Mario Barzaghi as Parashurama in a kathakali performance. Phot. Rut Figueras

According to the mythology, the first guru of the Northern style was Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu who also created Kerala and got an axe (parasu) from Shiva. It is believed that the god tought Parasurama the martial art and created the first kalari. 

The guru of the Southern style is immortal Agasthya – an expert in medicine and herbalism. As the Mahabharata says, he was a teacher of Drona whom he equipred in weaponry. It is believed that he lived in the present Tamil Nadu state and he created the first version of the Tamil language, which he created on Shiva’s request. He is also believed to be the first teacher of the martial art.

Sometimes it is said that kalarippayattu is the father of all martial arts.  It is believed  that Bodhidharma, a buddist monk, in the 6th century AD travelled from the South of India to the North, until the Himalaya,  and he taught   among others the Shaolin monks. From there elements of kalarippayattu were to be passed further on to the East and include in other martial systems.

About martial arts it is written also in many epics and holy Hindu writings – the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Agni Purana or the Dhanurveda. However, they are saying rather about general rules of fighting and war, and not about one precise technique. An exception is the Dhanurveda which speaks mainly about  archery, but there are also many descriptions of customs and rituals which accompany the training and fighting, and which are present in kalarippayattu until today (like attitute to the god and guru, respect for weaponry, importance of breathing and concentration, ways of preparation for fighting).

The next group of writings referring to martial arts are later South-Indian texts, mainly in Tamil. The literature of the Sangham age (6th BC – 4th AD) includes many poems telling stories about wars, heroes and their deeds, as well as about social customs.A collection of poems which are directly connected with the Keralite martial art is first of all the Vadakkan Pattukal, or Ballads of the Northern Malabar, written in the 18th century. There is also a collection the Tekkan Pattukal (The Southern Ballads), but it is the first one that tells the stories of the legendary heroes who mastered kalarippayattu. The most popular of them are Aromal Chekavar, Tacholi Otenan, and also the famous female warrior Unniyarcha.


It is supposed that kalarippayattu appeared as a cohesive system of physical exercises connected with spiritual practice around 12th century AD, however its bases existed already before. The golden age of Kerala’s development were in 9th and 10th centuries when the territory of the present region was divided into districts ruled by kings. The districts consisted of smaller administrative centres which were created by groups of villages.

The 10th centruy ended with fighting between dynasties which resulted in numerous social and economical changes, among others militarization of the Keralite society. A regular and common military training was introduced. In the whole country military academies, kalari, were created. The youth studied there using weapons and then joined local troops.

The warriors originated from the noble cast of nayar (the English version Nair became customary) and to this name they added their family names, allowing to recognise their genealogy. Nayars who ran kalaris were given the names of „Panikkar” or „Kurup”. And in Tamil Nadu – the state which neighbours with Kerala on the East – the warrior cast were the Nadars. As the nayars were traditionally connected with kalarippayattu, the nadars – with varma ati, a martial art from Tamil Nadu. They used the techniques of the martial arts both to defend their countries, and also to settle domestic conflicts.

Kalarippayattu masters knew not only about the martial craft, but also medicine (kalari cikitsa) and herbalism which they used in dressing wounds of soldiers who had been hurt in battles. They served as doctors in their villages and towns.

Soldiers, due to their intense physical training, were also the first performers of the dance-theatre, among others kathakali and krishnattam which originated at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. They took some exercises which helped in making the body flexible and strong, steps were composed in choreographic sequences, and the whole practice was completed with oil massages. Thanks to intensive, many-year training and discipline actors were able to perform on the stage in heavy constumes for many hours. Elements of kalarippayattu were used also in the training of kutiyattam actors, as well as in many folk performing arts in Kerala.

After a period of prosperity of the nayar and ther fighting skills, which was mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries, due to modernisation of the military technique, and also due to changes in the social structure, gradually their significance decreased, and finally in the colonial times the nayars were considered a threat to the British authorities. They were prohibited to have weapon on them and at home,and also practising kalarippayattu was banned on penalty of death or exile. This edict contrubuted to decrease of popularity of kalarippayattu, but not to its complete extinction and oblivion. Some masters resigned from teaching, and some focused on medical practice and teaching children. Meditation was taught less and less, as well as knowledge about advanced techniques of concentration of inner power or knowledge about vital spots and healing methods were not passed on any more. Palm leaves manuscripts were not enough to reconstruct  these practices.

Reforming and reorganisation of kalarippayattu schools, as well as revival of the spirit of the martial art itself  took place only in the 20s of the 20th century. It happened on the wave of re-discovering by Indian people their indigenous traditions. Kalarippayattu presentations became very popular – people remembered the times of the former glory of the country and its heroic past.It was also then when the name kalarippayattu started to be used oficially.

The word was created and a conjunct of two Malayalam words: kalari (from Tamil: kalam, and Sanskrit: khalurika), which can be translated as place, space, arena, battle field, and payattu (from Tamil payil), which means practice, exercise, knowledge. Before the art was also described by these two words, although written separately.

In 1958 Kerala Kalarippayat Association was established. It operates until today and most of kalarippayattu schools in Kerala belong to it.