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Kalaripayattu is an ancient martial art that predates almost all other forms of combat training. The legends claim it to be as old as Kerala itself, originating in the Southern Indian state at the moment of its creation by Lord Vishnu. The story goes that Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu, upon winning a great battle, threw his mighty axe into the sea. From where it landed in the water arose a steep and mountainous but very green and fertile land. This new land was called Kerala. To enable Kerala’s new inhabitants to protect themselves Parasurama taught them the noble and divine art of Kalaripayattu. The true origins of Kalaripayattu are not as well documented but it is thought to date back several thousand years, most likely beginning, as the legend suggests, in Kerala. The spread of Kalaripayattu out of Kerala directly caused the creation of several Eastern martial arts that still exist today. Karate, Kung-Fu, Ju-Jitsu and many other recognisable fighting styles are all adaptations of Kalari – the mother of martial arts.

History records that it was practiced regularly by the ancient warrior caste of Kerala – the Nairs – in times of war and peace to maintain their fighting prowess. The word Kalari literally translates to battlefield. The origins in war can be clearly seen reflected in the weapons used in training: knives, daggers, spears and swords, the classic weapons used on the battlegrounds of India, long before the musket and cannon were introduced. 

Injury is, of course, a direct consequence of war and, as a result, the fighting aspect of Kalaripayattu has evolved side by side with the healing facet of the sport. The medical side of Kalari is a form of Ayurvedic medicine adapted to fit the demands of rigorous physical exercise and injuries sustained in war. 

Training ranges from weapons free self defence and stamina exercises, through sparring with wooden sticks, to battling with dangerous metal weapons such as the spear or the lethal Urumi. The vigorous training regime of Kalaripayattu is excellent at improving fitness and flexibility as well as strength and hand-eye coordination. Furthermore it focuses on both mental and spiritual improvement, teaching focus meditation. 

Kalaripayattu Masters (Gurukkal)

Kalaripayattu master Gurukkal

It takes twelve years of intensive training to become a Master of Kalaripayattu. The knowledge required to attain the coveted title of ‘Gurukkal’ extends far beyond the bounds of the fighting routines of the Kalari. As well as mastering all combat techniques, an aspiring Gurukkal must become learned in Ayurvedic medicine, Kalari massages, herbal cultivation, yoga, meditation and spiritual guidance. One of the last things to be passed down from Master to student, before they in turn can become a master, is the knowledge of the locations of the marma points – points of overlapping nerves and tissues in the body. The marma can be used to inflict serious damage to an opponent but they are much more frequently utilised for healing purposes. Their locations are kept secret to all but the most mature and responsible students on the cusp of earning their Gurukkal title. 

It is the decision of the Master to award the title of Gurukkal to his/her students. This will happen when he/she deems their training to be complete – usually after about twelve years. The official ceremony to mark the occasion of a student’s ascension to Master is an event that some might say is similar to a coronation. In front of their friends, family and Kalaripayattu school the student will be crowned with a handful of rice – a symbolic gesture taken from the actual coronation services of Indian kings. They will then demonstrate their humility by touching their head to their masters feet and pledging their sword to him. They arise as Gurukkals before demonstrating to the crowd their Kalaripayattu skills – the culmination of over a decade of training – with their Master.


Kalaripayattu initially was an unrefined mode of combat which, in later periods, became a method of self-purification and self-realization. Passed down from generation to generation, the teacher and holder of the lineage is called the Gurukkal or master. The Gurukkal is responsible for the students’ discipline and development, and is dedicated to the advancement of Kalari knowledge and practice.

Self-defense is the principle of kalaripayattu, rather than attack. If the kalari warrior can avoid combat, this is the best technique. In kalaripayattu, there are thousands of self-defense techniques such as grappling, kicks, jumps, locks and other movements. Kalaripayattu training is given to students through poetic vocal directions called Vaithari. The student is taught principles and techniques of meditation and eventually given the honour of offering kalari pooja.

To learn more about the spiritual aspects of kalari, please see our Kalaripayattu Spirituality page.

Rituals in Kalari

While it might not seem like it on the surface the main aim of Kalaripayattu is not about perfecting the art of fighting or weaponry; the main aim of Kalaripayattu is locate, align with, and release the spiritual energy that lies within all of us. This can be seen in the huge amount of ritual that surrounds training in the Kalari. 

