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I have heard a lot about ancient Indian martial arts called Kalaripayattu.

Does anyone have info on this? How does it compare to kung fu?

  • Effective for what exactly? – Matt Chan Aug 4 '12 at 10:38
  • By effective I mean how it stands when compared to other martial arts. Like in terms of technique, form, application, etc. – Yogi Yang 007 Aug 6 '12 at 15:01
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    I'm not sure I understand what efficacy you are seeking. It's still a very broad question as it is. You're enumerating criteria for comparison, but I don't see the reason why you want this comparison. I'm guessing it is the application of such techniques and forms, but is it for sparring, fitness, self-defense, or something else? You should edit your question and add narrow down those elements. If you're asking for a plain comparison, that's fine. – Matt Chan Aug 7 '12 at 1:09
  • Yes you are right I am asking here for plain comparison between Kalaripayattu and KungFu. – Yogi Yang 007 Aug 9 '12 at 4:33
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    @MattChan When someone asks about effectiveness of a martial art, I would say that without further context, we should assume they are asking for effectiveness at fighting, that is, for defeating other human beings in violent contexts. – Dave Liepmann Aug 10 '12 at 17:17

11 Answers 11

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There are some details about Kalaripayattu that nobody has mentioned here. I have studied it for a short duration and so have some older generations of my family. There is an excellent documentary from the Way of the Warrior series that describes Kalari: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmt0WTZfKI0

Apart from this, there are a few important things you need to know about Kalaripayattu:

1. Right from the start of training, it is more intense and physically demanding than other martial arts. If you don't start at a young age, you will struggle. There is focus on full body development and making your body like flexible steel. The katas (called 'legs') involve slaps, punches, kicks, grabs and jumping from a low crouch to kick very high up. So basically you'll be exercising almost every muscle in your body.

2. Kalaripayattu makes use of yoga techniques and Ayurveda knowledge too. Even beginner students are expected to start learning how to do the Mayurasana, handstands etc. to develop strength in the wrists, hands and body core.

3. You can spend twenty years learning Kalaripayattu and yet not learn self defence techniques. My Kalari guru told me this today when I asked him why he didn't teach self defence (locking techniques, grappling, pressure points). He also said that if he taught the techniques early, students would learn it and quit training during the early stages itself. Teaching the techniques is entirely dependent on whether the guru sees you worthy or having the capability to learn. They see your character, your behaviour and your intentions to decide this. The tradition is to not teach such techniques to people who might misuse it. I'm not sure if all Kalari guru's share this opinion, but when people come to learn how to defend themselves, I feel it's wrong not to teach them self defence (click link). At least the student should be informed early that they are not going to be taught self defence.

4. Kalaripayattu follows the Gurukul system. In today's times is is almost never a residential system, but the discipline and relationship between the Guru and student is maintained as was in the ancient times. You start the class by touching the feet of the Guru and he blesses you. You also bow before photos of the gods and before you start the katas, you offer a salutation to the "Bhoomi Devi" (goddess of the Earth). If a student starts questioning the Guru or thinks that he knows more than the Guru, the student could be asked to leave. They don't teach for the money.

5. Students of Kalaripayattu participate in full contact sparring competitions. Even against students from other martial arts.

6. No safety equipment whatsoever is used. My seniors have got injured during practice sessions with sticks and swords. One senior's shield was not positioned correctly above his head and the master swung the sword directly onto my senior's head. He had to get eight stitches on his head. Another senior had her arm pulled out of its socket when her partner caught her arm and did something like a Judo throw. They do exercise due care, but accidents with sticks, swords, daggers and the flexible sword are very common in Kalaripayattu. According to today's standards, it could be considered irresponsible, but Kalaripayattu practitioners insist on sticking to tradition and on letting the students develop confidence from fighting with real weapons without any safety equipment, because that's how real life is.

7. A well trained Kalaripayattu practitioner (one who has the blessings of his Guru and has been imparted the necessary knowledge) has intimate knowledge of the human body. They know where people have been injured, how to heal it and which pressure points cause what effect.

8. Like every martial art, it is very difficult to find a Guru who has the maturity and understanding of proper Kalaripayattu.

