The Kalaris of Malabar

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Kalari, Kalari Vidya and Kalari payattu – their origins

Most who chance on this would be wondering if there is more to the Kalari than the historic martial arts form practiced in Malabar and some other related versions in other parts of today’s Kerala. While academicians and practitioners have focused on the practice and the schools in Malabar, many have neglected the free flow of mercenaries between Sri Lanka and Malabar, as well as the Lankan and Tulu connections to the martial art form. In this short essay, we will go over the legendary origins of Kalari in Malabar and cover hitherto neglected links to similar practices which existed in erstwhile Ceylon and Tulunad.

It is not my intent to go through the various Kalari techniques and moves, or its connections to yoga and classical as well as theatrical dance forms, which I observed as I skimmed through the many books referenced at the end, but will focus only on its advent and purpose, as it was in the old world. Today it is an art form involving a few practitioners and some curious tourists, and there are fervent attempts to revive its popularity.

Most accounts commence with its mention in the Keralolpathi of how the mythical Parasurama trained 21 or so masters and established 42 kalari schools, as well as arming 36,000 half (ardha) Namboothiri brahmins (val nampis). Later we can see the reference to the 18 sanghams formed for the military development of the Nairs who initially took over the sole responsibilities for combat as well as the exclusive right and privilege to serve the rulers in a fight. In addition to it, they had to restrain offenders, and provide guard service (the main activity for Nairs when not warring) for travelers and trade caravans.  The training was provided in the famous lineages of Ugram Valli, Dronam Valli, Ghoram Valli and Ullur thuruthiyad. As time went by, weapons training was given all young men (and some women) in the region, as their Chera rulers were frequently involved in wars with the Cholas of Tamilakam. The training covered hand-to-hand combat, use of weapons such as bows and arrows, lances, swords, short sticks and so on and were based in some way upon the traditions detailed in the ancient Dhanur Veda. Tracing its development before the medieval is quite complicated, and most studies start with the medieval times, after the disintegration of the Chera Perumal kingdoms and the advent of swaroopams and Nadus.

Many accounts from domestic scribes, oral ballads, swaroopam records and foreign travelers provide interesting details of the medieval times. Before we get to specifics, let us get a brief overview of how the community developed after the Chera monarchy collapsed. In various articles, I have related how sanketams or temple kingdoms, swaroopams, or regional dynasties developed and how their rule over their realms were consolidated with localized law and order (maryada) codes and how the enforcers with the right to kill i.e., the Nair community, grew.

The social structure started with the village thara, and a number of tharas formed a desam. Many desams combined to create the Nadu and the Nadu had a naduvazhi. While the thara had a headman, with its training ground i.e., the kalari, the Desam had a desa Vazhi or local chief, the Nadu had a Nadu vazhi advised by a Nattu kootam or council or ministers. The Naduvazhis were of course from the dynastic swaroopams. We read previously about the ankhoms or duels and Poythu, and we will go over them again, briefly, but suffice to conclude that feuds and even kudipaka were settled with a ceremonial fight or duel by these trained warriors.

Getting back to the thara, or the base village, we observe the training space or the Kalari - a cordoned off area 42’x21’ (6’ of mud dug out to create a cavity, with a puttura and a guruthura, as well as steps leading in) where training was imparted to the young folk, by a revered master, the guru, gurukkal or kurukkal. Overseeing this were the watchful eyes of the certain devathas, installed in a Kavu. The fundamental aspect to note is that a trained warrior was by himself the primary weapon, while other weapons were simply extensions of the wielder, complementing his skills.

Both Zarilli and CR Das (writing the introduction to Chirakkal Sreedharan Nair’s seminal volume) take us through the same pathway when explaining its early history.

