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Ideology and History of Kalarippayatt, a Martial Art in Kerala

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

M Ashitha

(Research Scholar, University of Hyderabad)

Note - All photographs are by M Ashitha.

This paper deals with the history of Kalarippayatt and its transformation in Kerala from the medieval periods. By looking at the long history, this paper seeks to examine the transformation of Kalarippayatt from the status of a power apparatus to the status of a just performance art of contemporary times. The first part of this essay will analyse the origin and evolution of Kalarippyatt from medieval period onwards and then will pay attention to the role of caste in perpetuating this particular martial form as a cultural apparatus.

Kalarippayatt as an institution has a very long history from medieval to contemporary time. Its form, nature and popularity varies in accordance with the changing circumstances in society, therefore it is an evolving institution. Kalarippayatt can be interpreted in overlapping and at times in competing ways. It can be defined as an “ancient martial art encapsulating Kerala’s cultural, mytho–historical heritage, a traditional psycho- physiological discipline which cultivates mental, physical and spiritual benefits, a practical fighting arts a system of physical training beneficial to sports people, dancers and actors”.[i]

Kalarippayatt is a body art and the only way to learn it is the hard practice. Kalaippayatt has been considered to be divine martial art by its Kalari teachers or Kalari Gurukkanmar. Kalarippayatt is known as Kerala’s own art, Kerala’s power and beauty, and mother of all martial arts. Kalarippayatt had an incorporated relation to the rulers in the Medieval Kerala. With the upcoming of colonial powers, Kalarippayatt started to face its decline. After realising the military skills of Kalarapayattt, British started to destroy these indigenous military martial art by disarm policies. As a part of the nationalism, Kalaraippayatt was revived in 1920s. Modern Kerala witnesses a new form of Kalarippayatt. Now there is an exhibitionalism of the Kalarippayatt prevails in contemporary Kalarippayatt performance.

Types of Kalaries

Kalaries used to be constructed in the locality where the aristocratic houses were situated. Most of the aristocratic families had their own Kalaries. Kalaries are constructed on the basis of Tachu Sastra[ii]. There are two kinds of Kalaries:  the Cerukalari and  Kuzhikalari or Pitkalari, which are built for practicing physical and weapon training. Kuzhikalaries are still used now.  Kalari is built in the south west corner of the plot. The face of Kalari should be faced towards the east. The construction of an Ankakalari should follow some architectural style, “Earth is dug out to a depth of about three feet from a rectangular plot of ground measuring forty two feet in length in an east westerly direction and twenty one feet in breadth. The dug up soil is piled around the pit and rammed in to strong ridges. The floor is also levelled and rammed. The area is thatched roofed with the support of two main pillars one in the east and other in the west”.[iii] Anka Kalari is the place where fights used to be conducted. These kinds of Kalaries are helpful to maintain the body temperature of the practitioners; more over the mud in these kinds of Kalaries is also good as it cannot cause any skin disease to the practitioners.

Definition of Kalarippayatt as a term

C.V Narayanan Nair, the prominent Kalarippayatt practitioner translates the word Kalarippayatt in to English as ‘The Art of Fencing”. According to Zaralli the term Kalarippayatt derived from two words Kalari and Payattu. In Malayalam Kalari means open space, threshing floor, and battlefield. “This word drives from the Tamil word Kalam meaning arena, arena for gladiatorial or gymnastic exhibitions, and assembly place of work or business. In Malayalam the word Kalari idiomatically refers to the special place where martial exercises are taught. In Tamil payilamil means to become trained. In Malayalam pailuka means to learn, speak. Payattuka means to exercise in arms, practice and having the idiomatic meaning fencing exercise a trick.[iv]