9. Kalaripayattu emphasizes slapping motions rather than just on punches like Karate. You basically swing your arms and slap the head of the opponent, dazing them. You slap their ears (not during class of course) to cause their eardrums to burst. You use crouches to protect vital parts of your body. You cross your arms in front of your body, protect your ears with your palm and protect your solar plexus with your elbows. These techniques (especially the way hands are swung to slap) can seem very odd to someone with a boxing or Karate background, because the way you are taught to protect your body, the stances and the attacking techniques are very different, and can seem unnatural.

10. Unlike other martial arts, bare handed defence and offence is taught only a few years after you join, and this too is decided based on the Guru's perception of your character and behaviour. You are first taught a series of very complicated katas, then introduced to long stick fighting, short stick fighting, dagger fighting and only much later introduced to locks, self defense techniques and knowledge of healing and the marmas (pressure points). Again, only if you are "worthy". Some schools have variations on which techniques are taught first.

11. Traditionally, the first month of Kalari training is supposed to impart full body oil massages to a new student, to help the student's flexibility and to help adapt to the rigorous physical exercise. Not all modern Kalari schools do this now.

Kalaripayattu is designed for use in the (ancient) battlefield. That's what the word "Kalari" means. Since other martial arts (especially Kung Fu) are said to originate from Kalaripayattu, you can't really compare them to it, especially since modern Kalari masters appear to be more dedicated toward preserving the art in its ancient form. While people from other martial arts raise doubts on the efficacy of the techniques (Kalaripayattu on FightQuest), one must not forget that a martial art like Kalari that has Marma adi in its arsenal, is not to be trifled with. Dan Inosanto explains how Bruce Lee taught that certain moves performed for demonstration would never be used in real combat. I believe it's the same with Kalari. What people are shown and what most students get taught, are only the demo techniques, but advanced students may very well know the art in its deadliest and most effective form, which could very well be as effective as any other martial art (however, as with any other martial art, it depends more on the proficiency of the practitioner, than purely on the techniques). I guess we may never find out for sure, but as a personal opinion: I would only trust the efficacy of a martial art that is open to critique and open to improvement by being tested for the efficacy of every technique. It is my personal opinion that Kalaripayattu originated as an intelligent, adaptable, research-oriented martial art that was meant to evolve with time, and I hope modern masters would agree someday.

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    A very nice answer. Thanks for taking the time to write it. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Dec 18 '16 at 13:16
  • Wow, that's impressive! Since Kalaripayattu comes from yoga, it must be the most perfect martial art. In asanas (yogic stances), energy (prana) flows through the body in a natural way. And who can beat the prana?! – Marino Klisovich Oct 15 at 11:18
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I'm a student of Kalaripayattu practicing in the US. I've studied for 6 years with Anil Natyaveda who was trained traditionally in Kerala India.

Reading the answers I figured chiming in might be useful.

The Wikipedia article is pretty decent as an introduction. Also, I can recommend When the Body Becomes All Eyes - a book by a Western martial artist who studied in Kerala. I wasn't so thrilled with this one - the pictures are not so accurate, although the descriptions are not too bad.

I can also highly recommend some of the YouTube videos out there - there are too many for me to search through, but I have yet to see a bad one and seeing pracitioners moving can be very helpful - I always feel the static pictures don't do it justice.

Sadly, I don't have any other martial arts training, so I can't compare it easily to another art, but I can say from personal experience that:

  • The form assumes no armor and very little in the way of clothing - the location of origin is very hot and humid so heavy armor is more of a liability than an asset. As a result, the poses tend to focus on a very low stance where access to organs is blocked by shoulders and ribcage.

  • The form includes hand to hand, and weapon combat - the variations within the overarching style can have more or less kicks vs. hand to hand work - and the emphasis on certain weapons vary from style to style and school to school. The most striking weapon is the urumi or flexible sword.

  • The focus is on contraction and expansion through the lower abdomen (nambi) - it works as the center of the body for spins, kicks, jumps and general movement. Almost every movement can be seen as contracting, moving and expanding one's energy around this point.

  • The focus is on speed and targeted accuracy over brute strength. After some significant time spent training, practicioners tend to develop long and lean muscle mass - they are strong, but also very flexible and quite lean looking.

