Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; these are the northern style of the Malayalees, the southern style of the Tamils and the central style from inner Kerala. Northern kalari payat is based on the principle of hard technique, while the southern style primarily follows the soft techniques, even though both systems make use of internal and external concepts.
The word kalari can be traced to ancient Sangam literature. But according to Dick Luijendijk, a researcher at the university of Nijmegen, in this context the word does not refer to any martial act. But because the Sangam literature is mainly about love-making and fighting among the South Indian nobility, it is possible to see kalari payat as a continuation of earlier traditions. Thus the martial tradition of kalari payat is also dated to ancient Dravidian traditions. It is generally believed that systemised kalari payat originated in northern Kerala and spread to the Tamil-dominant south where it is closely linked to the stick-fighting style of silambam. But others see the southern style, with its practice of structured movements and the precendence given to empty-handed combat, as the original form of this art.
Until colonial times when a new western schooling system was introduced, the kalari served as active centres of learning in Kerala. Still in existence, these institutions were schools where students could assemble together and acquire knowledge of language, mathematics and various theatrical arts from a guru or expert. Martial arts were taught at the payattu kalari meaning fight school. Kerala was divided into small principalities that fought one-to-one wars among themselves. These battles were mostly duels conducted at a predetermined place where fighters assembled to face each other in single combat and those trained in kalari payat were suitable recruits.
The writings of early colonial historians like Varthema, Logan and Whiteway shows that the practice of kalari payat was widely popular and well established with almost all people in Kerala transcending gender, caste and communal lines. It is said to have eventually become as prevalent as reading and writing. Some of its choreographed sparring can be applied to dance and kathakali dancers who knew martial arts were believed to be markedly better than the other performers. Even today some traditional Indian dance schools incorporate kalari payat as part of their exercise regimen.
Kalari payat became more developed during the 9th century and was practiced by a section of the Nair community, warrior clan of Kerala, to defend the state and the king. The ancient warrior spirit was also retained throughout the centuries by the warrior chieftains of ancient Kerala known as the Mamanka Chekavars and the Lohars, the Buddhist warriors of north Kerala.
Phillip Zarrilli, a professor at the University of Exeter and one of the few Western authorities on kalari payat, estimates that the art dates back to at least the 12th century CE. The historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai attributes the birth of kalari payat to an extended period of warfare between the Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century CE. The oldest western reference to the style comes from the 16th century travelogue of Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese explorer.
Decline and revival
Kalari payat underwent a period of decline when the Nairs lost to the British after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century. The British eventually banned kalari payat altogether so as to prevent rebellion and anti-colonial sentiments. During this time, many Indian martial arts had to be practiced in secret and were often confined to rural areas. The resurgence of public interest in kalari payat began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout south India and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts. In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularise the art, with it featuring in international and Indian films such as Indian (1996), Asoka (2001), The Myth (2005) and The Last Legion (2007).
There are several styles of kalari payat. The three main schools of thought can be distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns. The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk which uses photographs to show several kalari payat exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions.
Northern kalari payat was practiced mainly in the northern Malabar region of Kozhikode and Kannur. It places more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands. Parasurama, sixth avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the style's founder according to both oral and written tradition.] Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal or occasionally as asan, and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar.
The northern style is distinguished by its meippayattu - physical training and use of full-body oil massage. The system of treatment and massage, and the assumptions about practice are closely associated with ayurveda. The purpose of medicinal oil massage is to increase the practitioners' flexibility, to treat muscle injuries incurred during practice, or when a patient has problems related to the bone tissue, the muscles, or nerve system. The term for such massages is thirumal and the massage specifically for physical flexibility chavutti thirumal which literally means "stamping massage" or "foot massage". The masseuse may use his/ her feet and weight of the body to massage the person.
There are several lineages /styles (sampradayam), of which 'thulunadan' is considered as the best. In olden times, students went to thulunadu kalari's to overcome their defects (kuttam theerkkal). There are schools which teach more than one of these traditions. Some traditional kalari around Kannur for example teach a blend of arappukai, pillatanni, and katadanath styles.
