top of page

History of Kalari

Sangam Period - 600 BC Era

The history of Kalari martial arts can be traced back to the Sangam period, an ancient era in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the present-day Indian states of Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala. The Sangam period, estimated to have lasted from 600 BC to 600 AD, was characterized by the flourishing of literature, arts, and various cultural practices, including martial arts like Kalari.

Sangam Literature:

  • Silappathikaram and Manimekalai: These two Tamil epics from the Sangam period, Silappathikaram and Manimekalai, provide glimpses into the martial traditions of the time. References to warriors and their combat skills suggest the existence of early forms of martial arts training.

  • Purananuru and Agananuru: These are the two major literature that captures the effect of wars on human lives during the Sangam period and each comprises 400 poems that were written by prominent poets. Both the literature refer to the frequent wars and conflicts among the Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties and the word ‘Kalari’ has been quoted very frequently referring to the battle field. 

      “களரி மருங்கில் கால்பெயர்த் தாடி
        ஈம விளக்கின் வெருவரப் பேரும்
        காடுமுன் னினரே, நாடுகொண் டோரும்!”
Purananuru, 359, Author: Kaavatanaar        

Kalari in Ancient Texts:

  • Agastya and Dhanurveda: The sage Agastya, a revered figure in Indian mythology, is often associated with the development of martial arts, including Kalari. Dhanurveda, the ancient Indian science of archery and warfare, is believed to have influenced the early stages of Kalari training.


Practical Application in Warfare:

  • Sangam Era Battles: The Sangam period was marked by frequent wars and conflicts among various Tamil dynasties. Martial skills, including those taught in Kalari, would have been of practical importance for warriors engaged in these battles. The effectiveness of these combat techniques likely contributed to the continued practice and development of Kalari.


Cultural Integration:

  • Rituals and Festivals: Kalari was not only a practical skill for self-defense and warfare but also an integral part of the cultural fabric. It was often associated with religious rituals, festivals, and performances. The integration of Kalari into various aspects of daily life helped to preserve and propagate the martial art.


Gurukul System:

  • During the Sangam period, martial arts like Kalari were likely transmitted through a traditional Gurukul system, where students lived with their gurus (teachers) and underwent rigorous training. This method of transmission helped preserve the authenticity and depth of knowledge associated with Kalari.

Post Sangam Period - 1000 AD Era


The post-Sangam period marked a transitional phase in the history of Kalari martial arts. During this time, various regional kingdoms and empires emerged in South India, influencing the evolution of martial traditions. While the Sangam literature provided insights into early martial practices, the post-Sangam period saw the refinement and expansion of Kalari, laying the groundwork for its continued development.


Regional Dynasties and Kingdoms:

  • Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas, and Pallavas: The post-Sangam period witnessed the rise of powerful regional dynasties, including the Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas, and Pallavas. These kingdoms often engaged in military conflicts, and the martial traditions, including Kalari, were essential for the defense and expansion of their territories.


Integration with Religious Practices:

  • Temple Art Forms: Kalari became closely integrated with religious practices during the post-Sangam period. It found expression in temple art forms, rituals, and festivals. The association with religious contexts helped preserve and promote Kalari as both a practical martial art and a cultural tradition.


Codification and Systematization:

  • Formation of Gurukul System: The post-Sangam period witnessed the formalization and codification of martial arts training, including Kalari. The Gurukul system of education, where students lived with their gurus (Aasans) in a dedicated training environment, became more structured. This helped in the systematic transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next.


Weaponry and Techniques:

  • Expansion of Weaponry: Kalari practitioners in the post-Sangam period continued to refine and expand their knowledge of weaponry. Various weapons, including swords, staffs, and daggers, became integral parts of Kalari training. The emphasis on a wide array of techniques contributed to the versatility of Kalari as a martial art.


Influence of Indian Philosophies:

  • Incorporation of Yoga and Ayurveda: The post-Sangam period saw an increased integration of Indian philosophical concepts into the Kalari and the traditional Siddha medicines. Practices from Yoga, with a focus on breath control and meditation, were incorporated for mental discipline. Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, influenced the holistic approach to health and well-being within Kalari training.


Spread Beyond South India into SouthEast Asia:

  • Trade and Cultural Exchanges: As trade routes expanded and cultural exchanges took place, Kalari began to spread beyond South India. The martial art found practitioners in various parts of the subcontinent, contributing to its diversity and adaptation to different regional contexts.


Role in Socio-Cultural Practices:

  • Performances and Festivals: Kalari continued to be an integral part of socio-cultural practices. Performances and demonstrations of Kalari skills were often featured in royal courts, cultural events, and festivals, contributing to its popularity and recognition.

