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The History of Martial Arts: Kalaripayattu

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

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Well I this started as a post about the history of Karate, which then started to spiral into a rabbit hole about martial arts history as a whole, which is now why I am typing this up trying to make sense of it all.

Now I am not an expert by any means, just another martial arts student learning about what he is passionate about and the thoughts, commentary, sense of humor, and ramblings presented in these posts are of my own.

To start off martial arts history is for lack of better words... a jumbled mess. It goes back as far as our earliest civilizations, has a massive lack of historical records, and involves the vast array of politics of you know... THE WHOLE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY and in general the secretive nature of the knowledge shared between a teacher to their students. It is also very likely that many techniques were developed, taught, learned, forgotten, and re-learned throughout the ages.

One of the earliest examples are in the Egyptian tombs located at Beni Hasan, which date back to the 20th Century BCE (literally the start of human civilization) have murals depicting wrestling techniques. Again this is what was recorded and it was fortunately on something that was able to withstand the test of time, who knows how much was taught orally or written on material that just disintegrated over time.

So... the oldest known martial arts is essentially just humans punching stuff/each other and wrestling stuff/each other and using various weapons and implements to kill stuff/each other. That's kind of it, but we have to have a starting point somewhere as an actual "system" of teaching martial arts and for that I am going to go with Kalaripayattu, which translates to: "practice in the arts of the battlefield."

(Kalaripayattu in practice, also surprised that I could find this as a stock .gif that was available in the free media pool)

Originating from the now Kerala state of India, according to legend:

"Parashurama is believed to have learned the art from Shiva, and taught it to the original settlers of Kerala shortly after bringing Kerala up from the ocean floor. A song in Malayalam refers to Parashurama's creation of Kerala, and credits him with the establishment of the first 108 kalaris throughout Kerala, along with the instruction of the first 21 Kalaripayattu gurus in Kerala on the destruction of enemies."

The historical basis is that it draws influence from combat techniques of the Sangam period (600 BCE - 300 CE) or that tribal groups in the region founded the art in order to defend themselves against other similar groups in the area... Personally I think the legend is cooler. Learning combat from Shiva, you know the one god that has many titles including: "God of Destruction," and known in the Trimurti simply as "The Destroyer." Like literally open another tab, open up Wikipedia and just read about Shiva to understand why this is badass.

Kalaripayattu is unique in a lot of ways. First off weapons are taught first, and hand to hand is taught last, which is a very different way of thinking from other martial arts where the idea is that: "one must know themselves first before given a weapon which is to be an extension of oneself." In India's Medieval Period, Kalaripayattu was an important aspect of feudal Keralite society. Each village had their own school or kalari and children in Kerala who finished their normal academic studies, would join their local kalari to receive further military training from teachers known as a gurukkals. Also unlike other parts of India at the time warriors of Kerala belonged to all castes, religions, and even women in Keralite society also underwent training in Kalaripayattu, and still do so to this day.

Kalaripayattu also has a weapon known as the Urumi. Doesn't sound like much and you are probably wondering why I am covering it. THAT IS BECAUSE IT IS A GODDAMN WHIP SWORD!

Edgar Thurston who was the British Superintendent at the Madras Government Museum wrote about them in the encyclopedia: Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Stating:

"The Tiyans (Thiyyar) were further allowed to wear gold jewels on the neck, to don silken cloths, to fasten a sword round the waist, and to carry a shield. The sword was made of thin pliable steel, and worn round the waist like a belt, the point being fastened to the hilt through a small hole near the point. A man, intending to damage another, might make an apparently friendly call on him, his' body loosely covered with a cloth, and to all appearances unarmed. In less than a second, he could unfasten the sword round his waist, and cut the other down."

The Medieval Period of Kerala was described by scholars to be the golden age of Kalaripayattu due to many folk heroes and heroines establishing themselves during this time. In the Vadakkan Pattukal (The Ballads of the North). Literally a badass name for a collection of ballads. Mentions the heroine Unniyarcha who started her training in a kalari... at the age of 7! She was known to have specialized in using the Urumi and with her skill did many deeds of gallantry and heroism. One famous story was where she fought off several men who tried to kidnap her. Here is the story that I am paraphrasing, if you want the full tale you will have to search elsewhere:

So Unniyarcha marries a man named Attummanammel Kunhiraman who we are literally told is a coward. One day after her marriage she set out to go to a festival, but on the way she would have to go through a bazaar which had individuals that were known as "a much dreaded lot." Her husband and relatives did not want her to go due to the danger, but in spite of this she did as she was determined to see the performances. Her husband at this point had no other choice but to go with her, not sure why considering what happens next.
As expected on their way to the festival they encountered the "dreaded lot." Apparently the leader of the group spotted her, was enamored by her beauty and ordered his men to capture her. Her husband was terrified, while Unniyarcha drew her sword and decided to fight them all by herself. She even mentions to her husband: "Though a woman, I do not shiver. Then why should you, a man, shiforc." She kills a few of them and the rest flee to call their leader to the scene. When the leader of the group arrives to join in on the fight he realizes that he messed up... he messed up bad...
Turns out Unniyarcha was none other than the sister of his teacher. That teacher was the chief of 18 kalaris. That teacher was the legendary hero known as Aromal Chekavar who was someone the leader held in great awe and respect.
So he does the sensible thing and begs for forgiveness, but Unniyarcha at this point just wants to fight and challenges him and his men.

