This month Kung Fu Kingdom invites you take a big step back in time as we feature what’s considered the ‘mother of all martial arts’. Just as Buddhism spread from India to much of the orient, so too did ‘Kung Fu’ which embodied this mother art foundation of all other martial systems. Thought to be over 3000 years old, Kalaripayattu remains one of the oldest known martial arts systems practiced today.
The earliest references to Kalaripayattu (“Kalari” meaning combat area and “pyattu” practice) were found in 3rd Century (BC) Sangam Literature – a mammoth collection of Tamil Poetry made up of 2,380 poems by over 400 poets. They describe the smooth flowing yet deadly precision movements of warriors trained in military tactics and unarmed combat.
What is known is that Kalaripayattu originated in the southern region of Kerala; children were sent to schools (also called “Kalaris”) and under the tutelage of Gurukkals were taught combat techniques alongside academic subjects such as maths and literature. Training started at a young age and along with empty-handed techniques, students would specialise in weapons including spears, swords, shields and bows and arrows. They were also put through a gruelling physical regimen to enhance their flexibility and speed, all part of a tradition that continued for several centuries.
Kalaripayattu is recorded to have gone into decline around the 17th century, not helped by the advent of British colonialism which had outlawed the practice. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Kalaripayattu enjoyed a renaissance of interest as part of a wave of discovery in Southern Indian traditions, which grew following the nation’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Since then Kalaris have opened and established themselves all over the country and with growing western interest in Asian mysticism, esoteric yoga, philosophy, metaphysics and customs, the practice spread to over 32 countries around the world.
Like many traditional fighting arts, Kalaripayattu is a complete combat system and developed into its current form by the 6th Century during an extended war between rival dynasties. The system incorporates strikes, kicks, pre-set forms, grappling, and weapons along with meditation and healing practices.
It is made up of three styles based around regions of Kerala. These are:
Northern Style: hailing from the Malabar region of Kerala and primarily focuses on weapons-based techniques, and includes jumps and evasion lessons. Students who practice this style develop flexibility and speed to perform its fast, yet elegant movements.
Southern Style: originates from Thiruvanchoor and involves the hard impact of empty-hand fighting. As well as strikes and kicks, southern style practitioners also learn about vital pressure points, thought to be the precursor to Chinese acupressure.
Central Style: from the inner city areas of Kerala combines both weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
Hand to hand
The techniques of empty-handed combat consists of a combination of Chuvatu (steps), and Vadivu or Karanas (stances) which have the characteristics of certain animals. There are six basic karanas named after animals. These are Simha (lion), Matsya (fish), Marjara (cat), Pasu (cow/bull), Sarpa (snake), and Garuda (eagle). Under the tutelage of Kalari masters (Gurukkals), students are given lessons in flexibility and balance to develop the agility to move from one karana to the other.
As well as the gruelling physical demands, students also learn Ayurveda, the art of healing medicine as applied to human anatomy. This is not only to aid healing and recovery in their practice and in the event of injury, it also gives students knowledge of vital nerve points (marmas) for massage treatment. The ancient Indian physician Sushruta is recorded to have identified 107 marmas of which 64 are thought to be lethal. Knowledge of deadly marmas are taught only to those students considered to be more responsible and level-headed so as to discourage misuse or abuse of the techniques.
One of the most interesting features of Kalaripayattu is its collection of unique weaponry that is distinct to the art which has influenced the shape and use of weapons of other styles that followed. The use of weapons are as fluid in their execution as the empty-handed elements.
Sword: Kalaripayattu swordsmanship is considered to be one of the oldest traditions; the standard sword with a full hand guard and slight curvature resembles the European sabre and even the Chinese Dao (broadsword).
Urumi: Essentially this is a whip sword with handle and several long flexible blades. According to legends, the urumi was worn by dignitaries and assassins, and was easily concealed by being worn around the waist. This is one of the last weapons taught due to the extra high risk of injury.
Katar: Considered to be one of the oldest dagger forms, the katar is a double-edged blade that extends from a knuckle guard. It is a fisticuff weapon, again easily concealable and especially deadly since it allows for a powerful thrust to be put into the blade.
Otta: This is basically a club-shaped horn which is thought to be fashioned from bull horns. A student is taught to use every part of the otta from its curvature as a defensive block or offensively by using the sharp points as a stabbing implement.
Practitioners you may know
Regular readers should be familiar with two prominent action stars currently lighting up Bollywood with their Kalaripayattu skills. Dubbed “The Kalari Kid” the 2016 action hit “Baaghi” put India’s answer to Brandon Lee, Tiger Shroff on the Bollywood map. Although he is a 5th degree black belt in Taekwondo, Shroff trained in the art under Shifu Shaurya Bharadwaj and debuted his skills in “Heropanti”. Shroff’s star certainly shows no signs of fading following the success of “Baaghi 2” released in March.
If you want to know why he is labelled the “new age action hero of Bollywood” then check out Vidyut’s action packed duo “Commando” and “Commando 2”. Both films showcase just what a Kalari master can do and having trained since the age of 3 with his mother (as his Gurukkal) Vidyut has shown that and more.
Gurukkal Meenakshi Raghavan
At 76 years old Gurukkal Meenakshi is on record as the oldest teacher, performer and practitioner of northern style Kalaripayattu and runs one of the biggest schools in India. At the age of 6, she was taken, along with her sister to a local kalari by their father. She continued training well into puberty when most girls stop practicing and by 17 she became a teacher. In 1949 she established the Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam with her husband, also a Kalaripayattu teacher, with the goal of making the art more widely accessible. Today the school operates with over 150 students, some travelling from all over the world and Gurukkal Meenakshi still performs and competes with no signs of slowing down earning her the name “The Grand Dame of Kalaripayattu”.
What do you think of Kalaripayattu as a martial art form, and modern-day real onscreen and offscreen warriors such as Tiger Shroff and Vidyut Jammwal? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation, share on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (Find more of your FU with our previous martial arts of the month!)