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Kalarippayattu or kalaripayattu (Malayalam ??????????, Tamil: ??????????, pronounced [ka???ip?aj?t???]) is a martial art with origins in Kerala and practised in that south Indian state and contiguous parts of neighbouring Tamil Nadu. It incorporates strikes, kicks, grappling, choreographed martial art sequences, and weaponry, as well as healing techniques. Regional variants of the art are classified into Northern-, Southern- and Central-Kerala styles.
Kalaripayattu is portrayed in several international and regional films like The Myth, Asoka and The Last Legion.
The term Kalarippayattu is a tatpurusha compound formed from the words kalari (Malayalam: ????) meaning school or gymnasium and payattu (Malayalam: ?????) derived from payattuka meaning to fight or to exercise or to put hard work into.
When it is probable that the systems of martial practice assumed a structure and style akin those extant today. Belying the assumption that the compound itself might have an equally antique use as the singular kalari and payattu, the unpublished Malayalam Lexicon notes that the earliest use of the compound, Kalarippayattu is in Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer’s early twentieth century drama, Amba.
M.D. Raghavan has suggested that Kalari was derived from the Sanskrit khalurika, Burrow is of the opinion that khalurika (“parade ground, arena”) and its Sanskrit root, khala- (“threshing floor”) are Dravidian loan words.
The word “kalari” can be traced to ancient Sangam literature. However, according to Dick Luijendijk, a researcher at the university of Nijmegen, in this literature the word “kalari” does not refer to any martial act. But because the Sangam literature is mainly about love-making and fighting among the South Indian nobility, it is possible to see Kalarippayattu as a continuation of earlier traditions. Thus the martial tradition of Kalarippayattu is also dated to ancient Dravidian traditions. The earliest mention of the concept marmam also dates back to the Rig Veda where Indra is said to have defeated Vritra by attacking his marman with his vajra. References to marman also found in the Atharva Veda. Kalarippayattu became more developed during the 9th century and was practiced by the a section of the Nair community,warrior clan of Kerala, to defend the state and the king. The ancient warrior spirit was also retained throughout the centuries by the warrior chieftains of ancient Kerala known as the Mamanka Chekavars and the Lohars, the Buddhist warriors of north Kerala.
Phillip Zarrilli, a professor at the University of Exeter and one of the few Western authorities on kalarippayattu, estimates that Kalarippayattu dates back to at least the 12th century CE. The historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai attributes the birth of Kalarippayattu to an extended period of warfare between the Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century CE. Kalarippayattu may be one of the oldest martial arts in existence. The oldest western reference to Kalarippayattu is a 16th century travelogue of Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese explorer.
Kalarippayattu underwent a period of decline when Nairs lost to the British after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century. The resurgence of public interest in Kalarippayattu began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout South India and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts. In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularise the art, with it featuring in international films. Some dance schools incorporate kalarippayattu as part of their exercise regimen.
There are many different styles of Kalarippayattu. If one looks at the way attacks and defences are performed, one can distinguish three main schools of thought: the northern styles, the central styles, and the southern styles. The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk. Luijendijk uses photographs to show several Kalarippayattu exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions.
Northern Kalarippayattu (practiced mainly in the northern Malabar region of Kozhikode and Kannur) places comparatively more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands. Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal (and only occasionally as asan), and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar. By oral and written traditions, Parasurama, the sixth Avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the founder of the art. The northern style of Kalarippayattu have been practiced primarily by Nairs and Thiyyas(Chekavar).