Kalaripayattu is one of the most ancient martial art in the world. Religions have incorporated Kalaripayattu into their realm. The origin of Kalaripayattu is still in the midst of obscurity. Traditional Kalari masters attribute mythological stories and legends to the origin of the art. Legend traces the 3000-year-old art form to Sage Parasurama- the master of all martial art forms and credited to be the re-claimer of Kerala from the Arabian Sea.
At the turn of the 6th century A.D., martial arts spread from Southern India to China by Daruma Bodhidarma - an Indian Buddhist monk and Kalaripayattu master. From China, martial arts have spread to Korea & Japan. Kalaripayattu is derived from the words Kalari - which means "place, threshing floor, or battlefield", and payattu - which means to "exercise in arms or practice".
Martial arts have been in existence on the Indian sub-continent for thousands of years. Long ago, animal fighting styles were imitated by pre-historic man which was a system for survival. The first weapon used was the stick which was an extension of the arm. Various weapons were later invented during the Stone and Iron Ages. Even in Vedas they have mentioned about martial arts. Kalaripayattu is one such martial art, Crafted in ancient South India and draws inspiration from the raw power, majestic strength and instinctive fighting techniques of animals like lion, tiger, elephant, wild boar, crocodile etc.
It is significant that some Kalaripayattu masters trace their lineages of practice to "Dhanur Veda" and claim that the texts in which their martial techniques are recorded derive from Dhanur Vedic texts. Although the Dhanur Veda means the "science of archery," it encompassed all the traditional fighting arts. The explicit concern in Dhanur Veda texts is not with battlefield strategies, but rather with training in martial techniques.
The Dhanur Veda opens by cataloging the subject, stating that there are five training divisions (for warriors on chariots, elephants, horseback, infantry, or wrestling), and five types of weapons to be learned (those projected by machine [arrows or missiles], those thrown by the hands [spears], those cast by hands yet retained [noose], those permanently held in the hands [sword], and the hands themselves [249:1-5]).
Most of the final Chapters are brief descriptions of postures and techniques for wrestling and the use of a variety of weapons including noose, sword, armors, iron dart, club, battle axe, discus, and the trident. A short passage near the end of the text returns to the larger concerns of warfare and explains the various uses of war elephants and men. The text concludes with a description of how to appropriately send the well-trained fighter off to war.
Kalaripayattu reached its pinnacle of glory during the 100-years-war between the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas in the early part of the first millennium. The warring states refined the fighting skills and techniques prevalent in the area into a martial art form. The art flourished between the 13 and 16 centuries, becoming a part of the education of youngsters. It was a social custom in Kerala to send all youngsters above the age of seven to learn Kalari.
The inherent beauty of this art form lies in the harmonious synergy of art, science and medicine. The various movements in Kalari are based on animal movements. Several poses are named after animals. Hence it is generally believed to have developed in the jungles when hunters observed the fighting techniques of various animals.
The death blow to the Kerala military system and Kalaripayattu was dealt by the British. When the Malabar Province was ceded in favor of the British by the treaty of Seringapatam in 1792, there were a series of revolts in Malabar. The revolt led by Pazhassi Raja was well supported by the Nair soldiers and Kurichya tribals of Wayanad. The British dreaded the widespread Kalari training and objected to the traditional system of carrying arms by the Nairs. Thus the Malabar commissioners found it essential to unarm the entire region to establish tranquility. Major Dow's direction in this regard, is note worthy.
On 20th February 1804, Robert Richards, the Principal Collector of Malabar, wrote to Lord William Bentinck, President and General-in Council, Fort. St. George, asking permission to take action against persons carrying arms, either imposing death penalty or deportation for life. Lord Bentinck issued an order on 22nd April 1804, that those who concealed weapons or disobeyed the orders of the British against carrying arms would be condemned to deportation for life.
At the time of the Pazhassi rebellion, British soldiers raided each and every house of the rebels to confiscate their arms. The same situation repeated in Travancore at the time of the revolt orchestrated by Veluthampi, the Dalawa of Travancore. These developments led to the slow deterioration of Kalaripayattu. Yet, there were a few Kalaripayattu gurus who worked selflessly to keep this tradition of martial art alive for the future generations by training youngsters away from the prying eyes of the British rulers.