Southern kalari payat was practised mainly in old Travancore including the present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu primarily by Nadars and Ezhavas in Kerala. It emphasises empty hand techniques.The founder and patron saint is believed to be the rishi Agasthya rather than Parasurama. Masters are known as 'asaan. The stages of training are chuvatu (solo forms), jodi (partner training/sparring), kurunthadi (short stick), neduvadi (long stick), katthi (knife), katara (dagger), valum parichayum (sword and shield), chuttuval (flexible sword), double sword, kalari grappling and marmma (pressure points).
Zarrilli refers to southern kalari payat as varma ati (the law of hitting), marma ati (hitting the vital spots) or varma kalai (art of varma).The preliminary empty handed techniques of varma ati are known as adithada (hit/defend). Marma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots.] Weapons include bamboo staves, short sticks, and the double deer horns.
Medical treatment in the southern styles is identified with siddha, the traditional Dravidian system of medicine distinct from north Indian ayurveda. The siddha medical system, otherwise known as siddha vaidyam, is also attributed to Agasthya.
Closely related to southern kalari payat is silambam, the Tamil art of stick fighting. It supposedly originated in the Kurinji hills of Kerala some 5000 years ago where natives were using bamboo staves to defend themselves against bandits and wild animals. "Salambal" is a common word used to denote the sound of fast flowing rivers/springs, the chirping noises of birds, the murmur of leaves, the noise created by a talking crowd, the whooshing, whirring and clanging sound of weapons etc. When long sticks, swords and chain flails are used they produce the "sala sala" sound which is called salambal. Thus silambam became the name of the martial art that uses long sticks, swords etc.
Central kalari payat is practiced mainly in Thrissur, Malappuram, Palakkad and certain parts of Ernakulam districts. It is a composite of the northern and southern styles that includes northern meippayattu preliminary exercises, southern emphasis on empty-handed moves and its own distinctive techniques which are performed within floor drawings known as kalam.
Gurukkal praying before puttara CVN Kalari, Ettumanoor
Several componenents make up the basic equipment and training ground of kalari payat. Students begin training at approximately seven years old with a formal initiation ritual performed by the gurukkal.
At the age of seven, on the opening day of the new session, a novice (mostly Nairs in the olden days) is admitted to the kalari in the presence of the gurukkal or a senior student and directed to place his right foot first across the threshold. The student touches the ground with the right hand and then his forehead, as a sign of respect. He is then led to the guruthara, the place where a lamp is kept burning in reverence to all the masters of the kalari, to repeat his act of worship. He then offers the master some money as dakshina in folded betel leaves and prostrates himself, touching the master's feet as a sign of submission. The guru then places his hands on the pupil’s head, blesses him and prays for him. This ritual - touching the ground, puttara, guruthara and the guru’s feet - is repeated everyday. It symbolizes a complete submission to and acceptance of the master, the deva, the kalari and the art itself.
A kalari is the school or training hall where martial arts are taught. They were originally constructed according to Vastu Shastra where the entrance faces east and the main door is situated on the centre-right. The training area comprises of a puttara (seven tiered platform) in the south-west corner. The guardian deity (usually an avatar of Bhagavathi or Shiva) is located here, and is worshipped with flowers, incense and water before each training session which is preceded by a prayer. Northern styles are practiced in special roofed pits where the floor is 3.5 feet below the ground level, and made of wet red clay meant to give a cushioning effect and prevent injury. The depth of the floor protects the practitioner from winds that could hamper body temperature. Southern styles are usually practiced in the open air or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches. Traditionally, when a kalari was closed down it would be made into a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity.
Ankathari in which both opponents are armed with chuttuval and paricha
Training is mainly divided into four parts consisting of Meithari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai.
