ^ Heniger, J. (1986). Hortus Malabaricus: A Contribution to the History of Dutch Colonial Botany. CRC Press. p. 50. ISBN 9789061916819. http://books.google.co.in/books?id=8VWN_LnFZKwC&pg=PA50&vq=silgos&dq=Silgos+fencing&source=gbs_search_s&cad=0. Retrieved 2008-11-25. 
  4. ^ http://repository.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/2066/65537/1/65537_kala.pdf Kalarippayat: The structure and essence of a Indian martial art- D.H. Luijendijik
  5. ^ a b [1] Martial arts of the world: an encyclopedia, Volume 1 By Thomas A. Green
  6. ^ The Encyclopedia of religion, Volume 9 By Mircea Eliade, Charles J. Adams. p.225
  7. ^ http://books.google.co.in/books?id=DuwUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA71
  8. ^ Luijendijk 2008
  9. ^ a b c Luijendijk, D.H. (2005). Kalarippayat: India's Ancient Martial Art. Paladin Press. ISBN 1-58160-480-7. 
  10. ^ KALARI
  11. ^ a b Zarrilli 1992
  12. ^ Zarrilli 1992
  13. ^ Mariana Fedorova (1990). Die Marmantheorie in der klassischen indischen Medizin.
  14. ^ Subhash Ranade (1993). Natural Healing Through Ayurveda (p. 161). Passage Press. Utah USA.
  15. ^ Zarrilli, Phillip B. A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and Ayurvedic Paradigms. University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  16. ^ G. D. Singhal, L. V. Guru (1973). Anatomical and Obstetrical Considerations in Ancient Indian Surgery Based on Sarira-Sthana of Susruta Samhita.
  17. ^ a b J. R. Svinth (2002). A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports. Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences.

Further reading

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