Kalarippayattu Kerala- mother of all martial arts, history, origin


People have carried fight and defence out since the times humans ever existed. To be more specific, the animal fighting styles were adapted by pre-historic humans which became part of their daily survival. And the 1st ever weapon used for fighting was a stick with a sharp pointed end and a firm grip to throw at the enemy. They created although more definite weapons during the Stone Age and Iron Age.

Anyway, according to legends, martial arts has been existing since the 3rd century BCE and the art of kalarippayattu Kerala is the oldest and sophisticated form of combat mechanism. It won’t hurt to learn a move or two, right? After all, maybe sometimes it feels nice to punch a guy or two, don’t try it though ladies, let’s not break the “stronger folks” as they claim themselves to be. So what is Kallaripayattu, Kerala, that natives take pride in learning? Let’s see all about it.

Origin of Kalaripayattu, KERALA

The kalarippayattu martial art is also simply known as ‘Kalari’ which means battlefield. It means the ‘practice I the art of the battlefield’. Kalaripayattu was originated in Kerala, a small state in the southwest coastal part of India. The practise of kalarippayattu was said to be originated from the ‘dhanur Veda. Now, wait, everyone knows ‘Dhanur Veda’ is the science of archery but as the rules of Vedas go, “Dhanur Veda” includes all forms of fighting arts. Although Dhanur Veda seems to have distinct battlefield strategies, it mostly focused on martial techniques and practices.

We also find the word ‘Kalari’ in ancient texts like ‘agam’ and ‘puram’ when describing the combat styles and the weapons used for war. Sangam literature also describes the art of kalarippayattu and the usage of spears, swords, shields, and silambam. The kalaripayattu teaches the 108 most vital points in the human body. But they taught only this technique to promising and incredibly talented fighters as even the slightest wrong move can kill a person, this is called the marmam technique, and these unknown death points in our body are called marmam points. Rigveda mentions that Lord Indra defeated the demon Vritasura using one of the marmam techniques of Kalari. 

During the 6th century, one of the well-known ayurvedic practitioners called sage sushrutha did immense research and identified the 108 vital points of the human body and compiled it in his book “Sushruta Samhita”. Out of these, 94 points were considered deadly and lethal if got properly struck with a fist or a stick. 

Origin of kalarippayattu, kerala

The history of who invented kalarippayattu Kerala goes like this, thousands of years ago, a great warrior and guru named ‘Parashurama who is said to be the 6th avatar of Vishnu, learned the art of battle from lord Shiva and taught it to the foremost and original settlers of Kerala after bringing the land of Kerala from under the ocean beds. There are also songs and Vedas in Malayalam that praise the greatness of Parashurama for creating the land of Kerala and for establishing 1008 kalaris and almost 21 gurus who teach the art of kalarippayattu which is the art of combat. 

If you watch closely, the movements of kalarippayattu, Kerala will look almost familiar. It’s because those movements were modified from the habitat of animal attacks. They also named several poses of kalaripayattu after certain animals. There are eight animal postures called ‘ashta vadivu’

  1. Gajja vadivu- it is the elephant posture
  2. Simha vadivu- it is the lion posture
  3. Marjara vadivu- it is the cat posture
  4. Ashwa vadivu- it is the horse posture
  5. Varaha vadivu- it is the wild boar posture
  6. Sarpa vadivu- it is the snake posture
  7. Kukuda vadivu- it is the rooster posture
  8. Matsya vadivu- it is the fish posture

history of kalarippayattu kerala

The kalarippayattu became more developed during the 9th century as the soldiers practised this technique for defence purposes of Kerala borders and the king. But it became the peak of glory during the 11th and 12th century CE during the 100-year war (300BC-1279AD) between the Cheras, Cholas, and the Pandiyas.

Since kalarippayattu is the oldest form of defence combat, it is called the mother of martial arts, only from India did other Asian countries develop their way of martial arts like karate, kungfu, and jiu-jitsu which was spread in China and other Far East places.

When we talk about the structure of the kalarippayattu, they performed it inside a Kalari which is a specially made place where the topsoil is carved out for about 3 to 4 feet depth and makes a smooth ground. At one corner there will be a deity for the Kalari fighters to get blessings from and that deity is called ‘puttara’. And in another corner, there is a place called ‘guruttara’ which is dedicated to the preceptors of kalarippayattu. The traditional weapon of this martial art is the kalarippayattu sword, which is the combination of a sword and a shield for attack and defence purposes in a war field.

The practice of kalarippayattu, Kerala

If you think kalaripayattu is the most dangerous martial art, then you are absolutely right, because they designed the moves of this technique for warfare and bloodshed. Hence learning process for kalarippayattu needs rigorous training since the body has to get ready for flexing and shaping the muscles, so a full body massage with coconut oil and other medicinal herbs done and then the practice of kalarippayattu Kerala is carried on which is classified into 4 parts:


Maipayat in Malayalam means the synchronized and controlled body conditioning exercises that require maximum use of all the muscles and joints of the body. They choreographed these in such a way that it looks like a single form of movement which involves a series of exercises starting from head to toe flexing each part of the body. Along with this, exercises like Feats like chaattom (jumping), ottam (running), marichil (somersault), they then taught etc.


Kalaripayyatu weapons

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This is the second stage of learning kalarippayattu. This is where training begins using wooden weapons. There are many kinds of wooden weapons like long canes, short staff, and bent instruments with stern grip called ‘otta’ for defence combat purposes. Another procedure called ‘vaiithari’ is the oral commands given while practising the moves, where the fighters have to practice 10 well-balanced moves with the long canes called ‘kettukaari’.



