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Vaal Payattu - Kalari
Kalari Thara (Floor)

"Kalaripayattu" is widely believed to be amongst the most ancient of Martial Arts and has its origin and refinement in Kerala. It was widely practiced in Kerala, some adjacent parts of Tamil Nadu and northern part of Sri Lanka. It was also practiced in Tulu Naadu (Northern Kerala, Karanataka border) which had its own important style of Kalaripayattu. Kalaripayattu was not just a martial art for self defence, it had deep spiritual aspects and meditation was an inherent part of Kalaripayattu.

There are various styles and variants of Kalaraipayattu which was developed based on region and specific purposes. Kalaripayattu includes study of bare hand combat and defense and also the use of a host of weapons prevalent during the olden days.

Weapons and Styles in Kalaripayattu -
Weapons used in Kalaripayattu include "Katara" ( Dagger), "Kurunthadi" (Stick), "Churika" (Short sword), "Val" (Longsword), "Kettukari" (Longstaff), "Paricha" (Shield) and the toughest one to control "Urumi" (Flexible sword).

The styles of kalaripayattu were classified mainly in to Northern, Southern and Central style. The Vadakan Paatukal (Folk lore and Ballads) also speak of the refined styles belonging to various Kalaries like Mathilur Kalari, Puthuram Kalari, Payyampalli Kalari,  Mayyazhi Kalari, Melur Kalari, Thacholi Kalari, Nadapuram Kalari, Panoor Madham Kalari, Puthusseri Kalari, Ponniyam Kalari, Thotuvor Kalari, Tulunaadan Kalari,  Karuvancheri Kalari, Kodumala Kalari etc.  

Kalaripayattu Training -
The training place is called Kalari and usually comprises of a tiered platform. Northern styles were practiced in special roofed pits where the floor (made of soft clay to cushion falls) is below ground level. The revered deity in a Kalari is usually of Bhagavathi or Lord Shiva.

Training is generally classified into four main sections comprising Meithari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai.

“Meithari” is the starting point and here the body is prepared for balance and self discipline. A variety of stances, jumps, twists and turns are taught. Stress is given on mind-body coordination, balance and flexibility which in turn prepares the student for more rigorous and dangerous training.

Once the student is well versed in Meithari, he is introduced to “Kolthari” which includes fighting with sticks and wooden staff.

After the student learns fighting with these wooden weapons (Kolthari) he is then introduced to actual weapons used in real fights. This section is called “Angathari”. Students start with "Kathaara" (Short daggers) and graduate to "Val and Paricha" (Sword and Shield), "Kuntham" (Spears). Handling the "Urumi" (flexible sword) is the toughest and it's usually the last weapon to be taught.

Urumi (Flexible Sword Display) - Video

"Verumkai" (meaning barehanded) involves the refined use of "marmam" (particular pressure points in the body) and a guru passes on his knowledge only to select students who have mastered the other forms. It is believed that once you become an exponent of marmas you can even paralyze your opponent by your pointing finger.

Origin and past purposes served by Kalaripayattu -
Kalaripayattu was originally a cast based martial art propagated and practiced for specific purposes by Nairs (and their sub castes) and Ezhavas/Thiyyas for warfare and settlement of disputes for their rulers ("Naaduvazhikal"). While Nairs were the main army chieftains and formed the core of the army of the ruler, Chekavan (Chovan) were Ezhavas who specialized in Kalari to professionally settle disputes through means of "Ankam" (a one to one fight to avoid war and massive bloodshed; usually at the end of an Ankam only one was left standing ). Chekavas were essentially dispensable Gladiators.

Decline and Revival -
With the onset of modern warfare including guns and cannons by the British, the traditional sword wielding Nair armies found it difficult to keep up with it. Their losses to the British army and the subsequent ban on Kalaripayattu by the British were reasons for the decline of Kalaripayatu. The revival of Kalaripayattu is believed to be started actually in Telicherry in the 1920s.

Vadakkan Pattukal –
Vadakkan Pattukal (folk lore, ballads) is full of fascinating, heroic and glorified stories sung by “panan” (traveling singer). Prominent stories include that of Thacholi Othenan, Aaromal Chekavar, Unniarcha, Kadathanaadan Ambadi etc.

We will be covering various Kalaries and Kalaripayattu styles now prevalent in Kerala in our coming issues.