What Makes Kalaripayattu the Mother of all Martial Arts


Martial arts are often attributed to South-east Asian countries, namely China, Japan and Korea. The very term martial art brings into ones’ mind people like Bruce Lee and Jacky Chan, and fighting styles like Karate and Kung Fu. However few people know that the idea of martial arts originated in a least expected part of the world that had not seen much serious warfare compared to the rest of the world. The region is none another than the Indian sub-continent.

Fighting System Vs Martial Arts

Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings. Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions. Martial art is a sport that is a traditional Japanese or Chinese form of fighting or defending yourself.

To me what distinguished a martial art from other fighting systems is its respect for life and its deep understanding of the human body. A martial art is rooted in self-discipline and holds respect for one another. In short martial art is a fighting system with a spiritual outlook.  Martial art teaches people to retain the human values without slipping into savagery even in the midst of violent fights.

Kalarippayattu and Kerala

Kalarippayattu is a Dravidian martial art having its origin in Kerala, India. Possibly one of the oldest (about 2000-3000 years old) fighting systems in existence, it is practiced in Kerala and contiguous parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well as northeastern Sri Lanka and among the Malayalee community of Malaysia. It includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.

Oral folklore ascribes the creation of kalari payat to the warrior saint Parasurama, an incarnation of Hindu Lord Vishnu. Parasurama established forty-two kalaris (Schools) and taught twenty-one masters of these kalaris to protect the land of Kerala. The right and duty to practice martial arts in the service of a district ruler was most associated with Nairs and Ezhavas (casts). The Lohar of north Kerala were Buddhist warriors who practiced kalaripayattu.

A Typical Kalarippayattu Kalari (Dojo)

The term kalaripayattu is a tatpurusha compound from the words kalari meaning school or gymnasium (similar to Dojo in Japanese) and payattu derived from payattuka meaning to “fight/ exercise” or “to put hard work into”. In Tamil, kalari payattu is a compound from the words kalari meaning war fight and payattu derived from payattuka meaning “learning exercise”. Training is divided into four main parts consisting of Meithari, Kolthari, Ankathari and Verumkai.


Meithari is the beginning stage with rigorous body sequences involving twists, stances and complex jumps and turns. Twelve meippayattu exercises for neuro-muscular coordination, balance and flexibility follow the basic postures of the body. Kalari payat originates not in aggression but in the disciplining of the self. Therefore the training begins with disciplining the physical body and attaining a mental balance.


Once the student has become physically competent, they are introduced to fighting with long wooden weapons. The first weapon taught is the staff (kettukari), which is usually five feet (1.5 m) in length, or up to the forehead of the student from ground level. There are a total of 3 wooden weapons.


Once the practitioner has become proficient with all the wooden weapons, they proceed to Ankathari (literally “war training”) starting with metal weapons, which require superior concentration due to their lethal nature.

    Verumkai (bare-handed)

Only after achieving mastery with all the weapon forms is the practitioner taught to defend themselves with bare-handed techniques. These include arm locks, grappling, and strikes to the pressure points (marmam). This is considered the most advanced martial skill so the teacher restricts knowledge of marmam only to very few trusted students.

Sramana Bodhidharma (Taishi Daruma) and kung-fu

Kalarippayattu is believed to be brought to China by Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th/6th century CE. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Ch’an (Sanskrit: Dhyāna, Japanese: Zen) to China, and regarded as the first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.. Mainstream Buddhist tradition holds that Bodhidharma arrived in China in 520, although there are historical indications that he may have arrived in 470, or even as early as 420. There is no agreement as to the route he traveled or where he arrived first.

Bodhidharma is thought to have been born in Kanchipuram, near Madras, India, the third son of a local king and therefore a member of the caste of warriors and rulers. At the age of seven he purportedly began making observations of precocious wisdom. His teacher, Prajnatara, changed the boy’s name from Bodhitara to Bodhidharma. Following his father’s death, Bodhidharma served Prajnatara for many years spreading Buddhism. Upon Prajnatara’s death Bodhidharma left his monastery in India to follow his master’s last wish that he go to China and spread the teaching. There he got the land name Shao where he can prolong his spiritual activities from the King of china. Shao had the temple in its premises hence was known as shaoline temple.. Bodhidharma (also known as Taishi Daruma in Japan) eventually became revered as the founder of Zen Buddhism and is still widely and beneficially accepted as the Father of the Asian Martial Arts.