Quoting Das - According to some historians, it was during the Sangam Age (circa BC 200–600 AD) kalarippayattu evolved and developed. Tamil literature and anthologies describe the warring tribes of that period. The word kalari is used for a battlefield and an arena for training in weaponry. The tribals (men and women) were trained in wielding weapons including the sword (val), spear (vel), bow (vil) and shield (khedam); and they were ferocious in battle. The period between the 7th and 9th centuries was the Brahminical Age in Kerala. The Brahmins established their supremacy and influenced every sphere of the society. They set up centres called salais for training in the vedas and warfare. The Perumals (or Cheras) ruled Kerala from the 8th century to the 11th century. The Chera rulers patronised kalaris and established a fighting force with a core group of one thousand Nayar (or Nair) captains. And each captain had ten well-trained soldiers (or Chekons) under his command.

The Chera rule (8th to 11th century) overlapped a part of the Brahminical Age (7th to 9th century). During the Cheran rule, the salai continued imparting martial training to Brahmin students, while kalaris groomed soldiers belonging to the other castes and groups. By then the Brahmins, having consolidated their domain, chose to remain as landlords and priests. They ceased training themselves in martial arts, but the salai continued imparting vedic education. Eventually the salai vanished from Kerala. But the kalaris continued to function, teaching payattu.

The long rule of the Perumals in Kerala came to an end in the early years of the 12th century. The emergence of a number of kings and chieftains wielding almost total control over Kerala, resulted in the fragmentation of Kerala into principalities called swarupam. The political and administrative machinery in Kerala had more or less collapsed under the constantly feuding kings and chieftains. For personal benefit, they maintained private armies and mercenaries thoroughly trained in the art of warfare.

Specifically focusing on the arming of the Malayali by Parasurama, we note by referring the Keralolpatti (Kerala Utpatti Mackenzie manuscripts translation)– Afterwards he said to the people of the 64 villages-Do you want weapons? Receive them from me”. Those of the Bharadwaja Gotram then received arms from Parasurama. Then Parasurama granted the Sastra Bhiksha (Alms of Weapons) with the consent of all, and the Bharadwaja Gotram having presented their hands accepted the weapons. For that reason, those of Valiur assert, that they require no other authority to put people to death - some think this power results from their Tapas- Sakti or virtue of their Devotion, but it is not so, and they themselves assert it is because the people of their tribe then received the Sastra Bhiksha, and took the Val into their hands: hence they are denominated VálNambi or Trust in Swords. The Vál -Nambi and Paltena- Nambi are both Arddha Bramhanar. To the first were assigned the Duties of Ayudha Panikul, Bearers of Weapons, or Arms, Pada Nadaka i.e., Collecting, Pada- kooduka, Going to Battle, Rajakunmar Munpil, Escorting the Rajah, Agumpudi nadakuka. From their performing these duties they obtained the name of Val-Nambi or Swordsmen.

Gundert’s translation which is somewhat different, goes thus – Thereafter, he ordained that the land should be protected (from attacks); "you require to use arms and weapons; you take these from me", so addressing all the 64 villages, they thought together and decided: "if we take to arms, then we will become involved in the governance, and will lose our commitment to penance; it is not consistent with the recital of the Vedas; it will vitiate several of our rites and rituals". Of the 64, villages, 3,000 of Perinchallur, 2,000 of Payyanur, 4,000 of Panniyur, 5,000 of Parappur, 5,000 of Chenganiyur, 1,000 of Alathur, 5,000 of Uliyanur, 5,000 of Chenganode, 4,000 of Airanikulam, 1,000 of Mushikakkulam, 100 of Kazhutanadu - thus in "ten and a half' villages"', some from 14 gotras were appointed, and 36,000 Brahmins were commanded; all these 36,000 Brahmins together went, made the 64 villages free of defects, and, receiving the weapons from Sri Parasuraman, learnt the use of them from him. With the blessing: "from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam, over 160 kathams of Keralam, you reign and rule, he entrusted them with water sprinkled over the swords. They stretched out their hands three times for the water, and received it. Some belonging to the Bharadvaja Gotram addressed Sri Parasuraman to give them the gift of (proficiency in the use of) weapons; received the arms and weapons from him in the presence with the consent of all the rest with outstretched hands, and by his blessings, obtained swords and the land, and were known thereafter as "Valuvar, they require none's permission to kill anyone.

