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The system

     The Kalari training is based on an elaborate system of physical exercise. The practical experience of the body movements strengthens the knowledge of a disciples. The constant practice makes the body an eye and adds to agility and strength. At the age of seven, student is recruited for his training under a Gurukkal. Oil massage or Uzhichil is an essential part of the training. The verbal commands of the Gurukkal known as Vayttari are obeyed and repeated to grasp the body movement. Each combination of step and gesture is known as Adavu. Each of them helps to recollect memory and leads to correct movements.

The training or the system has a metaphysical dimension as it was practiced every where in Kerala. The student arrive at dawn with empty stomach. They are wrapped in a six feet long and one feet wide cotton cloth tightly wound around their waist. This cloth is named Kacha. The combatants generally used to wear red -Kacha made out of silk over which a belt is also tied to strengthen the waist. Although the Kalari is an empty space, for a student that space has all meanings of life and super-nature. It is an abode of deities and the several generations of gurus who had initiated the disciples into training from generation to generation.

The student makes the ritual touch of earth with right hand propitiates the goddesses of earth. The touch of his forehead with right hand shows his reverence to the deities of knowledge.

The Hanuman an Garuda are also propitiated with the proper gestures and touches. The deities like seen mothers at Poothara gods like Siva are also propitiated. Both peace and destruction are symbolized in the Kalari space.

After the salutation in favor of the superior elements described above, the student is given the first system of practices called Anga-Sadhana for placing the soles of the feet. The firm step on the ground is called Aakkachuvatu; movements of the sole in jumps known as Chatta chuvatu. The circular movements is known as Vatta chuvatu. The student with his feet exercise moves from eastern side to western side. The feet and hands are raised and moved according to the sequence and in strict accordance of Vaithari of Gurukkal. These practices including Mei-ppayattu for several months make the student fit for the training in the use of weapons.

After imparting the body training, a student is initiated to the use of weapons. The Muchan, also called Cheruvati is a smaller stick about 22 inches in length and used to give powerful blows and also to resist the blows from others. Then he is initiated to the use of metallic weapons like Katti (Dagger), Sword, Kuntham (spear) and Urumi (flexible sword). The Gada (mace) is also practiced in some Kalaries. The training in the use of metallic weapons requires more dexterity  and agility of the body. The combatants trained in the use of these weapons are recruited as the soldiers in the medieval and and late medieval period in Kerala. Self defense and offence were the aims of these trainings in the use of several weapons which were locally made by village carpenters and village blacksmiths. These artisans were the inevitable service groups in a village community system. In the whole training process of Kalari system, the teachers played an important role as the custodians of this traditional skill and knowledge. They remained a source of inspiration to the student.

Development of the physical culture as an inevitable part of the socio-politico-economic life of the region had much influenced the cumulative growth of culture aspects. Many of the Keral's classical and folk art forms had come under the direct or indirect influence of kalarippayattu.

The Impact

Kerala, as a distinct socio-political region from the rest of South India has witnessed a large number of classical and folk art forms. Many of these art forms have an uninterrupted continuity over centuries as an integral part of socio-religious life of people in this territorial division. Their origin is shrouded in mystery and not possible to trace in the absence of authentic sources. However, most of this art form had developed during the medieval period when Malayalam language and literature had found their natural growth on account of new historical forces and the interaction made by different ethnic and social groups.

In all art forms, where the human body  plays an important role, one can see the common element of physical culture of body system. The art forms of Kerala visualized this fact in the form and content. The physical culture of body system is a matter of rigorous training that has to be materialized through conscious and constant practices.

For classical arts like Kathakali or Koodiyattom, the body is the sole means of expression. Therefore body is to be repaired for this high function through a rigorous course of physical exercise. It can be done only by daily massage with medicated oils which are intended to develop suppleness and grace of articulating the expressive capacity of the various parts of the human body. In reality the artist or the dancer is trained in the Kalari system and taught the body exercise with severe discipline. In foot-work, movements of the body, and the Thandava, dance (masculine and vigorous). The artist requires the dynamic skill imparted through the Kalarippayattu, therefore even the training center of Kathakali is known as Kalari, being devoted for the development of physical culture. The medieval period of Kerala had witnessed frequent wars and invasion among the ruling chieftains and these aspects had already promoted the Kalari system and had brought into training a large number of combatants.  The impact of this new developments  could be see on performing arts like Kathakali that many of these ruling houses and patronized art forms also as they had patronized the medieval soldiers or retainers. The growing awareness for developing a proper physical culture through kalarippayattu had really contributed to the expression and growth of the classical art forms.

