What is kalari? The world’s oldest martial art from India is making a comeback

The Indian Sports Ministry has included kalaripayattu as one of the four indigenous martial art forms for the Khelo India Youth Games 2021

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India’s oldest martial art form kalaripayattu (kalari meaning training ground and payattu meaning combat) originated in Kerala more than 3,000 years ago. To this day, it's known as one of the highest forms of physical and mental training.

Despite its brutality – kalari warriors can disable or kill their opponents merely by striking the correct marmam (vital point) – it is scintillating to watch practitioners executing punches, cuts, throws and blocks against a soundtrack of sticks, swords and shields.

What is kalari?

Every movement, from the lunge of a fist to the swing of a sword, is a deliberate act of meditation. It was the traditional fighting method of Kerala's warrior caste, and was used for settling disputes and as warfare.

Kalari has changed my life right down to the way I walk

"Each locality had a kalari or gymnasium with a guru at its head and both boys and girls received training," says historian A Sreedhara Menon in A Survey of Kerala History.

Kalari is usually played on a floor of red sand mixed with herbs that aid in the treatment of small wounds suffered during training.

The stances and poses are derived from the habits of eight "warrior" animals: the lion, boar, cobra, elephant, tiger, horse, rooster and buffalo. Practitioners also have knowledge of pressure points on the human body, while kalari's healing techniques combine the concepts of Ayurveda and yoga.

Kalari instructor Vipin Lagarto trains Bollywood actress Dia Mirza. Courtesy Vipin Lagarto

The mother of all martial arts

The practice is peppered with symbolism and rituals. Its techniques are a combination of steps (chuvadu) and postures (vadivu).

The northern style, practised in the Malabar region of Kerala, focuses on flexibility, jumps and weapons training. The latter starts with stance correction, followed by handling wooden weapons, then metallic weapons such as daggers, spears and swords, and finally barehanded combat.

The southern style focuses on hand-to-hand combat and pressure point strikes.

Traditional kalari warriors are typically clad in red loincloths. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder

Kalari spread beyond India in the 6th century, when a wandering monk introduced it to the Chinese, laying the foundation for Asian martial arts. This is why it is often called the mother of all martial arts.

During the colonial era, Velu Thampi the Great and Pazhassi Raja were among two of many warriors who used this martial art form against the British. Authorities banned the military use of kalari, fearing revolt and only allowed it as treatment, but it was revived after India's independence.

A recent filip for kalari was the Indian Sports Ministry including it as one of the four indigenous martial art forms for the Khelo India Youth Games 2021.

Using kalari to get fit

Kalari boosts strength, stamina and flexibility. Courtesy Vipin Lagarto

Fitness buffs, too, are turning to kalari to boost their strength, stamina and flexibility. Vipin Lagarto, 37, is a teacher based in Mumbai who has trained Bollywood celebrities, including Dia Mirza, in the art of kalari. “When I started teaching in 2006, hardly anyone knew about it except theatre and performing artists. Today people of all ages come to my classes to improve their agility.

Kalari is a reminder of the fact that with knowledge and strength comes responsibility

“Classes start with warm-up exercises such as bending and stretching. Then we have movements that build strength and stamina, and then a series of defending and attacking stances that are aimed at improving flexibility.

“Kalari is an exercise for the mind and body that takes care of everything that you need to be considered fit. It improves your stamina, balance and self-confidence, as well as blood circulation.”

Promoting strength and humility

Deepa Vaitheeswaran, 50, who runs a software company in Pondicherry, has been practising kalari for more than eight years since she learnt it at the KalariGram institute.

“A lot of people learn kalari to be fit, but I just wanted to be physically strong and be able to fight like the heroes I had grown up seeing in Tamil movies,” Vaitheeswaran says with a smile.

“The first six months were very difficult, but kalari has been a big learning mentally, emotionally and physically. It has changed my life right down to the way I walk. It has also taught me discipline and humility. Kalari is peppered with rituals that ground you.”

People practise kalari for different reasons; for some it is about fitness, for others it is about spirituality, while folk artists and dancers use the techniques to enhance their performance. At its core, says Lagarto, kalari has always been about both self-defence and healing, “a reminder of the fact that with knowledge and strength comes responsibility”.