  • It's a combat form that assumes war - while it isn't secretive, it does account for a multiple foe situation and the need to kill/maim or be killed. In constrast to styles I've heard described as tournament styles (aiming for disabling, not death or maiming) or assination styles (assume one on one combat and that secrecy prior to attack is important).

  • A very interesting feature of the art is that practicioners also (at least in some schools) engage in vigorous massage - usually done with the feet. If you search on YouTube for kalari massage. It's done both to heal hurt people and to invigorate the body of healthy people.

  • The form goes hand in hand with Ayurvedic practices - a master is expected to also be able to heal using a variety of therapies (massage is just one) and the pressure points of Ayurveda are also the target areas of the combat form.

  • The training and knowledge transmission is fairly typical of other traditional Indian skills - dedication to a teacher, a long term commitment, learning movements in isolation as reflex before it becomes purposeful, etc.

  • The general theory is as @poepje says - the style migrated with a monk from India to China, where it seeded other Asian styles, so it's often thought of as a root form... from what I've seen, it definitely has some similarities to othe SE Asian forms, but the farther the distance, the more the format has changed to suit the purpose of the new region...

I did KungFu for all of about 10 weeks - I can say that the basic horse pose in Kung Fu is remarkably different than the basic pose of Kalaripayattu - but that's about it. In the end there's always a few similarities, because humans are basically grown from the same model.

  • In Kung Fu and Karate, the horse stance is you seated on the horse. In Kalari horse stance, you are the horse. There are plenty of other animal stances and even a fish stance. – Nav Dec 19 '16 at 14:28
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Comparing Kalari Payatt and Kung fu

(I've been practicing few styles of both Indian and Chinese martial arts and I would like to share some of the technical similarities I found (or felt) in both styles. This is not about the mother of all bullshit details :-))

Starting by considering "Kung fu" or "Wushu" as an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts in which there are hundreds of different systems and various styles and sub styles/lineages. Some share similar concepts and methodologies, but in most cases the differences will make it impossible even to compare at all.

Similarly Kalari Payatt is now used as an umbrella term for all the systems and styles of martial arts practiced in the south Indian state of Kerala. Based on their characteristics these arts are classified mainly into northern systems and southern systems (But there are still some styles which cannot be put into either of these groups).

Considering the above mentioned, I believe it will be better to compare styles with similar characteristics. Actually I don’t want to call it comparing as it is a senseless and stupid idea as every art has its own place and uniqueness. But still for all those fools like me out there..

The southern schools of kalari (Thekkan Kalari) which traditionally have been known by various names like Adi Thada, Adi Mura, Nadan, Chuvadu Mura, Thekkan Mura, Para thallu, Muchuvadu etc focuses on empty hand fighting and the footwork patterns (Chuvadu) found in these systems uses various geometric shapes like square, triangle, +, circle etc. These pattern based structures are more similar to SE Asian martial arts than CMA.

Within these groups there are styles which are close, mid and long range systems.

For e.g., the close range system called 'Para thallu' (Para slaps) secretly practiced among Paraya community in Kerala (who were once enslaved by the upper castes and prohibited from practicing martial arts) is an offensive system which aims at ending the fight quickly as possible. This style (in applied form) is similar to Wingchun (Yongchun), Southern mantis (or other Hakka styles) and some forms of Silat. But there aren’t any centreline principles like in WC or hunched shoulders as in Hakka styles or any kind of internal aspects of CMA. The similarities may be due the fact that all these systems are based on common principles like close range fighting, economy of moves, practicality etc.

Adi Murai (law of striking) or Adi thada (strike-defense) styles practiced in the southern most districts of Kerala and a district of the neighbouring state (Tamil Nadu) uses long range strikes and swinging arms movements. These swinging arm movements looks similar to the swinging movements found in Lama Pai, Choy Li Fut (Cai Li Fa), Pigua (PeKwar) etc.. of CMA. But it doesn’t use any particular concepts in the swings like in Pigua style or Tongbei styles. The characteristic swinging arms strikes of Lama Pai and Choy li fut (which can also be seen in some other Cantonese styles) is in certain ways similar. The weapons training in Adi Mura is closer to SE martial arts than CMA

The northern Payatt style which is popularly known today as Kalari Payatt (Kalarippayattu) is completely different style when compared to the southern styles. When we look into the actual training concepts, it has a way of conditioning the body through forms which uses core body movements that becomes foundation for actual fighting (forms may not directly imply martial application). These moves are based on movements of animals as in Yoga (but not as the animal imitations in CMA). The style primarily focuses on weapons training and uses many 2 person sparring forms. Empty hand fighting is mainly practiced in various combinations of strikes and grappling moves.

