Historical and Mythic Origins of Two South Indian Martial Arts: Varma Kalai and Kalarippayattu

In this article, two south Indian martial arts will be presented, with a particular emphasis on Kalarippayattu, which was heavily influenced by the second, Varma Kalai (Zarrilli 1998: 29-30). A brief examination of the historical and mythological origins of these martial arts as well as their influence on each other and other Asian martial traditions will be given.

The Varma Kalai tradition, sometimes also known as Varma Ati, of Tamil Nadu, a province in southern India, has a mixture of Aryan and Dravidian origins. It is said that a sage by the name of Agastya was taught the martial art by the son of Siva, Murugan, and upon returning to Tamil Nadu, this sage taught it to the rest of the siddhas (masters/teachers) (Luijendijk 60-61). Varma Kalai, however, is not simply a martial art form, but heavily focuses on medicine and anatomy. For example, the varma of Varma Kalai refer to the body’s vital spots that can be exploited to harm or to heal, and even to revive those previously believed to be dead. This tradition of Tamil Nadu is very strong in its southernmost districts of Travancore and Kanyakumari (Zarrilli 1992: 37-39).

Kalarippayattu, or Kalarippayat, is made up of two words, kalari (meaning place) and payattu (meaning practice) and is the name of the traditional Indian martial art originating from the Kerala province of south India (Zarrilli 1998: 25). Due to the proximity of the regions, Kerala’s southern Kalarippayattu style is viewed as almost a mixture with Tamil Nadu’s Varma Kalai, and indeed the two provinces share a similar culture. In the north of Kerala, however, the distinction is very clear as the geographical separation was greater. That said, over the years many traditional aspects of northern Kalarippayattu, such as training in pits, have made their way into some schools in the south, and a few masters of southern Kalarippayattu and Varma Kalai live and teach in the north (Zarrilli 1992: 38-39).

The Dravidian (Tamil) influences were introduced to Kerala by hundreds of years of war between the Cera, Cola and Pandya dynasties, in which Varma Kalai was developed as the traditional school of warfare (Luijendijk 45). The Aryan Dhanur Veda (chapters 249-52 of the Agni Purana) means “science of archery” but was a treatise referring to many forms of combat, and is one of many northern Indian influences to be introduced in Kerala (Zarrilli 1998: 33). From the merging of these two influences, and many years of development, come three distinct fighting systems within Kalarippayattu (Luijendijk 43-44).

Like Varma Kalai, Kalarippayattu entails as much fighting as it does healing and is regarded as a study of war and medicine. From the Aryan influences, the Dhanur Veda treats the war aspect, and the Ayurveda treats the medicinal and healing aspect of Kalarippayattu. It is these Vedic traditions from which Drona derives his teaching of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata (Zarrilli 1979: 114-116).

In order to find the more mythic origins of Kalarippayattu, however, one should refer to the Keralolpathi, a history of the Kerala region, and the Mahabharata. Similar to the stories of Agastya from Tamil Nadu, one finds stories in these works of the warrior-sage Parasurama. A host of tales, some more fictional than others give this man a colourful, if not entirely clear, life.

Parasurama (meaning Rama with the axe), was the son of a Brahmin, Jamadagni, and was given his axe by none other than the god Siva, who also taught him Kalarippayattu (Luijendijk 46). Siva is said to have been so impressed by this young Brahmin’s devotion and martial prowess, that he granted him a boon of weapons and the knowledge of warfare. One of these weapons is the axe, upon which many of the folk stories and legends of Parasurama are hinged.

According to a poem by N. Balamani Amma, the mother of Parasurama was a Ksatriya woman by the name of Renuka, from whom he presumably got his knack for warfare to begin with (Amma 125, verse 3). One day, Jamadagni ordered his sons to kill their mother and only Parasurama was obedient and devoted enough to his father to kill her, thus he cut off her head with his axe (verse 4). This aspect of devotion in the story is related to the modern devotion of the Kalarippayattu student to his or her guru. After killing his mother, Parasurama wandered the forests pondering dharma and upon his return found that a group of adharmic Ksatriya had stolen his family’s sacred cow. Having just pondered the importance of righteousness, Parasurama set out to kill all the unrighteous Ksatriya (verse 7). When he returned home from a later trip, he found that more Ksatriya kings had killed his father and so he set out another time and slaughtered the world’s population of Ksatriya (tens of thousands) 21 times over with his divine axe (verse 10). It is because of this annihilation of Ksatriya that many Hindus claim Parasurama to be the sixth avatar of Visnu, having fulfilled the avatars duty of ridding the world of the unrighteous kings. As the gods themselves kill the asuras, a warrior upholds dharma by killing his enemy (Luijendijk 45). Now that the world is free of adharmic Ksatriyas, according to the poem, the remorseful Parasurama went to ponder upon his actions and ended up throwing the instrument of such terrible destruction far into the sea. Over the space of some years, the waters receded up to the point where the axe fell, and this new land, Kerala, was a land of temporary purity and creativity, perfection and fertility. To restore the balance, a mingling of new Ksatriya and Brahmin occurred in this land, also identifying Parasurama with Visnu (verse 12-14).

