Kalaripayattu ::: A traditional Martial Art Form Of Kerala :::  

Decline and resurgence


           Kalarippayatt which has served as the backbone of the militia of traditional Kerala, was duly appreciated by most of the European travelers and writers. The colonial powers, whose aim was trade monopoly and establishment of political power, had either to destroy the power of the militia or utilize it for their own advantage. As such Kalarippayatt, began to face challenges with the establishment of political power of the Europeans, in this part of the country.

The history of Kerala from 16th to 19th centuries show that the militia of the land confronted four stages of challenges. The culmination of these challenges resulted in the ruin of, not only the martial institution but also the vigor of the people. It seems that the Europeans understood the power and status of the militia and their control over the administrative and political systems. The fear of political control, independence and vigor of the local militia, compelled them to take drastic actions. The English East India Company was also particular in destroying the traditional military character of the community of Malabar and Major Dow, one of the Commissioners of Malabar, took steps for the same. He wrote:
" ....... It would be stipulated by the terms of agreement with different rajas and chiefs that they on no account, retain above a certain number of armed followers than those necessary to merely support their ideas of dignity... By these means, the civil and military fabric, of the feudal system, which is injurious to the prosperity of a country, would be gradually subverted and in the end annihilated."

This policy, which was carried on vigorously in course of time, marked the virtual end of the traditional martial institution of Kalari.

            The Portuguese, the first European colonists who set foot on the land, brought with them not only new weapons but also a new war culture. When the natives depended on lances, swords, bows and arrows and individual caliber of the combatants, the Portuguese regiments mainly depended on firearms. Their techniques of power politics and war ethics brought considerable changes in the existing sociopolitical systems of Kerala. They assisted smaller chieftains with men and material against their political rivals. The people of Kerala had always restricted their warfare to the level of a tournament for the assessment of strength and expertise of the soldiers in the art of Kalarippayatt. All the local rulers depended completely on such trained militia and as such their war against the Portuguese with firepower, proved to be disastrous. Moreover, the Portuguese even attacked the common man, women and children and destroyed their houses and properties. They had even carried away women from coastal villages and the people had to organize and struggle for their release. Introduction of firearms, cavalry and sophisticated weapons, undermined the importance of physical power, training and the mastery of traditional weapons, imparted by the Kalari institution. .  Kunjali Marakkar fought tooth and nail against them till his death. He is considered the first freedom fighter of Kerala

            The second challenge Kalari faced, was from the Mysorean invaders. These invasions invariably destroyed the feudal set up, traditional institutions, landholding patterns and the supremacy of the local rulers, along with the power and prestige of the militia of Malabar. The disruption and disappearance of the Naduvazhi's and the Nayar gentry from the reign, enabled the Mysore rulers to set up a centralized system of administration in the territories, under their authority. The disappearance of the feudal set up, disrupted the social and political pattern, leading to the decline of the Kalari institution
As in the case of the North, the feudal set-up, militia and the Kalari institution of southern Kerala also suffered sharp set backs in the 18th century. Marthanda Varma's vigorous and aggressive policies brought about the political unification of Travancore and struck at the very roots of the feudal political structure. In this process, the Raja even depended on the standing armies of the Nayaks of Madurai and the Mughal Governor of the Carnatic. Marthanda Varma modernized the army and formed a standing army. This resulted in the decline of the Kalari system, there.

            The political initiative of Travancore was well copied by Cochin under Paliyat Achan, who secured the help of Travancore in putting down the power of the nobles. This action marked the decline in the system of livery and maintenance in Cochin, too. But, the martial training and the local militia,
continued to exist for a little more time, till the political domination of the British.
The Rajas of Travancore and Cochin entered into subsidiary alliance with the British and were naturally compelled to retain the British regiments in their headquarters. The administration of law and order and defense had been partially entrusted with the colonial powers. These developments led to the disbandment of the traditional soldiery in these native states. The Nair revolt of Travancore had taken place in this political context. In fact, the traditional militia were compelled to go back to agriculture. Many of them become petty tenants, tenant-cultivators and tenants-at-will. The Commanding Officers of the militia like the Panickers and Kurups also became agriculturists.