British Colonization Period - 1600 AD Era

The period of British colonization in India had a significant impact on various aspects of Indian society, including traditional martial arts like Kalari. While the British colonial rule introduced changes in political, social, and cultural spheres, Kalari managed to survive albeit facing certain challenges and adaptations.

  1. Suppression of Indigenous Practices:

    • British Policies: The British colonial administration, particularly during the early stages of colonization, was known for its efforts to suppress indigenous practices, including martial arts. Traditional systems like Kalari were often viewed with suspicion, as the British sought to establish control and authority over the subcontinent.

  2. Decline in Royal Patronage:

    • Shift in Power Structures: With the decline of indigenous kingdoms and the establishment of British colonial rule, the traditional system of royal patronage for martial arts, including Kalari, diminished. The new ruling authorities did not necessarily appreciate or support indigenous martial traditions.

  3. Cultural Appropriation:

    • European Interest in Martial Arts: Interestingly, some British officers and individuals stationed in India developed an interest in Indian martial arts, including Kalari. However, this interest was often from a colonial perspective, with attempts to document, study, and sometimes appropriate aspects of these martial arts without necessarily acknowledging their cultural context.

  4. Transformation of Kalari:

    • Adaptation to Changing Circumstances: To survive during the colonial period, Kalari underwent adaptations. Some practitioners may have modified their teaching methods or focused on aspects that could be presented to colonial authorities as physical fitness exercises rather than martial training.

  5. Underground Practice and Secrecy:

    • Preservation through Secrecy: To avoid suppression and maintain the continuity of Kalari, practitioners sometimes resorted to practicing in secret or within closed communities. This clandestine approach helped in preserving the traditional techniques and knowledge associated with Kalari.

  6. Revival in the Post-Colonial Period:

    • Rediscovery of Heritage: The post-colonial period witnessed a renewed interest in traditional Indian practices, including martial arts. As India gained independence, there was a conscious effort to reclaim and celebrate the country's cultural heritage, leading to a revival of interest in Kalari.

  7. Modernization and Globalization:

    • Integration with Modern Practices: In the post-colonial era, Kalari began to adapt to modern contexts. It integrated elements of physical fitness, self-defense, and even theatrical performances. The globalization of martial arts also opened up opportunities for Kalari to be recognized and practiced beyond India's borders.

  8. Cultural Resilience:

    • Survival and Continuity: Despite the challenges posed by British colonization, the cultural resilience of Kalari and the dedication of practitioners played a crucial role in its survival. The oral transmission of knowledge, community-based practice, and the recognition of Kalari as an integral part of India's cultural heritage contributed to its continuity.

In conclusion, the British colonization of India had a complex impact on traditional martial arts like Kalari. While facing suppression and a decline in royal patronage, Kalari managed to adapt, survive through secrecy, and later experience a revival in the post-colonial period. Today, Kalari stands as a testament to the resilience of India's cultural heritage and the ability of traditional practices to withstand external pressures and adapt to changing circumstances.


Modern Period - Current Era


As machines and industrialization replaced human capital throughout the 20th century, martial arts from various regions of the world became a solution to encourage physical activities. Yoga and meditation become an activity of mental health. Through Kalari Adimurai, we revive the science of Yoga, Meditation and Martial arts to empower the human potential and to learn the connection between body, mind and spirit.

Kalari Adimurai - Present day


Until last year, before the famous Tamil movie ‘Pattas’, almost all of the Indian people used to think Kalari Adimurai martial arts belonged to the Indian state of Kerala. Kerala did a wonderful job in 1958 forming Kerala Kalarippayat Association as one of seventeen members of the Kerala States Sports Council, just 2 years after the founding of a united, Malayalam-speaking Kerala State government under India. Before then there were many styles of Kalari martial arts practiced in the northern part of Travancore Kingdom (current state of Kerala) and in the southern part of Travancore kingdom (Kumari district of Tamil Nadu). Northern style of Kalari was called ‘Vadakan Kalari’ that became ‘Kalaripayattu’. Southern style of Kalari is called ‘Thekkan Kalari’ or ‘Kalari Adimurai’. Due to the lack of cooperation among the Kalari Adimurai Aasans (masters) in the southern styles, this martial art has not been brought into world attention.


The main difference between both the styles was the involvement of ‘Varmam’. Kalari Adimurai, the southern styles involve various forms of Varma attacks and it is famously called ‘Varma Adi’ or ‘Adimurai’. Varma is also used in healing therapy and it has been the vital part of Siddha Medicine.

The traditional martial arts of Kalari Adimurai is not only involved with one’s martial defense and physical fitness, but also involves health and wellness, harmony with body and mind. Kalari Adimurai connects the relationship drawn from India’s unique versions of yoga practices along with the South Asian medicine ‘Siddha’ practices.

bottom of page