Kalarippayat (kalaripayat, kalarippayattu, kalaripayatu) is an ancient physical, cultural and martial art of Kerala, which was in prevalence from time immemorial. It is primarily an art of physical culture, well developed in a most scientific way. It aims at giving a practitioner of the art, perfect control over his body balance, flexibility, stamina and speed, and perfect neuro-muscular co-ordination, an ability of the body to react instinctively to the senses.
Not only does Kalarippayat inculcate and promote perfect health, if also enables the student to master the art of making a fearless and confident stand in the face of the enemy, and to defend himself with confidence from onslaughts. The student also becomes an adept at unarmed combat.
We shall attempt here to give a general idea about the different systems and items in Kalarippayat.
MEYYIRAKKAM – Body Control Exercises. This is the first item to be practised in the training of Kalarippayat. This is the main basis on which further progress of the student is built. This is intended to give the students as perfect control over the body as is humanly possible. Every conceivable form of stretching, turning and twisting of the body is mastered by means of practicing this. The art of wielding weapons can be mastered only through perfect control over one’s body as well as by agility. A man, however strong he may be, cannot use his strength effectively if he has no control over his own body.
KETTUKARI – Quarter – staff. This is a stick about five to six feet long. This is the first weapon to be taken up practised in Kalarippayat. This is intended to give training to use a long staff as a powerful weapon of offence and defence. This exercise forms a preliminary to the art of lighting with a spear.
CHERUVADI – Three Span staff. This is a shorter staff and requires more care and precision in wielding. The movements are more rapid and blows are delivered and parried in quicker succession. The practice of Cheruvadi calls for great ability of movement, and about a hundred blows can be dealt with it in about a minute.
GADA – Mace. This was not a popular weapon due to its unwieldiness. Only students of gigantic structure and great muscular strength prefer the use of this weapon. Though bodily strength is considered to be very essential, agility and dexterity are counted much for the successful handling of his weapon. It is a general rule that no blows with the mace should be aimed below the waist of the opponent.
OTTA – Curved Staff – This is a short curved staff, about 18 to 20 inches long. Cuts and thrusts with this have to be done with great quickness and dexterity and these are aimed at the “Marmas” or vital spots of the body. Otta practised to perfection calls for great stamina and physical endurance.
SPEAR. The spear is a deadly weapon and was generally used in ancient warfare. In this the combatants cannot fight at close quarters, but only at convenient distances. Cuts, thrusts, whirlings and several kinds of locks are made with it, and they are parried and returned with the spear itself. The practise with the Kettukari is preliminary study for the spear, and feats of increasing difficulty can also be performed with it.
DAGGER. The dagger has a length of about one foot and is sharp on both sides, and is pointed at the end. The principal uses are slashing, cutting and prevention of attacks. No shield is used, the blows being parried with the dagger itself. Cuts and thrusts are made on all sides and the slightest inattention on the part of the combatant would find his opponent’s dagger deep into his body.
PULIYANKAM – Sword Flight. The use of the sword in an efficient manner is considered to be the peak of perfection in Kalarippayat. Various methods in the use of the sword as a weapon of offence and defence were prevalent in Kerala and the most awe-inspiring and blood-crudling of these was the type known as “Puliyankam”. Art extraordinary control over the body, agility, a quick eye, and presence of mind are necessary for the mastery of this form of sword fight. The combatants have to turn and twist their bodies in all possible ways, and leap and jump with surprising ease and agility. Born in a family of small means, a warrior like Tacholi Othenan lived on the might of his body and sword in this land of Kerala. Kings and smaller kingdoms were mightily afraid of this warrior and his sword. He was the biggest exponent of sword fighting and an unrivalled adept at Kalarippayat.
SPEAR Vs SWORD. In this combat one is armed with sword and shield and other with spear, unlike in other combats where the opponents face each other with identical weapons. In this the weapons are different and due to the length of the spear, the sword-man is at a disadvantage. Therefore the swords-man tries to exploit all the weak points of the spear-man.
KATHIYUM THALAYUM ‘ Kathiyum Thalayum’ involves the most crucial techniques in the art of self-defence. One person attacks with a knife and the other defends himself with the aid of a six cubit long piece of cloth held by both hands in a peculiar way. The offence and defence techniques are very interesting to watch.
URUMI –Flexible Sword. This is a long flexible sword measuring 3 to 4 feet in length and sharp at both sides. One cannot handle this unless he has through mastery over the body-control exercises. This weapon is used by a warrior in mass encounter.
In the foregone paragraphs we have tried to place before you a short sketch of the various items in Kalarippayat. Practice in this art will no doubt, make you a healthy, fearless and self-confident citizen, and give you mastery over yourself.