             The British dealt the deathblow to the Kerala military system and Kalarippayatt. When the Malabar Province was ceded in favor of the British by the treaty of Sreerangapatam in 1792, there were a series of revolts in Malabar. The revolt led by Pazhassi Raja was well supported by the Nayar soldiers and Kurichya tribal of Wayanad. The British resorted to attach all available weapons, using all methods and tactics, in suppressing it. They dreaded the widespread Kalari training and the traditional system of carrying arms by the Nayars. 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 of Veluthampi, the Dalawa of Travancore. These developments finally eliminated the Kalari institution from the military and political history of Kerala.
            This not only ended the military training system but also marked the end of a system of physical culture that emerged through centuries. Even the display of armed sports were to be conducted by securing permission from the Commissioner of Police in the Presidency Town and by the magistrate of the district, outside these towns. In short, the British policies sounded the death knell of an indigenous martial system which had been transmitted from one generation to the other, for centuries. The thatched Kalaries began to crumble in course of time, for lack of regular maintenance. Some traditional families or high-spirited individuals, carried on the Kalari practice in secret, and preserved the art for posterity at least in the form of a physical training system. Some great teachers felt the need for compiling the traditional knowledge inherited by them from their predecessors. The available knowledge of Kalarippayat and the allied treatment system were recorded for preservation during this period. Most of the manuscripts available on the subject like Rangabhashyam, Ayudhabshyasam, Kalari Vidyas, Marma Chikitsa, and Kalariyil Kuruthi Tarpanam were compiled during the dawn of the 19th century. The seeds of the system had thus been preserved to be germinated by posterity. The rural population had been immensely benefited by the practice of physical therapy, borrowed from the Kalari institution.
               It is seen that a number of family-Kalaries or village Kalaries were converted into Kalari temples. This is clear from the structural peculiarities of the Kalari temples and its rituals of worship. Every feature of a Kalari including Poothara and Guruthara are preserved in these temples. There are a number such Kalari temples scattered all over North and Central Kerala. Some such Kalari temples had been converted into Bhagavati or Siva temples too.


Redemption of Kalari System


              Emergence of the national movement in Kerala in early 20th century, had emphasized the role of national education and national culture. Equal importance was bestowed on social reforms and redemption of traditional institutions of merit. The nationalists had initiated a crusade against the process of sub justification  under colonialism. Nationalists like Vaswani had organized an All India
             Association for mental and physical culture. Lathi clubs and gymnasia were widely established in Maharashtra and elsewhere. These trends had highly influenced the revival of the native institution of Kalari in Kerala. The militancy and heroism reflected in the ballads, had given a psychological framework of resistance against colonialism in Kerala.
In 1958, the State Kalarippayatt Association was formed under the Kerala State Sports Council. Under the auspices of the association, yearly competitions at district and state levels are conducted. The State Government also extends some basic financial assistance for the development of this traditional martial art of Kerala.


Kalari and the Performing Arts

           Kerala is one of the richest regions for classical and performing folk arts, in India. The growth and development of such art forms had been highly influenced by the Kalari system, through centuries. These art forms have remained as an inseparable part of the social and cultural life of the agrarian classes. Kalari system was closely related to the social life in rural areas, during the medieval period. The decadent political institutions and internal warfare had been responsible for promoting a Kalari culture in Kerala. Many performing arts had been taking shape in the same social background and naturally the institution of Kalari had influenced them. A study of this influence on folk theatre in Kerala is an interesting area of academic pursuit.
Physical Culture
          The term Kalari is commonly used for the centers of training of both a combatant and an artiste. Literally it is a learning center of letters and physical culture. A Kathakali artiste is trained in a Kalari. The first stage of the preparation of a warrior and the artiste is based on oil massage known as Udvarthaizam or Uzhichal. The Ayurvedic tradition of Susrutha says that diseases are afraid of approaching a body which has been foot-massaged, like animals in the sight of a lion. By using such a figure of speech, it emphasizes the significance of oil massage for building up of a proper physical culture. Exercising in sama suchi (needle points) or stretching legs to both sides is an essential training for a combatant and a Kathakali artist. The theatre of Kathakali has developed only in the sixteenth century, when it was the hey-day of Kalari system.
Folk Performance

