is the vibrant, traditional martial art form of Kerala and is richly
blended with its cultural heritage. The term 'Kalari' denotes a gymnasium
where proper training is imparted for mind as well as muscle.
'Payattu' literally means training or exercise but in the present context it connotes training in the traditional style of combat. After a long set back during the colonial rule, the 'Kalari' systems in Kerala are being revitalised with new enthusiasm.
The revival of this martial art has been made possible largely due to the efforts of some families of 'Kalari' masters as well as the encouragement offered by the cultural organisations and the Government of Kerala.
The Objectives Of The Art
The techniques of Kalaripayattu were used at one time in the battlefields. In the modern times, Kalaripayattu has no role in battlefields and its importance is confined to three aspects:
- It is a good exercise to alert the body and mind.
- It is a very good visual art.
- It is useful for self-defence.
In Kalaripayattu, starting from simple breathing exercises, a person can awaken the total dynamism of his body and can tune it in a way he wishes.
Moreover the study of Kalaripayattu will enable a person to develop four powers ('karuthu') which are:
· Meikaruthu: power of the body.
· Manakaruthu: power of the mind.
· Ankakaruthu: power to combat.
· Ayudhakaruthu: power to wield weapons.
The Genesis Of A Great Art
There is no recorded history of Kalaripayattu and the chronology of its development is still in the midst of obscurity.
But the available historical evidence says that the form as practised today, evolved between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.
Various mythological stories and legends are attributed to the origin of the art, by the traditional 'Kalari' masters. According to them, Parasurama, the mythical creator of Kerala, instituted 108 'Kalaris' all over the land. This legend on the origin of the institution propagated by Keralolpathi, still lingers in the minds of the Keralites.
Some masters believe that the 'Kalari' system originated out of the wrath of Lord Siva while in his fury, to destroy Daksha yagna. Parasurama, Lord Siva's disciple, is supposed to have studied this art from him and handed it over to his 21 disciples in Kerala. All such legends propagate the theory that this martial art was brought to Kerala by the Brahmins.
The first historical interpretation of the origin of the 'Kalari' system was given by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. He points out that this fighting art emerged during the 12th century from the military exigency of the "Hundred Years War" between the Cheras and the Cholas.
The theory that 'Kalaripayattu' originated during the 'Hundred Years War' has been now discarded as the very occurrence of the war has been questioned and hence, the possibility of the martial art having originated during that period has lost ground.
Extent Of Tradition
Kalaripayattu is usually described as an indigenous martial art of Kerala but similar cultural traits and institutions are found in other regions of South India and Sri Lanka. The 'Garadi' of the 'Tulu' speaking 'South Canara' is an example.
It is interesting to note that the 'Tulu' system of training was considered to be of higher level of learning by the traditional Malabar system. The heroes of the folk narratives of north Malabar are eulogised as masters of the 'Tulu' techniques. Further, some of the 'Kalari' masters in Kerala trace their origin to the Tulu speaking areas in Canara.
Studies in the Sri Lankan martial traditions have shown that a good deal of reciprocity of relations is traceable in the culture of Kerala and Sri Lanka. The 'Kandyan Haramba Salawa 'and the 'Kalari' of Kerala are comparable institutions.
A number of words such as 'Angam', 'Paniker', 'Carika', 'Sevakam', 'Palisha', etc. in the Sri Lankan language, in the context of medieval 'Angam' fight suggest their relationship with the system which prevailed in Kerala in the middle ages.
The institutions of 'Kalari' are generally traced to the period immediately after the disintegration of the Perumals of Kodungallur in the first quarter of the twelfth century A.D. It was an integral part of the socio-political system of medieval Kerala.
Politically, the land of Kerala was divided into a number of principalities and minor chieftaincies. The alignment and enmities of these power centres resulted in constant warfare. Small scale skirmishes and large-scale fightings were not uncommon among these local and regional authorities.
In such a set-up, each power centre was forced to maintain a body of fighters at the beck. Systematic training and strict rules of discipline for fighters were indispensable for an effective working of the system. It was in such circumstances that the 'Kalaris', which provided the institutional base for the body building and training in combat, became not only necessary but also essential.
During the Chera period (C, 800-1125 A.D.) there were in Kerala several 'Salais', which were institutions for imparting training in letters, weaponry and many other branches of medieval learning including traditional sciences, black magic, etc. The 'Salais' were attached mostly to temples.
These institutions enjoyed liberal patronage from the ruling houses. The members of the 'salais' were Brahmin students who played an important role in upholding the rights of the 'Brahmin sabhas' and the power of their royal patrons.
These 'Salais' can be equated with the 'Ghatikas', which were in no significant way different from the 'Salais'. Thus, the tradition of South Indian martial training with its institutional support can be traced back to the early medieval period.
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