Similarities with CMA

Basic leg raise line drills in Payatt are similar to the leg stretching kicks found in the northern style CMA. When looking at the individual moves and how it is manifested into applications, I have felt many similar conceptualisation in both arts in general. Unlike modern karate which explains its katas in more obvious meanings, in most CMAs the application of Taolu (or Quan/Kuen) is mostly about the core movements which manifest into number of applications based on the skill of the master rather than obvious meanings of forms. This way of understanding the moves are similar in the Payattu style.

Weapons sparring forms are similar to the sparring forms found in traditional CMA and some SE Asian styles (Silat, Krabi Krabong etc)

The art of pressure points or Marma Kala (Varma kalari) in Kalari systems and the Dian Xue/ Dian mai (Dimmak) of CMA share a lot of common ideas in the identification of points, striking methods and also in those myths of super human skills surrounding this art (e.g. Striking pressure points without physical touch or even by just looking :-)).

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As an Indian, I'd like to put forward a fact about Kalaripayattu. There are a good number of schools in India that teach/focus on this form of an ancient martial art. As far as effectiveness of this martial art is concerned, I wouldn't like to comment on it because every martial art is great in its own way.

I would opine that Kerala (a state in Southern part of India) would be a wonderful place to start your training in Kalaripayattu, as Kerala is supposedly the origin of this martial art.

  • I heard that one can only join a school at early age. I am 30+ can I go to learn it? – Yogi Yang 007 Mar 7 '12 at 4:49
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    Kindly see this. Please go through the website in detail. If you feel it's worth asking them about further details, I'll be glad to help anytime. – Ghost Mar 7 '12 at 5:59
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    There are no age limits, but it is better to start from younger age – Prasanth Jun 11 '12 at 12:03
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I know there are some books on Kalaripayattu, e.g. this one and this one. There's also a large entry on it on wikipedia.

I've heard it's popular mainly in India, there should be quite a number of schools there. Also, there a few places to learn it in Europe as well:

  • Do you know anyone that practices this? Or better yet, crossed hands with a practitioner? If you have, I'm interested in hearing more about it in your answer. – Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 25 '12 at 5:34
  • @Ho-ShengHsiao I have not met anyone personally, all my knowledge about it is hearsay. – THelper Feb 25 '12 at 19:38
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    This is a dying art, even in India I haven't come across any practitioners. It is mostly taught in the state of Kerala, in mostly closed circles. Outsiders don't reach advanced levels, from what I've heard. – Reno Mar 12 '12 at 6:19
  • Could you excerpt the contents of the links you referenced, instead of just laying them out? We want the content to remain even if the link dies. – Dave Liepmann Jun 11 '12 at 14:25
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It is not a dying art exactly. It is now only priactised only in the state of Kerala in India. Many other arts like Kung Fu have its root from Kalarippayattu. The only thing is that one who wishes to practise it need to find a good master from a reputed institute (Kalari). Also atleast we need to spend a three years to cover the syllabus. There are two styles of Kalarippayattu mainly, one is "Northern Style"(Kadathanaadan) and the next is "Southern Style". In Kalari only there are treatment for any injuries caused during practice. In other martial arts we cannot cure injuries. In the treatment methods used in a Kalari, there are effective treatment methods and medicines to cure any injuries.

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Kalaripayattu is the oldest martial in existence. It is also considered to be the deadliest martial art in the world. Kalaripayattu unlike other martial arts does not focus on developing 6 pack abs and 8 pack abs, but on making the person both physically and mentally strong. The oldest reference to Kalaripayattu comes from Vedas (3000-4000 bce) where Indra (god of sky) defeated a demon using a marma point (vital point).