What is kalari

The Kalari itself, as a requirement, contains four shrines in the corner called poothara. The first is a small set of seven steps representing the seven chakras. Next to this is the Gurutara – a small platform in remembrance of all past Gurus. Following this is the Ganapathitara, a platform to honour Vikneshara (also called Ganesh or Ganapathi), son of Shiva and Remover of Obstacles, whose blessing is sought before each training session. Finally there is the Ayudhathara, which is dedicated to Shiva (also called Ayudhabairavan), Protecter of Weapons, whose blessing is also required before training can begin.

Upon entering the Kalari to begin training, the student must salute the ground of the Kalari and the Kalari goddess before going pay respects at each of the shrines. Traditionally, but not necessarily always, the student will then touch the Guru’s feet to begin the session. The education of a student in Kalaripayattu requires a great deal of discipline as well as a sacred relationship between the student and the Master who, throughout a training session, will lead the student in a series of prayers, salutations and meditations.

The chanting of mantras is also important in the process of becoming a Kalaripayattu master. Some mantras are kept a closely guarded secret by the Gurukkal and only passed on to the student near the completion of their training.

Along with the knowledge of the mantras, the final piece of information that is given to the student by the Master is that of the marma points. The marma points are points of the body that can be used to heal physical ailments and hold great importance in Kalaripayattu. They can also be used to cause great harm and even death if manipulated in a certain way. For this reason they are the last thing to be taught before a student can complete their training – the Master must be absolutely sure that the student is capable of holding such dangerous knowledge with maturity and restraint. Once these have been learnt, with the Master’s permission, the student may become a Gurukkal.

Kalaripayattu Warriors in the Vadakkan Pattukal

The Vadakkan Pattukal is a collection of ballads that describe the adventures and accomplishments of some of the most respected Kalaripayattu warriors of medieval Kerala. The series of songs, twenty-four in total, were passed down by word of mouth for centuries before being written down. Pananmar (ancient Indian bards) would travel from village to village to recount the tales of famous Kalaripayattu practitioners. The focus of the songs is mainly on warriors from northern Malabar and the ancient areas of Kadathanada, Kolathunadu and Wayanad. The majority of these warriors came from two families: the Puthooram and the Tacholi Manikoth. The tales of some of the warriors are summarised below:

Kalaripayattu warrior
Thacholi Othenan

Kannappa Chekavar

As the legends go Kannappa Chekavar was the head of the Puthooram household in Kadathanada. He was renowned for being the greatest angam fighter of his time. An angam was a way of settling disputes between the ruling classes of the time. They would select a Kalaripayattu warrior to represent them in a fight to the death and whoever had hired the victor would win the argument. Not only was Kannappa the victor of seven fights, he was also the reason for twelve more being settled without a weapon being drawn and he won a further twenty-two by default after his opponents withdrew.

His two children – a son called Aromal and a daughter called Unniyarcha – were both legendary warriors in their own right and each have a song from the Vadakkan Pattukal dedicated to them.

Aromal Chekavar

The son of the famed angam fighter Kannappa, Aromal chekavar also found fame by fighting in an angam. His story is more tragic than his fathers and ends in his betrayal and cold blooded murder by his beloved cousin Chandu. Having won his first and only angam against a fearsome and devious foe – the renowned cheat Aringoder – Aromal at least died having covered himself in glory as only a great Kalaripayattu warrior can. 


Unniarcha woman warrior

The story of Unniyarcha – the most famous female Kalaripayattu practitioner – is much more cheerful than that of her brother. After defiantly choosing her own husband, instead of the one her parents had chosen for her, she ends up married to a talented Kalaripayattu warrior who is also a hopeless coward. While accompanying Unniyarcha on a journey to a nearby temple he is overcome with fear at the approach of a group of local bandits. Having known all along that her useless husband would react this way the well prepared Unniyarcha drew her urumi and killed almost the entire band of gangsters. Those she spared ran back to their leader who, in fear of the great female warrior, immediately sent her a tribute so that his life might be spared. 

