East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Kalaripayattu: the oldest martial art


Did I ever tell you that reality surpasses fiction nine times out of ten?
Sure I did.
So now I’m finally pushing the pedal to the metal for the Hope & Glory roleplaying game handbook, and it is my habit, having built the general structure of the book, I’m doing some spot-on research to deepen the background and add some vivid, fun and unexpected detail.
And last night (insomnia, remember?) I was checking a few facts and trying something different for the characters in the game to do.
Hope & Glory started its existence as a steampunk setting but has developed in various extra directions, incorporating scientific romance, lost world novels, pulp and adventure stories, and even part of what those pesky kids call decopunk. And in the first handbook it will have a strong Indian flavor.
So I told myself – why not Indian martial arts?


And it was so that I discovered Kalaripayattu – a martial art that in my eye surpasses fictional analogs hands down.

For the uninitiated – and I guess that makes the majority of us – Kalaripayattu is probably the most ancient surviving martial art around.
Meaning, maybe the ancient Egyptians had their own fighting schools, but those are gone. Originally created by the Sixth Avatara of Vishnu (or so the story goes) Kalaripayattu is still being practised today – and this despite a ban by the British authorities in 1804, after the techniques of this traditional warfare school were used in a revolt, basically to kick British ass. Badly.

As the video above explains, Kalarippayattu includes a full set of techniques and is, therefore, similar to Japanese Budo, as a sort of umbrella definition that includes bare-handed fighting, swordfighting and other techniques, and even its own branch of medicine. While many of the moves clearly show the connection with yoga, and the practice also incorporates elements from traditional dances, what I find particularly impressive are the speed of the confrontations, the amazing flexibility of the fighters’ bodies… and the flexible sword, the urumi.
The flexible sword alone is going to make my Hope & Glory players go wild.
But there are also techniques for using a towel or a sash as a weapon, and this is the martial art for which the katar punch-dagger was designed.


So, now, the voice Kiripayattu will replace the generic Martial Arts entry in the rulesbook. This will make the whole more homogeneous, provide more color and texture to the setting, and it will hopefully be exciting and new for the players. Because after all that’s the main purpose of my research – find something that makes the game more fun, more spectacular.
But who knows, maybe this little entry will also spread the word about this incredible art, which is I think a good thing, because we often forget the beauty and variety of our world’s cultures.


And yes, this is one more little bit that will help make Hope & Glory awesome.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Kalaripayattu: the oldest martial art

  1. Such an interesting post! The history of martial arts often crosses fantastic literature or roleplay settings. I remember that a lot of techniques and weapons of this martial art were described in Kentaro Miura’s Berserk (but there, the Urumi was called “Urmin”). I suggest you to check the images depicting the fights between Guts and these martial arts users in that manga. They could give you some good ideas for your setting.


  2. GURPS had moves for this martial art, I don’t remember if it was in the Martial arts sourcebook or in some article on Pyramyd magazine. I have a sect of lizardmen in my Norindaal setting that are based on Indian and Indonesian weapon culture and make use of the flexible sword (which they call “long tail”) and even shadow-fighting techniques with the kriss, giving them the ability to nail targets down by throwing a kriss knife at their shadow).


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