Flexibility & Power in Kalaripayattu: Confessions of a Gravitationally-Challenged Student

IMG_4269Learning third level material was when Kalaripayattu became daunting. Until then, it was just exhausting.


I’d been doing a lap of the kalari consisting of high kicks flowing into Hanumanasana (a scissors split.) Each split is on the opposite side from the last. By yoga standards, my split alignment was off. My hips weren’t perpendicular to my legs, but I’d allowed them to twist open to make the split easier. However, that was probably the least of my errors, and–unlike in yoga practice during which one might take minutes to ease into this intense split–the cadence in kalari was kick – split – struggle to one’s feet. [Okay, the “struggle” shouldn’t have been, but it’s an accurate description of my rendition.]


This wasn’t the hard part, by the way. I’ll get to that. The structure of the class up to that point was logically arranged to facilitate those splits. The practice started with warm ups of rapid repetitive motions that got the muscles and core warm. Then there were a series of kicking exercises that also served as dynamic stretches. Next, there was a vertical version of the splits done in a static form. With the inner edge of one’s bottom foot posted along the base board, the heel of one’s upper foot is slid up a piece of wood lathe worn smooth that has been tied vertically–perpendicularly to the steel burglar bars that one uses to pull oneself into the stretch. (This is an inner city kalari, and not the traditional version dug into the ground.) Then one revisits a high kick, swinging the leg with greater intensity. Only then does one do the lap of splits.

A traditional kalari looks like this. This is the Kalari Gurukulam in Chikkagubbi (parent school to the one at which I train.)

A traditional kalari looks like this. This is the Kalari Gurukulam in Chikkagubbi (parent school to the one at which I train.)


The next piece is where the third level kicked my butt. One’s hamstrings and quads stretched to the max, feeling more like limp noodles than coiled springs, one is now expected to work through a series of leaping maneuvers. There are seven leaping exercises (besides some basic warm-up leaps): a leaping circle kick, a spinning kick that takes one 360-degrees, a split kick in which one leaps up and kicks out laterally in both directions simultaneously, a split kick in which one leaps up spinning 360 degrees [theoretically] and does the same split kick in the middle, a flip kick in which one kicks up and forward and flips one’s body over in mid-air to come down on one’s hands and feet (in a lunged position with palms down next to the feet), and then there are two versions of leaping/spinning kicks that proceed down the length of the kalari.


IMG_1661Why does one do these plyometric techniques in the wake of such intense stretching? I suspect that experts in exercise science would tell me this isn’t the best way to improve my leaps. One should do the leaps when one’s muscles are more like rubber bands than al dente linguine. Still, I dutifully comply. Maybe there’s an ancient wisdom at work here. Maybe there’s not. There’s no way to find out without giving it a try. I fall down a number of times that first day, and on all subsequent sessions. As I write this, I’m now learning level five material, but I continue to revisit the leaps every session for two reasons. First, I’m not happy with my abilities. Second, I want to find out whether I can improve my balance of flexibility and power, and whether the kalari approach does the trick. (Note: I’m using the word “power” in the specific sense of work performed per unit time. In other words, it’s not synonymous with strength. It’s a function of both speed and strength.) At any rate, I still fall down.


IMG_2278However, looking beyond my own limited capacity to have my cake and eat it too (i.e. retain flexibility as I gain power), I see evidence of the success of this approach. There are a number of advanced people who’ve been using this approach for many years and have a preternatural balance of flexibility and jet propulsion. Said individuals seem to go from deep stretches to phenomenal vertical leaps without difficulty.


If nothing else, I’ve learned a great deal about my muscular composition. While I’m challenged by ballistic movements, my stamina is quite respectable. Type I (slow twitch) musculature seems to be disproportionately common in comparison to type II (fast twitch) in my body. While I’m including more power building training in my workouts, my progress is glacial. If I was smart, I’d take up long-distance running or some other endurance activity. But I tend to find such activities tedious, while I love the martial arts. And so I struggle.




BOOK REVIEW: Kalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

Kalari MargamKalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the few books on the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu–particularly written in English. [There are English and Kannada editions–Kannada being the language spoken in Karnataka, the state where the book was produced.]Kalaripayattu is believed to be one of the world’s oldest martial arts and many believe it to be an ancestor to many popular Asian martial arts.

