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Kalarippayattu: Of Shifting Circumstances and Alliances

     Certainly the earliest precursors of Kalarippayattu were the Sangam Age combat techniques which fostered the growth of a heroic ideal; however, there can be no doubt that the techniques and heroic ethos, at least of Kerala's kalarippayattu, must have been transformed in some way by the merging of indigenous techniques with the martial practices and ethos accompanying brahmin migrations from Saurastra and Konkan down the west Indian coast into Karnataka and eventually Kerala (Velutat, 1976:25, 1978). By the seventh century A.D., with the founding of the first Kerala brahmin settlements, a "new cultural heritage" had been introduced into the southwest coastal region which subtly transformed the socio-religious heritage of the area. The Kerala brahmins shared with other coastal settlers the belief that their land had been given to them by Parasurama, the axe-wielding brahmin avatar of Vishnu. According to the Kerala legend, Parasurama, threw his axe (parasu) from Gokarnam to Kanyakumari [or from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam according to another version] and water receded up to the spot where it fell. The tract of land so thrown up is said to have constituted the Kerala of history, otherwise called Bhargavakshetram or Parasuramakshetram- Menon, 1979:9

     The establishment of Brahmin settlements gradually brought the emergence of Brahmin ritual and socioeconomic dominance through the establishment of a complex system of hierarchically ranked service and marital relationships based on relative ritual purity between and among castes, especially in the northern and central regions of present-day Kerala (A.K.B. Pillai, 1987:1-119). Important among early brahmin institutions for this discussion were the salad or ghatika, i.e., institutions mostly attached to temples where the cattar or cathirar, proficient in Vedas and sastras and also military activities, lived under the patronage of kings who considered their establishment and maintenance a great privilege. - Narayanan, 1973:33

     Drawing on inscriptional evidence, M.G.S. Narayanan has established that the students at these schools were cattar who functioned under the direction of the local village brahmin assembly (sabha), recited the Vedas, observed brahmacarya, and served as a "voluntary force" to defend the temple and school if and when necessary (Narayanan, 1973:25-26).The eighth century Jain Prakrit work, Kuvalaymala by Udyotanasuri from Jalur in Rajasthan, records a clear picture of the nature of these educational institutions

     Entering the city he sees a big matha. He asks a passerby, "Well sire, whose temple is that?" The person replies, "Bhatta, oh Bhatta, this is not a shrine, but it is a matha [monastery, residential quarter] of all the cattas [students]." [On entering the matha] . . . he sees the cattas, who were natives of various countries, namely Lata Karnata, Dhakka, Srikantha ... and Saindhava.... They were learning and practicing archery, fighting with sword and shield, with daggers, sticks, lances, and with fists, and in duels (niuddham). Some were learning painting (alekhya), singing (giya), musical instruments (vaditra), staging of Bhanaka, Dombiliya [?], Siggadaiyam [?], and dancing. They looked like excited elephants from Maha-Vindhya. - Shah, 1968:250-252

     Along with other brahmin institutions, these salad and the cattar trained in them must have played some role in the gradual formation of the distinctive linguistic, social, and cultural heritage of the southwest coastal region although the degree of influence was certainly in direct proportion to the density of brahminical settlement and local influence. M.G.S. Narayanan dates this period of change between the founding of a second or new Cera capital at Makotai under Rama Rajesekhara (c.800-844 A.D.) and its breakup after the rule of Rama Kulasekhara (1089-1122 A.D.). Before the founding of the Makotai capital, Kerala was "a region of Tamilakam with the same society and language"; however, in the post-Makotai period Kerala became distinctive in many ways from the rest of Tamilakam (Narayanan, 1976:28).

     This watershed period of Kerala history culminated in the disintegration of the second Cera Kingdom at Makotai after a protracted one-hundred year war of attrition with the Cola Empire. At the end of the war, Rama Kulasekhara (the Perumal) abdicated, and the hitherto centrally controlled Cera Kingdom was dismembered and split into numerous smaller kingdoms and principalities.

     It is to this extended period of warfare in the eleventh century A.D. when military training was "compulsory . . . to resist . . . the continuous attacks of the Cola army . . ." that historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai attributes the birth of the martial tradition now known as kalarippayattu (1970:241). During the war, some brahmins continued to be trained in arms themselves, trained others, and actively participated in fighting the Colas (Pillai, 1970:155; 243-244).