The word Kalarippayatt was not used as a compound word in Vadakkan Pattukal[v].  Malayalam lexicon notes, the word Kalarippayatt used as a compound word for the first time in Ullor Parameswaran’s early twenteenth century drama titled Amba[vi]. Sasidaryan argued that Kalari and Kalarividya are different. Kalari, as an open space,  Kalarividya, the word includes whole body of knowledge, including aspects of fighting technique (Payattu) healthcare, education, rituals, lifestyle, philosophy, meditation, art of life and art of performance. But in modern Kerala the word Kalarividya replaced by the word Kalarippayatt.  But this word Kalarippayatt is deficient to represent the wholesome activities of the word Kalarividya. The word Kalarippaytt shows the fencing art aspect only.[vii]

Various regional styles of Kalarippayattu

The style of the techniques and training of Kalalarippayatt is different from region to region. Kalarippayatt is divided in to three categories: Northern Kalarippayatt, Central Kalarippaytt and Southern Kalarippayatt.  The Northern Kalari itself included three different types called. Northern style of Kalarippayatt focuses Arappukkai, Pillathangi and Vattenthiruppus on hero combat. Training of Weapon was the main technique of those regions. Square pattern of foot work is the central technique in the central Kalarippayatt. Origin of central style of Kalarippayatt is related to the Chaver[viii] and Mamangam[ix]. Mythology of Northern and central Kalarippayatt are traced back to the linkage of Parasurama while the southern tradition relate to Agasthya saint.  The southern tradition promotes the spontaneous fighting which is also called Dranam Palli Sampradhaya.  They are not giving much importance to the weapons. These traditions of Kalarippayatt emphasize different methods of training in weaponry and the importance of bodily engagements including Verumkai (empty-hand), Koltari (wooden weapon), Ankamtari (iron weapons).

Origin and institutionalization of Kalarippayatt

It is very difficult to trace out the actual period where Kalarippayatt had evolved. There are various myths about the origin of Kalarippayatt and its institutionalisation from region to region. Various Keralolpathy[x] narratives tell us various stories behind the origin of Kalarippayatt, among them two myths are very popular in the north and south Kerala. The most popular myth related to Kalarippayatt goes back to the mythical history of Parasurama who considered being the founder of Kerala. He brought thirty two Brahmin families and taught them the art of combat and archery in the new land he had reclaimed. Another story is that Kalarippayatt originated from Lord Siva and his Sivatandava.

In south Kerala, another popular notion is that Hindu saint legend Agastya is the founder of Kalarippayatt. Another Keralolpahti claimes that origin of Kalarippayatt trace back to the Dhanurvedha. But the historians questioned the authenticity of this Keralolpathi and these myths[xi]. Modern historian K.N Ganesh has criticized that the authors of this Keralolpathies are Brahmins and their views about the origin of Kalarippayatt was a part of their vested interests to make link between all local traditions with Brahmanism.

Eellam Kullam Kunjan Pilla is the first historian who tried to trace out the period when Kalarippayat has evolved.  He argues that Kalarippayatt has evolved in hundred years of Chola Chera war. But the period of this war is questioned by other historians. Vijayakumar says in his book ‘Kalarippayatt kerelathinte sakthiyum sountharyavum’  that, the Kalarippayatt evolved and developed during the Sangam period .[xii]Travellers recorded the heroism and the expertise of the soldiers in the Kalarippyatt in various accounts. Folk songs are the very important source for the study of Kalarippayatt and its evolution. There is an argument that the savage man made the footsteps of Kalarippayatt from animal fight. 