This will be a quick review because this is a pictorial book–i.e. like a coffee table book. While there is text throughout, the book primarily seeks to convey the feel of the martial art through photographs. In that regard the book succeeds tremendously. The photos, often full-page format, are vivid, engaging, and bring Kalaripayattu to life. The photographer, Arabind Govind, did an excellent job, as did all of the practitioners who served as demonstrators for the photos.There is pleasing use of natural lighting for both the photos taken in the kalari and outdoors. The acrobatics are awe-inspiring.

The text is well-written and concise. There were a couple tiny typos that didn’t detract from the meaning in any way. (It’s a first edition and a photo book, so I don’t grade hard there.) The text is most extensive and useful toward the front of the book in the discussions of history, philosophy, and mythos of the art. Throughout most of the rest of the book the text consists of sparse paragraphs used to give a little additional information on the weapons and techniques–including the massage style.

The book starts with background, then it delves into the physical exercises that are used to build fitness, then the unarmed fighting approach, followed by the arsenal of weapons employed in the art, and it concludes with a discussion of vital point massage.

I’d recommend this book for students of the martial arts who are interested in Indian martial arts, or who are just interested in martial arts generally.

I will say that the book may be difficult to get one’s hands outside of Bangalore because it is self-published by the Kalaripayattu Training and Research Center. I will, therefore, give their address: Kalari Gurukulam, 102 Maple Meadows, Chikkagubbi, Bangalore, India 562149.

Their website is www.kalarigurukulam.com

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DAILY PHOTO: Kalari Kids

IMG_2572 IMG_2303 IMG_2318 IMG_2591

These are a few more pics from the Kalari Gurukulam‘s demonstration on Sunday night. These are a few of the kids from the youth classes.

Yesterday, I posted a few of the adult senior students here.

DAILY PHOTO: This is Kalaripayattu

IMG_2244 IMG_2281

IMG_2557The Kalari Gurukulam put on a demonstration in Chikkagubbi yesterday. Here are a few photos from the event.

Kalaripayattu FAQ

Source: The Kerala Tourist Office

Source: The Kerala Tourist Office

Outside of India, Kalaripayattu isn’t a household name like karate, kung fu, or judō. However, within India, this homegrown martial art is a source of great pride. It’s said to be one of the few indigenous martial arts that survived into modernity (with unbroken transmission, i.e. without a period in which no one was diligently practicing it.) Some consider it to be the mother of Asian martial arts (for reasons I both address and critique in an earlier post.) It’s a mainstay of Bollywood (and non-Bollywood Indian cinema—yes, there is such a thing) and makes frequent appearance in dance performances and plays.


I’ve been attending Kalaripayattu classes for the past 4 or 5 months. While this hardly makes me an expert on the subject, it does give me some insight into the art beyond reading or watching videos. I’m also able to make comparisons to other martial arts–one in which I have an extensive background, and others with which I also have limited experience.  I’ve, therefore, put together a collection of answers to questions I’ve been asked as well as others that I can imagine being asked.


Pre-Question Question: “Kalaripayattu” is a long name, can I call it by something shorter?

AnswerKalaripayattu is often just called “Kalari.” Note: “Kalari” also refers to the place where the martial art is practiced (i.e. not unlike the words “dōjō” or “training hall”.) If someone refers to “the kalari” or “a kalari” they’re probably talking about a physical location, whereas if they say “Kalari”– without an article—they’re likely talking about the martial art.

As an aside, a kalari, historically speaking, has a precise design approach and dimensions. It’s dug into the ground so that from the outside the building can look like it’s for Hobbits, but inside its ceilings are adequate even for the long weapons used in the art. This method presumably began in an attempt to reduce the effect of the south Indian sun.  Of course, in modern times, kalari take many forms (e.g. the kalari I attend is on the 3rd or 4th floor of a building.)


Q1: The most common question is, “Kalari? So, what’s that like?” [In this case, the questioner wants to know what classes are like.]


Answer: My stock answer to what classes are like is that if one imagines a class which includes yoga, modern dance, and a hard style of Okinawan Karate, one wouldn’t be far off.


Of course, most people have a tough time imagining such disparate elements in a coherent class, so I’ll describe what a typical class (at least at the beginner level) is like. Each hour-and-a-half class can be divided into five parts. The first is warm-ups, which consist mostly of joint articulations, dynamic yoga poses, and—lastly—leaping drills. Warm-ups may also include those old martial arts mainstays, running laps and side-to-sides (facing one direction and moving to the side without crossing one’s feet.)


The second section is a series of leg exercises, which are mostly kicks done on alternate legs in laps up and down the kalari. These get more challenging as one progresses. The highest level that I currently practice involves going into scissors splits (Hanumanasana) as one does these laps.


