The Cultural Transition
The changes that were taking place at the basic strata of society influenced the superstructural elements of ideological and cultural life. This observation is applicable to 'Kalari' system also. The shift of importance from the early medieval 'Salais' to the medieval 'Kalaris' implies a transference of emphasis from the temple-oriented Brahmin settlements to the newly developed agrarian settlements, which gave importance to cash crops production and trade.
One of the characteristic features of these medieval agrarian settlements is their relative isolation, which resulted in the localisation of goods and services. Local dialects, cults, cultural expressions and such other traits of different sub-regions in Kerala sprang up from the socio-economic formation.
Medieval principalities and chiefly families maintained military groups of their own. This practice of maintaining local militia can be traced back to the period of Nadu formation in Kerala during the Perumal rule. The Perumal had a capital force of thousand groups of soldiers under thousand 'Nayakas' or 'Nayar' captains.
Each of these groups consisted of ten soldiers. Similarly, the 'Nadu' chieftains had the 'Hundred Organisations' under them. Medieval inscriptional records speak of such military organisations like the 'Munnurruvar', the three Hundred; 'Anjuttuvar', the Five Hundred; 'Arunuttuvar', the Six Hundred and 'Ezhunuttuvar', the Seven Hundred of different 'Nadu' divisions.
These local militia with some of their old features continued to exist in the subsequent period of the principalties in the name of 'Changatham', 'Chaver', 'Lokar' and 'Akampati Janam'.
It is believed that these bands of soldiers belonging to different communities in the middle ages must have risen out of such companions of honour, originally conceived as body guards of the rulers and local authorities and developed into a landed aristocracy supporting the established order with military power.
The fighters' function was not limited to settling rivalry among political authorities alone. Often, they were invited for settling disputes between ordinary people. This practice of fighters for judicial purposes resulted in the emergence of a peculiar institution of 'Ankam', (single combat).
Interestingly, this institution of 'Ankam' with the same name was prevalent in Sri Lanka, which developed there around the Kandyan country in the middle ages. The subject matter of a moving folk narrative in Malayalam is the tragic story of an 'Ankam' fighter who lost his life while fighting for settling a dispute between two members of family.
Regular income in the treasury during the rule of the princely states in Kerala included the fees levied on 'Ankam' combats, which was to be collected from the disputing parties. Thus, the martial spirit of Kerala was actively participating in the social and political life of Kerala in the middle ages.
Medieval travellers have left behind their observations on the 'Kalari' system in Malabar. These writings by foreigners generally contain an idea that 'Nairs' alone formed part of the soldiers of the kings. The social groups of Kerala who practised and mastered the techniques of Kalarippayattu included, besides 'Nayars', the 'Izhavas', 'Pulayas', 'Parayas', Christians and Muslims.
The 'Tottam' invocation songs of the 'Teyyam' performance of North Malabar refer to some 'Pulaya' heroes who conducted eighteen 'Kalaris' in different parts of the region. Heroic lays of the central Travancore mention a Paraya hero, Chengannur Ali who was a master of the techniques of Kalarippayattu.
Some of the celebrated heroes of Malayalam folk songs belong to the Izhava community. They are usually called 'Chekor'. There were Muslim Gurukkals who were masters in the Tulu techniques. The Christians of Kerala too had their own military men. The native records of principalities mention some Christian local chieftains and their soldiers who were well-versed with traditional warfare.
Each 'Desam', which was a unit of administration in traditional Kerala, had its 'Kalari' and each 'Kalari' was under the supervision of its guru, who was differently known in different areas as 'Panikkar', 'Kuruppu', etc. Originally, these were only names of profession but later they became names of sub-caste.
That these were once upon a time names of profession is further supported by the fact that both these names are found as suffixes not only among Nayars but also among other caste-groups of Izhavas and Kaniyans and even among non-Hindu communities. The 'Kalaris' imparted training in literacy, body-building and warfare/weapony.
Both men and women were admitted to the course. Medieval Malayalam folklore bear testimony to the high level of expertise achieved by women in Kerala in the fighting techniques.
Members of the royal families were trained in Kalarippayattu under their family gurus who were endowed with property and special status. Thamme Panikkar or Dharmothu Panikkar was the training master of the royal family of the Zamorins of Calicut.
Subversion Of A Tradition
This system continued uninterruptedly until the occupation of Malabar by the English East India Company in 1792 AD. The Company was particular in destroying the traditional military character of the community of Malabar.
'Kalari' - Structural Features
Indigenous folk narratives and technical literature furnish long lists of different types of 'Kalaris'. The popular 'Pattukatha', ballads of Malabar speak of 'Ankakkalari', 'Totuvor Kalari', 'Totukalari', etc., without giving any details of the structure and function.
Technical writings are more specific about the structure and function of the 'Kalaris'. 'Netumkalari', 'Kurumkalari', 'Totukalari', 'Cherukalari' are mentioned by them.
A more scientific and specific categorisation of 'Kalaris' is in terms of the measurement of the ground plan of the 'Kalari' Structure. Thus, the following types can be identified:
· Aimpatteerati 52 ft.
· Nalpatteerati 42 ft.
· Muppatteerati 32 ft.
· Patinetteerati 18 ft.
· Panteerati 12 ft.
The nomenclature, which is on the basis of the measurement of the ground speaks about the size of the structure that ranges between twelve feet and fifty two feet. The most common among these is the 'nalpatteerati', (forty-two feet in length). All 'Kalaris' except the 'Panteerati' bear a width that is half of the length. 'Panteerati' is square with the same length and breadth.
The 'Kalaris' of the northern parts of Kerala are called 'Kuzhikkalari'. 'Kuzhi', meaning a pit because the soil is dug out from the ground of the structure. Generally a ''Kalari'' is 42 feet long and 21 feet wide, the enclosing space dug out to a depth of about 6 feet.
It is protected from the heavy rain and the sun by a gabled roof, which is thatched by plaited coconut leaves or palm leaves. Its sides are also covered with the same material. The surface of the ground is kept evenly rammed and smooth. 'Kannimoola', the southern-western corner of the ''Kalari'' ground is considered to be sacred to the 'Kalariparadevata'.
This is demarcated by a 'Poothara', platform of flowers, with varying number of steps in semi-circular shape narrowing towards the top. A place for the guru, preceptor, also is demarcated and this is called 'Guruthara'. There is a whole metaphysical belief system according to which the structure of 'Kalari' symbolized the universe.
This, along with several other features, betrays a layer of sanskritisation or adopting the paradigms of the great tradition of India but the material art form with all its techniques and expertise is at home in the far south, as a part of 'little tradition' or regional culture.
The Rigorous Training
The 'Kalari' training is based on an elaborate system of physical exercises. The practical experience of the body movements strengthens the knowledge of a disciple. Constant practice adds to agility and strength. At the age of seven, the student is recruited for his training under a 'Gurukkal'.
Oil massage or 'Uzhichal' is an essential part of the training. The verbal commands of the 'Gurukkal' known as 'Vayttari' are obeyed and repeated to grasp the body movements. Each combination of step and gesture is known as 'Adavu'. Each of them helps to recollect memory and leads to correct movements.
The training or the system has a metaphysical dimension as it was practised everywhere in Kerala. The students arrive at dawn with empty stomach. They are wrapped in a six feet long and one feet wide cotton cloth tightly wound around their waist. This cloth is named 'Kachha'. The combatants generally used to wear red-kacha made out of silk over which a belt is also tied to strengthen the waist.