Kalarippayatt, meaning and ideology in Medieval Kerala

Kalarippayatt in medieval Kerala is considered as a ritual art. “Kalari (a space) and Kalarippayatt (praxis) personify religious themes through their various representations”. Kalarippayatt is always practiced in a sacred and divine atmosphere. Construction of Kalari especially the Kuzhi Kalari itself resembles a temple. Some Kalaris are constructed as a part of temples of Bhadrakali or Bhagavathi[xiii] cult. Kalaries worships female deities that are various forms of Bhadrakali. In all Kalaries, Patti says “Seven tapering semi-circular steps at the corner form a pedestal known as Puttara. Next to the Puttara on the north western end remains Ganapatipitom, the abode of Lord Ganesha, remover of all obstacles. Adjacent to the Puttaara and north of the Ganapatipitom lies a small-elevated place known as Guruttara constructed in memory of Gurukkal, or ancient teachers of martial arts. Here, the Puttara and Guruttara are adorned with flowers and Nilavilakku(traditional lamp) define the space as a ritual space . The Gods and the spiritual dimension of the Kalari express the inherent significance of Kalarippayatt”[xiv].In Kalari, Kalari Gurukkal or Kalari master is considered as the human god. It is a strict rule followed by all the Kalaries that a student should get the blessing from Kalari Gurukkal during the time of admission to Kalaries. Practice of Kalarippayatt is starting with the lighting of the lamp in the Puthara by the Kalari Gurukkal. Moreover a student must pray Puthara and Guruthara and Kalari Gurukkal when she or he enters the Kalari. Before starting the practice of weapon, there is a custom that the student should get the blessing from the Kalari Gurukkal. This all shows that Kalari is an institution of devotion and power. Contemporary Kalaries are still following these rituals but not practiced as strictly as the medieval Kalaries.

Before starting the Kalarippayatt competition, the candidates who are going to fight respects each other by a particular item of performance called Thozuth, a kind of prayer which shows respect each other. This practice itself teaches the performer of Kalarippayatt the value of the sportsmanship. Maipayattu or the body exercise is the most important part of the practice of Kalarippayatt which make the Kalarippayatt practitioner to be good minded and healthy. Moreover the defensive nature of Kalarippayatt helps the practitioner to be confident and prudent which changes his or her body to the state of the phrase ‘when the body becomes all eyes’. Zaralli argues that the Kalari is a complex nexus of experience and self-formation, a crucible for an individual’s experience and the embodied practice which helps to shape a self.[xv]  Kalarippayatt in medieval Kerala is also considered as a cultural performance. During the Onam festival Kalarippayatt competition is conducted, usually large numbers of people including the Nair women attend the platform as the spectators.

Political geography and role of Kalarippayatt in the medieval Kerala society

By the end of the twelfth century the Chera empire disintegrated into numerous principalities, Brahmanic socio economic dominance was consolidated through control of extensive area of gifted lands, ritual dominance by means of hierarchal ordered relationships, and an intricate pattern of martial relationship with Kshatriyas and high ranking Nayars. It was the period of Naduvazhies who were the rulers of ‘Nadus’, which means a region. The important Nadus are Venad, Kolathunad, Cochin and Calicut. The temples were also very powerful in this period. Most of the temples owned vast areas of land and they have separate armies to protect this wealth. According to Elamkulam, the Medieval Kerala society was dominated by the Janmi system headed by the Nampoothiri Brahmans known as Uralars who were the owners of the Devasam land and Brahmasam land and Karalars were the labourers. These classifications formed the back bone of the medieval society.[xvi]

For the research on the role of the Kalarippayatt in the medieval Kerala society, it is necessary to examine the social stratification of the medieval Kerala and its nature.  EMS Namboodiripad argued in his book titled ‘Kerala yesterday today and tomorrow’ that the medieval Kerala has adopted the Brahmanical scheme of division of labour, the division of the society in to high and law castes  and developed in to the worst form of untouchability and even unseeability. There was an absent of a strong central government system as the land was fragmented  and the government had no right on the land even no right to receive the annual land tax[xvii].The system of private ownership of land  gave  medieval society a feudal nature. The Desam or the village has been always considered as the fundamental unit of the Medieval Kerala society. This Desams were self sufficient and caste ranking bore a relationship to differential rights to land. The Desams further divided in to Nadus or chiefdoms. Each  Nadus are not only political unit but  socio, cultural and religious unit.[xviii] Though the rulers are the Naduvazies, the real power was in the hands of the Nair Madambies who used to maintain strong troops of soldiers who were well trained in the martial art of Kalaripayyattu. Every Nadus had its own Kalaris, where the youth of the land received training in martial art Kalarippayatt. This is the period of ‘mighty is power’. Ankam.[xix] Poith[xx] and Kudippaka[xxi] are the main characters of this period. Here the fighters need to claim the power. Organised Kalarippayatt institutions used to supply people for fighting and to capture power. In this context it is institutionalised as a power mechanism.

