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Kalaripayattu- And My Experience

Leah Elsa Ranjan Monday, September 20, 2021
Kalaripayattu- And My Experience

Kerala, a gorgeous state down south of India, is one among those that possess the finest of all fields; from the lip-smacking cuisine to unique geography to talented natives, Kerala owns it all. Yet another aspect that every Keralite holds pride in is their very own traditional martial art, Kalaripayattu. Kalaripayattu, or simply known as Kalari, is considered to be one of the oldest martial arts in the world, and has been accurately deemed ‘the Mother of all Martial Art forms’, for apart from its age-old history spanning over several decades, it is also one of the deadliest arts in the world. With that being said, let’s jump right into this fascinating art form, and get to know more…

As aforementioned, Kalari originated centuries and centuries ago, and legend has it that Parashurama, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, is its key founder. The word ‘Kalaripayattu’ is a combination of the words ‘Kalari’, meaning ‘Battleground/Training ground’, and ‘Payattu’, meaning ‘Training of Martial Arts’, and thus, can roughly be translated as ‘Practice in the arts of the battlefield.’ The main features of this martial art that sets it apart from the others is, while most arts focus on physically strengthening individuals, Kalari helps strengthen one’s mind and body, in addition to achieving better concentration, control, core strength, mind-body balance, flexibility, muscle tone and agility.

Quite the deal now, isn’t it?

Let’s move on to the structure of Kalaripayattu, which is broadly divided into four sections- Meipayattu, Koltharipayattu, Ankatharipayattu and Verumkai.

1) Meipayattu, or Meithari, is the first stage of Kalari, and it consists of body-conditioning exercises. These exercises involve maximum use of all joints and muscles, which helps in building up core strength, flexibility, and immense control. There are around ten such series of exercises within Meipayattu, which have been meticulously choreographed and arranged to ensure the inclusion and movement of the entire body during each set.

2) Koltharipayattu (‘Kol’ meaning ‘stick/staff), the second stage of the four, is identified with the use of wooden weapons such as long canes, short staffs, bent horn-like ones (known as ‘otta’) etc. As one proceeds in this stage, the length of the weapon decreases while the difficulty level inversely increases. Apart from the various methods of defending and attacking, an added specialty of this payattu (as well Angatharipayattu) is the involvement and careful handling of weapons, which instils a sense of alertness, quickens reflexes and helps remain focused on the weapon. A milestone of sorts in Koltharipayattu is when one can perfectly strike more than a hundred blows in, under one minute!

3) Angatharipayattu, the penultimate stage, includes training with sharp and lethal weaponry like swords and shields, spears, daggers and the flexible sword ‘Urumi’. It is believed that in the olden days, the ‘urumi’ was worn like a belt across one’s waist, thus allowing one to carry it without being noticed, and wield it to defend oneself in case of contingencies. The intense training with swords and its shiny, sharp counterparts help gain immense control and coordination over one’s body, to the extent where a weapon may seem to be a mere extension of one’s limb! Introduction to this stage also enables one to become confident, vigilant and spontaneously react to attacks.

4) Verumkai (meaning ‘barehanded’), the final stage of this exquisite martial art, is where one trains armed, unarmed or multiple opponents, WITHOUT any weapon. The techniques used here are grips, kicks, blows, jumps, attacks etc. The highest level of hand-eye coordination, accuracy and speed are of utmost importance in this course, and this can be achieved through daily practice alone. Intense fighting aside, one is additionally required to know the vital points of the human body in this stage. Known as ‘Chikilsa-Kalari (‘Chikilsa’ meaning ‘treatment’), a Kalari student learns of the human anatomy, including the pressure points, ways to recognize blocks and faults, and treat one’s wounds and injuries as well as those of others.

Famous practitioners of Kalaripayattu include legendary figures like Agasthya (a sage in Hindu mythology), Ayyappan (Prince of Pandalam dynasty; deity of Sabarimala), Unniyarcha (an acclaimed warrior and heroine mentioned in the ‘Vadakkan Pattukal’), and Kayamkulam Kochunni (an outlaw similar to Robin Hood in his ways) as well as modern-day figures like Vidyut Jammwal (Bollywood actor), Dr C. Gangadharan ( PhD holder in Kalaripayattu), and Meenakshi Raghavan Gurukkal, known as Meenakshi Amma (the oldest female practitioner of the same).

Now that we’ve had a glimpse at the art, let’s get to know the special area of practice. Kalaripayattu training is done inside a Kalari, a specially prepared space, where the topsoil is removed, leaving behind a slightly sunken pit of depth three to four feet. At a corner, there is a presiding deity known as ‘Puttara’, which is layered in a step-like manner, each level holding glowing diyas. ‘Guruttara’ is yet another place within the Kalari, dedicated to the Gurus of this traditional art.

There are over a hundred Kalaris set in different cities and regions of Kerala, which usually welcome children and adults alike, regardless of age. And this doesn’t seem out of place, considering the fact that Kalari IS Kerala’s traditional martial art form, right? But what really caught my attention a few months back was when I found out that Kalari classes were being conducted here as well! That’s right, in the very State of Kuwait! On hearing this, my parents suggested I join, and I, quite fascinated by the prospect of getting to try my hand (and all other limbs) at this awe-inspiring martial art, agreed. It’s been around three months since I started, and although it’s too soon to say I’ve seen a solid difference in my physical self, it does feel nice to stretch and loosen up my entire body of the stiffness and laziness as a result of remote learning and staying at home 24/7. The classes are quite fun too, and all I can say is that it’s an hour well spent, thrice a week.

Kalaripayattu, as we have now seen, is quite an intriguing art form; unique in nature, holding benefits manifold. As a beginner myself, I wholeheartedly agree that it is highly demanding in the physical aspect. All the same, since the advantages of its practice GREATLY outweigh this slight negative, the best choice is to simply grit our teeth in determination and keep moving on, moving ahead. After all, success is purely the result of determination, effort, practice, and patience.

“Practice makes perfect. After a long time of practising, our work will become natural skillful, swift and steady.”

–Bruce Lee, one of the greatest martial artists of all time

Leah Elsa Ranjan
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