Kalaripayattu is the oldest existing martial art form, dating back more than 2000 years and said to be the forerunner of popularly known Chinese martial arts, as the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma took this knowledge from India to China.
This martial art form is indigenous to the Southern Indian state of Kerala which, legend has it, was created by the warrior saint Parasurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, by throwing his axe into the sea which receded till the point where it fell. Parasurama then established forty-two kalaris and taught twenty-one masters of these kalaris to protect the land he created.
Kalaripayattu is a traditional psycho-physiological discipline emanating from Kerala’s unique mytho-historical heritage as well as a scientific system of physical culture training. The historical antecedents of this martial art form combines indigenous Dravidian systems of martial practice such as ‘varma ati’ or ‘marma adi’ with an influence of Aryan brahman culture which migrated southwards down the west coast of India into Kerala. There are two distinct traditions in Kalaripayattu-the Northern and the Southern schools.
In the Northern tradition the emphasis is laid on progressing from body exercises to combat with weapons and last of all to unarmed combat. In the Southern tradition the patron saint of Kalaripayattu is the ancient sage Agastya whose strength and and powers of meditation were legendary.
Agastya Muni was a very small-built man – short and diminutive – but he travelled endlessly. He evolved martial arts mainly to fight the wildlife. Tigers roamed this land in great abundance – now we can count them, we have eleven hundred tigers, but there was a time when thousands of them existed along with various other potentially dangerous wildlife. So, Agastya Muni evolved a system as to how to fight the wildlife – if a tiger comes, how to handle it.
You will see, Kalari still retains that format. This is not just about fighting with men. Fighting with men came later. He taught martial arts to a few people just to manage the wildlife when they travelled, and it still lives. Some of the schools still look up to him and associate themselves with him.
So when people went to China, once they crossed the Himalayas, they faced wild men who were always looking to attack the traveller. So what they had learned to handle the wildlife, they used it on wild men. Once they started using it on people, you will see a distinct transformation in the martial arts. From a very crouching kind of martial art to a “standing up” kind of martial art is what you will see from India to the Chinese and further into South-East Asia.
So, it evolved into a different format. And when you fight men, you have to kill, otherwise he won’t stop. With wildlife it’s not like that. They come because they think you are food. And once you make it very clear to him that you are a very difficult food, he will go away. He will look for some easy food. Because of this, the martial arts naturally transformed itself from a very fantastic form of avoiding becoming somebody’s dinner, to something that can kill. You will see this transformation from Kalari to Karate. Later on, in India also they started fighting with men but they did not transform the art so much. Instead, they picked up weapons. If you look at it, Kalari may not be as good a fighting process with human beings as Karate would be because in Karate they are standing on two legs. In Kalari, you are trying to look at something lower down because we did not see it as a tool to fight other men, it was only seen as a defense from wildlife.
Parashuram was another great teacher of Kalari. He single-handedly slaughtered armies because of his phenomenal martial art capabilities. He taught one school which flowed from the North of Malabar, and Agastya Muni’s school came from the South. Parashuram’s method used all kinds of weapons – hand weapons, throwing weapons, various kinds of weapons – but Agastya Muni’s martial art grew without any weapons, it was all hand.