Combat Code: Martial Arts Of South India

Combat Code: Martial Arts Of South India
People performing Kalaripayattu on a beach in Kerala Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Sticks and stones may not break your bones, but people practicing these martial arts might

Sahana Iyer
January 17 , 2020
05 Min Read

A kick here. A dodge there. Fluid movements, as if trying to follow absent music. It is not inconceivable for one to be mesmerised by martial arts. Standing on the pillars of discipline, technique and hard work, these systems of combat are almost hypnotic in their rhythm and method. International martial arts such as the likes of karate, taekwondo, and jiu-jitsu relentlessly rise in popularity on movie screens. However, there are many ancient ones in our own backyard. Martial arts are believed to have been mentioned in the Vedas. Distinct forms of these can be found throughout the country, but it is South India that boasts of what is believed to be the oldest of them all. 

Kalaripayattu is considered to be the oldest martial art form in the country


Kalaripayattu gets its name from the words Kalari (battleground)and Payattu (fight). Believed to be the oldest-known martial arts in the country, it is also arguably the most recognised. While the origins of this combat technique are unknown, the gap is filled by religious myths. The story goes that it was taught by Lord Shiva to Parasurama (a disciple of Lord Vishnu), who then passed on the knowledge to his 21 students. Kalaripayattu soon spread across the state of Kerala as Parasurama opened kalaris throughout the state. Another school of thought attributes the origin to Sage Agastya and Buddhist monk Bodhidharma.

The martial art form was in fact, used as the code of combat by South Indian dynasties in history. Its pinnacle came with the hundred-year-long war between the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas — constant war helped people hone and develop the skill. British infiltration posed a threat as they opposed combat and weapon training, fearing mutiny. The craft braved through the ban, owing to the rural areas where it was practiced in secrecy. Independence brought Kalaripayattu back with fervour and it has ever since been practiced enthusiastically, not just by locals, but by urban Indians in different cities.

Coordination between the mind and body is emphasised upon. Hand-to-hand combat, as well as wielding a variety of weapons — staff, spear, mace, flexible sword, amongst others — are a part of the martial art form. It is also a source of income as people perform for tourists.   

Just across the border in Tamil Nadu, supposedly 5,000 years ago, Silambam was formed. The martial art form is believed to be established by Sage Agastya. The term was founded by merging Silam (hill) and the Marathi word bam (bamboo), literally translating to bamboo from the hill. In the early years of humanity, animals were warded off with the use of sticks — this act was later extracted and developed into Silambam. Fought with staffs and sticks, it made an active appearance at the courts of King Puli Thevar, and Maruthu Pandiyar in the 1700s. The effective technique was further utilised to resist the British reign. Unfortunately, when the region was defeated by the British, the code of combat was also banned, much like Kalaripayattu. The colonial powers were unable to comprehend the utilisation of simplistic weapons, as they had more high-tech ammunition. Unlike Kalaripayattu, the popularity of Silambam tumbled due to the ban. The current demonstration of the martial arts features a 1.68 metre-long stick, coupled with the use of metallic whips, spears, and deer horn. Footwork and agility are the cornerstones of the techniques. It may no longer be a valid code in war situations, however it has become a fitness and sport option. The cultural opportunities are limited at the moment.

Advanced students learning Silambam

Under the umbrella of Silambam is the unarmed martial arts known as Kuttu Virasai. Also established in the state of Tamil Nadu, it is a precursor training with an aim to advance the student towards Silambam. What is accomplished with sticks in the later stages, are first ingrained in the students’ movements with their bare hands. This formal training is a type of unarmed combat. Kuttu, in fact, literally translates to 'empty-handed'. Raw animal activities and actions lend to the performers' postures and movements. Grappling, throws, locks, striking and punches build the basis of the martial art form. Footwork — in this case, known as Kaaladi — is essential to the skills. Many months of this preliminary training are dedicated to perfecting the footwork. Only upon mastering the techniques of Silambam with merely their hands do the performers receive the right to work with a stick.

Sticks may be the main event for a competition of Silambar, but they are merely an opening act for a dangerous demonstration of Kathi Samu. The name Kathi refers to a sword. Developed in Andhra Pradesh, this discipline involves combat that is introduced by a fight with sticks as weapons (known as Vairi), followed with mighty, long and curved swords. Initially, it was mastered by the royal armies of the state. This martial art form was unleashed in wars and taught particularly for such a situation. Historically, the technique was patronised by the Kingdom of Vizianagaram, and Karvetinagaram. Unfortunately, the art form has now shed its war origins, and is only practiced by people who were associated with, or served the royal families.     

Reading up about these martial arts has got me throwing punches in the air (and clumsily knocking some objects). What about you?

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