There are large numbers of reference about the valour of Nair soldiers by the foreign travellers who have visited Kerala during that particular period. Portuguse traveller called Duarte Barbose who visited Kerala in the 15th century describe a Nair soldier in detail for the first time. Fosat, who is the author of the ‘Nairs of the Malabar’, describes about a Kalari of Paruva caste,  where he points out that the lower caste also had their own Kalaries, but they didn’t have right to train in upper caste Kalaries. Another traveller Abu Saithu refers the valour of a Chaver in his work. Such travelogues show the marvellous beauty of the Kalarippayatt and the skills of the Kerala martial practitioners. British government official records also mentioned that the local rulers of Kerala had a strong well disciplined efficient military. The disarm policy of the British to disarm Kerala Kalaries was the result of British fear of Kerala military supremacy.

 The Ezhavas[xxii] who trained in Kalarippayatt were called Chekavars and Nairs which constituted the prominent soldiers at that time. Vadakkan Pattukal refers about a woman called Unniyarcha who was well trained in Kalarippayyatt, she was also a Kalari teacher. This reveals that the women from the Kalari families were trained in Kalarippayatt. Based on this particular political structure, the nature of the medieval Kerala society was martially oriented as all the Nadus maintained well organized military troop. For organizing this martial troop Naduvazhies depended on the Kalaries where the youngsters trained Kalarippayatt. These facts show that the Kalarippayatt has been playing the role of a power apparatus in the medieval Kerala society.

With out the study of the social stratification in medieval Kerala society, it is impossible to perceive this institution as a power apparatus. It is necessary to examine that what was the role of   Kalarippayatt as an institution in the different caste group in the medieval Kerala. Kerala medieval society was highly influence by the castism and untouchability. This sport is in the form of military combat or fight (Ankam) had a history between two Chekavars or the fighters belong to the ezhava caste for the settlement of the dispute between the two upper caste Nair families. Ankam ended with the death of Chekavar[xxiii]. Although all castes have their own Kalaries, but Nairs were recruited to military of Naduvazhies. Through this military position, they claimed the status of the warrior caste in medieval Kerala. Chekavars were fighting for Ankams .This is the crookedness of the cast system during that period. Nairs who were considered as the upper caste were recruited to military and not sent for the Ankam. The Chekavar who belongs to the lower caste called Thiyya community selected for Ankams, where one of the participants should die is the principle dominated. This shows the attitude of the society towards the life of the lower caste men.  The folk song named ‘Puli maranja thondachan’ point out that there are some restrictions for lower caste people in training in main stream Kalarippayatt. This song narrates the story about the lower caste fighter named Kari Gurukkal.  He could not get military training as a Pulaya caste. But he has hidden his lower caste identity and trained the Kalarippayatt. He started to train Kalarippayatt for lower cast also. Naduvazhi came to know this and eventually Kari Gurukkal was killed. This story showed the petty interest of the upper caste people to prevent the lower caste people to use the Kalarippayatt as a tool of repressive state apparatus. Though all caste in medieval Kerala had practiced the Kalarippayatt, but it’s practicability is different from caste to caste. The dominant castes like Nayars tried to maintain their superior position in the caste hierarchy by maintaining a higher spot in the practice of Kalarippayatt. At the same time, lower caste groups like Ezhavas tried to resist the hegemony of such dominant caste by practicing their own form of Kalarippyatt. Thus, the power apparatus of Kalarippyatt formed in the medieval period can be seen as the terrain of the contestation between the caste groups. 

