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What is Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu Chuvadukal

Kalaripayattu, also spelled as Kalarippayattu is an ancient martial art indigenous to Kerala, a small state in the southern tip of India, but is known and practised throughout the globe today.  The exact time of its origin however cannot be fixed with any sense of certainty. Some argue that in its crudest form, Kalaripayattu was a means by which the earliest inhabitants of this wooded and mountainous terrain hunted wild animals before it was refined into a systematic mode of combat that was effective enough to overpower enemies and defend themselves.

Myth-lovers like to believe that Kalaripayattu has a hoary past, having been introduced by Lord Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, after he reclaimed the land of Kerala from the Arabian Sea. While historians reject such claims, there is no consensus among them either, with their pegging the time of its birth anywhere between 200 BCE and 600 CE, and its cresting popularity between the 14th and 16th centuries. But what has never varied, amidst all these claims and counter-claims, is the awe with which chroniclers and poets of different periods recorded the complexity of the techniques, the liquid beauty of the moves, and the enviable elasticity of the practitioners of Kalaripayattu.

With very little physical evidence to ascertain its point of origin, if one looks elsewhere, one finds specific references to Kalaripayattu in songs that for a long time had only an oral tradition to speak of. It has to be inferred that some form of Kalaripayattu was taught virtually in every village in Kerala because there is frequent mention of great masters who supervised the activities of a hundred and eight kalaris or training centres/arenas, and there are numerous allusions to house names like “Kalaripparambu” and “Kalariyullathil” that openly point to the connection with this martial art.  Kalaris were invariably situated near Devi temples, and the master used to be called “Kuruppu” or “Gurukkal”. Traditionally, expertise in Kalarippayattu has been associated with machismo, and in olden times, those who could not wield the sword were considered lacking in masculinity and hence deserved to live only like slaves. However, there are references to women warriors too who could match their male counterparts in all aspects of the martial art. 

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