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The Ancient Martial Art of Kalaripayattu


At a cultural centre in the seaside town of Kochi in South India, three strong young men keep the traditions of Kalaripayattu alive. Every morning they wake up early to practise and every evening they perform for an audience of locals and tourists. The audience are mesmerised by their lightning-fast moves and use of weapons.

When people think of martial arts, they will usually think of fighting styles that come from the East. For example, there is karate from Japan, taekwon-do from Korea and kung-fu from China. However, not many people know that one of the oldest fighting styles actually come from the southern state of Kerala, India! The martial art of Kalaripayattu is more than three thousand years old. Legend has it that Bodhi Dharma, the founder of Shaolin Kung-Fu was a Kalaripayattu master from South India.

The name Kalaripayattu means “battlefield (kalari) training (payattu)” in the local language. This is because Kalaripayattu was first taught to young men to use in battle. Later on, it was taught to anyone who wanted to learn how to protect themselves. It then became popular for children in Kerala to start learning Kalaripayattu once they reach seven years old.

Speed and flexibility is very important in Kalaripayattu. Fighters learn how to fight with their empty hands and also using weapons. They can learn to use all kinds of weapons, like swords, whips, small daggers, shields and sticks. The fighting styles are named after the movement styles of powerful animals like the lion, tiger, elephant, crocodile and snake.

Watching a Kalaripayattu performance is an amazing experience. Fighters often jump high in the air, so high that it seems like they are flying! These performances are also very noisy because the fighters would clash their metal weapons a lot. The fighters train for hours to make sure that they remember every move.

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cultural centre (n) – place where local arts are practised and performed.
traditions (n) – local practises that are passed on over time; like from your grandfather to your father.
audience (n) – people watching a show.
mesmerised (n) – amazed.
founder (n) – a person who started something.
battlefield (n) – a place where a big fight is held, usually between two groups of soldiers.
flexibility (adj) – ability to stretch; for example, to touch your toes or to do a split.
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