Kalaripayattu: Original Martial Art from Kerala, India

India Currents

Shakthi! Power! Feminine Energy!

In today’s world women have broken the frontiers of space, air, and water. There is no mountain that they have not climbed, no desert they have not explored. Women have become world leaders; they hold important political and corporate posts. Take our very own Kamala Harris, a woman of Indian descent from California, who has broken the male legacy in our political system in the United States!

Is this just a modern phenomenon? Or has the world failed to see the power of the woman in legends, history, and mythology the world over? 

Bringing this power to the fore in every woman is Shakthi — a special self-defense program for women that focuses not just on the training of the body, but the mind as well. It helps women find that inherent deep spiritual power that made women like Kaplana Chawla, Kamala Harris, Indira Gandhi, or Mother Teresa had in order make a mark in the world.

Offered by Dr. S Mahesh Gurukkal of the Agasthyam KalariShakthi is a program that is not geographically limited. It is within the reach of every woman who wants to discover her inner strength. Not just for self-defense, but to transcend that inner barrier to rediscover herself. Dr. S Mahesh designed this program to capture the fearless feminine essence of women that has been celebrated in folklore and ancient texts. This half-day workshop with hands-on Kalari-based techniques focuses on the mind as well as the body. Confidence and presence of mind are just as important as the lightning-fast reflexes that the trainees are equipped with. 


There is one such story of Ahalya, a demure 18-year-old, who enrolled in Dr. Mahesh’s class three years ago. It was a balmy summer evening when she first set foot in the Agasthyam Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram. Demure Ahalya stood silently staring at the floor. Her father was talking to Dr. S Mahesh about admitting her along with her two younger brothers to regular Kalaripayattu training. She did not think it was going to work.

Today, Ahalya has transformed into a vivacious, vibrant 21-year-old who is the National Champion in the senior category of Kalaripayattu Chuvadu. She receives a monthly scholarship from the government of India and is treated at par with the national champions in all other sports. The dynamic transformation that Kalaripayattu training has brought about has incited her interest in training those all over the world and of all ages via online classes offered by Agasthyam Kalari.

Coming from a very prestigious and traditional lineage of Kalaripayattu maters, Dr. S Mahesh carries a deep spiritual connection to this ancient martial art created by Sage Agastya. His grandfather Krishnan was an extraordinary exponent of the ‘choondani viral marma vidya’, a technique using yogic powers through pointing a finger at opponents that immobilized them. His father is the legendary Kalari master and Sidha expert Sanal Kumar Gurukkal. 

“Fear and alertness cannot coexist actually,” admits Suchitra, a Kung Fu blackbelt in her student days who has recently taken up Kalaripayattu. “Fear shrinks our sense of space. It leads to freezing when there is an actual danger. Martial arts help the mind become fearless. Kalaripayattu is considered the mother of martial arts. Such training must be included in schooling.”

Suchitra practicing Kalaripayattu.
Suchitra practicing Kalaripayattu.

“Thanks to many popular movies, everyone knows about Unniyarcha, the legendary female warrior of Kerala,” Dr. Mahesh Gurukkal smiles, “But the fact is that boys and girls were trained together in Kalaris centuries ago. The gender gap appeared only after the British crackdown on Kalaris and the subsequent revival in the 20th century. But we are quickly gaining lost ground. It is important not just from a physical preparedness point of view, Kalaripayattu transforms the mind to deal effectively and calmly with today’s working woman’s professional stress and work-family imbalance.”

Kalaripayattu which is also known as the Vadakkan Pattukal ballads originated at the Chekavar from the Malabar region of Kerala. It is a traditional Indian martial art which originated from a small state in the southern tip of India, but is known and practised throughout the globe today.

Other than Shakthi, Agasthyam Kalari offers Nalludal, a unique Kalari-based health and fitness program for all age groups; Prana – a breathing-based energizing and rejuvenating program; Akam – Agasthyam kriya for awakening the mind; and Nithyam – a daily program based on authentic Kalaripayattu techniques. 

Sreedevi Pillai had worked in the IT industry around the world for over two decades before taking a break. “Though I had continued by Bharatanatyam training, I wasn’t sure I could start Kalaripayattu training in my 40s,” she says. “So I was surprised at the meticulously individual attention with which the Aashans (trainers) eased us into the different steps and routines in the Nalludal program. Kalari has helped me with my dance as well.”

Sreedevi as part of the Nalludal program.
Sreedevi as part of the Nalludal program.

The online classes are conducted in small batches so that individual attention is not compromised. There are participants from all over the world. The rising popularity of Kalaripayattu, along with the opportunity to start at any age, has led to the opening of Agasthyam offline city centers in different locations.

A lasting testimony to the power of the Shakthi program is Ahalya. In the Kalaripayattu performances that Agasthyam Kalari regularly gives at different venues, Ahalya fearlessly confronts three male opponents armed with swords with her bare hands. Though the action is choreographed, the danger is every bit real. As she brings down the opponents one by one into a pile and takes the victor stance in the end, there is a glimpse of a great future of fearless women being born in Kalaris across the world.

Shakthi! Onward! 

Written By-

Arun Surendran - Adviser, Operations Al Adrak trading and contracting  llc|ExecLibrary
Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the Texas A&M University 

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