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KALARIPAYATTU: ANCIENT MARTIAL ART OF KERALA
Posted on Sat, Oct 23, 2010 at 8:51 am
by IDMA Editor

Martial Arts always hold a sense of mysticism and awe in people. The term martial arts brings Karate, Kung-fu and other well-known forms to mind, which have been popularised by the movies in both east and the west. Even Indians think those forms are the only established martial arts, as many are ignorant of our own art forms like Kalaripayattu.

Popularly known as Kalari, it is said to have originated in Kerala more than 3,000 years ago. Even Kung- fu of China traces its ancestry to Kalaripayattu. The ‘mother of martial arts,’ which was once lost in the pages of history, is now getting rejuvenated through the enthusiasm of a few. Mysore too has its own school of Kalari, which is attracting the youth.

Origin of Kalari

Kalari: The gymnasium where Kalaripayattu is practiced is also called as Kalari. Its construction follows a unique style. The entrance faces east and a hollow, measuring about four feet in depth, is dug out of the ground.Mud is then used to level up the floor so that there are no undulations which would hamper the movements of those practicing the combat art. Another feature is the 7-tiered platform. Known as Poothara in Malayalam (platform where flowers are kept), this structure houses the guardian deity.

Photo from Star of Mysore

There are two forms of Kalari: The Northern kalari is practiced mainly in North Malabar. It places more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands. The style is distinguished by its ‘meippayattu’ — physical training and use of full-body oil massage; Southern kalari was practised mainly in old Travancore including the present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, primarily by Nairs and Nadars. Emphasising empty-hand techniques, it is closely connected to Tamil Silambam and Sri Lankan Angampora. The founder is believed to be rishi Agastya rather than Parasurama, the founder of northern Kalari.Medical treatment in this style is identified with siddha.

Photo from Star of Mysore

Kalaripayattu, popularly known as Kalari, is an orient treasure trove which originated in Kerala and is more than 3,000 years old.

Kalaripayattu is derived from the words Kalari — which means "place, thre-shing floor, or battle field," and payattu — which means to "exercise in arms or practice.”

Photo from Star of Mysore

The credit for the initiation of the art form goes to sage Parasuram. He was the master of all martial art forms and is credited to be the re-claimer of Kerala from the Arabian Sea. Even Kung-fu, popularised by the monks of the Shaolin Temple, traces its ancestry to Bodhi Dharma, an Indian Buddhist monk and Kalaripayattu master. Kalari is a gift to the modern world.

Photo from Star of Mysore

In ancient Kerala, Kalaripayattu was the combat code of the Chola kings, the Cheras and the Pandyas. The inherent beauty of this art form lies in the harmonious existence of art, science and medicine. The sole principle of the art form is drawing inspiration from the raw power and strength of majestic animals — Lion, Tiger, Elephant, Wild Boar, Snake and Crocodile.

Shrouded in deep mystery and mists of secrecy, Kalaripayattu was taught by the masters in total isolation.

Following the collapse of the princely States and the advent of free India — Kalaripayattu has lost its significance as a mortal combat code. In a Phoenix-like resurrection, Kalaripayattu is today emerging in a new avatar — a source of inspiration for self-expre-ssion in dance forms — both traditional and contemporary, in theatre, in fitness and in movies too.

Evolution of Kalari

At the turn of the 6th century AD, martial arts spread from Southern India to China by Daruma Bodhi Dharma, a Buddhist monk and Kalaripayattu master. From China, it has spread to Korea & Japan.

Martial arts has been in existence on the Indian sub-continent for thousands of years. Long ago, animal fighting styles were imitated by pre-historic man which was a system for survival.

The first weapon used was the stick which was an extension of the arm. Various weapons were later invented during the Stone and Iron Ages. Even in Vedas, martial arts have been mentioned.

Some Kalaripayattu masters trace their line-ages of practice to "Dhanur Veda" and claim that the texts in which their martial techniques are recorded derive from Dhanur Vedic texts. Although Dhanur Veda means the "science of archery," it encompassed all traditional fighting arts.

Kalaripayattu reached its pinnacle of glory during the 100-years-war between the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas in the early part of the first millennium. The warring States refined their fighting skills and techniques prevalent in the area into a martial art form. The art flourished between the 13th and 16th centuries, becoming a part of the education of youngsters. It was a social custom in Kerala to send all youngsters above the age of seven to learn Kalari.

The various movements in Kalari are based on animal movements. Several poses are named after animals. Hence it is generally believed to have developed in jungles when hunters observed the fighting techniques of various animals.

Death blow

The death blow to the Kerala military system and Kalaripayattu was dealt by the British. The British dreaded the widespread Kalari training and objected to the traditional system of carrying of arms by the Nairs. Thus the Malabar Commissioners found it essential to unarm the entire region to establish tranquility.

Yet, there were a few Kalari gurus who worked selflessly to keep this tradition of martial art alive for the future generations by training youngsters away from the prying eyes of the British rulers.

Kalari & medicine

The training of a student to become a master includes the training in Ayurveda and in locating the vital points of the body. A Kalari guru is not only a trained movement artiste but also a professional in Ayurveda, a doctor who treats people suffering from diseases and general ailments. Kalari has developed a traditional orthopedic system which is widely popular all over the States, especially for the setting of displaced bones.

There are different types of oils, pastes, herbs etc., used only by Kalari masters to treat muscle and bone injuries.

Oil massage

The first stage of the preparation of a warrior and the artiste is an oil massage known as Udvarthanam or Uzhichil. The Ayurvedic tradition of Sushruta says that diseases are afraid of approaching a body which has been foot-massaged, just like animals in the sight of a lion.

Combat situation demands an extremely agile, strong and supple body, which would instantly obey the focused mind. The ancient martial artists (warriors) used Kalari massage to prime their body and sharpen reflexes.

In Kalari massage, the thera-pist or master uses his hand and feet to massage the student using medicated oils. The masseur uses nadisuthra kriya to apply pressure with fingers, thumb or toe at certain points on the body. These pressure points (Marma points) are areas where there is said to be a high concentration of Prana, the energy which gives life for the living organism.

Usually an Uzhichil course lasts for fourteen days. At the time of the massage, the student has to follow strict restrictions in his or her daily routines. He should not expose himself to the sun for a long time, should take only the prescribed food and should follow strict celibacy.

Massage helps the body to attain a healthy constitution as well as flexibility, nimbleness and suppleness. Moreover, massage can improve mental alertness and attention span by reducing tension and calming the mind. Kalari massage can keep one disease free and in a state of positive health.



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