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A Brief History of Kalarippayattu

With the absence of history, the chronology of the development of Kalarippayattu remains shrouded in mystery. The earliest predecessor of Kalarippayattu was the ancient Sangam Age (from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D) combat techniques. The Puram poems of Tamil Sangam literature show that a fierce martial spirit predominated across the ancient Tamil kingdoms ruled by Chera, Chola and Pandya Dynasties. Each Warrior received military training and the heroes of this period were gallant warriors specialized in the use of sword and shield, spear or arrow. Their greatest honour was to die in the battlefield was a sacrifice of honour and memorial stones were erected for the fallen and worshipped by the community.

The founding of Kerala Brahmin (Namboothiri) settlements in the Chera Kingdom by the seventh century transformed the socio-linguistic-cultural-religious heritage of the region. Eventually the marital art form that crystalized as Kalarippayattu combined indigenous Dravidian techniques and heroic ethos with the culture and martial practices of the migrant Brahmins.

The eleventh century witnessed the hundred years of war between the Chera and Chola kingdoms, in this extended period of war, military training and practice of the martial art became exclusive right and privilege of specific sub-groups of the society who vowed to serve the king to death as a par to his retinue. Along with Nayars, a subgroup of Brahmins called Yatra Namboothiris and another subgroup of Ezhavas called Chekors as well as some Christians and Muslims also learned, taught and practiced the art, Kalarippayattu flourished between thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The advent of the European Colonises in the sixteenth century marked the decline of Kalarippayattu, the physical power and training learned at the Kalaris was not sufficient to withstand the superior fore-power of the Westerns. The British dreaded the widespread Kalari training and objected to the carrying of Weapons by the hereditary warriors. British gave the death blow to Kalarippayattu by confiscating the weapons of Kalari practitioners.

In later years Kalarippayattu continued to survive under the tutelage of few masters. In the twentieth century with the wave of re-discovery of indigenous arts, Kalarippayattu was revived. But until late 1970’s it remained little known as a martial and healing art. Kalarippayattu has strongly influenced the evolution of several Kerala’s theatre and dance forms, most prominently Kathakali and Theyyam. In last nineteenth century, Kalarippayattu was used in the training of Malayali circus performers. The fluid movements of Kalarippayattu have attracted the attention of modern dance enthusiast in west, emphases on adapting the movements to their own dances. Now a day this ancient art is a source of inspiration for self-expression in both traditional and contemporary dance, theatre and fitness. Today the Kalari system in Kerala is revitalized with new enthusiasm and has a global audience and its fame and glory has worn hearts all over.

Gurukkal Veera Sree Mudavangattil
Shangunni Panikkar

Kalarippayattu Practice:

The dazzling strikes, vigorous kicks, breath-taking leaps, and choreographed sparring of Kalarippayattu performance received enthusiastic reception from worldwide audiences today. This celebrated martial art of Kerala was originally practiced by the hereditarywarriors of the region, The inherent beauty of the art from lies in the harmonious synergy of art, science and medicine. Flexibility and strength attained over years of training and practice, empty hand techniques, weaponry, traditional treatments and above all a philosophy based on the Vedic concepts makes Kalari the most completed system of martial art training.

Kalari is the special gymnasium for practicing the marital art, a traditional Hindu Kalari is a simple rectangular room (often sunken) with steep rood. Kalari is also a temple where the deities are worshipped and clinical treatments are administered. The entrance of the Kalari faces the east and in the south-west corner housed the guardian deity on a seven-tiered platform that symbolized the seven abilities – Strength, Power, Posture, Sound, Patience, Training and Expression - required by practitioners. Other Kalari deities, incarnations of the Bhagavathi or Shiva are installed in the corners. Traditionally training begins for both Boys and Girls at the age of seven. The most intensive period of training is during the monsoon season which required specific dietary, behavioural and devotional practices; students participate in the devotional life of Kalari and learn the ritual entry to the sacred space through the practice of devotion to the Kalari deities and the teacher.