Status of Kalarippayatt in Colonial Kerala

For the first time British banned the use of weapons and art of fencing.  In Thiruvithamkur and Kochi they introduced some control on the Kalarippayatt as a part of the war tactics to reduce the military power of Veluthambi Dalawa and Pazhassiraja. Angam and poyth are the back bone of the Kalarippayatt. In 1792, British banned Angam by law. Again British banned the practice of Kalarippayatt in 1804 by law. British intentionally reduced the number of soldiers in the armies of the Naduvazhies.

Indian arms Act in 1878 banned the people from making and keeping arms[xxiv]. By these disarmament policies of government and their actions towards the confiscating the arms, saw a decline in this art. Kalalarippayatt has lost its various techniques like Dranam Palli technique and Odimurriseri techniques. Police raided houses, confiscated all arms and disarmed all Kalaries and Kalari practitioners. By the upcoming of the Portuguese itself, due to the popularity of the guns and gun powder for the military purpose, Kalarippayattu could not survive as a power institution in the society. Kalaries came to the temples to protect the weapons from the attack of British.

Revival of Kalarippayatt

It was in Talacheri that the resurgence of public interests in Kalarippayatt began during the 1920 as part of the wave rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout South India which showed the growing reaction against British rule[xxv]. Revival of Kalarippayatt was led by Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal and his disciple C. V. N Narayanan. Palm leaves manuscripts on the Kalarippayatt by the old medieval Kalarippayatt Gurukkal has been preserved the long aged traditions and techniques of the Kalarippayatt. However it could not keep the medieval form of Kalarippayatt in detail and it lost so many Payattu Mura or the techniques of the Kalarippayatt. Kalarippayatt lost its glory and the role of a power institution after the British intervened in the lives of Kerala. In Modern India, the old face of the Kalarippayatt totally changed and turned towards a new direction.

Kalari tradition had three aspects: Kalari practice, practicability of Kalari and Kalari as a medicine. Practicability of Kalari is different from medieval Kerala to modern Kerala. Kalaries are opened for all caste in the society. But with the coming of foreign martial arts like Kungfue and Karate, Kerla society also got attracted towards these new martial arts and ignored the Kalarippayatt and its importance as a martial art in making body fit.

Kalarippayatt as a cultural institution and the heritage of Modern Kerala

After the revival of Kalarippayatt in modern Kerala, it faced an identity problem as it lost its old status as a power institution in the society. This was the time to find out the new role of the Kalarippayatt in the society. Revivalists of the Kalarippayatt faced several problems. Here the role of C. V. N Narayanan Nair in spreading Kalarippayatt as an art among the society is noticeable. He used the exhibitionalism of Kalarippayatt and it became a performance art. For getting public appeal, many innovations were made which help this particular Martial art to get wide popularity among the world and it became a cultural symbol of Kerala tourism. The agenda was to popularize a new form of Kalarippayattu. For getting popularity, they used choreographed Kalarippayatt dance. Moreover, dancers like Chandra Lekha took this martial art form and developed some dance fusion.

Kalarippayatt as a defence art and a gynaecium in the Modern Kerala

 Kalarippayatt has been considered as a defence art from in its very formation. But it has different meaning and different function both in medieval and modern Kerala under the title of ‘defence art’. In medieval Kerala Kalarippayatt was a power institution. Ankam and Poyth were the agents of this martial institution; therefore defence had broader meanings. At that time the defence of ruling groups was also a part of the duty of Kalarippayatt. But in the modern period Kalarippayatt has a narrow meaning, that is individual defence only.

After 1980’s large number of Kalaries opened for the people to practice Kalarippayatt. Here the society used to get the benefit from the Kalarippayatt as an exercise. This is well connected to the larger structural changes in the Kerala society. In 1980, Kerala witnessed the migration of large number of people to the gulf countries. Gulf migration helped the families to improve their economic status and led to the emergence of the new middle class. These Gulf migrants acquired a new identity in the social life. During this time, the physical culture changed in the society, Masculinities and the femininities changed to a new notion.  Because of the gulf money, drinking and the smoking became common as a character is the masculinity. The cash become the value of that society. Food culture also changed. In this background people are thinking about a healthy and masculine body. As a result of this awareness of healthy body attracted the people to Kalarippayatt as a sport item.

