Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest existing martial art forms in the world. It is believed to have originated from Southern India (the coast stretching from Gokarnam to Kanyakumari) and then spread to other parts of Asia and China. Bodhidharma, the monk from South India is believed to have carried this art to China, where it developed into Kung Fu, spread to Japan and evolved into Karate, Jiu Jitsu and Aikido.
Kalaripayattu flourished in Medieval Kerala with the active support of the rulers of that time. The Sangam Literature contains detailed description of the art of warfare and the training methods employed during that time. However, the ban imposed by the British during their rule over India spanning over 140 years led to the decadence of this art form. It was not just Kalaripayattu, but other martial art forms of India, including Thang Ta, Chhau, and Gatka, to name a few, that suffered a similar fate.
Kalaripayattu is more than just a physical form of attack and defense.
The particular physical practice develops physical fitness and motor coordination, and a sense of rhythm. The repetitive sequences and the concentration required to execute intricate steps help in developing concentration and single-point focus. The training with weapons and bare-handed combat techniques helps in overcoming fear and becoming aware of the environment, even while staying focused on one activity.
Kalaripayattu training imparts a high degree of flexibility, balance, agility, stamina, and strength. Apart from this, studies have shown the impact it has on personality development and in building mental strength. As you develop your skills in Kalaripayattu, you also learn to overcome your fears and prepare yourself to face any challenges. This quieting of the mind is significant, considering that we associate a martial art with an aggression
Kalaripayattu may have lost its relevance as an instrument of combat, and is viewed more as a form of physical fitness. The weapons training may seem irrelevant in the context of the modern social milieu, and of even less significance in modern warfare. However, the weapons training in Kalaripayattu is of greater importance, not so much for its use of weapons, as for its ability as a tool to develop concentration and awareness. More importantly it has been scientifically established that the training methods and the repetitive sequences greatly enhance body-mind coordination, and improve memory. Today, it has a great deal of relevance in the following contexts:
As an exercise tool for building stamina (proven ability to increase lung power)
As an exercise regimen for building flexibility and balance (as can be seen from a lot of European theatre groups using Kalaripayattu exercises)
As a tool for physiotherapy
It is still used as the foundation for classical forms like Kathakali and Mohiniattam, and ritual dance forms like Theyyam
Acrobats and circus performers use this to improve their agility and flexibility
As a tool for improving memory and mind-body coordination, kalaripayattu has demonstrable benefits
It was the nationalist movement in Kerala that defied the century-old ban by the British and started the revival movement of Kalaripayattu. This was led by K Kelappanji who was popularly known as Kerala Gandhi. He, with the help of Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal, used Kalaripayattu as the symbol of the Civil Disobedience movement in Kerala. Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal’s disciples like CV Narayanan Nair, Govindan Kutty Nambiar and others
went on to create several Kalari schools throughout Kerala. Post-independent India has witnessed a slow revival of Kalaripayattu, and today there are several Kalaripayattu schools spread across Kerala. In 2009, the Government of India included Kalaripayattu in the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).