The third section is animal poses or movements (depending on one’s level.) One does animal poses in the first level. Now that I’m in the second level, I’m doing animal movements, which involve movement repeated up and down the length of the kalari. I believe there are more challenging versions of the animal movements in the subsequent level(s.) There are eight postures and eight basic movements that are designed to emulate animal behavior.


The fourth section is stretching. This involves a series of yogasana (yoga poses) and core work common to yoga.


The final section involves what in Japanese arts might be called kata (memorized forms–or set sequences of strikes and kicks) and striking drills.


Q2: The second most common question is, “Kalari?  So, what’s that like?” This sounds like the exact same question, but in this case the inquisitor is asking what the martial art is like, more generally. [I blame the modern educational system and Twitter for this lack of clarity in language.]


Answer: The answer to the first question gives one a little insight into this question as well, but I’ll expand upon it. First, Kalari is a comprehensive combative system. That mouthful just means that it involves unarmed striking, grappling, and a range of weapons. This should come as no surprise as any martial art that predates sport martial arts is likely to be comprehensive. (In combat, one has to be well-rounded because one can’t plan on a combatant sticking to protocol.)  Oddly, we think of “mixed martial arts” as the latest craze, but arts that specialize in either striking or grappling are the new kids on the block.


Second, I have read that the warriors in the area of present-day Kerala (i.e. where Kalari developed) didn’t use armor, and—in a related fact—tended to use weapons that were faster and were employed with greater agility than in other parts of India where armor was more common–as well as, the heavier weapons needed to be lethal against armored opponents .


Third, besides including wide-ranging unarmed and weaponry techniques, Kalari has a massage and medicinal component that has been handed down along with it. Readers familiar with either the Japanese and Chinese forms of acupressure massage (Shiatsu or Tui Na, respectively) and either Kobudō or Kung fu, will not be surprised to learn that the same vital points that are manipulated in massage in one way are exploited in martial arts in another. In Kalari, these points are called marma.


Q3: Who practices Kalari, and for what purpose?


Answer:  At the risk of angering some readers, Kalari has little value for either self-defense or for preparing for combative sports (beyond the choreographed competitions that are Kalari-specific.) Because these two objectives are among the most common reasons for learning a martial art, it’s often asked what type of person practices Kalari and what do they hope to get out of it?


It looks to me like practitioners fall into three categories. First, there are those who want to get fit. Kalari succeeds tremendously in this regard. If one practices diligently, one will likely see growth in flexibility, cardio-vascular stamina, agility, and both core and extremity strength. (To be frank, this fitness building is why I said that Kalari has “little value for self-defense” rather than saying that its techniques are “of less value than randomly thrashing about in a fight.” One’s physical capacities rise considerably, and that might serve one even if the motions that are drilled into one’s body have no pragmatic value in fighting a skilled opponent—except in surprising them with one’s flamboyantly acrobatic but excessively expansive and vulnerable motions. I’ll also note that there’s a degree of fearlessness that results from training with metal weapons—even choreographed movement with unsharpened metal weapons—that shouldn’t be ignored as a potent benefit if one were ever to have to fight an advanced Kalari practitioner.)


[For those who haven’t seen Kalari and think I’m being excessively douche about its combat ineffectiveness. Below is a video of a couple of very athletic and skilled Kalari performers, and you can ask yourself–in your heart of hearts–if these moves seem likely to be effective against a focused and experienced opponent who has done a lot of free-form sparring.]



Second, there are dancers and performers who want to impress with the martial moves of Kalari. Hopefully, I can make amends to those who I’ve offended in the preceding paragraphs. While someone employing Kalari techniques would likely be thrashed to within an inch of his or her life if they employed them against someone using Krav Maga, Systema, or even Muay Thai, on stage Kalari moves are far and away more impressive to watch than any of the aforementioned systems. Kalari makes for a great show. The things superheroes do in movies aren’t very realistic either, but we “oooh” and “aahh” when we see them.


Third, there are people like me who are interested in the art in a scholarly sort of way from a historical, cultural and /or movement interest. I want to see what this system has in common with other martial arts, and to think about how it might have evolved.  I should point out that I suspect that Kalari was at some point much more pragmatic as a combat system (and correspondingly much less thrilling to watch), and that it evolved to a new purpose over time. This same thing could be said of many arts that evolved into sports or entertainment enterprises (e.g. many forms of Kung fu are also unlikely to gain one success in a fight, but are nonetheless beautiful to watch. Also, I don’t know whether Capoeira evolved away from combat effectiveness or was born that way, but it certainly got there somehow.)  One can also learn about movement in a generic way that might be applied in ways that can be useful.