In 1958, Kerala Kalarippayatt association was formed under the Kerala sports council. Most of the Kalaries are registered under this association. Association used to conduct the Kalarippayatt stage performances to spread the popularity of the Kalarippayatt among the mass. Moreover, there are many debates on the new policy of government to take Kalarippayatt as part of the school curriculum and recruitment of teachers from the Kalari practitioners. This will give new impetus to the position of Kalarippayatt.

To conclude, in medieval Kerala, Kalarippayattt had an all encompassing role in the society as it involved and affected all the aspects of the society. But in modern Kerala, status of Kalarippayatt reduced to a stage performance and remains outside the life. The change between the Kalarippayatt from the relationship between military and society to martial artist and spectator is a consequence drastic change in the society.

MN Rajesh may be contacted at - mnraja@gmail.com

[i] McDonald lan , “body practice, performance Art , Competitive Sports: A critique of Kalarippayatt , the martial art of Kerala”, Contribution to Indian Sociology.(2007):  41.

[ii]  Ancient science of building construction.
[iii] Nair, Sreedharan T Chirakal, Kalarippayatt the complete guide to Kerala's ancient martial art, (Chennai: Westland books, 2007), 3
[iv] Zaralli, B. Phillip, when the body becomes all eyes paradigms, discourse and practice of power in Kalarippayattu a South Indian martial art.  (Newyork:  Oxford University press, 1998), 25.
[v]  A group of folk songs in kerala
[vi] Zaralli, B. Phillip. 1998. opcit-P.25.
[vii] Sasidharan , P.K, kalarippayattu Perfomance paradigm as Asethetics and Politics of invisibility” in  Performers and their Art folk , popular and classical genre in a changing India(eds.), Simon   Charsley and Laxmi Narayan Kadekar( New delhi: Rutledge, 2006), 170.
[viii] Warriors like a suicide squad, prepared to give their lives for the king’s sake at any moment.

[ix] Mamankam was an important religious festival of Kerala which was held to celebrate the mythological decent of the river Ganga in to the Bharathapuzha, most important river in Kerala.
[x] The legendary Kerala Brahman chronicle.
[xi] Mathew, Rosmerin , Kalarippayattum, ragavediyum( kalarippayatt and stage.( Trivandrum : Bhasha Institute, 2009). 11-12.
[xii] Vijayakumar, K, Kalarippayatt Keralathinte saktiyum southaryavum.(Kalarippayattu power and beauty of Kerala).(Thiruvanathapuram: Department of Cultural publications, 2000).46.
[xiii] Mother goddess of Kerala.
[xiv] Pati George, “Kalari and Kalarippayattu of Kerala, South India: nexus of the celestial, the corporeal, and the terrestrial”,  Contemporary south Asia vol 18(2010): 182 , accessed  August 1, 2010, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09584931003674976.

[xv] Zaralli, B. Phillip.1998. opcit -P.9.
[xvi] Gangatharan, T.K, Evolution of kerala history and culture, (Calicut: Calicut university,2004), 127.
[xvii] Namboodiripad, EMS, Kerala Yesterday today and tomorrow, ( Calcutta: national books, 1967), 40
[xviii] Sreenivas, N. M, Social change in Modern India,( Berkerly: University of California press, 1973), 37
[xix] fight between two Chakovars or the fighters for the settlement of the dispute between the two upper caste aristocratic families.

[xx] Fight between two soldiers.
[xxi] Blood feud
[xxii] A caste in Kerala
[xxiii] Menon  sreedaran,  A survey of Kerala history,(Chennai: S. viswanathanprinters and publications, 2005), 276.
[xxiv] Mathew, Rosemerin.2009.  opcit- P.57
[xxv] Zaralli, B. Phillip. 1998. opcit-P.51

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