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The history of Kalaripayattu is as old as the history of martial arts themselves. Derived from the Sanskrit word Khalurika, meaning “battlefield”, “threshing floor” or “military training ground”, kalaripayattu is one of the most ancient forms of martial arts still practiced in the world. The earliest documented evidence of kalaripayattu are in the form of palm leaf manuscripts with drawings of fighters, found in Kerala c.200BCE, but it is possible it is several hundred years older than that. The Dhanurveda, an ancient Indian text on Military Science, tells us that Kalaripayattu is one of the 64 art forms existing in Indian Mythology. The Dhanurveda is one of the Vedas, the ancient Indian ethical and moral teachings. The Vedas were passed down in oral form and are thought to have originated in about 1500BCE, being committed to written form much later.

Kalaripayattu has acquired the title, “Mother of Martial Arts.” Of course fighting styles have existed since time immemorial, but the difference between a martial art and a fighting style is its focus on self-discipline, respect and the strong connection to a greater spiritual power. Martial arts shows people to retain these values even in the midst of battle so as not to slip into mindless brutality.

Kalaripayattu history related

This brings us to the story of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma is believed to have been born in near Madra He was well versed in thes, India. Belonging to the warrior caste, Bodhidharma would have been well versed in Kalaripayattu. After his teacher’s passing, he went to China to spread the teachings of the Buddha in China, as this was his master’s last wish. Upon arriving in the area of Shao, he encounterd monks living there. He bagan to teach them his style of dhyana meditation only to discover the monks did not possess the stamina of body to continue. He then showed them the breathing techniques and Kalaripayattu body conditioning and fighting exercises to help the monks increase the levels of Prana in their bodies. Prana is the “vital energy” present in all life. Also called Chi, Qi, or Ki. So the combination of Kalaripayattu practices and meditation techniques brought to China from India by Bodhidharma has given him the title of “father of martial arts” and India, it’s “mother”. From these practices, the monks of Shao created the Shaolin temple and the martial arts known as Kung Fu.

The History of Bodhidharma and Kalaripayattu

Bodhidharma (known as Dhamo in China and Japan) is an important figure in the history of Kalaripayattu and is credited with being the man who started the tradition of intense physical conditioning in the famous Shaolin monasteries of China. The exercises he introduced to the monks are credited with being the first steps in the evolution of Kung-Fu. 

Bodhidharma was originally from Kanjipuram in Tamil Nadu where he was born a prince, the third son of the ruling king, Pallava. In his childhood Bodhidharma learnt the ways of Buddhism and was trained in the Kerala style of Kalaripayattu.

Having given up his title of Prince, Bodhidharma dedicated his life to being a monk and set out from South India to spread the philosophies of Zen Buddhism. Once leaving India in AD 522 Bodhidharma went north into China where he found a home in the recently established Shaolin monastery. Once there he wrote two books about conditioning the body for control and flexibility. From these two books he designed a strict physical and mental training regime which he began teaching to the Shaolin monks. The exercises he created and developed – that were most likely based on the moves of Kalaripayattu – were the very beginnings of what developed in to Shaolin Kung Fu. 

Kung Fu is not the only Eastern martial art thought to have evolved from Kalaripayattu. Karate also has similar movements and principles. Even the name Karate has connotations with Kalaripayattu. In Japanese Karate means ‘empty hand’. The third stage of Kalaripayattu training is called verumkai which also means ‘empty hand’.

Ankam and Chekavars in the history of Kalaripayattu

Ankam(A battle or a duel)

 Role of Ankam in disputes

Ankam and Chekavars in the history of Kalaripayattu

 Ankam, that had existed in Kadathanad (a former feudatory city state in Kerala) since the 14th century, served as one of the ways to settle disputes. The responsibility for the administration of the local justice laywith the Naduvazhi (landlord) at that time. Ankam was the last resort, if disputes between individuals or families cannot be resolved peacefully.Those involved in the dispute, will bring in experienced and skilled ankachekavar(warrior) for the ankam. Chekavars( Kalaripayattu warriors) fight each other and those who defeated will be killed by the other. One represented by the surviving ankachekavan was considered the winner. Puthuram songs (ballads that present the sagas of heroes and heroines of Puthuram house)are the main source of knowledge about the system of ankam. It is also mentioned in the records of Zamorines Kovilakam(principal manor or palaceof a princely lineages of Kerala). The period of ankam and chekavars is an inevitable page that cannot be separated from the history of Kalarippayattu. Income from ankam was one of the main sources of revenue for the royal treasury. According to the powers given by the Zamorine, the right to conduct ankam belongs to the Naduvazhi. The chekavers will enter the angathattu(a wooden platform on which a duel is fought) only in the presence of Naduvazhi.