Training involves successive stage of complex multi dimensioned set of practices and students advance through the system individually. The first step Meyyorukkam – preparation of the body is to acquire knowledge of the body through various breathing and physical exercises and massages. These exercises teach the vitality of the human body and how to develop powers of body,mind, combat and wielding weapons. Physical exercises are taught in a series of movement combinations. These exercises include an array of poses, steps, jumps, kicks and movements performedin increasing complexity. The emphasis is not a muscle building; the body is trained to be supple to perform various movements that depend solely on a flexible spine. Students learn to kick their legs vertically, sweep their legs in circles, turn deftly, leap horizontally and land effortlessly. They are designed to strengthen andloosen the body anddevelop dexterity and strength in the legs.They are taught various postures that enable them to perform powerful and precise actions with full concentration against the opponent. Most important is the mastery of basic poses and steps by which on moves into and out of poses.

From Meyyorukkam they progress to weapon training. The first Weapon taught is the long staff followed by other wooden weaponry. Next they learn the use of metal weapons such as Sword and Shield, Daggers, Spears and Urumi – a long and flexible meatal sword that resembles a whip. Learning to fight Unarmed is the next step. Students learn about the 107 vital sports called Marmas in human body. When a person is hit strongly at any of the spots, it can cause sever debilitation.

After years of rigorous training and practice the students become highly conscious of inner workings of human body and realize the power inherent in the control of the internal energy through breathing, the strength of mental power that manifest into concentrated focus, the discovery and raising of power, power attained through repetition on Mantra, individually advised to each student by Gurukkal (teacher) and the power of the divine gained through worship and rituals, meditation and devotion. Whether the Kalari is of Hindu, Christian or Muslim, the internal aspect of the practice is to teach the students to meditate as a natural extension of inward progression of practice. Practice improves stamina and concentration and physical health. This martial art teaches not only mental focus and discipline it also develops unwavering courage and patience and prepares students to face the challenges in day to day life with grace.

Kalarippayattu combines the complete understanding of human physiology with the ancient system of healing, Ayurveda. With knowledge gained through years of practice the Kalarippayattu practitioner understands the body’s structure including the location and the characteristics of the vital spots, nerves, muscles and organs. A true Kalarippayattu practitioner also undergoes medical training and learns how to treat physical injuries with traditional medicines and is able to ventral the viral energy of his body to heal his patients during a massage treatment. The practitioner who becomes fully adept in all aspects becomes a complete master called a Gurukkal. During the monsoon season, in June-August, a full body oil massage is given by the Gurukkal to his students for a period of 14 days to develop flexibility and for body conditioning and to maintain health as well as to cure specific illnesses.

There are Northern and Southern styles of Kalarippayattu. Vadakkan (Northern style) is associated with the Namboothiri, Nata and Ezhava communities of the north and central part Kerala. Thekkan (south style) Kalarippayattu is practiced in the southern part of Kerala by Nayars and Tamil speaking communities of Maravars, Nadars and Vellalars, Norther style involves elaborated graceful body movement and southern Style involves very rapid yet powerful movements.

Poothara Vandanam

Poothara Vandanam, other- wise known as Poothara Tozhal, is the primary salutation instructed in the training arena to a disciple on the initiation moment of his Kalarippayattulearning. Every time the training starts with the salutation of the deity “Khaloorika Bhagavathi” and also at the end of the practicebefore he leaves the place.

Poothara is the primary spiritual establishment in the training arena, constructed in the south west corner of the training space, “Khaloorika Bhagavathi”, the feminineenergy variant of tantric practice is presented in the this space with tantric rituals and the established energy is forced by worshiping with daily ritual as well as with seasonal rituals. This life energy principle is considered as the protective deity of the Kalari space as well as the disciples. The Poothara structure is constructed in a seven stepped manner with a lotus bud shaped spiritual form on the top. There are variations in the structural form observed in different regions of the country. However nearly same unified code and conduct is observed in making and the worshipping of Poothara, The term Poo means flower, The Poothara is always ornate with flowers to protect its energy and the hibiscusflowers are used to ornate the steps.

The salutation regime of the Poothara is a series of physical movements practised toward the direction of Poothara itself. The first move start around 10 feet away from the Poothara and practitioner move towards the Poothara till near to it and observe various physical movements which are combinedly seen as toward and away.