The building where kalarippayattu is practised is called the kalari. There are special guidelines regarding its construction which are based on the rules from the Vastushastra – the ancient Indian book on architecture and construction. The rules take into account among others the climate conditions that prevail in Kerala, and thanks to this in early mornings and evening – which is the time for practice – it is chilly inside a kalari.
Depending on the style, two traditional types of kalaris can be distinguished: kuzhikalari in the vadakkan style and nilakkalari (or tharakkalari) in the tekkan style. In the old times, for special duels also ankakalari was built. Kuzhikkalari is a rectangular room of dimensions usually 10,5m and 5,25m, the bottom of which is dug out around 0,5m under the ground level. Then it is compressed and hardened. The depth of the pit depends on the region of Kerala and it varies from 0,5m to 2m. Around the pit, a bricked wall can be built, or wooden or palm-leaf paravans can be erected. Sometimes there is no wall at all between the sloping roof and the ground, leaving just a little a slit.
A kalari of the Southern style used to built of the ground level, or was dug a small amount, and its walls were built from bricks or stones. At present, also measures of the kuzhikalari are applied. Usually though, it is wider than a kuzhikkalari because of a different character of training. While exercises and sparings in the Northern style usually take places in a line, forwards and backwards, in the Southern style students train in various directions, so they need more space.
Roofs, erected on wooden beams, are traditionally thickly covered with coconut palm leaves, nowadays though they can be made also of tiles or metal sheets. In the tekkan style, it is possible also to practise outdoors. In some schools, kalari can be a part of a bigger building which contains also other rooms (for example a doctor’s surgery).
A Hindu kalari can not only be considered a temple, but in the past it was erected also as a part of a temple. It also happens sometimes that temples are built on the same spots where before kalaris were built. A kalari should be built on the axis East-West with an entrance located on the shorter side on the Eastern side so that the morning sunshine floods in and lights the puttara (an altar dedicated to gods and old masters) which is placed in the South- Western corner of the building. A puttara is formed of seven quarter-circles put one on another. Before a training session, it is sprinkled with fresh water and flower petals, and an olive lamp and incense are lit. In this way the gods and ancestors of the kalari, as well as the space are worshipped.
To the left from the puttara, on the Western wall of the kalari, portraits of ancestors of the guru are placed (gurutrara), as well as pictures of gods, for example Shiva, Parvati, Bhagavati, Durga, Parasurama. In the Christian kalaris, there can be portraits of the saints – St. George or St. Sebastian. Above the portraits and on the rest free space of the walls, weapons are placed. In case of kalaris ran by Christian or Muslim masters these rules do not have to be strictly followed. It is worth noting that in all kalaris believers of different religions can practise together. They should follow the rules of their school, but they can dedicate their work to any god.
Kalaripayattu training usually takes place from June to April. For two months – April and May – practice tends to be suspended owing to the fact that this is the time of various religious holidays, and also owing to the heat which would cause excessive tiredness of the body. A very good time for practising however is the time of monsoon (July-September) when the air is fresh and humid. It is believed that this is also the best time for massages.
Training takes place early in the morning (around 6 to 8 am) and/or in the evening (7-9pm). Usually each school has its own schedule which depends on the daily duties of the students – many of them go to school or work. On the other hand, there are foreigners who come more and more frequently to Kerala to learn kalarippayattu for a couple of months. Usually, special classes are held for them.
Traditionally kalarippayattu training should start at around the age of 7 years. Regular practice starting that early brings the best results – both in development of physical possibilities of an adept, and also in shaping his/her character and spirit. Nowadays though, people more frequently start their training in their teens or as adults.
Traditional practice dress for men is a langoti – a long piece of cotton cloth wrapped tightly around the hips and between the thighs instead of underwear. The langoti does not restrict movements, and it protects the delicate parts of the body. Traditional male dress comprises a special mundu, the kaccha and (sometimes) a cotton blouse with short sleeves. The mundu is a piece of usually white cotton cloth in a half-oval shape, with an edging of two stripes (usually red and black), and with a rope pulled through the straight end. The Mundu is worn like pants to enable freedom of movement. It is girded with a kaccha – a long belt of red cloth around two metres long, which is wrapped around the body at the level between hips and the navel. It protects the central part of the body, and also protects and sustains vital energy, which is generated in this place. Old traditional female dress comprises also a mundu, a short blouse choli (similar to the one worn with a sari) and a kaccha. Presently girls and women practise in cotton curidars (in other parts of India these are called punjabi or salwar kamiz), which are baggy pants and a tunic, girded with a kaccha. Common training dress though is very often simply sweatpants and t-shirts. Of course, students practise barefoot.
