Kalari is a traditional school of learning, martial arts and indigenous medicine in Kerala. Though its dominant, Sanskritized and violent applications by the Savarna or upper castes are linked to the militarization and feudalization of Kerala during the middle ages that established the Savarna high culture and hegemony in Kerala; its popular and Avarna or subaltern versions are part of people’s resistance, health care and self defense against oppression, invasion and domination.
The ancient Kalari at Cheerappanchira of old Karappuram or current Cherthala in Alapuzha district lying on the western banks of lake Vembanad to the west of Kumarakom and Pathiramanal island is renowned for its legendary warriors and inclusive martial arts masters who even got the prestigious privilege of teaching their life saving arts to the mythical Ayyappan of Pandalam dynasty now enshrined in Sabarimala according to folklore and popular belief. It is interesting to note that Ayyappan also known as Dharma Sastha (a synonym of the Buddha) is also associated with the Buddhist past of south India.
It is evident that the family heads called the Panickers of Cheerappanchira household traditionally practiced Kalari and were chiefs in the army of Karappuram kings from the early middle ages onwards. It could be well assumed that their inheritance of letters, health care and martial arts is a lasting legacy of the shared Buddhist and Sramana heritage of Avarnas in Kerala who were treated as untouchables and out castes under the hegemony of Brahmanic Hinduism later as rebellious and resisting marginal people who never submitted to Brahmanism and refused to offer martial and sexual slavery to the ”twice born lords of the land” who could easily lure and convert kings and queens and some of the power hungry opportunistic sections who instantly served them to establish the regime of caste and untouchability.
Those who submitted to Brahmanism and offered it life long service and the notorious sexual colonies were absorbed in the hierarchical Varna system as Sudras, the fourth and subservient Varna in Chathurvarnyam and those who never submitted to the ideological and physical pressure of Brahmanism to become sex slaves and menial servants, foot soldiers/militia or henchmen were condemned as Chandals or Avarnas or those without any Varna or caste (those who are outside the Varna system).
According to legend Ayyappan the crown prince of Pandalam (a Pandya diasopora from Madurai) developed an attachment with a young daughter of his master at this Kalari and she became enshrined as the Malikapurathamma at Sabarimala later at some period in the early medieval era. It is clear that this ancient Avarna family of Ezhava community enjoyed remarkable familial connections with not only the Karappuram kings but also with the Pandalam dynasty and their western ghat regions as well at least from the 14th century onwards.
During the early and mid 20th century pioneering Marxist leaders like A K Gopalan from Malabar were given confidential asylum in this ancient household during their anti state campaigns from underground and he married a young woman from Cheerappanchira called Suseela who later became an early revolutionary woman leader of the Marxist party in Kerala and India.
The current head of the household Mr Somasekhara Panicker has been involved in reviving the ancient Kalari for the last few years and is preserving the greater legacies and cultural heritage of the region and the household that has an important place in the cultural history of Kerala as a vital center of learning and life defensive skills in the vulnerable margin of Kerala that disseminated everyday knowledge among the people or the subaltern successively and successfully for centuries.
During late May 2011 I visited the place and talked to this martial arts guru about the history and cultural pasts of the family and their indigenous practices for generations across centuries defying various waves of invasion and hegemony.
The discussion revealed the key role played by the family and the community in preserving and popularizing the native practices of physical medicine and health care among the untouchable and Avarna people of Kerala especially in the marginal coastal land of Muhamma, Cherthala and Alapuzha in general.
This great resistance legacy of the people at the bottom under extremely challenged conditions of nature and culture must be studied and analyzed in depth to reveal the omissions, erasures and silences in the cultural history of Kerala and south India.