Kalaripayattu: Say That 12 Times Fast - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Kalaripayattu: Say That 12 Times Fast

Kalaripayattu: Say That 12 Times Fast

By Sanjena Sathian

Indian cadets perform Kalaripayattu, a martial art originated in Kerala that combines the art of combat with the disciplines of Ayurveda and yoga, in the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in St. Thomas Mount, Chennai, India, 16 March 2012 as part of the year long Golden Jubilee celebrations to attract youth to join the service as commissioned officers.


Because a culture without conflict resolution is like a fist without a fight.

By Sanjena Sathian

Try this at home.

From the south Indian state of Kerala — best known for being communist and having a 94-percent literacy rate — comes an ancient martial art form that’s enjoying something of a coming-out party. It’s called (deep breath here) Kalaripayattu  — kuh-lar-ee-pie-ut-two — and it’s catching on.

How to do it: with deep squats, grunts a plenty and the occasional sword. What to wear: skip the shirt and shoes but you’ll want soft, white pants, red belt and … your sword. What it looks like: More dance than fight, but when the actual fighting goes down, Kalaripayattu (Kalari for short) looks a lot like Aaron Burr’s duel probably did, but with mad-twirling footwork and powerful torso-bends. A fighting style that puts the “art” in martial, originally practiced exclusively by men but finding many new incarnations and adherents — thanks to its broad appeal to everyone from MMA champions to hardcore yogis to classical dancers.  

Performed as often as it is taught, Kalari is one of many modern-day Indian and Asian practices of movement that has some freaking legs to it. Meaning it’s newly on the run again, resurrected in the same way as Tai Chi and Qi Gong. This martial art springs from the same source as yoga and classical Indian dance: the ancient Hindu religious text called the Natya Sastra. Which explains why Kalari involves more than punching in clean lines and building muscle. It’s both brain and body; bulk and Buddha. As its practitioners will tell you: Get your muscles in shape. But then, don’t use them. The zen of bodybuilding.


So even if Kalarians could use their skills for combat, they’d rather not — and you’re far more likely to find a modern Kalari instructor in a yoga class than in a fighting gym. (And practitioners will tell you that the fighting types don’t much like it.) 

See for yourself, in both incarnations — from the kick-punch-pow to your morning sun salutation.


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