Considering that the Brahmanical advent into Kerala occurred sometime in the 8th or 9th century, we have to go back in time to see the military training aspects during the ancient Chera or Perumal eras. We see mentions of Brahmin chattiras, training at Chalais or salais mentioned in manipravalam texts during the early 9th century, which perhaps over time became the kalari. In all those times, it was the Namboothiri who held the sword, not a Nair caste, a caste which were formed later. The kurikkal or master trainer got promoted with titles such as Kartha or Kaimal. Each of them headed over at least 3,000 Nairs.

Over time, these became the 18 techniques or adavus one had to master (that is why we have the popular usage of ultimate defeat, ‘he tried every one of the 18 arts he had learnt, but still failed’). They were Dheergham, Kadakam, Chudalam, Mandalam, Vrithachakram, Sukhangalam, vijayam, vishwamohanam, tiryakamandalam, Gadapryogam, vedagahwaram, shatrunjayam, sawbhadram, padalam, purunjayama, kayavridhi, sheelaghjandam, gadashastram and anuthamam. MD Raghavan the eminent anthropologist adds that every Kalari had a padashala associated with it, in the old days. He is specific that the kalari had the bhagavata paradevata, presiding over each unit of physical culture.

Youngsters were given a proper oil massage before initiation to the payattu, and start with mastering the short stick, the 1 ½ -2’ long muchan, cheruvadi or kuruvadi. He then graduates to the 6’ long sariravadi, kettukadi or the Malabar quarter staff. Then comes the Otta a short staff shaped like a sickle made of wood or ivory (Otta denotes the chopped trunk of Lord Ganesh and the armed encounter with this baton represents the ferocious fight between a wild tusker and lion). Annually, the training culminated in a spectacular display during the mandalam period in Nov-Dec, witnessed by the Naduvazhi and the Desavazhi. Kalari trained youths in the medieval periods then wielded swords, churikas, maces (gada), shields, lances etc, but not the bow and arrow. Of course, in those days,  some North Malabar women were also adept with these martial arts and we have a number of famed lady warriors, mentioned in the Northern ballads. Malabar kalaries churned out hundreds of graduates (they were also known as adavil janagal with 200 of them forming a kalari regiment for the Naduvazhi).

Sreedhara Menon explains - It is the training and practice in the Kalari that are known by the term Kalaripayattu and this is valued very much from the point of view of physical culture. The training in the Kalari is comprised of several stages. The youth admitted to the Kalari have to undergo a course of massage for a fortnight and then they are given twelve physical exercises designed to prepare them to meet all situations of attack and defense. The course helps to acquire suppleness of the body and agility of limbs. After this preliminary course they are taught the fencing lessons. They are taught the use of such weapons as the Kuruvadi (short stick), Sariravadi, mace, spear, dagger and sword and shield. A 5 feet long flexible sword called urumi is a unique weapon used in Kalaripayattu. Othenan was himself the most leading exponent of this weapon. Some of the more promising and disciplined ones among the pupils are taught the marmams, viz., the vulnerable parts of the human body. It is said that a past master in marmams can disable or kill his opponent by a mere touch. Hence, the knowledge of the marmams is to be used only as a last resort for self-defense or against a very dishonorable or evil enemy. In fact, the whole philosophy underlying Kalaripayattu is that the system is to be used only for noble causes and never for self-advancement.

In a previous article on the Chekavars, we talked about the legend of the arrivals from Ceylon and the fact that they too had similar practices. The relations and intermingling between the lower geographical sections of India and Lanka dates back to time immemorial, so it is not fair to separate Lanka today in these discussions, it is just like somebody came from Tulunad or Maharashtra to Kerala. The immigrant population moves inwards and emigrations outward always took place and depended on where the opportunity was. Mercenaries simply moved to where wars were popular and men were needed.

As it turns out the Lankans did have the Haramba Salawa or an equivalent of the kalari in the Kandy region. These were the training centers where various forms of martial arts were taught, both the Angam pora or body combat and Mallawa pora or wrestling, dating back to many centuries (Kataragama Mahasen of the Yaksha tribe started it some 30,000 years they say). There were two clans Maruwalliye and Sudhaliye who had separate training centers and it is seen from records that exchanges of teachers in wrestling did occur between Sri Lanka and Malabar. Specific instances can be found in Sri Lankan history of similar angams, and connects back to Ravana who was considered an expert in such arts.

