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The ABC of Kalarippayattu: A martial art of the Orient

     Remember the legendary Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon? Martial arts thrived in the ancient Orient.

     While Japan and China had their judo, kung fu, karate, jiu jit su etc, India had in its southern coastal strip of Kerala, from very early period, a warfare system known as kalarippayattu. History has that the art form was taken to the east and the far east Asia by the Buddhist monks who once upon a time, say, a couple of thousand years ago, roamed around this part of the country.

     In those days the term `kalari' meant a gymnastic school. Later on it came to mean simply a nursery school under a guru/master, where the alphabet and numbers were taught to the tiny-tots. Today even that is extinct with the advent of modern education. And the term `payattu' meant gymnastic combat. Today there is a concerted attempt to revive the good old fighting system.

     The practice had similarities with south Karnataka's Garadu and Sri Lanka's Kandyan Haramba Salawa. In Kerala it was an integral part of the social and political system of the medieval period. However, there was no region then demarcated as Kerala. Instead, there were principalities and fiefdoms or nadus and desams. Fightings were frequent. Each principality used to keep its own army of trained fighters. Certain families used to be skilled in the art traditionally as a matter of social prestige.

     In the custom of angam or single combat also professional fighters were required. In angam, any individual or family dispute used to be settled by engaging a professional fighter by each side and the winning side would be declared as having won in the dispute. This was a source of income for the fighter, by way of fee, as well as for the political authority, accruing in the form of levy from the disputing parties. A majority of the fighters belonged to the Nair community. Medieval ballads describe how even women emerged as ferocious fighters learned in the techniques of kalarippayattu.

     With the advent of the British East India Company in the early 19th century, the system began to decay and disappear. The colonisers wanted to destroy the martial character of the community, especially in the northern parts, then called as Malabar. Folk stories and ballads and technical treatises of those days throw light on the nuances of the techniques and practice of the warfare.

     The kalari's ground structure was described as of several types such as aimpatheerati (52 feet), nalpatheerati (42 feet), muppatheerati (32 feet), pathinetteerati (18 feet) and pantheerati (12 feet). The most common among them was the nalpatheerati (42 feet). All types had a width of half their length, except Pantheerati, which was a square.

     From under the structure the ground was dug and a pit was created of, say, six feet depth. Various spots around the structure were dedicated to various gods and goddesses and the preceptor. There was a metaphysical belief that a structure of the kalari represented the universe. The basis of the training was physical exercises and discipline. At seven years of age, a student joined the gurukul. The uzhichil or oil massage was an essential part of the training. Each combination of steps learned was called an adavu. The training started in the morning wearing kacha, a cloth six feet in length and one foot in width wound around the waist. A belt was also tightened around that.

     After the physical training, the students were taught how to use weapons. Cheruvati was a small stick about 22 inches in length to give blows and to resist blows. Kathi (dagger), sword, kuntham (spear) and urumi were metallic weapons. The practice of kalarippayattu declined over the centuries but it gave shape to the later forms of classical dances such as Kathakali, Kutiyaattam, Theyyam etc.

-RM Nair

Also Read: Kalarippayattu - A Study, Some Preliminary Thoughts, The Source of Kalari, The Circumstances & Alliance, Dhanurvadic Tradition, Power in Antiquity, System & Techniques, The Concept of Sakti, Conclusion

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