Chekon Family

 The heroic tales of the Chekavans are inscribed in the historical pages of Kalarippayattu in Kerala with golden letters. It is to be assumed that the right to be a chekavan was reserved only for certain families. Such families had the same status as the Naduvazhi and high economic status. The chekons who were kalaripayattu trainers and experts had the right to use pallakku(palanquin), pavada,pakalvilakku and pachaponthi. The chekaven family practiced kalaripayattu from the age of 7 to atleast 12 years with strict precision. Chekavan will go for kanni ankam(first duel) only if he has recieved atleast this much training.If anyone invited a trained chekavan to fight for him,he was ready to go without any hesitation as it is his obligation.It has traditionally  believed that rejecting such invitation is tantamount to defamation of chekon status and family honour.

                Every ankam cannot be considered as bloodshedding and ending with the murder of the looser. References to this can be found in the Puthuram songs. Ankachekavar have name fame and influence in the society. If both chekavans inthe ankam were mature and heroic, they would be able to reconcile those in dispute even after the date of the ankam was fixed.

 Kozhiyankam (Cock game or cock fight)

  While examining the Kalarippayattu history, it can be seen that Kozhiyankam had taken place before the ankam between the chekavers begins. It is a method of fighting the representing cocks of the selected ankachekavar in the angathattu. It is believed that the owner of the winning cock was sure to win the ankam as well.Vadakan pattukal(ballads of the North in Kerala mainly present the stories of Puthuram house and Thacholi Manikkoth house) say that the verdict in the kozhiyankam was considered a pre-ankam verdict and the ankam was often cancelled. In the song about Aromal Chekavar it is noteworthy that on the death of ‘Arakkan Pulli’, Aringodar’s cock,the public accepted the result and responded that there was no need of an ankam. Only a chekavan who prides himself on winning the ankam even if he loses the kozhiyankam, will stand firm in his desire for ankam.

 Rituals of Ankam

Each and every historical moments of  Kalarippayattu are replete in vadakkann pattukal,which was passed down orally from generation-to=generation. There are clear references in many ‘vadakkan pattukal’ about the preparations of the ankam. After fixing the date for the ankam the chekavans stay in the Kalari itself for practice and meditation. This ‘ankam nottirikkal’ (keeping divine thoughts for ankam)should be for the blessing of kalari paradevata(family deity) to achieve concentration and for repeating the tactics.It is believed that in such situations women should not visit kalari to see the chekavan.On the day of the ankam the setting out of the chekavan will be solemn.He prepares for the ankam wearing ankakkuri (a sectarian or ornamental mark made on the forehead usually of sacred ashes,sandal paste),veeralippattu(long shawl or piece of costly cloth that gained for the prowess of the warrior),golden girdle and veeryachangala (chain of power).His companions also prepare with spears and chavala.On the way to the place of ankam the chekavan was accompanied by the public with shouts of exultation and chinese firecrackers.This was a recognition for him and a great inspiration for his fighting prowess.

Weapons and Ankathattu

Preparation of weapons

  Usually they would make new weapons or polish traditionally used ones for the ankam.Skilled blacksmiths were there for this.They would mould the weapons by filing, fixing the bolt and soldering.

Preparation of Ankathattu

 There were also skilled carpenters who were trained in constructing Ankathattu.’Thattu vazhangal’, a ritual used to worship ankathattu was conducted and handedover for the ankam.Naduvazhi has the  responsibility over  the consruction and arrangements of the ankathattu.Chekavan can perform his kalari tricks on the stage before the ankam begins.

The dispute ends

The disputers should explain the cause of the dispute and the efforts made so far to resolve it in front of the chekons, naduvazhi and the public.It means, all the efforts taken to resolve the dispute was a failure and the disputers were ready to accept the solution through the last resort,ankam.The ankachekavan was not merely given the role of a ruffian but was consecrated at a height of an honourable judge.

Kalaripayattu history i n KKerala

11th Century Onwards

The 11th Century in Kerala hailed in a period in Kalaripayattu history of feudal politics and warfare that lasted for hundreds of years, right up until the British East India company arrived on the shores of Malabar. The most significant rivalry during the early years of feudal Kerala was between two kingdoms called Chera and Chola. Kalaripayattu, having been developed in Kerala, already had a strong influence on the fighting techniques of the warriors of the time but the constant war between Chera and Chola strengthened its foothold in the military styles of that period. 

Due to the ever present need for well trained, fighting-fit troops both kingdoms made the practice of Kalaripayattu a compulsory activity for all men of fighting age. For the citizens of each kingdom it was their national duty to condition themselves to be ready for battle at any time. 

