Believed by many historians and scholar's as one of the oldest and most scientific and comprehensive system of martial training existing in this world today, Kalarippayatt the ancient martial art of Kerala truly deserves the title of the forerunner of all martial arts.
With the help of the available historical evidences, the present practicing traditions origin can be traced back to the 12th centuary A.D. Some of the specific techniques still practiced today are part of the much older Indian martial tradition of which references can be seen in the agnipurana; 'Natyashastra' etc dating back to the 4th century A.D. It can also be seen that this art as practiced today was at its peak of popularity and social interaction during 12th through 17th centuries when Kerala consisted of several and semi feudal principalities ruled by local chieftains. The art formed a regular part of the education of the youth especially the martial class called the nairs. The training consisted of self disciplinary training, physical culture and finally training to become a proficient warrior.
The word "Kalarippayattu" literally means 'combat training inside the gymnasium'. The word Kalari has been derived from the Sanskrit "Khaloorika' meaning a military training ground. The traditional training of Kalarippayatt is always done inside the 'Kalari' which is specially constructed practicing area, where the presiding dieties of the art and the entire line of guru's of the tradition is ritualistically represented. Not only is the Kalari a temple of learning, it is also a temple of religious worship with a cult and ritual of its own. The master who is addressed as the 'Gurukkal' is revered as the representative of the diety and is considered as the living embodiment of a long line of guru's.
The main difference between Kalarippayattu and other martial arts is that the former is not designed as a mere combat training system, though it includes all systems of duels and intricate use of weapons in offence and defence. The Kalarippayatt training aims at something more at the ultimate co-ordination of mind and body as is evident in the rituals relating to the practice in institution of the 'Kalari'. In this system of training the weapon is only an extension of the body, controlled by the mind and the use of these both in attack and defence attain a very high degree of perfection.
The Kalari tradition of training :-
A student begins his Kalarippayatt training at the very early age of 7 & 8 with a formal intimation ritual performed by the Gurukkal. The training is mainly divided into 3 parts consisting of 'Meythari' the preparative training of the body, the 'Kolthari' basic and advanced training in stick techniques and finally the "Angathari" combat training with metallic weapons. In Meythari there is training leading to balance, flexibility and form of movement. Unlike other martial traditions this training emphasizes fluidity of motion which develops controlled flow of energy through the body in practice. The alphabets of 'Meythari' consists of basic postures of the body unique to Kalarippayattu which are named after different animals, leg exercise, jumps and finally twelve sequences of body control exercises namely 'Meippayatt'
In the second stage of training 'Kolthari', the student is introduced to use of wooden weapons like the 12 span cane staff (Kettukari) or Cheruvadi (3span wooden staff) of finally to the 'Otta'. To many practicing traditions of northern Kerala of 'Otta' is considered as the master weapon. Unlike other weapons, the training in Otta consists of 18 sequences and remains the fundamentals tool of practice to develop stamina, agility, power and skill, throughout the training period of the practitioner.
The third stage in training namely 'Ankathari' (literally meaning training in warfare) is where the student taken up training in weaponary. Here he learns to use metallic weapons like dagger, sword and shield, spear etc. All of these technique are graded and codified to different sequences. In the olden days, on warrior after the completes his training in 'Ankathari' often would specialize on one weapons of his choice, to became and expert swordsman or stick fighter.
The traditional training of the Kalari Gurukkal includes as can be seen in some other martial arts, specialization in indigenous medical preparations and technique of treatment and healthcare. Based on the Ayurvedic system of medical practice the old masters of Kalarippayattu has indigenously developed methods of treatments of Kalari related injuries like bruses, fractures etc, known as Kalarichikilsa. The training of the Gurukkal also includes the special system of full body oil massage to develop flexibility and muscular texture, also to stimulate circulation to maintain general health.
Many of the traditional performing art forms of Kerala like, Kathakali, Koodiyattom, Velakali etc have drawn elements from Kalarippayatt during their stages of evolution. Kathakali has borrowed much from Kalarippayattu in its basic body preparative training of the actor not only in terms of technique in practice but also from the body massage for the trainee. Many of the body postures, choreography and foot work of the Kathakali characters are taken directly from Kalarippayattu.
Kalarippayatt, like many other Indian performing traditions is in a precarious situation today. Unlike other traditions of martial training which has become lost in the post british colonial period, kalarippayat still has a few masters/gurukkals who preserve its dignity and traditions thus maintaining the balance between social advancement and tradition in the effort to popularize and spirit and greatness of one of the oldest martial traditions in the world.