Meithari is the beginning stage with rigorous body sequences involving twists, stances and complex jumps and turns. Twelve meippayattu exercises for neuro-muscular coordination, balance and flexibility follow the basic postures of the body. Kalari payat originates not in aggression but in the disciplining of the self. Therefore the training begins with disciplining the physical body and attaining a mental balance. This is crucial for any person and not necessarily a martial aspirant. This first stage of training consists of physical exercises to develop strength, flexibility, balance and stamina. It includes jumps, low stances on the floor, circular sequences, kicks, etc. An attempt is made to understand and master each separate organ of the body. These exercises bring an alertness to the mind, and this alertness helps one understand some of the movements and processes of the self defense sequences that are taught at later stages.
Once the student has become physically competent, he/she is introduced to fighting with long wooden weapons. The first weapon taught is the staff (kettukari), which is usually five feet (1.5 m) in length, or up to the forehead of the student from ground level. The second weapon taught is the cheruvadi or muchan, a wooden stick three palm spans long, about two and a half feet long or 75 cm. The third weapon taught is the otta, a wooden stick curved to resemble the trunk of an elephant. The tip is rounded and is used to strike the vital spots in the opponent's body. This is considered the master weapon, and is the fundamental tool of practice to develop stamina, agility, power, and skill. Otta training consists of 18 sequences.
Once the practitioner has become proficient with all the wooden weapons, he/she proceeds to Ankathari (literally "war training") starting with metal weapons, which require superior concentration due to their lethal nature. The first metal weapon taught is the kadhara, a metal dagger with a curved blade. Taught next are the sword (val) and shield (paricha). Subsequent weapons include the spear (kuntham), trident (trisool) and axe (venmazhu). Usually the last weapon taught is the flexible sword (urumi or chuttuval), an extremely dangerous weapon taught to only the most skillful students. Historically, after the completion of 'Ankathari', the student would specialize in a weapon of his choice, for example to become an expert swordsman or stick fighter.
Only after achieving mastery with all the weapon forms is the practitioner taught to defend themselves with bare-handed techniques. These include arm locks, grappling, and strikes to the pressure points (marmam). This is considered the most advanced martial skill so the gurukkal restricts knowledge of marmam only to very few students whom he trusts.
Marmashastram and massage
It is claimed that learned warriors can disable or kill their opponents by merely touching the correct marmam (vital point). This is taught only to the most promising and level-headed persons, to discourage misuse of the technique. Marmashastram stresses on the knowledge of marmam and is also used for marma treatment (marmachikitsa). This system of marma treatment comes under sidha vaidhyam, attributed to the sage Agasthya and his disciples. Critics of kalari payat have pointed out that the application of marmam techniques against neutral outsiders has not always produced verifiable results
The earliest mention of marmam is found in the Rig Veda where Indra is said to have defeated Vritra by attacking his marman with a vajra. References to marman also found in the Atharva Veda. With numerous other scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it is certain that India's early martial artists knew about and practised attacking or defending vital points. Sushruta (c. 6th century BC) identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his Sushruta Samhita. Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick. Sushruta's work formed the basis of the medical discipline ayurveda, which was taught alongside various Indian martial arts that had an emphasis on vital points, such as Varma Kalai and marma adi.
As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgable in the field of traditional medicine and massage. Kalari payat teachers often provide massages (Malayalam: uzhichil) with medicinal oils to their students in order to increase their physical flexibility or to treat muscle injuries encountered during practice. Such massages are generally termed thirumal and the unique massage given to increase flexibility is known as katcha thirumal. It is said to be as sophisticated as the uzhichil treatment of ayurveda. Kalari payat has borrowed extensively from ayurveda and equally lends to it (see Ayurveda and Kalari).
Techniques (atavu) in kalari payat are a combination of steps (chuvatu) and stances (vadivu). There are five steps and northern styles have ten postures (Ashta Vadivukal). Each stance has its own style, power combination, function and effectiveness. The eight postures of kalari payat are based on animals.