     Although the salads themselves declined with the end of the Cera Kingdom and the division of Kerala into principalities, Kerala brahmin engagement in the practice of arms continued among some sub-castes. Known as cattar or yatra brahmins who were considered degraded or "half" brahmins because of their vocation in arms, for several centuries they continued to train in, teach, fight with, and rule through the martial arts. Although written from a brahminical point of view to legitimize dominance, the legendary Kerala brahmin chronicle , Keralopathi , confirms brahminic al sub-caste involvement in teaching and bearing arms. The chronicle tells that Parasurama gave the land to the brahmins to be enjoyed as 'brahmakshatra' i.e., a land where brahmins take the role of ksatriyas also. The chronicle adds that 3600 brahmins belonging to different settlements or gramas accepted the right to bear arms from Parasurama. They are described as ardhabrahmana or half-brahmins and valnampis or armed brahmins, and their functions are mentioned as padu kidakka [restrain offenders] pada kuduka [military service] and akampadi nadakukkuka [guard service]. They are said to be divided into four kalakams [a colloquial form of ghatika, or the organizations of brahmincattarto defend the land] called Perincallur, Payyanur, Parappur and Chengannur respectively. These kalakams nominated four preceptors or rakshapurushas for the duration of three years with the right to collect . . . revenue. - Narayanan, 1973:37-38

     Some among today's traditional kalarippayattu masters possess manuscripts which accept the Keralopathi's account of history, pay homage to brahmin masters of the past, and implicitly accept brahmin hegemony. For example, according to one master's manuscript, long ages ago, the sage Parasurama brought one hundred and sixty- six katam [one katam equals five miles, i.e., this land mass was brought up from the ocean, thereby "founding" the Malayalam- speaking readion known today as Kerala State] from the sea and consecrated 108 idols. Then in order to defeat his enemies he established forty-two kalari, and then brought some adhyanmar [high caste brahmins] in order to conduct worship (puja) at the kalari. Then he taught twentyone masters of the kalari how to destroy their enemies.

     The text also mentions that among the deities to be meditated upon in the kalari are "the famous past kalari gurus of the Nambootiri houses known as Ugram Velli, Dronam Velli, Ghoram Velli, and Ullutturuttiyattu."

     Although the cattar continue to be mentioned in Kerala's heavily Sanskritized Manipravalam literature, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries these formerly well-respected brahmin scholars and practitioners in arms are depicted as living decadent lives. References find them "wearing weapons with fresh blood in them," engaging in combat, demonstrating feats with their swords, describing the martial prowess of Nambootiri chieftains (such as Tirumalaseri Nambootiri of Govardhanapuram), and touting the prowess of cattars in combat (Pillai, 1970:275). A few of these brahmins continued their practice of arms into the Portuguese period of Kerala history, the Edapalli Nambiadiri (a special designation for a Nambootiri general) serving as commander of the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut's army and navy in the early wars with the Portuguese.

     Whatever the caste or religion of the medieval practitioners of kalarippayattu, all practiced their martial art within a socio-political environment which was unstable, i.e., a constantly shifting set of alliances and outbreaks of warfare between feuding rulers of petty principalities. Since practitioners had pledged themselves to death on behalf of their rulers, they were obliged to develop both the mental power and battlefield skills that would allow them to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield in order to fulfill their pledges unto death.

     Following J. Richardson Freeman's recent research on the nature of teyyam worship in North Malabar to which kalarippayattu practice and martial heroes are integrally linked, it is clear that, for the medieval Malayali practitioners of kalarippayattu, the "world" within which they exercised their martial skills was shaped by a religious and socio-political ideology in which "battle serves as a dominant metaphor for conceptualizing relations of spiritual and socio-political power" (Freeman, 1991:588). Following Hart's research on the early Dravidian notion of power (ananku) as capricious and immanent (mentioned above), Freeman convincingly argues that in medieval Kerala also "the locus of divine power is not primarily, or at least usefully, transcendent, but immanent, and located in human persons and their ritual objects" (Freeman, 1991:130). The martial practitioner was confronted with having to harness through whatever techniques might be at his disposal, those special, local, and immanent powers that might be of use to him in fulfilling his pledged duty to a ruler.

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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