Angam in Lanka, is hand to hand combat, ilangam is combat with weapons. A third variety maya-angam uses mind power for combat. Maru nilaya shastraya is a Lankan method of attacking nerve centers to paralyze or kill, again seen in Malabar combat as marmath adi or marma prayogam. Just like in Malabar kalari, angam employs 18 techniques (Aromal had developed a 19th!).

Kamalika Pires explains - There were two fighting clans, Maruvalliye or Sudaliye with their own flags in Kandy. The Maruvalliye base was in Hewaheta and Uda palatha, Sudaliye in Harispattu and Sinduruvana. The leaders of the schools were known as Maruwalliya Muhandiram Nilame and Sudhalaye Muhandiram Nilame, respectively. These positions were highly coveted.

If you make a quick study, you will find similar weapons and dressing in Lankan Angam, the same size pit or haramba salava, and you can even see the 32 bladed urumi versions wielded with both hands (thunu kaduwa) in their retinue. The panikkars of Malabar became panikkarala or panikkiya (kaniyans) in Lanka. In Lanka, it is believed that there was an unwritten law that demanded that any person wishing to attain kingship in Sri Lanka should have been well versed in Angam fighting. The scenes of complex Angam fighting illustrated on famous Embekke wood carvings prove that this form of martial arts existence. An ancient fabric paining found in Hanguranketha Devale illustrates two factions fighting each other with swords and shields.

Angam was also taught in Burma and Thailand during ancient times. Looking deeper, we observe a number of words such as 'Angam', 'Paniker', 'Churika', 'Sevakam', 'Palisha', etc. in Sinhalese dialects, suggesting a relationship with the system which prevailed in Kerala in the Middle Ages. Like it was done to Kalari in Malabar, the British outlawed the art of angam pora.

Anyway, one thing is clear, the Angampora was state-supported in the medieval times in Lanka, and they would thus have had a number of warriors during the lull periods who could go on to fight ankhams or seek their fortunes in neighboring lands such as Malabar. Perhaps that is how they landed up in Malabar. Ankhampora continued on till the 18th century in Lanka while it slowly disappeared from Malabar in the early 17th century. But it is also noted from Ceylon history records that they employed Malala mercenaries in their armies. At various medieval periods in Lankan history, the Kotte armies were composed of Demala (Tamil), Malala (Malabar) and Doluvara (Tulu) soldiers in addition to Sinhalese troops, and this shows movement of soldiers and mercenaries across borders.

The 'Garadi salais’ of the Tulu speaking South Canara is another direction to look, and existed well before the Kalaris of Malabar. They had expert trainers and are often mentioned in the Northern ballads. The Garadis (Garudi) of Tulunad, where Garadi Sale or Kalari was practiced, boasted of many masters where even advanced kalari exponents of Malabar were sent to hone their art and learn Tulunadan kalari, during the medieval times. It is said that while Malabar Kalari had 18 adavus, the Tulu masters knew 22, but kept the last four, secret.

From Dr Nandavara’s study, we can gather that they came about around the 11th century, as the Alupa dynasty rule was ending and further became prominent after the collapse of the Vijayanagara rule in 1565. Apparently, they brought in Balli brahmins from Malabar to set up these Garadis! Details of the Nayari community as related to these communities, can be gathered from this link. We should once more consider a vaster medieval region covering Malabar and Tulunad without borders when it comes to these cultural and marital practices.

Kalarividaya vs Kalaripayat – is nicely explained by PK Sasidharan The term kalarividya however, can encompass a whole range of activities other than payatt which falls within the kalari-tradition, such as healthcare, education, rituals, lifestyle, philosophy, meditation, art of life and the art of performance. Kalaripayatt on the other hand is considered to be the practice of a martial art by a bygone society which has no relevance in the present-day civil society, other than of being a performing art or exercise.