Many look back on this chapter of history as a golden age of Kalaripayattu. The huge demand for training grounds and instructors resulted in a massive increase in Kalari’s being built all over Kerala, each one with its own Gurrukal. From the 12th to 14th Centuries this trend continued until almost every village in Kerala had its own Kalari, managed by its own Gurukkal. From this explosion of participation a huge varieties of Kalari evolved from the standard Nalptheeradi Kalari (42 feet long). Their size of the Kalaris varied hugely from the super sized Amptheeradi Kalari (52 feet long) all the way down to the tiny Pathinetteradi Kalari (just 18 feet long). Several variations on the techniques used also emerged during this period and are recorded in the legendary songs that recount the history of Kalaripayattu, the Vadakkan Pattu. Styles such as Nedum, Kurum, Thodu, Cheru and Anga became popular at the time but most have now died out. 

One such style whose creation had significant consequences was Anga Kalari. Anga Kalari revolves around one on one combat between two warriors. Usually the participants of the fight had been selected and hired by a member of the ruling class of that area. The purpose of the fight (or Angam) was to settle a dispute between the employers of the warriors. Sometimes this meant ownership of whole kingdoms could be on the line. Often the Angams were fights to the death and so only the bravest and most skilled Kalaripayattu warriors participated in them. Once a request to fight an Angam had been accepted, the title of Chekkavar was awarded to the warrior. 

Today, in Kerala, only two variations of Kalaripayattu remain: Vadakken (Northern) Kalari and Tekkan (Southern) Kalari. Here at the Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam the more traditional Vadakken style is taught. The word Kadathanadan means a region of great importance to Kalaripayattu and was an area in Kerala where, in the legends, all of the most skilful Kalari warriors came from. 


The mythology of Kalaripayattu is somewhat more detailed and explosive than its history. According to legend, there was a famous Brahmin warrior called Parasurama, who was also said to be one of the avatars of the Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of cosmic balance. After a battle, Parasurama threw his mighty axe into the sea, and a strip of land rose where it sank. This land was Kerala, or Parasuramakshetram. Parasurama taught the art of kalaripayattu to twenty one disciples in order to provide protection for the newly-created land.

There is a story in connection with the origin of Kalaripayattu in Kerala. Lord Siva and his wife Parvathi, during their stay in a dense forest, watched the fight between a furious lion and a gigantic elephant.They observed the fight closely and learned many of the self defense techniques adopted by both the animals. The curved club known as Otta which is so vigorously used by the Kalaripayattu fighter was, according to history, one of the weapons created to mimic the trunk of the elephant which was used so effectively in the fight against the lion in the fight observed by Lord Shiva. Kalaripayattu exists in various forms in Kerala. A few masters are of the opinion that Kalaripayattu evolved naturally in the human being but was then developed more scientifically and practically for the well- being of the human race.

When there is heavy storm and violent cyclone in nature, small trees and plants don’t resist, they simply surrender to it. Likewise,in Kalaripayattu, a defender simply goes with the force and never against, so that he may be victorious in an encounter with any opponent.

The Darkest Period in the History of Kalaripayattu

A hugely important (although also very dark) period in the history of Kalaripayattu was when the practice of the noble martial art was made illegal by the invading British East India Company. In the late 18th Century the Company, who at this point had established huge economic and military bases in Madras (now Chennai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai), were in the process of firming up their grip on the South of India by conquering the region of Malabar. They were met with fierce resistance from the Malabar kingdoms of Travancore and Kottayam whose armies consisted of thousands of ferocious warriors who had been trained in a highly effective martial art: Kalaripayattu.

Having Kalaripayattu ingrained so deeply into the culture and history of Kerala not only made it very difficult to conquer, it made it frustratingly hard to occupy as well. Even after the British Invasion resistance sprung up from within the Malabar kingdoms, often in the form of bands of guerrilla Kalaripayattu warriors who specialised in daring raids and disruptive ambushes. The most notable resistance by far was that led by Pazhassi Raja, the King of the Kottayam kingdom. At the end of the 18th Century Pazhassi Raja has ascended to the throne by default after those above him in line to the monarchy fled from the oppression of the Company armies. Pazhassi, fresh from fighting a fierce war to repel an invasion from the kingdom of Mysore, immediately took the fight to the British. For a decade he led a fearsome guerrilla army, trained in the ways of Kalaripayattu, that terrorised the Company troops in northern Kerala. He is considered the first freedom fighter of Kerala and a hero of Kalaripayattu.

The effectiveness of Pazhassi’s rebellions led the British to take drastic action against the warriors and they banned the practice of Kalaripayattu in the hopes that it would prevent the resisting armies from training. During this period many Kalari Masters and students were imprisoned and the remaining Gurukkals were driven into hiding. There, to the best of their abilities, they continued their craft in secret. The knowledge of the Masters was passed down from generation to generation in complete secrecy, keeping the art alive despite the attempts of the Company to crush it. Sadly, it is thought that much information and many techniques were lost during this dark period but, if it weren’t for the brave Gurukkals the history of Kalaripayattu would have ended two hundred years ago.

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