What is Kalaripayattu?

Mary McMahon

Kalaripayattu is a martial art native to the state of Kerala in Southern India. It is believed to be one of the oldest Asian martial arts, and may in fact be the basis for many martial arts practices in Asia. Records of people practicing kalaripayattu date back to at least 1,000 BCE, illustrating how venerable this martial art is, and how remarkable it is that people continue to practice kalaripayattu today. Resemblances to kalaripayattu can also be seen in many traditional Asian martial arts disciplines, suggesting that they have a common root.

Massage is an essential component of kalaripayattu.
Massage is an essential component of kalaripayattu.

The term “kalaripayattu” translates as “practice in the arts of the battlefield.” Practitioners work in a structure known as a kalari which provides a great deal of space for instruction and practice, along with room for bouts in which two students work with each other in a mock duel. In addition to being a noted method of combat, kalaripayattu is also an art in itself, and it has heavily influenced the dance and performance traditions of Kerala.

Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest Asian martial arts, is native to a Southern Indian state of Kerala.
Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest Asian martial arts, is native to a Southern Indian state of Kerala.

There are several styles of this martial art, with some focusing more on grace and beauty of movement, while others concentrate on creating powerful, efficient movements which are designed to quickly incapacitate the enemy. People who practice kalaripayattu learn a number of physical techniques including steps, grappling, rolls, and blocks, and they also work with weapons such as staffs. The blend of physical techniques and weapons ensures that practitioners can perform well in a variety of settings, using their bodies along with any tools which are available.

This martial art also includes a healing component. This is in fact common to many martial arts, with students learning how to take care of their bodies in addition to developing physical skills. The medicine of kalaripayattu has a basis in Ayurveda, a traditional Indian medical practice, and practitioners are said to be especially skilled at bone setting. Massage is also an important component, reflecting the role that massage plays in Ayurveda.

Teachers of kalaripayattu can be found in many regions of the world. When seeking an instructor, students should ask where the instructor trained and what qualifications he or she has. Students may also want to ask about the style offered by the instructor, and the instructor's own approach to martial arts. Some have a focus on the physical and self defense aspects, while others are more interested in the spiritual side of kalaripayattu, including meditation, massage, and traditional healing practices.

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Discussion Comments


My son has started taking kalari-payattu classes and I have been seeing some significant changes in him physically and emotionally.

He had tried other martial arts before but didn't really enjoy them. He is really enjoying kalari-payattu though and I'm so happy about that.

I think kalari-payattu is not as rigid as some of the other Asian martial art techniques. Speed and discipline is just as important, but kalari-payattu also does a lot for physical flexibility and concentration. My son can do moves I've never seen before, his legs and upper body is so flexible and his body has really toned up. His teacher has also said that he is doing better at school concentration wise.

I think more kalari-payattu classes need to open up in the U.S., it's an excellent pass time and hobby for youngsters.


@burcinc-- No, kalaripayattu is not used in the military as far as I know. It is used for training, fitness and dance, as a hobby and lifestyle for many people in India, and also Sri Lanka.

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, I know that some dance schools teach kalaripayattu techniques to girls so that they can be better dancers. Young boys can also attend kalaripayattu schools so that they can be strong and flexible as they grow.

It is also practiced by actors in theater and cinema musicals, especially in fight sequences and dances.

Unfortunately, like you said, it has lost its place in combat because the nature of combat has changed.


Kalaripayattu sounds very interesting, especially because it was developed as part of defense of ancient Indian kingdoms. So I think it's much more than a sport or fitness technique, when it's combined with various weapons, it can easily be used to kill.

I wonder if the Indian National Army takes advantage of this ancient fighting technique. Do Indian soldiers receive kalaripayattu training for example?

I suppose there isn't much space for kalaripayattu in modern armies since almost everything depends on technology and advanced weapons systems. But I could still see the use of kalaripayattu by the military in certain types of terrain and close-range fighting.

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