Kalari, kalaripayat or kalarippayattu?

kalari kalaripayat kalaripayattuThe conversation in Polish usually goes like this: – I practice a martial art. – Cool, which one? – Kalarippayattu. – [Consternation] Uh… I’ve never heard of it. What’s it called? I won’t repeat…

On the one hand I understand that the name may be surprising, but on the other hand if Polish people can pronounce easily “Szczebrzeszyn” or “źdźbło”, the word “kalaripayatu” (that’s how you hear it) shouldn’t be too complicated to say.

However, how is the name of this martial art actually spelled and pronounced? Not only is it little known, but also the name may be confusing – so how to popularise it? In this article, I’d like to explain the name and its meaning so it becomes clear and comprehensible.  

I don’t know how much the readers of the blog are interested in linguistic nuances, so I won’t go into detail very much, although personally I like such topics (I’ve learned various languages since childhood and also studied Latin and ancient Greek at the university for two years). Also, I really wish there’s clarity on the topic of kalarippayattu, especially since it’s not easy to get explanation of spelling.

What is the meaning of kalarippayattu?

Although the martial art of kalarippayattu has been known for many centuries or even millenia (more on history is here), its name was created at the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of two words: kalari (from the Sanskrit khalurika) – a place of military training, space, an arena, and payatt (from the Tamil payil), which is translated as exercise, training, practice. Earlier these words were used too but separately. The word kalari is also used to describe, among others, a hall for training of kathakali or kutiyattam (Kerala’s theatre and dance genres) and a place where healing treatments and massages are applied. 

Kalari, kalaripayat or kalarippayattu – which version is correct?


This word written in Malayalam script (the language spoken in Kerala) in English transliteration looks like this: kalarippayatt. Malayalam is a syllabic language – it means that one letter corresponds to one syllable with a default vowel (“a”) which can be modified with different diacritics. When we decipher the name, it will be:

(ka) (la) രി (ri) പ്പ (ppa) (ya) റ്റ് (tt) 

Although the correct transliteration of the word is kalarippayatt, it is so complicated that various forms of writing function, of course also in Kerala and India itself. The most common English-language versions are: kalaripayattu, kalarippayattu, kalaripayattu, kalarippayat, kalarippayat and – luckily for everyone – the shortened version: kalari. 

kalari kalaripayattu kalaripayatThe kalarippayattu version was popularised in the West mainly by Phillip B. Zarrilli, author of the book published in 1998 “When the Body Becomes All Eyes. Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art” (I also invite you to read the article on books on kalari). The final “u” can be argued about (theoretically – in spelling – it does not exist, but the “t” is pronounced in a way that “u” is kind of heard), and although the number of “p” and “t” is clearly defined in spelling, they sound rather like single letters . Hence the various versions of the name.

Transliteration of words from Indian alphabets can be complicated because they have sounds that are difficult to render in other writing systems. For example, sometimes there are better equivalents in Polish than in English, because in Polish we have the sounds “s”, “ś” and “sz”, although in Indian languages there are hard and soft “sz” (2 types) rather than “ś”. English, on the other hand, has only “s” and “sh”. For example, the name ശങ്കര് in Polish is Śankar, while in the English transcription there are two versions: Shankar or Sankar (in my husband’s passport it’s spelled Sankar and some people pronounce the name this way). Apart from that, there are many other letters that do not make learning Malayalam easy, like two kinds of “l”, “r” or “n”. On top of that, many consonants come in retroflexed and aspirated versions (t, th, ṭ, ṭh), and vowels can be long or short. Some examples:

  • ആന (aana) – elephant
  • പഴം (pazham) – fruit (ഴ is „l” spelled and pronounced in English as “zh”)
  • ഞങ്ങൾ (ñaṅṅaḷ) – we (pronounced „nyangal”)
  • അടി (aṭi) – beat („t” pronounced similar to „d”)
  • കഥ (katha) – story („aspirated t”)
  • തിരുവനന്തപുരം (Tiruvanaṁtapuram) – Tiruvanantapuram, the capital of Kerala

It is therefore not surprising that Indian words are written in the Latin alphabet in very different ways. Although there is an official system of transliteration (but differences can depend also on state, administration and a clerck), in common practice the notation is simplified and often based on hearing. If you wish to learn more about Malayalam alphabet and pronounciation, you can visit for example the website of the Austin University.

There are 22 official languages in India (some use the same alphabet, Devanagari, but many languages have their own alphabets, such as Malayalam) and over 400 dialects, so the scale of this phenomenon is very large. This article does not explore the subject fully, but is only meant to signal the complexity of the naming issue and to encourage you to draw the only possible conclusion: kalarippayattu is not such a difficult word. Not even mentioning a kalari.

PS Another issue is names of Indian cities which were renamed during the British Rule (1858–1947). Since reclaiming independence by India in 1947, the original names have been restored, although sometimes both of them are still in use. Some examples:

  • Bombay – Mumbai
  • Madras – Chennai
  • Calcutta – Kolkata
  • Trivandrum – Thiruvananthapuram
  • Bangalore – Bengaluru