Kalaripayattu combines the complete understanding of human physiology according to Ayurveda, the ancient system of healing. With knowledge gained through years of practice, the practitioner learns understand the body’s structure including the location and characteristics of vital spots, nerves, muscles, and organs. A true practitioner also undergoes medical training and learns how to treat physical injuries with traditional medicines and is able to control the vital energy of his body to heal his patients with a massage treatment. The practitioner who becomes fully adept in all aspects becomes a complete master teacher or Gurukkal.
During the monsoon season, June- August, a full body oil massage is given by the Gurukkal to his students for a period of 14 days to develop flexibility, for body conditioning and to maintain health as well as to cure specific illnesses.
Styles of Kalaripayattu
There are distinct northern and southern styles of Kalaripayattu. Northern or Vadakkan (Namboothiri style) is associated with the Namboothiri, Nayar and Ezava communities of north and central Kerala. Southern or Thekkan style Kalaripayattu is practiced in the southern part of Kerala by the Nayar and the Tamil speaking communities of Maravars, Nadars, and Vellalas. The Northern style involves elaborate graceful body movements whereas the Southern style involves very rapid but powerful movements.
History of Kalaripayattu
With the absence of recorded history, the chronology of the development of Kalaripayattu remains shrouded in mystery. The earliest predecessors of this martial art were the combat techniques of the ancient Sangam age (from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD). The puram poems of Tamil literature, especially the Purananooru and Pathiruppathu describe that a fierce martial spirit was present across the ancient Tamil Kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties. Each warrior received military training and the heroes of this period were gallant warriors who specialized in the use of sword and shield, spear or bow and arrow. Their greatest honor was to die on the battlefield; war was a sacrifice for honor, and memorial stones were erected for the fallen and worshipped by the community.
The founding of the Namboothiri (Kerala Brahmin) settlements in the Chera Kingdom by the seventh century AD transformed the socio-linguistic-cultural-religious heritage of the region. Eventually, the martial art form that crystalized as Kalaripayattu combined indigenous Dravidian techniques and heroic ethos with the cultural and martial practices of the migrant Namboothiris.
The eleventh century witnessed the” hundred years of war” between the Chera and Chola Kingdoms. In this period of conflict, military training and practice of the martial art became exclusive tight and privilege of specific subgroups of the society who were committed to serve their King to death as part of his retinue. Along with the Nayars, a sub group of Kerala Brahmins called Yatra Namboothiris and one sub group of Ezavas called Chekavars, as well as some Christian and Muslims also learned, taught and practiced this martial art. Kalaripayattu continued to flourish in Kerala between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The advent of the European colonists in the sixteenth century marked the decline of Kalaripayattu. The physical power and training learned at the Kalaris was not sufficient to withstand the superior firepower of the colonists. The British dreaded the widespread Kalaripayattu training and objected to the carrying of arms by the hereditary warriors. They finally delivered a deathblow by confiscating the weapons of Kalaripayattu practitioners.
In the following years, Kalaripayattu continued to survive under the tutelage of a few masters. In the twentieth century with the wave of rediscovery of indigenous arts, Kalaripayattu was revived, but until the late 1970’s it remained little known as a martial and healing art. It strongly influenced the evolution of several of Kerala’s theatre and dance forms, most prominently Kathakali and Theyyam. It is interesting to note that in the late nineteenth century, Kalaripayattu was actually used in the training of circus performers from Kerala. The fluid movements of this art form have attracted the attention of modern dance enthusiasts in the West who have adapted the movements to their own creations. But the important thing is that this ancient art has become today a source of inspiration for self-expression in both traditional and contemporary dance and theatre, and fitness – a fitting evolution of a complete art.
Originally published in Heritage India Volume 3, Issue 3 August 2010. My sincere thanks to Heritage India for the permission to publish this article on my website, and Seena Shankar for the beautiful photographs.