           Lasts for a long duration; sometimes for a whole day and a night. The physic of the artiste has to be strengthened and articulated for this. The methods adopted in a Kalari for training a combatant are thus adopted in the training of an artiste also. Performances like the Poorakkali, Teyyam, Patayani, Mutiyettu, Parichamuttu, Kolkkali, Velakali, Parichamuttukali etc. borrowed the physical training program from Kalari practices. Body movements are essential for an artist as well as for a combatant.
The art forms of Poorakkali and Teyyam, are so closely related to the Kalari system, that it is difficult to differentiate their salient features from those of the Kalari system. Teyyam has a major tradition of heroes and heroines. Therefore, a Teyyam performance incorporates the heroic tradition of a warrior including the mock-fight. The Teyyam dancer has to acquire skill in the use of sword and -shield. The dances of popular teyyam deities like Kativanur Veeran, Tacholi Othenan, Kari Gurakkal, Vayanattu Kulavan etc., require a great amount of gymnastic skills. That is why Teyyam artistes are given proper Kalari training in their boyhood and taught acrobatics. When the cult of heroes became so popular on account of the decadent sociopolitical institutions, lives of some of the prominent warriors like Kativanur Veeran and Tacholi Othenan were incorporated in the Teyyam performances. The ritualistic songs or tottams of Teyyam, elaborately incorporates descriptions of a warrior, trained in a Kalari. Such narrations make them poetic and attractive. Therefore, traditional literature has also been influenced by the Kalari system. In fact the institution of Kalari, with all its traditions, is responsible for strengthening the folk performing arts of Kerala.
           The art form of Poorakkali is a sacred one, performed mostly by the rural classes of the agrarian community, as a ritual. This performance requires good physical control which can be acquired only through Kalari training. Further, the artistes observe malakkam or jumping and keep his position in a moving group dance. Such a performance requires skill in acrobatics and body bending so as to make the performance attractive. Further, Ankam (duel) and Pata (battle) are part of the performance.
            A brief analytical study on the impact of Kalari on the performing arts in Kerala, would reveal that the institution of Kalari had been responsible in nurturing, the most popular classical and folk art forms in this region. The growth of these art forms and the growth of Kalari were interrelated. Even after the decline of Kalari, the folk art forms and the classical theatre like Kathakali perpetuated its influence in their artistic and aesthetic forms. In reality, the institution of Kalari has become an inseparable part of the cultural heritage of Kerala.


Kalari & Circus


            Many of the Indian circus companies had their artistes and proprietors from Thalassery. The Indian circus itself is indebted to the late Keeleri Kunhikannan teacher, a well-known Kalari Gurakkal and celebrated trainer of circus artistes from Thalassery. Keeleri trained Kannan Bombayo, the famous circus artiste from Thallassery, whose performance was very much appreciated by Adolf Hitler while Bombayo was in Germany. He had incorporated the body movements and skill of the Kalari system, in the training program of students for circus and acrobatics. The circus artistes are imparted training from their childhood as in a Kalari.
           A study of the Kalari Institution reveals that its culture has a relevance to our contemporary society which is exposed to radical changes. The relevance is not of its martial aptitude or heroic talent, but one closely related to the physical culture. Its motto in a historical past had been "a sound mind in a sound body". Such an absolute aim is attained through constant practice, preservation of vital energy, body movements, massage and simple but calories food habits. Physical exercises concentrated on each part of the body, facilitating easy movement, totally making its structure perfect and, well built. Exercise training like 'sama suchi' or stretching legs to both sides is a asana in Yoga. Such asanas facilitates quick body movements and preserves sound health throughout life.

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