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After practising the moves with wooden weapons, the muscles of the body are pretty much flexed and knows its movements. So this stage is to fight with sharp weapons like swords and shields with spears and daggers and ‘urumi’. Urumi is an amazing and beautiful weapon. It is a long flexible blade that looks like a whip that is worn around the waist so that the length of the sword is hidden and no one will notice the secret weapon.


This is the final learning stage of the kalarippayattu. After learning the moves with your hand and body, and your muscles are capable of the reflexes, it is time to fight barehanded for the defence combat. After acquiring these reflexes the fighter will be able to defend himself or herself from any attacks even with weapons. This is when the fighter becomes a real kalarippayattu warrior.


 Kalaripayattu dance

Kalaripayyatu dance


Though kalarippayattu is a war technique, it is also performed as a part of folk dance. The movements and steps of kalarippayattu are derived from various dance forms that also present in some yoga postures. This dance takes place with a series of movements with shields and swords where the fighters fight without hurting each other.  This form of kalarippayattu dance is widely popular in Kerala since it is where the martial arts was 1st originated.

Kalaripayattu dress 

kalaripayattu dress

During the practice of kalarippayattu, Kerala, men wear long cotton cloth around their waist called the ‘kacha’ and the method of wearing is called ‘Kacha kettal’. The present-day Kacha used in Kalari is 5 to 6 feet in length and one feet width. They wrapped it in a particular method. It gives maximum tightness to the hip and support cover to the naval region. Men rarely wear anything on their upper body and remain with the ‘kacha’. But women wear a sleeveless cotton top over the ‘kacha’.

·    The art of kalarippayattu, Kerala, is more human-friendly nowadays. But the original form of this technique was violence. It is the most aggressive and brutal form of combat since it was used for the battlefield. The martial art forms derived from this are also known to be aggressive to date and one such example is the ‘silet’ which was originated from Malaysia.

     Every state in India practices different forms of kalarippayattu. That is because, in the 7th to 9th century, many small kingdoms wanted to have private armies so they built secret kalaris and trained their capital men the art of kalarippayattu in their own principalities hence the shape and structure of this martial took several spins and now it is practised differently in every state.

Kerala is not only famous for its martial arts but also for Spices in India and Kerala backwaters tour

Kalarippayattu, Kerala for self-defence

Speaking of defence, if you’re going to use this martial art to protect yourself, you’re for sure up breaking a few bones of your opponents. No matter how light you are, this martial art is really barbaric and disruptive. But nonetheless, it is very effective for self-defence by throwing in some hard punches and kicks to someone who disturbs you in the wrong way.

Slap attack– where you hit on the opponents head to make them dizzy and lose balance instead of completely knocking them out

Slapping ears– this may seem a little weird, but to slap the ears and break the eardrums makes the brain send irregular signals to the body and it is one of the common self-defence moves taught in all martial art forms, especially in kalarippayattu.

Duck and attack– this is the most basic and common defence move in martial arts. When the opponent attacks, you should immediately crouch on the floor and cover your ears and head and kick the opponent’s legs to make them lose balance.

 Kalaripayattu for health

Despite being the strongest combat technique, the practice of kalarippayattu is very beneficial for your body.

1) It helps keep your muscles strong and healthy.

2) It helps the heart to function more effectively by circulating blood to all body parts.

3) It gives immense flexibility to the joints and keeps you young and fit for a long time.

4) It gives you high self-control and makes you aware of your surroundings.

5) It provides neuro-muscular coordination in physical movements.

6) It will make you very active and practising kalarippayattu may seem like a lot of work. But when you get to it, it will make you have an amazing body posture. And you’ll feel healthier than ever before.

Facts about kalarippayattu

7) The important part of the kalarippayattu Kerala is its indigenous healing system or the ‘chikitshas’. Kalaripayattu has a unique form of medical treatment that is based on Ayurveda and kalarichikitsha.

# The marmachikitsha- healing through the 107 energy entering points in the body.

# thirumal- intense body massages using the feet and ropes. Where one lies down on their back and another person applies oil on their feet. They rub it rhythmically on the person’s back. It helps to strengthen the spinal cord and shoulder muscles.

#vyayamachikitsha- which are the physical exercises

    Another fact to know is that, during the 1800s( British rule, they saw how strong the Indians were. As they trained with the martial art. And hence banned the practice of kalarippayattu in 1804 and sentenced them to prison for whoever practised kalarippayattu. Up until independence, other fighting sports emerged like boxing, wrestling. Since kalaripayattu was banned for a long time, it never became a sports material as it was dangerous. People didn’t want to learn it because of its difficulty. But that is not entirely the state anymore It is not as aggressive as before but it’s still quite hard to learn. And it still isn’t a game that is played for fun or entertainment.

Did Kung-Fu originate from kalarippayattu, kerala?

    Everyone knows the world-famous Jackie Chan because of his incredible fighting skills, such as ‘kung-fu’ skills. Let me tell you a secret, the world-famous kung-Fu was actually part of the art of kalaripayattu. During the 5th and 6th century, at the Shaolin monastery, there was a saint called ‘Bodhidharma. He was once a south-Indian prince. He witnessed the monks getting weaker because of meditation and fasting. And so he taught them the martial arts he learned when he was a young prince which was like kalaripayattu. Which is how the roots of kung-fu were originated. 


Every country has its own form of martial arts that it takes pride in. But it’s sad that as Indians we are not aware of the fact that the world’s most ancient and deadliest form of martial art was originated in India and yet they don’t learn it. People who are learning this art form are growing less in number. But in the world’s second-most highly populated country, what’s so wrong with learning the art of defence?

Kalaripayattu infographic


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