Styles and training


Three styles of kalarippayattu

There are three styles commonly distinguished in kalarippayattu. The most popular one is the Northern style. Often it is identified as kalarippayattu in general, while it origins from North Kerala (historical name of that region is Malabar).


The Southern style is closely related with martial arts from Tamil Nadu, a neighbouring state to Kerala, such as varma kalai, varma adi, adi tada or adi murai, where an important part is knowledge of vital spots of human body, or marmas, at which bloms are aimed, as well as silambam – a Tamil martial art which uses mainly bamboo sticks (but also knives and swords). However when in 1958 Kerala Kalarippayat Association was established, tekkan was officially recognized as the Southern style of kalarippayattu. It is practised mainly in South Kerala.

The central style is a modern combination of techniques of the Northern and Southern styles. Its characteristic feature is drawing patterns on the ground and putting steps accordingly.

Despite differences, there are many features common for all three styles, such as:

  • movement sequences that imitate a fight with an imaginery opponent
  • individual exercises with a weapon 
  • stretching and conditioning exercises
  • elements of acrobatics
  • massages with herbal oils
  • knowledge of marmas
  • locks overpowering an opponent.

These elements of practice differ between each other depending on style (ie sequences of movements or fights are different) but many of their components interweave and co-exist in all styles.

In all styles there is the same system of teaching, similar  importance is paid to rituals that accompany the practice and the atmosphere of trainings is full of concentration and respect.


In the Northern style, a training starts with meythari exercises which consist mainly of dozens of series of kicks performed along a kalari. There are several basic kinds of kicks (for example with a sit or pivot) and based on them are others, more complex and combined with jumps.

Next, basic postures (cuvadukal) are exercised which later create more complex vadivukal which in turn are components of more complex meypayattu (body exercises) sequences.

Gajavadivu – elephant.

The eight vadivukal are based on features of different animals serves for concentration of power and they are based on energy characteristic of an animal. They are forms of elephant, lion, horse, boar, snake, cat, cock and fish. The forms are not static – there is a sequence of movements to achieve each of them.  However, for example “a cock” in one kalari can be “a fish” in another one.

One of the basic sequences of movements is a salutation form. Then twelve meypayyattu  forms are introduced to students. They include many elements of initial exercises – kicks, sit downs, pivots or jumps.

Ceruvati – a short stick.

After completion of meypayattu, training with weapons start. First – the wooden one (kolthari) which include kettukari (a 1,5m long bamboo stick), ceruvati (a wooden stick of around 40cm long), ottakol (a curved wooden stick of around 0,5m long used only in the Northern style) and gada (a mace). The last part of secrets is practice with sharp weapons (ankathari) such as kadtaram (a triple dagger), valum parishum (sword and shield), kuntham (a spear) and urumi (a flexible sword which can be worn as a belt around waist). 

The last part of practice is empty hand fighting, or verumkai. 


In the Southern style, training also includes many stretching and conditioning exercises, but the most characteristic are sequences of movements (cuvadukal) which are around 90 (the number differs depending on school). They are performed in four directions in a row. Sequences can be divided into several groups depending on the figure “drawn” on the ground when performing them. There are otta cuvadu (single movements), nettum cuvadu (straight movements) and catura cuvadu (square movement).

An example of the first type is the first sequence, vandana cuvadu, which expresses both salutation and respect to the opponent, as well as a request to avoid a fight. When the attacking person does not stop, a practitioner uses his skills for self-defence. Steps and kicks are completed with simultanous blows, cuts and blocks done by hands. Each position and gesture have their meaning in fighting. Sequences are a kind of an alphabet which should be perfectly learned by a student in order to use its elements depending on a situation.

Having accomplished a dozen of sequences, first sparings in empty hand combat, or kai poru, start. There are  dozens of types of them, and they are precisely “composed”, using certains catches and steps.  When practicing, adepts change the rhythm and strength of movements, work on the precision of strikes and evasions, though over time these confrontations should be quick, accurate and ended with effective blocking of the opponent, which is associated with another element of training: locks that overpower an opponent and ways of liberating from them.

Parallel to the learning of individual movement sequences and fights, the students learn to use a long bamboo stick, nedhu vadi.

A fight with the kuru vadi stick.

Moreover, students also slowly get to know the sequences of combat with long sticks (nedhu vadi) and short sticks (kuru vadi), and after a longer period of learning, there is a practice of metal weapons such as in the Northern style: a knife, a sword, a dagger, spear, and urumi. Characteristic of the Southern style is the fight for a short, narrow stick called a cherma kambu.



Kalaripayattu training usually takes place from June to April. For two months – April and May – practice tends to be suspended owing to the fact that this is the time of various religious holidays, and also owing to the heat which would cause excessive tiredness of the body. A very good time for practising however is the time of monsoon (July-September) when the air is fresh and humid. It is believed that this is also the best time for massages.