Kalaripayattu involves 4 steps:

  1. Meithari: involves oil massage (to make the body strong and flexible) and many training exercises and leg movement.
  2. Kolthari: involves fighting with blunt weapons lke staffs, sticks, etc.
  3. Angathari: involves fighting with sharp weapons like sword, spear, dagger, axe and the dangerous urumi (flexible sword). Once the person has mastered Angathari he moves on to the next level.
  4. Verum kai pryogam: involves unarmed combat, fighting with armed opponents and fighting with multiple armed opponents.

If the student shows extreme sincerity, devotion, discipline and other qualities, he will be introduced to the knowledge of marmas or varmas (vital points). Once a person becomes a master in this technique he need not apply high force, but can kill the opponent by merely touching his vital point,

Another advanced technique is Nokku varmam or Meitheenda varmam. This requires at least 12-16 years of practice. Once a person has mastered this technique, a person can kill or disable a person without any physical contact. This can be done by starring/concentrating at the marmas.

Kalaripayattu is classified into 2 types; Northern Kalaripayattu and Southern Kalaripayattu. Northern Kalaripayattu involves Varma Kalai (bare hand fighting, from Tamil Nadu while Kalaripayattu is from Kerala) and Northern Kalaripayattu is weapon based.

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    Welcome to Martial Arts! Could you please use punctuation and formatting to make your (future) answers more readable? – THelper Jul 7 '13 at 8:34
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    You've provided some interesting information, but I disagree when you say that Kalaripayattu "is considered to be the deadliest martial art in the world". Considered by whom? Probably not by everyone. Also, there are many martial arts that do not focus on developing 6 pack abs. – THelper Jul 7 '13 at 8:35
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    @THelper every martial art is considered to be the deadliest martial art in the world. Either we ban this sentence entirely from the site or we allow it and let it slide. I don't think this is a very valuable argument to have, in any case. – Anon Jul 9 '13 at 12:34
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    Marma-kala is the 5th stage. – Reno Jul 16 '13 at 8:15
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Kalaripayattu is an old martial art. It is said (though we'll probably never really know for sure) that it's (one of) the oldest existing martial art(s). And that Bodhidharma, an Indian pilgrim monk, would have taught the Chinese Shaolin monks some of the early Kalp. moves which evolved into Shaolin Kungfu (which in its turn is said to be the mother of kungfu). I believe there isn't any written evidence or clues for the Kalaripayattu part on this though.

The Discovery Channel had a series called Fight Quest where one episode is about Kalaripayattu. Interesting to watch, and downloads can be easily found for it.

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I am a Kalari student from Kerala and have practiced Kalaripayattu for 3 years. Kalaripayattu in Kerala is divided into two style; southern and northern. The northern style mainly concentrates on flexibility and slowly developing speed and power. The southern style concentrates on balance and power. Another technique in Kalari is Marma Kala, which teaches about pressure points in body. There are 108 Marmas. Kalari is more of a healthy lifestyle, and self defence.

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    Hi, and welcome to the site! Do you perhaps have any resources that could elaborate on your answer at all? – stslavik Aug 1 '14 at 14:29
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Kalari is an ancient martial art. Kalari has two types: northern and southern. Kalari gives concentration, ability, fighting skills, dicipline and peace. Kung fu comes in the Kalari. Bodhidharma gave Kalari to the Chinese. He developed kung fu. kung fu is fighting, but Kalari is a peaceful art.

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    Hi, and welcome to the site! Do you perhaps have any resources that could elaborate on your answer at all? – stslavik Aug 1 '14 at 14:28
  • What's the meaning of peacefull art when we see so many hard training and deadly moves in Kalaripayattu? I know yoga is peacefull and Kalaripayattu is developed from yoga. – Marino Klisovich Oct 15 at 11:22
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Kalari is greater than all martial arts.

A person who has learnt kalari can fight with others easily, because they have good knowledge of dangerous parts of the body. They can kill other MA practitioners quietly. They practice hard in defence or attack, with sword, axe, stick, urumi, charika, or otta knife.

In my place many kung fu blackbelts have fought with kurickal (an experienced practitioner of kalari). They fall down in very few minutes. They lost badly because of the kurickal's tactical movement.

There are many such incidents in Kerala state.

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    Opinion. Can you provide any facts to back it up? – Mark C. Wallace Sep 13 '13 at 11:37
  • Are you from Kerala? Do such incidents happen there? – Marino Klisovich Oct 15 at 11:20

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