At 76-plus years old, Meenakshi Raghavan from India looks like any typical grandmother. But once she wields a sword, Meenakshi strikes a menacing pose as she taps into the ancient martial art form of Kalaripayattu that she has been trained in for several decades.
Meenakshi is believed to be the oldest female practitioner of Kalaripayattu, a martial arts form that has a history of more than 2,000 years. At just five years of age, her parents enrolled her in a local dance class. Her master saw that she had a unique skill in moving her body and suggested that she learn Kalaripayattu to utilize her talents fully.
She stopped attending school after 10th grade and devoted her time fully into learning the martial art. When she was 17 years of age, Meenakshi married her martial arts master. She later became a mother of four children and got fully engrossed in raising them, as a result of which she had to take a break from actively pursuing martial arts training. However, Meenakshi continued to assist her husband in various Kalaripayattu programs and events.
When her husband died in 2010, Meenakshi took charge of his training center and started teaching Kalaripayattu. After media started covering her story, Meenakshi soon turned into an inspirational idol. In 2017, the government of India awarded her the prestigious Padma Shri award, one of the highest civilian honors in the country.
At present, Meenakshi teaches Kalaripayattu to about 150 students. Though her students come from all genders, females make up one-third of the disciples. “While it is an exercise for the mind, body, and soul, it is also a very demanding exercise requiring immense concentration, devotion, and commitment… Every girl should learn the art, even if only to defend herself in modern times,” she said to Harmony.
The martial style of Kalaripayattu is believed to have originated around the 3rd to 2nd century BCE, according to records from South India. However, the present form only developed around the 6th century CE during the period of the Chera and Chola dynasties and was practiced extensively by warriors in the region of Kerala. Kalaripayattu incorporates many elements from yoga postures as outlined by the author of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali. Certain components of Ayurveda were also integrated into the art form when it came to the upkeep and treatment of the body.
When India came under British rule, strict restrictions were placed on the practice of martial arts by the public. In regions of Malabar in Kerala, those found to be training in weapons would be detained. Such actions led to a decline in the popularity of Kalaripayattu. The fact that law enforcers could now use a gun instead of having to fight with knives and swords also contributed to the decline of martial arts training. But in recent times, the art form is seeing a revival among the local populace.
Kalaripayattu is also believed to have inspired Chinese Kung Fu. An ancient Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, visited China during the 5th to 6th century CE for transmitting Buddhism. In the process, he started training the monks, eventually leading to the development of Shaolin Kung Fu.
According to traditional Indian legends, the techniques of Kalaripayattu originated from the study of eight warrior animals — the battle boar, cobra, lion, horse, buffalo, elephant, fighting cock, and tiger.