Currently in kalarippayattu the system called gurukula does not exist anymore in its original form. In earlier times this meant that children a few years old would go to their master’s house to stay there for a long period of time – from a couple to a dozen or so years. Children would stay at the master’s house, have daily duties – going to school, helping in the house, and of course studying for example a dance or playing an instrument. Nowadays in case of kalarippayattu, children just come to classes, they stay at their own homes and their duties are not strictly connected with their guru. However, they always owe him respect and help. A teacher of the Northern style of kalarippayattu is called gurukkal which exactly is a plural form of the noun guru (literally it means the one who lights the darkness, who leads out from the darkness of ignorance), and it symbolises the whole lineage of the master’s ancestors. In the Southern style, a teacher is called asan. A teacher is inevitable in the process of transmission of knowledge, especially it’s most advanced parts which in case of kalarippayattu concerns work with energy and the subtle body, and also arcana of the medical system. However, also in everyday work during training it is the master who decides when a student is ready to learn a new part of knowledge. Important moments – true rites of passage – in student’s life are always treated very specially. Among them are: starting studies with a new teacher and joining the group of his students, and later also entering new phases of studies (for example when one begins to use sharp weapons, like the knife or sword). A kalarippayattu master is not only a teacher of a martial art, but usually he is also a doctor and physiotherapist. He has a deep knowledge of natural medicines which he often makes by himself. He gives healing massages, applies hot, herbal compresses with oils, and dresses simple mechanic injuries (twisted limbs, strained muscles etc).
To enter a kalari, one should step in with the right leg, touch the ground with the right hand and then touch the forehead (and chest). In this way, respect is paid to the soil on which practice takes place, and also students express their dedication to the space and the training itself. From this moment on, the student should focus solely on the practice, leaving matters of everyday life outside the kalari. Then s/he salutes gods and previous gurus of kalarippayattu, and in the end salutes the master. In this way s/he expresses respect to the teacher and to the knowledge received from him. In the Northern style, before the training starts, students put sesame oil on their bodies which keeps them cool and reinforces blood circulation and flexibility. In the Southern style, similarly to yoga, using oil is not practised. No matter what the style, all students practise together at the same time: seniors with juniors, beginners with advanced. The tempo of practice is individual according to abilities of each student. Often, the seniors help the juniors, which is common for the Eastern way of passing the knowledge. For a long time it focuses on imitation, and only later on the individual performance of exercises and sparrings. The guru watches the training, observes all the students carefully and judges their progress. Depending on them, he decides to introduce new areas of teaching to the student or increase their effort in learning previous elements. The point is not just the correct performance of exercises or forms, but also their general attitude and behaviour. The masters sees the student’s attitude towards practice, and his/her mind and heart.
In the beginning, kalarippayattu practice focuses mainly on the physical aspect of the training. Students should train their bodies as much as possible so that they do not block them when realising the will of the mind. They should learn to control the mind, rule over their energy and manage it. This process requires a struggle with one’s own limits, fear, and lack of skills, but regular practice undertaken with honest dedication can lead towards even a spiritual change. If the dynamics of kalarippayattu, character of gestures and steps, postures, the way of connecting them and philosophy accompanying the practice coincide with the inner rhythm and qualities respected by the student, the practice gains spiritual depth. The movements of the student are filled with energy and life, and they are not empty gestures any more. Strong concentration of mind focused on one point (ekagrata) results in concentration both of the body and mind. Correct performance of movements and proper breathing should bring a free flow of energy in the body, and at the same time bring phychophysical balance. The most advanced area of knowledge includes teachings about secret practices to bring about a special accumulation of power which at the moment are passed on very rarely.