Side note here during the medieval period in which this story takes place there was a Keralite practice called ankam to settle disputes, which was essentially a straight up battle. There was a variant of ankam called poithu, which was a duel between two individuals. Participants in ankam or poithu used Kalaripayattu, and the combatants were given up to 12 years to train and prepare for the ankam itself, so that all combatants would be a the highest skill level and weapon proficiency. Like imagine angering someone so much that they challenge you to a duel, you accept and you both just spend the next 12 years training to eventually fight. That is insane to me.

Knowing that she could not be bested by the likes of him, he asks influential people in the area to calm her down... That doesn't work at all considering he literally tried to kidnap her and at this point. Word eventually gets to her brother and upon hearing about what is going on finally appears on the scene. Now it isn't until the leader offers a wholesome apology, gifts, and to promise to never harass women ever again does Unniyarcha relent.

Now onto the more recent history and why probably many people have never heard of this art despite how old it is... In 1804, it was banned by the British as a result of the rebellion known as the Kottayathu War led by the Keralite king Pazhassi Raja. Then in 1805 following his death the ban fully came into effect, which led to the closing most of the major kalari training grounds and while I cannot find out exactly what happened to the gurukkals, knowing how history usually plays out, I'm pretty sure that the British didn't want to leave any loose ends out of fear of another rebellion. The British Empire straight up pulled an order 66, and this is definitely worse considering the magnitude of what they would have had to do to suppress the art.

"So the art was basically snuffed out right?"

Wrong! So... remember how Kalaripayattu was basically taught to pretty much everyone in Kerala? Well there were gurukkals who survived, went into hiding and taught their students in secret, who then had students of their own that they taught in secret and then eventual in the 1920s it made a resurgence that continued through the 1970s with the global martial arts boom.

During this time period Gurrukals Chambadan Veetil Narayanan Nair, and Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair made a name for themselves with Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair being widely credited for reviving and preserving Kalaripayattu by writing the first text on the martial art which gave the oral commands, exercises, and conditioning techniques as well as writing the first manual, which serves as the authoritative text and primer. This manual included his notes, 1,700 photos, and explanations behind the exercises, which was later translated into English by his sons S.R.A. Das and S.R.D. Prasad and to this day serves as the most authentic reference material for Kalaripayattu.

Another side note you can buy this book from major retailers at the moment. I just went and checked, but they are probably going to be 2nd editions, which from reading the reviews apparently is not as good as the 1st edition due to the 2nd edition the printing process makes the images not very viewable.

So where does Kalaripayattu stand now in the year 2023? Well to answer that we must start with a woman named Meenakshi Amma Gurukal. Now from the various sources I could find from news articles to interviews she has given over her lifetime I will try to piece together her story.

She was born in the year 1943 and is said to have started her training in Kalaripayattu with most sources stating that she was 7 at the time. Some sources said that she was as young as 5 when she started training, others say 6. From what I have pieced together the reason for the age discrepancies is most likely due to what the interviewers defined as when she started training.

In Kalaripayattu, some of the choreographed sparring can be applied to dance and it is said that Kathakali dancers who knew Kalaripayattu performed better than others. Some traditional Indian classical dance schools still incorporate martial arts as part of their exercise regimen.

In one interview, Meenakshi Amma Gurukkal stated that her father introduced her to the practice on the advice of her Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) teacher. So she started training in a kalari at the age of 7, but my best guess is that she was possibly exposed to Kalaripayattu at an earlier age through learning dance.

The kalari that she trained in as a child and now runs was founded by her husband and teacher V. P. Raghavan, whom she married when she was 17. He created the kalari (Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam) in 1949, which teaches the Northern Style of Kalaripayattu, because he was shunned from joining a local kalari due to being from the Thiyya/Ezhava community. Which was ironic considering the history lesson I just gave earlier. His aim was to create a place where anyone who had a passion for the martial art could join.

When V. P. Raghavan passed away in 2009, Meenakshi took over as teacher along with her children and grandchildren, and now in her 80s, she still teaches. The school trains around 150-170 students every year during the monsoon season, and still follows the traditional value system. There is no fee for the classes and money is accepted in the form of dakshina (a gift or donation) and expenses for the oil used in training.

For her efforts in the preservation of Kalaripayattu she was awarded the Padma Shri, which is India's fourth highest civilian award in 2017.

Also fun fact Meenakshi perfroms as a central character in the movie Look Back, which is set to release in June of next year.

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