It should also be noted that Kalari was not restricted to Nayars, in fact Thiyyas, Christians and Moplahs had their own kalaris as we saw from previous discussions connected to Chekavars, Mallittas etc. The Moplahs had specific kalaris without a Devata, and also had a performing art called Parisakali where sham fights were enacted in a rhythmic public folk play style performance by a group of trained boys with a gurukkal giving the commands. Also, we can recall that Kayamkulam Kochunni learnt the techniques from a Muslim Thangal, who had set up a kalari in Kayamkulam. The Southern or thekkan kalari, which may have grown from Kayamkulam was adapted to fight Tamil combatants apparently and is more focused on combat rather than defense. I must also add that there are some who see some similarity in the Portuguese jogo do pau, fighting art, but I feel it quite tangential.

After the Pazhassi Raja revolt, the British went on to disarm the whole of Malabar and all weapons were taken away, thereby putting a stop to the martial practices, including the Kalari and thus, for over a century it was not practiced in several parts of Kerala. Over time, the Kalari gurukkals diversified to practice astrology and became Kalari panikkans, or Kaniyans. After the British ban, a few practitioners such as Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal, Kovilkandi Kelu Kurup Gurukkal and Maroli Ramunni Gurukkal secretly keep the art alive. Along the way Circus Kalari schools evolved and we will get to that in an upcoming article of an even more fascinating character.

Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair and C.V. Narayanan Nair were later instrumental in popularizing Kalari, as we know it today. I guess the cake in the icing was the visit by the great boxer - Muhammed Ali visiting KP Hassan Haji in 1989, went on to observe a kalari demonstration at the Choorakodi Kalari sangham at Calicut, commending on its usefulness, and speed.

There is so much more to mention and this piece will only serve as a start to a larger discussion. Please watch a set of fascinating videos and interviews on the subject at Arpo’s channel @youtube which will take you through the history and many other facets of kalarippayattu, through interviews conducted by Sruthin Lal with SRD Prasad Gurukkal, Chirakkal Sreedharan Nair's son.

Kerala Charitram – Kalariyum Kalarupamgalaum – Mukundan Kurup
Keralolpatti – H Gundert Version
Kalarippayattu – P Balakrishnan
Selected Essays of G Sankara Pillai – Kalarippayattu and the performing arts of Kerala
Kalarippayattu – CT Sreedharan Nair
When the body becomes all eyes – Phillip B. Zarilli
Kalarippayattu – D.H. Luijendijk
Koti Chennayya – Dr Vamana Nandavara
Kalarippayattu – Shaji K. John
Historic Alleys – Chekavers of Malabar
The Keralites and the Sinhalese – Dr KC Sankaranarayanan
Angampora - SL magazine - 1st Quarter, 2012,
The Kalari and the Angam – Institutions of Ancient Kerala – MD Raghavan
The Angam, a common factor of the Middle Ages of Kerala and Lanka – MD Raghavan
A ballad of Kerala – MD RaghavanFolk plays and dances of Kerala – MD Raghavan

Pics - Ginu C Plathottam Wikimedia


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    An exhaustive summary of the martial art of Kalari. After reading this, one confirms the impression that the institution of Kalari is not one monolithic edifice, but encompassed several related but autonomous martial art practices each of which was being practised regionally. There was no mention of the Buddhist origins of Kalari. Perhaps, that would lead us to the origin of martial arts in Sri Lanka. Secondly, Tulunad is arguably the training ground for the north Malabar kalari warriors. Even Thacholi Othenan was trained in Tulunad. You have mentioned about Alupa dynasty ending in the 11th century. But what followed was more important. The Alupas became vassals of the Hoysalas who had conquered most of north Malabar and Wayanad in the 12th century. This could have led to the eclipse of the Kolathiris and the Cheras, but there is insufficient research in this area. The link to Arpo contributions is very useful.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF..
    To an extent, the salais existed in the Buddhist age, so that could be the connection, but I have to investigate deeper to get to that detail. I recall reading somewhere that Othenan had picked up a little more than the 18 from his Tulunad training. Plenty more to write on this subject, enough to do a part 2..

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Yes, of course, Maddy. We are eagerly awaiting parts 2, 3 etc of this fascinating story so beautifully told!