When foreign tourists seeking for novelty and authenticity, walk through Sita's doors to discover Indian culture through our activities, most of them are astounded after hearing our program. They are intrigued with our martial art class, which almost seems unpronounceable to them: Kalaripayat.
Yet, this ancestral practice is considered as the eldest martial art and inspired countless disciplines, from different boxing styles to Karate. Inspiring itself from yoga figures and playing on the appropriation and imitation of animals' behaviors, Kalaripayat's historical origins ensue from Indian antique war art (Dhanurveda) and traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda). This discipline was born in Kerala, a state located in the Southern extremity of India and where it is still mainly practiced. Yet some schools also exist in Tamil Nadu and Karanataka. Nevertheless, throughout centuries, Kalaripayat gradually imposed itself as the symbol of Kerala's identity and expertise, and therefore it remains deeply linked to this area. According to the legend, the god Parasurama, Vishnu's avatar, would have given all its importance to the status of Kalaripayat by teaching its art to twenty-one gurus in order to protect the people of India and looking after its evolution.
It is possible to approximately date the first appearance of this martial practice in Southern India, around IVth century BC, thanks to the analysis of votive sculptures reproducing Kalaripayat gestures. Yet, this martial art kept evolving until between the XIIIth and XVth centuries to finally define itself with precision and find its actual shapes.
The uniqueness of Kalaripayat resides first of all in the fact that it gathers a perfect combination of disciplines from attacking to healing, and also includes defense techniques. More precisely, it deals with mastering offensive and defensive hand-to-hand techniques, the use of swords, sticks, knives, spears and a basic knowledge regarding Ayurveda treatments. The wealth of the Kalaripayat program established it as a true inspiration for many disciplines of which it is now the ancestor: Shaolin boxing style, Kung Fu and Karate are the most famous examples.
In Malayam language, "kalari" means the "place, arena, a space where dialogue occurs" and "payat" comes from "payattuka" which stands for "practicing hard". Thus, Kalaripayat is a physical activity promoting dialogue and harmony with the environment that accompanied its birth and evolution. Yet, the specific attention paid to the world which surrounds kalaripayat, is not the only founding principles of its notoriety. The latter also resides in the values commonly associated to this martial art. The assiduous practice of this martial art dispenses discipline, patience and humility to those who devote themselves to Kalaripayat. Indeed, like many other oriental disciplines, this martial art possesses a tremendous spiritual component: both spirit and body turn out to be fortified and developed. Then, the muscle invigorating process participates to the general internal energy development of which repercussions are noticeable both on spirit and body. In this way, this martial art is considered as holistic since it comes under the globality of the being, as Ariane Jauniaux points it out in her article: Kalaripayatt : art martial paléo.Thus, Kalaripayat aims at developing physical, mental and emotional aspects and presents itself under different shapes. Kalaripayat may be related to a dancing martial choreography aiming at cultivating concentration, balance and flexibility by combining a whole panel of technics and skills. Hand-to-hand self-defense, knowledge of the vital points, yogic respiration technics and the mastery of wooden and metal weapons, according to the advancement of the learning process, constitute the pillars of Kalaripayat practice.
Furthermore as precised above, it is not only this unique combination of disciplines and knowledge, which distinguishes Kalaripayat from other martial arts, but it is most of all the Ayurvedic approach including massages. Their vocation is to get the body ready to fight and also to groom and cure the ensuing wounds. Tonicity and agility are the physical objectives aimed by Kalaripayat. In order to reach them, different practical nuances exist in this martial art, which descends from Dravidian and Sanskrit traditions, and they are henceforth divided into three distinguished schools. There is Northern style (from Malabar coast), Southern style, close to Tamil tradition and used to be called "VarmaAti" which literally means "attack of the vital points", and eventually a style proper to the center of India and which was influenced by the two previous ones.
Even if Kalaripayat is still actively practiced and taught in Kerala and its surroundings, it lacks its yesteryear popularity, which used to be way more considerable. Indeed, when English colonists and missionaries arrived in India, they introduced fire weapons in the country, and it brutally triggered the disuse of Kalaripayat and other hand-to-hand fights. Facing the modernity of this equipment, not only did Kalaripayat's utility find itself annihilated, but from that moment it also became forbidden to the Nayars to practice this martial art, which had turned into a clandestine practice. Thus, countless Nayar families (the caste of fighters for whom Kalaripayat training was traditionally deeply settled), officially had put an end to their practice in order to eradicate the slightest chances of rebellion against the colonial power established by the British Empire.
Kalaripayat's golden age, historically located between the XIIIth and XVIIth centuries in Kerala, owes a huge part of its prestige to the Nayar caste, which conferred this martial art an almost institutional role. During the XIIth century, Nayars were attributed the exclusive right to train for combat and handle weapons. They would train from childhood to adult age so that they could maintain public order and have the capacity to terminate conflicts with duels. When the British Empire promulgated the interdiction to practice martial arts, a clandestine teaching laboriously carried on until 1947, when the formation centers clamed their re-opening after the declaration of Independence.
Nowadays, Kalaripayat teaching has found some of his yesteryear forcefulness back: to this day we can count more than 500 formation schools in Kerala, and members of all castes and religions are welcome to learn how to practice Kalaripayat. According to the personal preferences of the teaching master, the latter can either orientate his class on manipulating combat weapons, on hand-to-hand defense technics or again on the curative aspect of Kalaripayat. Whatever it may be, Kalaripayat is less and less considered and comprehended as a fighting ancestral art, but it is now rather used as self-control and personal accomplishment methods, as Ariane Jauniaux underlines it in her article Kalaripayatt: art martial paleo. Yet, despite the fame of its status of martial arts ancestor, it suffers from an image of traditional discipline and finds itself more and more neglected by young Indians in favour of Karate and Kung Fu.
If you wish to see through the mysteries of this ancestral discipline and discover the way it is practiced today, join us for Kalaripayat classes on Thursday evenings!