They fight aggressively in hand to hand combat. They move their sticks with lightning speed in what looks like an attempt to hit each other. A little later, you see them fiercely attacking each other with swords, small dagger, spears and a long flexible steel sword. The defence – sometimes with these very weapons or a shield, a piece of cloth or even bare hands – is equally quick and efficient. Still later you see them vigorously moving a long staff lit at both ends and even jumping through a ring of fire.
All this while, stunned by their aggression, agility and flexibility you try to keep pace with their swift movements. One moment you silently pray that they do not hurt each other and at other you laugh at yourself for thinking so for you know very well that what you are witnessing is a piece of wonderfully choreographed performance of Kalaripayattu – the traditional martial art form of Kerala – by skilled performers.
These are artists who have trained and practised for years to reach this level of excellence in this traditional art form that is believed to be the mother of all martial art forms, be it Karate, Kung Fu, Judo, Jujutsu or Muay Thai. The performance is an electrifying show of skill and energy and keeps audience thrilled and entertained throughout. You come out smiling and impressed. That is the kind of effect Kalaripayattu or simply Kalari has on you.
Kalaripayattu Kerala – Origin & History
Kalaripayattu draws form two words – kalari meaning place or battlefield and payattu meaning practice. Though the exact origin of Kalaripayattu is not known, it is generally believed that Sage Parshuram developed it. As a combat form, it reached its apex during the time when the kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandyas were constantly fighting with each other for supremacy. Kalaripayattu went through a lot of fine tuning in this era.
The decline came with the advent of the Portuguese and later the British who, fearing armed rebellion, did everything to suppress it. Post India’s independence, Kalari lost its status as a combat form but later re-emerged as an art form. Today, Kalari is promoted and appreciated as a traditional martial art form of Kerala.
Nature is a perennial source of inspiration and in case of Kalari it stands so true. It is believed that initial Kalari developed in the jungles with wild animals providing much needed attack and defense tactics to human (from wild animals as well as other men). Due to this, the movements of Kalari draw a lot from the movements of ferocious denizens of forests like tiger, lion, wild boar, elephant, snake and crocodile.
Students of Kalari, from early age, go through intense training that includes body conditioning exercises, learning the art with wooden weapons followed by sharp metallic weapons and bare handed defense and attack techniques. Apart from the martial art training, Kalari also involves a healing therapy that focuses on preparing the body through massages.
I had the pleasure of seeing this remarkable art form while on a trip to Munnar a couple of years back. There, Punarjani – The Traditional Village holds daily performance of Kathakali and Kalaripayattu for visitors. In case you are not visiting Munnar, try to catch a show in Kochi or any other city. Anyone visiting the state ought to have a Kalaripayattu performance in his/her itinerary for watching a live show is an experience not to be missed.