Kalarippayattu – The Oldest Form of Self-Defence

Kalarippayattu is the mother of all martial arts. It is one of the oldest surviving fighting styles still existent in the world. Shaolin Kung Fu is said to have been evolved from kalarippayat.

Have you even heard of it? When posed with this question, no one at the office could say yes. So we decided to investigate.

The origins of kalarippayat are shrouded in obscurity, but we do know from written records in the Sangam era of 300 BCE to 300 CE that it was crafted in the South of India. It was taken to China by the Pallava king-turned-monk and Kalari master Bodhidharma, who is also credited with formulating Zen Buddhism.

Kalarippayat is a form of self-defence made unique by its amalgamation of science, art and medicine. It has been derived from nature – the stances and postures used by animals fighting in jungles were observed and adapted to the human body.

Intrigued, we approached the Sanjeev Krishna Yoga Center in Dubai to try out the art ourselves. They have the UAE’s only physical Kalari – the enclosure where kalarippayat is practised – and three skilled trainers who were happy to show us some of the moves.

They started us off with some dynamic stretches, which took about 20 minutes to cover the whole body. We honestly felt like we might have needed stretches to even attempt some of these stretches! However, it was worth it as it left us feeling light and bouncy, ready for what was to come. Next up were straight leg kicks, but don’t let the name fool you. Doing these kicks requires impeccable balance and control not only over the legs but the whole body. Not to mention the flexibility that is needed to swing the entire leg up to high-five the palm that is stretched straight up above the head – something to aspire to in the future! These stretches, leg exercises and body movements are part of the first stage of Kalari training, called Meithaari. The Kolthaari consists of wooden weapons training, such as the short and long sticks and the Angathaari is training in metallic weapons like daggers, swords and shield. Sounds cool right?!

We were also shown how to do one of the 8 vadivus (animal stances, which are an elephant, horse, cat, lion, wild boar, snake, cock and peacock) that go on to form the backbone of meippayattu – body exercises designed to hone flexibility and physical fitness. Since we are beginners, we began with the horse stance. First of all, it was quite challenging to assume the position, let alone hold it. Then repeatedly shifting from one leg to the other was comparable to a particularly arduous leg day at the gym. With some practice, however, we did eventually do a complete set without wobbling or falling over.


The instructors did treat us to some advanced meippayat and sparring. It was a pleasure to watch the fluidity and sureness of their movement – not a jump or kick out of place. Perfect synchronisation. It was also really exciting to see the basic animal stances we learnt to put into effect in a combat situation. And what’s more: the head of the yoga centre, Guruji Sanjeev Krishna explained how psychology and physiology meet in this martial art. Once the basic stances are mastered, “you automatically develop muscle memory and whenever we face off using defence poses, you don’t have to look to anyone else’s body movements. Just look at the eyes and we know what is next. Your body muscles will be so tuned, each and every muscle act as eyes. You can see anything.” It becomes instinct.

We felt quite quick on our feet and energised after we ran through the basics of Kalari. You’re left feeling flexible and ready to kick some ass. The soreness the day after was well-worth it and a badge of honour for what we had managed to accomplish as beginners. This holistic approach to fitness and self-defence is something to be admired and shared – so much so that I know I will be continuing to learn kalarippayat after this.


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