Q4: Is Kalari a unified art or an umbrella term? (To make this clear, consider the word “karate.” If someone says that she studies “karate,” one really knows very little about the art that person studies. However, if one says he studies Isshin-ryū Karate or Shōtōkan Karate, then one might know what that person’s training really looks like.)


Answer: As I understand it, there are two different styles encompassed in Kalari. The northern style is called Tulumanadan, and the southern style is Vadakanadan.  By “northern” and “southern” we’re talking about the northern and southern parts of the southwest tip of India, i.e. what is present-day Kerala, but which includes parts of other states–such as Karnataka. I don’t know how much variation is contained in each of those two styles.


Q5: How fit do I have to be to join Kalari training?


Answer:  Like any physical activity, you certainly don’t need to be able to do what you see the advanced practitioners doing when you start. There’s a gradual build up from simple movements to ones that are more challenging. There is also, some allowance for one’s (temporary and permanent) physical limitations–because we are all different and have our own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.


Having said that, if someone apparently non-athletic asked if they should sign up, I’d probably suggest they first take a few yoga classes of a challenging nature (e.g. Power yoga, Hatha Vinyasa, or Ashtanga Vinyasa.) The Kalari classes will ask every bit the same of one’s flexibility and core strength, and substantially more of one’s extremity strength and stamina.

Animals Forms and Poses in Martial Arts



Part of the most basic of basics that I’m learning in Kalaripayattu class are 8 animal poses (Wild Boar, Elephant, Cat, Lion, Snake, Rooster, Peacock, and Horse.) While animal forms and postures are common enough in martial arts, this is an entirely new concept to me and one that I’m trying to wrap my head around.

Animal forms are most commonly associated with Chinese Kungfu. There are entire styles devoted to five animals (i.e. tiger, leopard, crane, snake, and dragon [yes, I realize dragons aren’t really animals.] Of course, from Kungfu Panda we know there are also Monkey style and Mantis style, but that’s only just the beginning.  There are many different animals that play a role in martial arts, some–like tigers–are not unexpected and others–like peacocks–are harder to imagine.

As I’ve mentioned before, old style Japanese martial arts–at least the one’s I’ve studied–invoke nature commonly, but in a more subtle form. In Japanese budō one does not imitate animal movement or positioning–except in a very limited and general sort of way.

I’m interested in why one should imitate the postures or movement of animals. After all, it’s hard to argue that a human being can move more efficiently or effectively imitating a [non-human] animal. We are uniquely bipedal mammals, and to imitate–for example–a legless reptile (for example) doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

One explanation I’ve heard is that these animals are natural fighters, and are, therefore, to be emulated. I don’t put a lot of stock in this explanation. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that humans are less naturally capable of close-quarters fighting than pretty much any other animal. But it’s got nothing to do with the nature of our bodies and everything to do with the condition of our minds. Humans are emotional beasts and have trouble living in the moment. That’s why we aren’t natural fighters compared to a tiger–which doesn’t get paralyzed by fear, doesn’t get plagued by guilt, and never walks through dangerous territory with iPod earbuds in its ear, thinking about how it needs to update its Facebook page. Humans excel at making weapons that allow us to stay as far away from the enemy as possible–preferably on another continent. But close-quarters combat is an uphill struggle all the way.

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

There is an explanation that I find to be more sound, and that’s that these postures are meant to facilitate a certain mindset. Just as people condition themselves to associate certain hand mudra with certain states of mind (I know that’s not necessarily how they see it), one may use these postures to invoke a certain state of mind. This is somewhat related to what I was discussing in the preceding paragraph. Human’s are challenged to get into the right frame of mind for combat, and animal forms and postures might be one way to hasten that state. For humans there are two aspects of the problem. First, people are naturally scared of being injured or killed, and for many this becomes debilitating. Second, except some psychopaths, humans really don’t like to kill. This is true of other species by the way, we are genetically hardwired against killing our own kind. However, other animals can’t worry about it like us. (Here I mean worry in the sense that W.R. Inge described, “Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.”)

Another explanation that I think has some merit is that some of these poses and forms are more about the exercise than combat effectiveness. In essence, they are like yoga; they build range of motion and strength in core muscles. One can certainly see this in the exceedingly low animal stances that require a great deal of flexibility.