According to what is apparently a mostly oral tradition, Bodhidharma initiated training programs at the Shaolin temple which related to martial arts. Bodhidharma taught his brand of dhyana meditation to monks at the temple, but found that they did not possess the necessary stamina. They were so weak that they tended to fall asleep during meditation lessons. In order to strengthen their “flaccid and emaciated bodies” he instituted calisthenics, breathing exercises and Indian fighting exercises. His emphasis was said to be the cultivation of intrinsic bioenergy (called ki in karate) through breath control. Bodhidharma is supposed to have been well versed in these techniques as a result of the training given all members of the Indian warrior caste in their youth.

Some Similarities and Differences Between Kalarippayattu  and Other Asian Martial Arts


Kata is a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. The term form is used for the corresponding concept in non-Japanese martial arts in general. The basic goal of kata is to preserve and transmit proven techniques. By practicing in a repetitive manner the learner develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural, reflex-like manner. Kalaripyattu, Kung-Fu, Karate and other Asian martial have Katas, with and without weapons.

    Intrinsic Bio-energy (Qi (Ch’i) in Chinese and Ki in Japanese)

Qi is energy that is generated from a point two inches below the navel and is believed that this energy can be directed as needed for a well trained martial artist. It’s a didactic concept in many Chinese, Korean and Japanese martial arts. Martial qigong is a feature of both internal and external training systems in China and other East Asian cultures. The most notable of the qi-focused “internal” force (jin) martial arts are Baguazhang, Xing Yi Quan, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Snake Kung Fu, Dragon Kung Fu, Lion Kung Fu, Aikido, Aikijujutsu, Kyudo, Hapkido, jian and katana swordplay, Lohan Chuan, Shaolin Kung Fu, Liu He Ba Fa, Buddhist Fist, and some forms of Karate and Silat. Demonstrations of qi or ki power are popular in some martial arts and may include the immovable body, the unraisable body, the unbendable arm and other feats of power.

    Pressure points

A pressure point in the field of martial arts refers to an area on the human body that may produce significant pain or other effects when manipulated in a specific manner. Techniques of attacks on pressure points are called Hyol Do Bup in Korean martial arts and kyūsho-jutsu  in various styles of Japanese martial arts. Kalarippayattu  calls the pressure points Marmam. Marma shastra manipulates vital points in the body either for self-defense or for healing. Kalarippayattu teaches about 108 vital points in the human body.

    Names of moves and postures

Most moves and postures that are common to the two martial arts have same or similar names (in meaning), mostly named after animals.

    Training Syllabus

While most Asian martial arts start with unarmed training and slowly progress to armed training, Kalarippayattu  goes the opposite way. Kalaripyattu followed this philosophy that knowledge of armed combat is more important than unarmed in the event of a war. Since Asian martial arts were introduced by Buddhist monks they choose to teach the unarmed combat fist so as to comply with their philosophy of nonviolence.

Decline of Kalari and The Rise of Other Martial Arts

Kalaripyattu underwent a period of decline when the Nair warriors lost to the British after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century. The British eventually banned kalaripayattu and the Nair custom of holding swords so as to prevent rebellion and anti-colonial sentiments (More like what happened to samurais in Japan after WW2). During this time, many Indian martial arts had to be practiced in secret and were often confined to rural areas.

Today Karate and Kung-fu are more popular in Kerala and rest of India than indigenous martial arts. The primary reason is that the Kalaripyattu had undergone little or no evolution and the foreign martial arts have and are undergoing continuous improvement. Karate and Kung-fu look and feel more sophisticated and are appealing to everyone alike. Much of the credit for the improvement of the martial arts to the level that we see today goes to the dedicated Buddhist monks.

2 Responses to What Makes Kalaripayattu the Mother of all Martial Arts

  1. Pingback: Where did the Japanese martial arts originate?

  2. > More like what happened to samurais in Japan after WW2

    It should say: …during the Meiji Reform (end of 19th century)

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