Training takes place early in the morning (around 6 to 8 am) and/or in the evening (7-9pm). Usually each school has its own schedule which depends on the daily duties of the students – many of them go to school or work. On the other hand, there are foreigners who come more and more frequently to Kerala to learn kalarippayattu for a couple of months. Usually, special classes are held for them.

Traditionally kalarippayattu training should start at around the age of 7 years. Regular practice starting that early brings the best results – both in development of physical possibilities of an adept, and also in shaping his/her character and spirit. Nowadays though,  people more frequently start their training in their teens or as adults.


Traditional practice dress for men is a langoti – a long piece of cotton cloth wrapped tightly around the hips and between the thighs instead of underwear. The langoti does not restrict movements, and it protects the delicate parts of the body.

A representative male dress comprises a special mundu, the kaccha and (sometimes) a cotton blouse with short sleeves. The mundu is a piece of usually white cotton cloth in a half-oval shape, with an edging of two stripes (usually red and black), and with a rope pulled through the straight end. The Mundu is worn like pants to enable freedom of movement. It is girded with a kaccha – a long belt of red cloth around two metres long, which is wrapped around the body at the level between hips and the navel. It protects the central part of the body, and also protects and sustains vital energy, which is generated in this place.

Old traditional female outfit comprises also a mundu, a short blouse choli (similar to the one worn with a sari) and a kaccha. Presently girls and women practise in cotton curidars (in other parts of India these are called punjabi or salwar kamiz), which are baggy pants and a tunic, girded with a kaccha. Common training dress though is very often simply sweatpants and t-shirts. Of course, students practise barefoot.



Currently in kalarippayattu the system called gurukula does not exist anymore in its original form. In earlier times this meant that children a few years old would go to their master’s house to stay there for a long period of time – from a couple to a dozen or so years. Children would stay at the master’s house, have daily duties – going to school, helping in the house, and of course studying for example a dance or playing an instrument. Nowadays in case of kalarippayattu, children just come to classes, they stay at their own homes and their duties are not strictly connected with their guru. However, they always owe him respect and help.

A master of the Northern style of kalarippayattu is called gurukkal which exactly is a plural form of the noun guru (literally it means the one who lights the darkness, who leads out from the darkness of ignorance), and it symbolises the whole lineage of the master’s ancestors. In the Southern style, a teacher is called asan.

Master Raja Gopalan Asan and Sankar Lal Sivasankaran Nair

A teacher is inevitable in the process of transmission of knowledge, especially it’s most advanced parts which in case of kalarippayattu concerns work with energy and the subtle body, and also arcana of the medical system. However, also in everyday work during training it is the master who decides when a student is ready to learn a new part of knowledge. Important moments – true rites of passage – in student’s life are always treated very specially. Among them are: starting studies with a new teacher and joining the group of his students, and later also entering new phases of studies (for example when one begins to use sharp weapons).

A kalarippayattu master is not only a teacher of a martial art, but usually he is also a doctor and physiotherapist. He has a deep knowledge of natural medicines which he often makes by himself. He gives healing massages, applies hot, herbal compresses with oils, and dresses simple mechanic injuries (twisted limbs, strained muscles etc).


To enter a kalari, one should step in with the right leg, touch the ground with the right hand and then touch the forehead (and chest). In this way, respect is paid to the soil on which practice takes place, and also students express their dedication to the space and the training itself. From this moment on, students should focus solely on the practice, leaving matters of everyday life outside the kalari. Then they salute gods and previous gurus of kalarippayattu, and in the end they salute the master. In this way students expresse respect to the teacher and to the knowledge received from him.

In the Northern style and in some schools of the Southern style, before the training starts, students put sesame oil on their bodies which keeps them cool and reinforces blood circulation and flexibility.

No matter what the style, all students practise together at the same time: seniors with juniors, beginners with advanced. The tempo of practice is individual according to abilities of each student. Often, the seniors help the juniors, which is common for the Eastern way of passing the knowledge. For a long time it focuses on imitation, and only later on the individual performance of exercises and sparrings. The guru watches the training, observes all the students carefully and judges their progress. Depending on them, he decides to introduce new areas of teaching to the student or increase their effort in learning previous elements. The point is not just the correct performance of exercises or forms, but also their general attitude and behaviour. The masters sees the student’s attitude towards practice, and his/her mind and heart.


In the beginning, kalarippayattu practice focuses mainly on the physical aspect of the training. Correct performance of movements and proper breathing should bring a free flow of energy in the body, and at the same time bring phychophysical balance.

They should learn to perfectly control the mind, rule over their energy and manage it. Strong concentration should make the body all eyes (this expression, typical for kalarippayattu, in Malayalam is meyyu kannakkuka). Gradually the practice gains spiritual depth and the importance and focus is shifted from the physical aspect to inner development and philosophy.