6 Fascinating Facts About Kalaripayattu, World’s Oldest Martial Arts Discipline

by Sarah Lobban

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It’s no secret that the martial arts have been around for some time. Of course, there are a few “modern” martial arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Krav Maga, but the practice of recording a structured style, and passing the techniques down from masters to novices across generations, goes back centuries – and longer. 

You might be surprised to learn just how old the oldest known martial art is. Its name is kalaripayattu, meaning, literally, “art of the battlefield.” The art originated in southern India thousands of years ago. The first written reference to this style dates back to the 3rd century B.C. – around the same time the construction efforts started on the Great Wall of China.

Because of its ancient roots, kalaripayattu is sometimes known as the “mother of all martial arts.” This nickname is probably an exaggeration; however, if you look closely at most Asian arts, you’ll find traces of kalaripayattu there.

So, what is kalaripayattu? Here are six fun trivia facts to boost your brain training:

1) Although many other martial arts are based off of kalaripayattu, no one knows what kalaripayattu was based on

statue of vishnu

Kung fu has the Shaolin monks; judo has Jigoro Kano, Shotokan karate has Gichin Funakoshi. If kalaripayattu ever had a singular human or group who spearheaded its development into a systemized art, that name has been lost to time. 

Credit for the creation of kalaripayattu sometimes goes to the Hindu god Vishnu. It makes sense that an art that was used by armies would be attributed to the deity charged with protecting the world.

2) Although kalaripayattu is ancient, it has only recently experienced a revival

indian fighter with knife held at the back

India was forced under colonial rule by England in the 1800s, and, unsurprisingly, the British forces didn’t really want a whole bunch of potential resistance fighters training in a wartime art. They confiscated weapons, killed those trained in kalaripayattu, and outlawed the practice of the art altogether.

Kalaripayattu survived thanks to a few practitioners the British purge had missed. For dozens of years, they taught in secret. Today, there are kalaripayattu schools all over India and the art is thriving.

3) One of the individuals responsible for the newfound popularity of kalaripayattu is a 70-plus-year-old woman

Meenakshi Raghavan began training in kalariyapattu at a young age and fell in love with the art. She’s a master of the sword and shield and regularly performs combat demonstrations across India against men half her age. She runs a kalaripayattu school with over a hundred students, passing the art on to the next generation.

4) It uses a variety of weapons

martial arts fighters with swords in the air

One of the primary weapons of kalaripayattu is a staff similar to the Japanese rokushakubo (usually abbreviated to ‘bo’) used in karate. The art also uses knives in training – and experiences practitioners will even train with live blades! Sharpened knives are used by the master against high-level students, with the master assuming the risks. The goal isn’t to hurt each other but to instill a proper respect and wariness for weapons into the student.

Other weapons used by kalaripayattu include the urumi, or spring sword, which is unique to India. This long, flexible blade is wielded with whipping motions. As you might imagine, this is another masters-only weapon—since you have a good chance of whipping your own eye out with it!

5) There’s a huge emphasis placed on overall health and fitness

All martial arts promote health, of course, since they’re all forms of exercise, and most actively encourage a healthy lifestyle outside the dojo. But in kalaripayattu, health is a fully integrated aspect.

Masters of the art are often versed in traditional medicine as well. Getting massages for health and improved flexibility is a routine part of students’ training. Beginner students may even use daily massages to help acclimate them to the demands of training. Recently, the art itself has begun to be used as an alternative medicine.

6) Mastery of kalaripayattu means you’re also a talented acrobat

As deadly as kalaripayattu can be, it’s also an incredibly graceful art. Acrobatic rolls jump, and dives are used to evade both armed and unarmed attacks. You can also see some kalaripayattu moves reflected in the traditional dance styles of southern India, which is a further indication of its elegance. 

Would you like to learn more about the basics of martial arts? A training camp for beginners is the perfect place to get started, under the attentive guidance of a master. 

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