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Kalarippayattu (Malayalam:കളരിപയററ്) is an Indian martial art practised in Kerala and contiguous parts of neighboring Tamil Nadu. It incorporates strikes, kicks, grappling, martial dance, and weaponry, as well as healing techniques.

Some people believe that the word "kalari" can be traced back to ancient Sangam literature. The martial tradition of Kalarippayattu is also dated to ancient Dravidian traditions. Phillip Zarrilli, a professor at the University of Exeter and one of the few Western authorities on kalaripayattu, estimates that kalarippayattu dates back to at least the 12th century CE. The historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai attributes the birth of Kalarippayattu to an extended period of warfare between the Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century CE. What eventually crystallized into this style is thought to have been a product of existing South Indian styles of combat, combined with techniques brought by migration from the north along the western coast. Discovery channel in Asia notes that Kalarippayattu may be one of the oldest martial arts in existence. The oldest Western reference to Kalarippayattu is a 16th century travelogue of Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese explorer. The Southern style, which places more emphasis on open hand combat has mainly been practiced by the Tamil speaking regions, at least for the last few centuries

Kalarippayattu underwent a period of decline after the introduction of firearms and especially after the full establishment of British colonial rule in the 19th century. The resurgence of public interest in kalarippayattu began in the 1920s in Tellicherry as part of a wave of rediscovery of the traditional arts throughout South India and continued through the 1970s surge of general worldwide interest in martial arts. In recent years, efforts have been made to further popularize the art, with it featuring in international films. Some dance schools incorporate kalaripayattu as part of their exercise regimen.

There are many different styles of Kalarippayattu. If one looks at the way attacks and defenses are performed, one can distinguish three main schools of thought: the northern styles, the central styles, and the southern styles. The best introduction to the differences between these styles is the book of Luijendijk. Luijendijk uses photographs to show several Kalarippayattu exercises and their applications. Each chapter in his book references a representative of each of the three main traditions

Northern Kalaripayattu

Northern kalarippayattu (practiced mainly in the northern Malabar region of Kozhikode and Kannur) places comparatively more emphasis on weapons than on empty hands. Masters in this system are usually known as gurukkal (and only occasionally as asan), and were often given honorific titles, especially Panikkar. By oral and written traditions, Parasurama, the sixth Avatar of Vishnu, is believed to be the founder of the art.

Northern kalarippayattu is distinguished by its meippayattu - physical training and use of full-body oil massage. The system of treatment and massage, and the assumptions about practice are closely associated with Ayurveda. The purpose of medicinal oil massage is to increase the practitioners' flexibility, to treat muscle injuries incurred during practice, or when a patient has problems related to the bone tissue, the muscles, or nerve system. The term for such massages is thirumal and the massage specifically for physical flexibility chavutti thirumal. There are several lineages (sampradayam), of which the arappukai is the most common nowadays. There are schools which teach more than one of these traditions. Some traditional kalaris around Cannanore, for example, teach a blend of arappukai, pillatanni, and katadanath styles.

Southern Kalaripayattu

In southern styles of kalarippayattu (practiced mainly in old Travancore and the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu), practice and fighting techniques emphasize empty hands and application from the first lesson. In the southern styles the stages of training are Chuvatu (solo forms), Jodi (partner training/sparring), Kurunthadi (short stick), Neduvadi, Katthi, Katara, valum parichayum, Chuttuval, double sword and Marmma and kalari grappling. The southern styles of kalarippayattu are Tamil and for at least several hundred years have been practised primarily by Nadars, Kallars, Thevars, and some Sambavar.

Zarrilli refers to southern kalarippayattu as ati murai (the 'law of hitting') or varma ati (hitting the vital spots). The preliminary empty-hand techniques of ati murai are known as Adithada (hit/defend). Varma ati refers specifically to the application of these techniques to vital spots. Weapons may include long staffs, short sticks, and the double deer horns. Southern styles of kalarippayattu are not usually practiced in special roofed pits but rather in the open air, or in an unroofed enclosure of palm branches. Masters are known as asaan rather than gurukkal. The founder and patron saint is believed to be the rishi Agasthya.

Medical treatment in southern styles of kalarippayattu—which does include massage—is identified with Dravidian Siddha medicine which is as sophisticated as—though distinct from—Ayurveda. The Dravidian Siddha medical system is also known as Siddha Vaidyam and, like ati murai, is attributed to the rishi Agasthya. Active suppression of Nairs in southern Kerala led to the virtual extinction of their southern dronamballi sampradayam by the mid 1950s.

Central Kalaripayattu

The central style (practiced mainly in Thrissur, Malappuram, Palakkad and certain parts of Ernakulam districts is 'a composite' from both the northern and southern styles that includes northern meippayattu preliminary exercises, southern emphasis on empty-hand techniques, and its own distinctive techniques, which are performed within floor drawings known as kalam.

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