From this point, there are two clashing versions of Parasurama’s story, regarding how it relates to Kalarippayattu. In the Mahabharata, the period of fertility and perfection in this new land affected every species, including the ascetic Brahmins Parasurama brought to mate with the Ksatriya women who were left by his earlier slaughter. Their offspring are the Brahmaksatra, or Brahmin-Ksatriya, that ruled Kerala righteously for a time (Ganguli 130).

The other version, from the Keralolpathi, claims that Parasurama brought 3600 Brahmin with him from the north into his new land and gave it to them. He taught the priests (including Drona from the Mahabharata) in the art of Kalarippayattu, or warfare in general, and they became the Brahmaksatra, the priest-warriors of Kerala. Oft times these men are viewed as degraded ardhabrahmanas or half-Brahmin (Zarrilli 1998: 31-32). No matter the social status of these so called half-Brahmin, throughout history they obviously thought themselves as the inheritors of Kerala from Parasurama himself, who established for them 32 settlements within the province. In these 32 settlements, he divided them into the four groups that eventually form the four Nambudiri Brahmin families. These four groups are the Ugram Velli, Ghoram Velli, Ullutturuttiyyattu, and Dronam Velli (Zarrilli 1998: 32). He taught each a different aspect of Kalarippayattu and from these four families, 21 masters emerged and formed their own salai or schools of the martial art. The number eventually grew to around 108 salai, and some kalari (modern salai) can trace their origins back to these original schools of Kalarippayattu (Luijendijk 46). From these salai, the Brahmins taught the cattar, or Brahmin students, in their religious training as well as martial and medicinal training. However, despite the mingling of class/caste duties among ancient practitioners of Kalarippayattu, social divisions remained and the kalari were created as training centres for the other castes. Eventually, the Brahmins receded back into the duties of priesthood and land ownership, and the salai ceased to exist, giving way to the important Nayar caste from the kalari (Pati 179).

It is at one of these ancient salai, however, that Luijendijk claims the Buddhist missionary Bodhidharma was schooled before he ventured north into China, and eventually to a Shaolin monastery itself. If he was trained in a salai, then it is almost certain he knew Kalarippayattu, therefore it may be the primary influence of Shaolin Kung Fu and every other martial art derived from it (Luijendijk 47).

Modern Kalarippayattu crystallized into what it is today during the 11th/12th centuries, in the times of the 100 year war between the Cera and Cola, but the martial art is certainly very different from what it was during the time of the first Brahmaksatra (Zarrilli 1992: 37-39). As proof of this, neither the axe nor the bow are practiced in modern kalari; this is indeed strange because the principal weapon of Parasurama was the axe, and the Dhanur Veda clearly indicates archery as the purest form of combat. Today Kalarippayattu is a standing martial art that values armed combat over hand-to-hand; the common weapons today are the dagger, sword, flexible sword, staff, and spear (Prasad 2016).

These modern kalari still maintain their historically divine connection with the god Siva. The patron or guardian deity of every kalari is either a form of Siva’s daughter, Bhagavati, his consort, Sakti, or some combination/form of both of these suras (Zarrilli 1998: 69). Some other deities that preside over modern kalari may be local ancestors or heroes fallen in battle, and each gurukkal, or head teacher at a kalari, is said to be the embodiment of each former gurukkal all the way back to Parasurama (Zarrilli 1998: 116).


Amma, N. B. (1980) “The Story of the Axe.” Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2: 124-131.

Ganguli, K. M. (1990 (1883)) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. .

Luijendijk, D. H. (2008) Kalarippayat: The Structure and Essence of an Indian Martial Art. Lulu.com.

Mohindar, M. (Director) (2016) The Origin of All Martial Arts [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from https://youtube.com/watch?v=ol84oM_bjeg&t=168s.

Pati, G. (2010) “Kalari and Kalarippayattu of Kerala South India: Nexus of the Celestial, Corporeal, and the Terrestrial.” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 18, No. 2: 178-180.

Zarrilli, P. B. (1979) “Kalarippayatt, Martial Art of Kerala.” The Drama Review, Vol. 23, No. 2: 113-116.

—. (1992) “To Heal and/or To Harm: The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam) in Two South Indian Martial Traditions Part 1: Focus on Kerala’s Kalarippayattu.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 1, No. 1: 36-67.

—. (1998) When the Body Becomes All Eyes. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Related Reading

Ayyar, K. V. Krishna (1928-32) “The Kerala Mamakam.” Kerala Society Papers 2, Series 6: 324-330.

Nayar, Cirakkal T. (1983) Kalarippayattu. Calicut: Cannannore Printing Works.

Sieler, Roman (2015) Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets: Medicine and Martial Arts in South India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zarrilli, P. B. (2001) “Kalarippayattu”. In T. A. Green, Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia (pp. 225-231). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.












Dhanur Veda





Cera/Cola Dynasty



Varma Kalai


This article was written by: Jace Briand (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.