Kalaripayattu: The Complete Art

August 29, 2016

The dazzling strikes, breathtaking leaps and choreographed sparring of Kalaripayattu performances enthrall audiences around the world. In ancient times this martial art was practiced by Kerala warriors dedicated to the king’s service. Today it has become a source of inspiration for self-expression in both traditional and contemporary dance, theatre and fitness, harmoniously combining art, science and medicine.

This celebrated martial art of Kerala was originally practiced by the hereditary warriors of the region, its inherent beauty lying in the harmonious synergy of the art, science and medicine. Flexibility and strength attained over years of training and practice, empty hand techniques, weaponry, traditional treatments and above all a philosophy based on Vedic concepts makes Kalaripayattu the most complete system of martial training.

Kalari is the special gymnasium for practicing the martial art. A traditional Hindu Kalari is a simple rectangular room, often sunken, with a steep roof. It is also a temple where deities are worshipped and clinical treatments are administered. The entrance of the Kalari faces the east, and in the southwest corner is housed the guardian deity on a sever-tired platform that symbolizes the seven abilities required for practitioners – strength, power, posture, sound, patience, training and expression. Other Kalari deities, incarnations of the mother goddess or Siva, are installed in the corners.

Training traditionally begins at the age of seven for both boys and girls. The most intensive period of training is during the monsoon season and requires specific dietary, behavioral, and devotional practices. Students participate in the devotional life of the Kalari and lean the ritual entry into the sacred space through practice of devotion to the deities and the Gurukkal (teacher).

Training involves successive stages of complex practices and students advance through the system individually. The first step meyyorukkam – preparation of the body – is to acquire the knowledge of the body through various breathing and physical exercises and massages. Through these practices the students learn of the vitality of the human body and how to develop the powers of the body, mind, combat and weapon–wielding. Physical exercises are taught in a series of movement combinations. These include an array of poses, steps, jumps, kicks, and movements performed with increased complexity. The emphasis is not on muscle building; instead the body is trained to be supple in order to perform various movements that depend solely on the flexibility of the spine. Students learn to kick their legs vertically, sweep their legs in circles, turn deftly, leap horizontally and land effortlessly. The exercises are designed to strengthen and loosen the body and develop dexterity and strength in the legs. They are also taught various postures that enable them to perform powerful and precise actions with full concentration against the opponent. Most important is the mastery of basic poses and steps by which one moves in and out of poses.

From meyyorukkam students progress to weapons training; first using the long staff followed by other wooden weaponry. Next they learn the use of metal weapons – swords and shields, daggers, spears and urumi, a long and flexible metal sword that resembles a whip. Finally they learn to fight unarmed. Students learn about the 107 vital spots, called marma in the human body. When a person is hit hard at one of these spots, it can cause severe debilitation. After years of rigorous training and practice, they become acutely conscious of the inner workings of the human body and realize the power that is inherent on the control of the internal energy through breathing, the strength of mental power that is manifest in concentrated focus, the discovery and raising of the power and attaining it through repetition of a mantra (individually given to each student by the Gurukkal) and the powers of the divine gained through worship and rituals, meditation and devotion. Whether the Kalari is Hindu, Christian or Muslim, the internal aspect of the practice is to teach students to meditate as natural extension of the inward progression of practice. Practice improves stamina, concentration and physical health. This martial art teaches not only mental focus and discipline but also develops unwavering courage and patience. It prepares the students to face the challenges of day-to-day life with grace.

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AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN