Origin & History

Boys Learning Martial Art (Gusthi and Kalari) - Kerala 1905

1905 - Kerala

Kalarippayat originated in and has been kept alive in Kerala as a closed oral tradition for thousands of years. At one time it is believed that every boy and girl in Kerala was trained in Kalari as part of their general education.

The word ‘Kalari’ comes from the Tamil ‘Kalam’ which means system/enclosed space or school. The circle is an example of a ‘Kalam’. Like a circle, Kalari is complete, because the tradition encompasses a full spectrum of theory and practice on how to harm (or protect oneself when necessary) and how to heal.

‘Payat’ means to practice. Practice is defined as the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it. In this way Kalari acknowledges learning is an embodied experience which requires the full focus of both mind consciousness (chit shakti) and body consciousness (kaya shakti) so that we can become an integrated whole.



The history of Kalarippayat is as complex as the history of India itself. There are many different theories about Kalari’s origins, both mythic and historic. Please visit the Indian Martial Arts Studies website for a detailed analysis of Kalarippayat’s history.

The information below is from the Kerala Kalaripayattu Academy:

“Kalari-Ppayattu, the ancient martial art of South-India, is based on the science of yoga for its exercises; while it’s medical system is based on the science of Ayurveda, Siddha and Tribal medicine. The origin of Kalari-Payat is obscure, since it has been nurtured from the oldest martial tradition of South-India of Dravidian origin and later influenced by Aryan martial traditions, which is an off short of Dhanur-Veda (the ancient Indian Science of war).

Even before the advent of the Aryans, the martial tradition of South-India, was kept alive by the Buddhists through their monasteries known as Sha-lais. The most prominent Sha-lai of ancient Kerala from the 5th to the 9th century was the Kandaloor Sha-lai, which is situated in the Trivandrum district of South-Kerala. The place where the ancient Sha-lai was situated is now known as Sha-lai Bazaar.

It is possible, that the system of training practiced at the Sha-lai were taken by the Buddhist Monks traveling to China and other south-east-Asian countries, and probably in China the monastery of Shao-lin (Sha-Iai?) had been founded. However, it would be interesting to note that there are exercises practiced in South-India, which were probably practiced in ancient China also, and known by the name of China-Adi and China-Kuthu (Chinese Boxing) in South-India, even today.”


Modern Era

After the invasion of India by Britain, and its subsequent occupation, Kalari was banned in 1804. Practice became secret and was generally confined to rural areas. Although the tradition suffered a decline during this time, the knowledge was not lost.

Kalari began to reemerge during the 1920’s as part of a wave of rediscovery of the classical arts throughout Southern India. Because of Kalari’s rich and diversified range of knowledge many people including martial artists, yogis, athletes, theatre and dance performers are taking up the practice all over the world.


“We can stand tall because of our ancestors. So we have to pay attention to whatever has been handed down to us.” Gurukkal C.M Sherif, Kerala Kalaripayattu Academy


kalari women history

 Nair Woman 1914 / Two Girls Practicing Sword & Shield Today