Winter of 2017 found us going through some Ayurvedic therapies in deep Kerala. After days of long walks and meandering conversations with our healers and a chanced mention of 1989 Mammootty starrer, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, we came to the topic of Kerala's martial arts. I was mighty glad to find this ancient combat art form not only alive but literally kicking in the shadows of the fluorescent green Paringode Village. The practitioners, as I discovered, were none other than our dedicated Ayurveda healers who are also farmers, tilling the bountiful god's own country for food and medicinal herbs alike.

Kalaripayattu, pronounced Kalarippayatt, is a martial art technique which originated in Southern India. This visual story showcases the display of one of it's styles from the Palakkad region of Kerala.

After that began days of relentless cajoling, pleading and grovelling to the head of the centre to let me peep into this very private practice. Why private? According to Pradeep, unlike many other they did not want to make an entertainment show out of something they deem sacred. This martial art form working in tandem with the deep knowledge of Ayurveda healing is a way of life here.

So, my constant pestering finally paid off and against their better judgement of not letting patients out of the centre I caught a lucky break. And boy, was I in for a treat. The training happens between 6 to 8pm every evening. In near darkness we made our way through the woods to a cleared patch of land near the paddy fields. That's where I met my panthers. Covered from head to toe in therapeutic oils were some muscled, some lean, some kids of the farmers, some kids of the masters and two boys of an autowala. In the beginning the auto rickshaw driver used to wait outside for hours for his sons to finish their training but then he decided it was a big waste of time and so he got himself enrolled too. If you ever use his services I would suggest do not haggle over the trip fare.

The cubs taking their first nervous steps. Kailashnath, meaning master of Mount Kailash, tries his best to impress a senior with the mountain aasana.

The word Kalari first appears in the Tamil Sangam literature to describe a battlefield or a combat arena. It is considered to be one of the oldest surviving fighting systems still in existence in the world. Although originally practiced in Kerala, it also practised in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu.

Kalaripayattu has three schools, which are distinguished by their attacking and defensive patterns. They are Arappa Kayy, Pilla Thangi and Vatten Thiripp.

In Paringode they follow the Pilla Thangi school of Kalari. It takes two hour of rigorous practice everyday, for ten months of the year and in total eight years to master. The damp hard packed clay floor is not a place for us tenderfoot city-slickers. One can only enter the arena without a shirt or footwear. I tried my best to hide behind my camera. The only weapons used are wooden, which are laid down near an oil lamp signifying a Hindu deity. Only after offering their respects to the deity do they pick the weapons to start this arduous training.

Under the tutelage of Girijan, Pradeep and Madhusudan, youngsters from all walks of life come to learn Kalari and apply it's qualities for a healthy mental and physical existence. Their martial arts training is for free and a free for all. People from all backgrounds and religions are welcomed but they must bow down and pay their respects to the deity. They've had many non-Hindu students who embrace the ritual. Such is this other beauty of Kerala.

Warming up for Pilla Thangi.

It takes 8 years to fully master.

Early written evidence of martial arts is found in Dhanurveda a part of Athravaveda and Rig Veda and in Southern Indian work Sangam literature about Kalarippayattu in the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. The Akananuru and Purananuru describe the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam in the Sangam era.

Elements from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were incorporated into the fighting arts. A number of South Asian fighting styles remain closely connected to yoga, dance and performing arts. Some of the choreographed sparring in kalaripayat can be applied to dance and kathakali dancers who knew kalaripayat were believed to be markedly better than other performers. Some traditional Indian classical dance schools still incorporate martial arts as part of their exercise regimen.

Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods. Regional variants are classified according to geographical position in Kerala; northern Kalaripayattu is based on elegant and flexible movements, evasions, jumps and weapons training, while the southern style primarily follows the hard impact based techniques with priority on empty hand fighting and pressure point strikes.


Kalaripayattu techniques are a combination of steps (Chuvatu) and postures (Vadivu). Chuvatu literally means ‘steps’, the basic steps of the martial arts. Vadivu literally means ‘postures’ or stances are the basic characteristics of Kalaripayattu training. Named after animals, they are usually eight in number. Styles differ considerably from one tradition to another. Not only do the names of poses differ, the masters also differ about application and interpretation. Each stance has its own style, power combination, function and effectiveness. These techniques vary from one style to another.

As a result of learning about the human body, Indian martial artists became knowledgeable in the field of traditional medicine and massage. Kalaripayattu teachers often provide massages with medicinal oils to their students in order to increase their physical flexibility or to treat muscle injuries encountered during practice. It is said to be as sophisticated as the massage treatment of ayurveda. Kalaripayattu has borrowed extensively from Ayurveda and equally lends to it.


Kalari grand master, farmer & Ayurveda healer.
Kalaripayattu has borrowed extensively from Ayurveda and equally lends to it.
The Panther's crawl.
The Elephant defense.
Girijan's son. Aiming to go higher than his father.

While his photo essay captured the graceful action packed lives of Ayurveda practitioners, hopefully in the near future I will be back to look more closely at the therapies and medicinal processes.

For the gear curious, the series was shot with an old architectural 28mm shift lens. The only wide prime I have and mostly use for making unhasty outdoor travel pictures. A ridiculously inept lens for what was in store, this PC Nikkor opens only to f3.5 max with complex dual aperture rings up in front and the focus ring way more dampened than normal lenses. With all this fast action, it is a miracle if I got anything in focus. I did miss a lot but in the end it's the energy and story that mattered more. Don't try it at home ;) ...Cheers!


Pulak Bisht

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