In the same way the body training became an essential requirement for performing many of the folk dances of the region. These platforms had been patronized by the peasants, partitions and laborers. The common mans aesthetic imagination had greatly subscribed to the growth of these art forms in Kerala. Many of them have a religious and ritual background and are performed in sacred centers or in the local villages shrines of gods and goddesses. One of such art form widely prevalent in Kasargod and Kannur district is Pooram kali. As an art form it demands the rigorous training of the artist to develop a strong physical culture of the body with quick movements. Massage and physical exercise as found in Kalarippayattu are essential requirement to perform this art as the dancer has to make acrobatics while the entire group move on in circle. The performance is closely related to the peasant culture of the region. This performance has also originated in the medieval period after the development and growth of kalarippayattu. Most probably this art form must have come into prominence to maintain the physical culture and the religious rituals associated with the local shrines. Another ritual art form which has indebted to the Kalari system is the performance of Theyyam. Many heros are deified and worshiped by the village folk. The heros like Kathivannur veeran, (Mandappan), Pumarutan, Thacholi othenan and Oorpazhassi are some of the famous Theyyam deities in north Malabar. The performance of South, Theyyam are closely connected to the Kalari system as the dancer or the artist has to present the martial dance also. He imitates the transformation of a hero with divine power and as  such performs all actions of a combatant, fighting with sword and shield in the hands. His foot work and body action demand excellent training as imparted in the Kalari system.

Apart from these ritual performance, there are secular art forms like Thacholikkali and Kolkkali. They also demand excellent body training to make the artist quick in movements and body bending. Like Poorakkali these art forms have developed as an integral part of peasants culture during the medieval period. In brief the Kalari system and its growth in the medieval feudal order had greatly influenced the development of classical and folk art forms. Oil massage, physical exercise, acute body bending, use of shield and sword are the common features of many of these art forms and Kalarippayattu. In reality the Kalari system has not only influenced the growth of these art forms but it has shaped the trends of the medieval culture of Kerala society.

An anthology of heroic songs, popularly known as northern ballads are now available to the student of Malayalam literature. These songs had been composed mostly between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, particularly in Kadathanadu region. They depict the chivalry and heroism of several heros and heroines of medieval or late medieval periods. These heros and heroines had been trained in kalarippayattu. Elaborate description of their training, action in the battlefield, heroism and bravery are available these songs composed mostly by the unknown poets of the term. The feudal order, Kalari system, individual heroism etc. Serve as the main themes for these songs. The strategies of a combatant like Othiram, Katakam, Chatuam, Mandlam, Vrutha Chakram, Sukalkalam, Vijayam, Viswamohanam, Tirvyangamandalam, Ghadayakheta-ghahvram, Satruniayam, Soubhatram, Patalm, Puranjayam, Kavya vrudhi, Silakhandam, Gandhasastram and Anuthama are described in some of this songs. The kalarippayattu had contributed to the development of this literacy branch in Kerala.

During the modern period, although Kalarippayattu had lost its significance under the British rule, the devoted Gurukkals with all their efforts transmitted the tradition from one generation to the other. They kept alive the Kalari tradition and the know-how in the rural areas as a matter of charity and cured many body ailments through physiotherapy. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when European circus companies came to Malabar in places like Tellicherry some of the native gurus well trained in the Kalari system found it easy to imitate some of the body practices adopted by the circus artists. This new attempt was given leadership by late Keeleri Kunhikannan Gurukkal in Tellicherry who initiated several circus groups in Kerala and became the father of Indian circus. In a land, where centuries the Kalari gymnastic tradition had its deep root, there the new experiments in circus training became a great success. In reality the Indian tradition of circus has something to do with Kalari Gymnastic training and body culture. After independence, some attention had been given by the government and other agencies to promote Kalarippayattu and its training. These activities had been responsible to create considerable interest in this physical art form.


Tasmei Sri Gurave Namah


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