The only other reason that’s popped to mind is that animal imitation is used to try to create a feeling (e.g. fear) in one’s opponent. This is closely related to the first point. One wants to create a perception of ferocity (or otherwise) in the eyes of the opponent as well as internally.



BOOK REVIEW: Vajramushti by Christopher Fernandes

Vajramushti; Martial Arts of IndiaVajramushti; Martial Arts of India by Christopher Fernandes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There aren’t many English language books on Indian martial arts, and most that do exist address a single style (most commonly Kalaripayattu.) Christopher Fernandes’s book, therefore, fills a void by providing an overview of martial arts on the subcontinent, and for the most part the book does an admirable job. I do have a couple of criticisms of the book that I’ll get into further down in the review.

The 350 pages of this book are arranged into 17 chapters, with the front and back matter of a scholarly work (i.e. in addition to an introduction and epilogue there are appendices and a bibliography.) The first few chapters set the historical background, and the last few chapters address topics that are related to—or interconnected with—the martial arts, e.g. pranayama (breathing), Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine), dance, and games of martial relevance. Chapters 6 through 11 form the core of the book, and this is where one gets the book one expected. These core chapters are organized by region, and each gives an overview of one of India’s martial arts in great detail. The arts covered include: Thang ta (northeast), Gatka (author classifies as Central, but it’s commonly associated with the Sikhs [i.e. Punjab, in the Northwest]), Yudhkaushalya che Talim (Central), Silambam (south, Tamil Nadu), Kalaripayattu (south, Kerela), and Marma Adi (South). It’s not all-inclusive, but that might not be possible in a single volume. It does hit the major arts and covers a range of weapons and unarmed skills, and I suspect offers a fair representation of Indian martial arts past and present.

I have two major criticisms, and a third mild criticism. The first is purely technical and likely only applies to the Kindle edition (that’s the only edition I’ve seen), and you can probably guess my gripe. The formatting on the e-version of the book is poor. While this book isn’t as graphics-intensive as a typical martial arts book (i.e. there aren’t long sequences of technique photos) there are many graphics—and necessarily so. It would be hard to convey all the information in textual form for this type of book (e.g. consider the value of a picture of a complex weapon over a description.) What happens in Vajramusthi where the graphics are inserted is that the captions get kicked in among text. At least they italicized the captions so one can get used to this oddity, but it’s a bit hard on readability when one is reading along and there is a fractional caption randomly inserted mid-sentence. The photos also cause odd white space and very narrow columns here and there.

The second major criticism is that the book often forgets its theme. By that I mean that the author goes into far too much depth on topics that are tangential to the subject at hand and sometimes fails to indicate how the subject at hand is relevant. I’m not saying that historical background and discussions of breathing and Ayurveda shouldn’t be included, they are both quite pertinent, as are the other chapters that are more tangential. However, at one point the author provides a mini-herbal field guide that seems a bit too much information for those specific herbs, but, because it’s not an Ayurveda herbal field guide, he only covers a few. This creates a book that sometimes doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or who its intended audience is. It’s most confusing in the early chapters that begin with the dawn of humanity. Obviously, the development of martial arts is inextricably tied into the rise of societies and states, but the author doesn’t consistently do a good job at connecting these dots so the book can maintain a consistent theme. I should point out that history buffs, dance enthusiasts, or physical education nerds may find the bonus material fascinating—and it is; it just belongs in different books. It does indicate that the author has done his research. While I’m a neophyte on the subjects covered, I believe that the quality of the information is quite good. (Although myth and fact are sometimes equated as with the discussion of Bodhidharma—a myth that many historians now believe false.)

The third criticism is classified minor both because it only comes into play in the epilogue and because if I was going to criticize every martial arts book author for this sin, I’d rarely have anything nice to say about a martial arts book. At the tail end of the book the author suggests that all the other martial arts of the world are just superficial competitive endeavors and only the Indian martial arts have depth that can lead to bettering oneself in a broad sense. This is a complete oversimplification, and especially odd for someone (like the author) who has apparently trained in other systems. (At one point there is a photo of Bruce Lee, captioned “Epitome of a Warrior,” and I can only assume from his commentary in the epilogue that the author is mocking the founder of Jeet Kune Do.) I do understand the passion that inflames the author’s sentiments, which is sadness that young Indians who study martial arts overwhelmingly look to the East—just as those in Europe and the Americas do. In Bangalore, where I live, there are two places that I know of that teach Indian arts (both Kalari) and at least eight places one can learn Muay Thai—not counting the fitness centers that have no one qualified to teach MT but do so anyway. Still, one need not take cheap shots at other martial arts in attempting to encourage people to study the indigenous arts.

