Kalaripayattu – The combat where the mind takes over the body and creates art, not war
Kalaripayattu, a fabulous form of martial arts originated in a part of the world which is renowned for its mythological and mystical background. A land that is vibrant with a diverse culture and a combination of many religions. Yes, this pure combination of the physical, mental and perceptive form of arts was born in India.
Kalaripayattu, the ancient form of martial arts includes yogic perfection of postures and strength, and its medical treatments are based on the science of Ayurveda. This skilled art is performed in Kerala and adjacent parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well as northeastern Sri Lanka and among the Malayalee community of Malaysia. One of the oldest form of martial arts; Kalaripayattu is known for its high-flying acrobatics, fluid water like movements and weaponry and the art of using it. The term Kalaripayattu is derived from two words – “kalari” meaning school or gymnasium and “payattu” derived from payattuka meaning to fight or exercise, or to put hard work into.
The practice of Kalaripayattu is said to have originated from ‘Dhanur Veda’ – an ancient Indian text which means the “science of archery”, it encompassed all the traditional fighting arts. The explicit concern in Dhanur Veda texts is not with battlefield strategies, but with training in martial techniques. This form of art is indigenous to Kerala. As per the legends, the warrior saint Parashurama the sixth incarnation of Vishnu established 42 Kalaris and taught twenty-one masters of these Kalaris to protect the land of Kerala.
Kalaripayattu saw development in the 9th century and was ardently practiced by warrior clans of Kerala to fiercely defend the state and the king. As per the students of the oldest Kalaripayattu schools in India, CVN Kalari, “The first weapon given to the students of Kalaripayattu is a stick”. Eventually, as they learn to control it, curved sticks, spears, swords, daggers and other weapons are introduced in the training.
The training of Kalaripayattu involves a rather holistic approach. It aims to help one develop control of their mind and physicality, with the weapons only being an extension of the body and in control of the fighter to achieve a high degree of perfection in both offensive and defensive combats. The training is considered to be a rather meditative process, and not at all aggressive – an emotion one would expect from the training of a martial art form. Before beginning the routine, the students are required to kneel and pray to the lords and to the floor of the gymnasium, making it a very spiritual process.
Kalaripayattu is now the global face of art forms and is sacred to the people who have become an expert in this art form. In the pre-independence era, during the British rule, Kalaripayattu was banned as the British were apprehensive of this art lest it is used to create warriors against their rule of our country. Post-independence this Kerala-based art form has risen from its ashes like a Phoenix and is finding new aspirants keen to learn his art every passing day!
A way of expression through dance, healing and practising Martial Arts – in its traditional and contemporary form, Kalaripayattu is a fast growing technique for complete mind-body-soul salvation. Today there are more than 1000 Kalaris where this Art Form is taught. The practice of Kalarippayattu has become more about how to harness one’s body-mind powers in order to craft an ideal self than how to prepare for mortal combat. Yet, some of today’s greatest masters still expect students to live by its moral code and ascetic dictates, resisting those temptations of modern life that corrupt the soul, such as drugs, alcohol and other substance abuse. It is also believed that the eastern martial art form of Kung Fu hails out of Kalaripayattu. This Indian martial art is known to have travelled to China in the 6th century A.D. with Daruma Bodhidarma – an Indian Buddhist monk and a Kalaripayattumaster. The disciplined training of Kalaripayattu includes learning the tricks of Ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine and healing system) and in locating the vital points of the body for corrective measures turning this form into the perfect synergy of art, science, and medicine!
What other forms of cultural expression can claim to cure and kill or harm and heal with the opposite sides of the same hand, simultaneously making art of peace through war and a reward of self-improvement through the godlike transcendence of one’s physical limitations — all with the grace and beauty of a dancer?
A journey to Kerala becomes more like a pilgrimage when you go to find out or learn more about Kalaripayattu, the oldest, noblest and most exquisite of martial arts.