Empowering women in India through the Ancient Martial Art of Kalarippayattu

Growing up in a first world country like Australia, I never really had to deal with sexism at its fullest. I remember my mother encouraging me to follow in my older brother’s footsteps to learn a martial art at the age of only six. Karate was my choice of martial art, and for ten years I studied all the techniques available to me. Never knowing the true origin of this widely accepted western martial art, I only began to discover the reasons my master taught me all that he did when I visited the ancient land of India for the first time. Specifically, Kerala the birth place of all modern martial arts, Kalarippayattu.
Having travelled through a large section of Asia before India including places such as China and Japan where martial arts are also common, I expected my trip down to Southern India to end the same. I could not have been more wrong. Kalarippayattu is the native and ancient martial art of Kerala and Southern India and has been for thousands of years. It is an art shrouded in tradition and mystery, handed down from generation to generation. And it is a place women can grow strong.

Like most martial arts around the world, I expected Kalarippayattu to be mainly male dominated. However, after attending my first training session in a traditional Kalari I began to notice more and more girls and women keeping up with the boys and the men. You see, Kalarippayattu is not just about mastery of the body and strength, it is also about mastery over one’s own mind. I find this so exciting, because I see women out in the streets of countries like India and other southern Asian countries looking subdued and beaten down. I just want to tell them there is a different way. Kalarippayattu.

Why is it healthy for girls to learn Kalarippayattu at a young age?

Believe it or not, it is a widely accepted fact that the lessons a child learns from a young age, he or she will take into adulthood also. Here, in this modern-day society women and girls are encouraged to learn Kalarippayattu and train daily to strengthen their body and mind. In fact there are Kalari Schools all around Kerala that are home to some of the most talented young ladies I have ever witnessed. Traditionally in the past centuries Kalarippayattu was reserved for the men and for hundreds of years the Nair (a warrior cast of the Kerala people) dominated the Kalarippayattu scene. But what exactly do the girls and women learn when they attend the Kalari? Good question:

⦁ They learn how to defend themselves from attackers using real life scenarios
⦁ They train daily as to make sure they are able to react to any situation they might come up against.
⦁ They train themselves to be confident in who they are and to respect their place in the world.

A trend that is sweeping through the whole world at the moment is that describing the need women have for wanting to be able to protect themselves and not to always be under the protection of someone else.
“A woman’s father will not always be there to protect her, and it is no certainty that her husband will be able to either. This generation must be equipped with whatever tools they need to become empowered, not only in the body but also in the mind”

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    But learning the Kalarippayattu is not only about being able to repeal an attacker when they threaten you, no. It is about being able to have the confidence to be who you truly are in all situations and having the confidence to say “Try to stop me and see what happens”. This is what I am really hoping will become much more than just a trend for the women of India. I hope it becomes a way of life, a paradigm shift.

Well how does this affect me as a woman in the western world?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past decade, you would be well aware that women in the western world have started to explore their place in the world more and more. However, I think sometimes the women who feel most passionately about this want the change but do not have any way of making it happen. What I mean by this is, you can use all the words in the world, but if you do not have the knowledge to back it up words are useless. Women in the western world need to know how to protect themselves, not only verbally but also physically. This is the main difference I see between the strong women of Kerala who train under the Kalarippayattu, and the “Strong” women of the west who only use their words to defend themselves. There is not unity in the body and mind of women in the west. It is easy to think that we are strong because we can shout down an arrogant male, but how many of us would be able to back up our words physically?

Making my way my way out of India I am filled with a hope that one day the ideals of the Kalarippayattu will somehow become common knowledge and practice in the homes of all Indian families and that through this they will be able to change and influence the rest of the world. I will conclude with one of my favorite quotes from the one Mahamat Gandhi –
“The perception of the self is a matter of conditioning. The way men and women perceive themselves is also a matter of conditioning that had and is taking place since the dawn of human race on earth. Given the biological differences, can woman be psychologically different from man? Can women be cerebrally inferior to man? I am sure that the answer would be clear ‘No’. Yet, differential conditioning over many a millennia have contributed to the perception that both men and women are different, both psychologically and cerebrally. Religion, customs and laws from times immemorial had relegated women to the backyards of human civilization. When you fear the power of the other and when you have no means to equal the other, you connive and lay traps for the subjugation of the other. This is what the history of hitherto existing man’s civilization has done to women, save exceptions like the Mahatma”

Sarah Kennedy