Unniyarcha had a son called Aromalunni who, together with Aromal Chekavar’s son Kannappanunni, avenges the death of Aromal Chekavar by hunting down Chandu and killing him. To achieve this they used a special Kalaripayattu technique that had been invented and taught to them by their grandfather Kannappa Chekavar. 

Tacholi Othenan

Tacholi Othenan of the Tacholi family also has a story that revolves around an angam. When walking on a narrow path one day Othenan came face to face with a famous Kalaripayattu warrior (called Chindan Nambiar) and his students. Neither man wanted to step aside to allow the other to pass and so they walked into each other and both fell into the rice paddy next to the path. Having been embarrassed in front of his students Chindan Nambiar challenged Othenan to a fight to the death. 

After learning a special type of Kalaripayattu called Poozhikadakan, from a master called Payampally Chandu, Othenan faces Chindan Nambiar in the angam and defeats him. By popular demand from the bloodthirsty crowd he cuts off Nambiar’s head.

Other songs in the Vadakkan Pattukal tell the tales of famous Kalaripayattu warriors such as Tacholi Kunjichandu, Palattu Kunjikannan and Payampally Chandu.

The Importance of Kalaripayattu in the Modern World

Kalripayattu was developed in ancient times as a way of preparing for and fighting in battle. Back then its practice had a great significance because the skill one had in Kalaripayattu could literally mean the difference between life and death. Collectively, a kingdom’s prowess in Kalaripayattu could mean the difference between winning and losing a war. All of the weapons that are practised in Kalaripayattu were once used on the battlefields of ancient India when war was fought as hand to hand combat.

In modern times the battlefield has changed beyond recognition from its ancient equivalent – no longer are the sword, spear and dagger used to fight wars. Kalaripayattu does, however, still hold a very important place in society today. While it might not be the difference between life and death, experience in Kalaripayattu will definitely enhance one’s existence. 

Kalaripayattu practice creates a strong link between a healthy mind and a healthy body. With increased stamina and strength comes increases confidence and mental wellbeing. Kalaripayattu provides an active method of meditation. When fighting with weapons one must clear the mind of all intrusive thoughts and enter a meditative state so as to avoid being injured by one’s opponent. A boosted immune system is another benefit that holds great importance today.

Finally Kalaripayattu can help you to be a better person and teach community values. A Kalari school is like its own family and provides the students with a loving, caring, supportive community. 


maithari form of kalaripayattu training

Meythari is the preparatory stage of intensive body conditioning, designed to train the body and mind of the student for more advanced levels of training. Meythari consists of movement sequences aimed at building strength, balance, and dexterity, as well as concentration and ability to focus. Emphasis is placed on learning basic body positions, stretching movements for the legs, basic kicks and jumps, and total body flexibility conditioning. After mastery of the basics are achieved, more advanced moves are taught such as aerial kicks, twisting and other jumps, rolls, and body bends. These exercises increase speed of delivery, and the overall power of the move. After advanced Meythari training, the student’s mental and physical skills are honed to the highest level and they are ready to learn weapons.


kolhtari is a part kalaripayattu training

After Meythari, the next level of kalaripayattu is Kolthari, the practice of wooden weapons. Wooden weapons are less lethal than metal weapons and so weapons training is begun with them. Weapons training is at the heart of kalaripayattu, as the art grew during the feudal times of ancient India, when battle was a regular part of life and weapons was unavoidable. Weapons training means practicing against another student in the kalari, and requires skill and confidence to master. In ancient times, a great many different wooden weapons were used, and the main ones are still used in kalaris today.


Ankathari is a part of kalaripayattu training

Ankathari is the practice of metal weapons, and is the third stage of kalaripayattu. Metal weapons are highly lethal and are designed to kill opponents quickly, sometimes many at a time. Skills learnt in Kolthari must become very precise during Ankathari training, and applied with a great amount of focus and intent. In the beginning, students learn to fight with matched weapons. As they develop their skills the Gurukkal will guide them to see how they handle themselves when using mismatched combinations, such as dagger versus sword.


self defence technique training

The last stage of kalaripayattu training, Verumkai, is the practice of barehanded fighting. This means that after the student has mastered the practice of classical weapons, they have to learn how to do without them. Techniques acquired include various blocks, throws, joint locks and grappling, among others.

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