While my review may come across as critical, there’s really not much wrong that a skilled editor and formatter couldn’t fix. (For example, one could get blitzed playing a drinking game whereby everyone takes a shot whenever they read the exact words “Vajramushti the classical Kshatriya Lion’s skill.”) The book’s virtues tend to outweigh its vices. If there were as many books out on the Indian martial arts as there are about those of China, Japan, or Korea, I don’t know that this one would get my recommendation in its present state, but there aren’t and so I do recommended it. It’s well-researched, contains useful graphics, and it provides insight into how the martial arts fit into the history, yogic science, and movement arts of India—if sometimes a bit too much insight.

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Kalaripayattu and Single Point Origin Myths

I just began my study of Kalaripayattu this morning. Kalaripayattu is an Indian martial art that is named for the training space (kalari) in which it is conducted. It’s a very different martial art from others I’ve studied, and is a great learning experience—as well as an excellent workout. Kalaripayattu is said to be one of the oldest formal martial arts that has survived into the modern era. I have no reason doubt this. The art is documented in the 11th century by a historian who attributes its development to wars between the Chola and Chera kingdoms.

However, there’s another common claim that is much more controversial, and that’s that Kalaripayattu is the “mother of all [Asian] martial arts.” With all due respect, I’m skeptical of this claim—even if we don’t take it in the literal sense (i.e. Asia is a big place and there are almost certainly places where martial arts were established before contact with the Buddhist diaspora.) I obviously don’t base my skepticism on what I have been taught—as that is, at this point, a miniscule portion of the most basic of basics.

While I can offer no definitive proof to discredit the claim, I do have specific reasons to be skeptical. The theory of Kalaripayattu as the origin of martial arts is based on the legend of Bodhidharma. The legend says that the famous monk shared martial arts with the monks of Shaolin in conjunction with the Zen (Cha’an) form of Buddhism, and from Shaolin as Buddhism spread so did the martial arts. I’ve read myths about the origins of the Japanese martial arts that I’ve studied that place the beginnings of their ancestor arts with Chinese Buddhists fleeing persecution during the T’ang Dynasty (as well as later periods.)

The first problem with this theory is that historians have found it to be unsubstantiated and dubious. While the belief that Bodhidharma introduced the Chinese to martial arts is one of the most widely believed and cited pieces of martial arts lore, Meir Shahar in his book The Shaolin Monastery [http://www.amazon.com/The-Shaolin-Monastery-History-Religion/dp/082483349X] states that the evidence doesn’t support this popular belief. Specifically, the only historical documentation of this theory is a document that was written in the 1600’s that the author claimed was “discovered” from an earlier time—the problem is that the language usage isn’t consistent with the claim that the document was from a much earlier period, and there are many verified mistakes in the document.

Even if Shahar and other historians are wrong, the evidence that Bodhidharma came from southern India and that he studied Kalaripayattu specifically seems to be non-existent. There is at least one popular theory of Bodhidharma that puts the origin of this famous spiritual leader outside of India altogether. If the aforementioned Indian historian was right and Kalari developed during 11th century wars, then it’s late for the life of Bodhidharma by some 500 years.

The challenge is that it’s difficult to compare the modern martial arts and see definitive evidence of historic connections. Some will say, “But Kalaripayattu doesn’t look like Shaolin Kung fu (or any other subsequent arts) at all.” While it’s not true that they don’t look anything alike, it’s true that they look very different. However, what one has to keep in mind is not only did Kung fu continue to evolve in order to optimize to its circumstance, its predecessor system (whether Kalaripayattu or otherwise) would have continued to evolve as well. The Kalaripayattu of today most likely looks quite different from 11th century Kalaripayattu, but we can’t know how so in any detail. This could make for some pretty rapid divergence. Others may say, “But, hey, I do see the similarities in kicks and postures and so forth.” This may be true as well, but can one be sure that one of those commonalities is causal of the other? What if it’s just the constraints of the human body that make all martial arts similar at some level of granularity?

My intent is neither to destroy origin stories nor to discredit any martial art. Obviously, Kalaripayattu has a long history, and the fact that it survived to modern times is a testament to its value over that time. Combat is a harsh evolutionary environment, and things that don’t work for the situations they face are likely to die with the people who practice those systems. However, I think it’s important for warriors to not succumb to false fables because they must see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be.