Meet the Sword-Wielding Grandmother Bringing Women Back to Indian Martial Arts

Clad in a crimson sari with a gold border, Meenakshi Raghavan wields a sword and

Clad in a crimson sari with a gold border, Meenakshi Raghavan wields a sword and a defend. The petite lady assumes a formidable stance and matches just about every strike from her opponent—twice her sizing and less than half her age—with an inform ferocity that displays in her eyes. Meenakshi Amma, as her family members and disciples fondly contact her, is at the “kalari,” or arena, in Vadakara, a modest town in northern Kerala, India, education her learners the moves of the martial art of kalaripayattu. Just one disciple, as her college students are recognised, swings his sword through the air but Meenakshi Amma out of the blue twists on the mud flooring dodging the attack and counter placing, taking her disciple by shock.

Anything about Meenakshi Amma is a shock. At 81 many years of age, Meenakshi Amma is the oldest girl “gurukkal,” or trainer, actively training this historic observe from the southern Indian state of Kerala. She is credited in popularizing the as soon as-banned exercise and with inspiring women—long excluded from the kalari—to consider up the martial artwork as indicates to self-protection.

Derived from the Sanskrit term “khalurika” that means battlefield or armed service education ground, kalaripayattu—or merely, payattu—dates back again countless numbers of many years and was usually practiced by the Nair community warriors of Kerala. Yoga postures paired with wooden sticks, metallic blades and bare-hand fight methods make it one particular of the more intricate martial arts. “Kalaripayattu is a entire art kind that has the grace of a dancer and deadly moves of a warrior. It synchronizes both equally mental and bodily schools and assessments the serious boundaries of the entire body and thoughts.’ claims Meenakshi Amma.

Kalaripayattu had been a part of the tradition in Kerala for centuries until it was banned below British rule in the early 19th century.

For centuries kalarippayattu was deeply ingrained in the society of Kerala, in accordance to the late historian and Kalaripayattu master, Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair. It was both equally a manner of warfare and a process of settling disputes involving feuding people. In the course of this time, girls experienced along with men. Some, this kind of as Unniyarcha, determined as a 16th-century female warrior, grew to become fixtures in the folklore of Kerala.

But the prominence of kalaripayattu had already started its sluggish drop with the arrival of Europeans on the shores of Kerala all around the late 15th century. Its conventional weapons were being no match for the firearms of the Portuguese. The ultimate blow arrived with British rule. An armed revolt amongst 1796 and 1805 by the blended forces of Pazhassi Raza, Nair warriors, and Kurchiya tribes of Wayanad, resulted in the British officer Lord William Bentick issuing a govt order in 1804, forever banning possession of weapons and weapons instruction to curb future revolts. For virtually 150 a long time underneath the oppressive British rule, the younger men and women could not learn and follow the traditional martial art.

The ban on the observe of kalaripayattu by the British lasted till the countrywide Swadeshi Movement, defying British rule, began in the early 1900s. The century-and-fifty percent ban had nearly wiped absent the custom of systematic follow of the martial art. With the Swadeshi movement, having said that, started the gradual revival when some of the typically properly trained gurus restarted education villagers covertly. It was only in 1958, practically a 10 years right after independence of India that an structured exertion in direction of the revival of martial arts started off with the development of the Point out Kalaripayattu Affiliation.

Meenakshi Amma, pictured here as a child with her father, started kalaripayattu at the traditional age of seven, despite the fact that few girls participated in the martial art when it reemerged in the mid 20th century.
Meenakshi Amma, pictured in this article as a baby with her father, started out kalaripayattu at the traditional age of 7, despite the simple fact that few girls participated in the martial art when it reemerged in the mid 20th century.

Meenakshi Amma was 7, the regular age for starting up kalaripayattu instruction, when her father released her to the observe on the advice of her Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) teacher. She commenced education below her long term husband, the famous late VP Raghavan Gurukkal in 1949 at Kadathanad Kalari Sangham in Kerala. “It is so much a section of me now, just like breathing” the matriarch suggests now.

But in the mid-20th century, it was unusual to see a lady in the kalari. Women of all ages experienced develop into homebound, and the legends of 16th century woman warriors like Unniyarcha ended up record, cited and extolled only in ballads. “I obtained a lot of encouragement though,” suggests Meenakshi Amma. “My dance guru and most of the family supported the plan of me getting skilled in an exercise that was predominantly a male bastion.”

When most of the compact variety of ladies who did research kalaripayattu gave up soon after marriage and childbirth, Meenakshi Amma, who married her kalaripayattu instructor, continued her apply. “I took a break for the duration of my pregnancies and when my youngsters were being more youthful, but I was usually by my husband’s facet each working day at the kalari. I organized the organic oils and Ayurvedic medications for ‘marmchikilsa’ [massage treatment for vital pressure points of the body], cuts, bruises, pains and aches, an necessary part of teaching of kalaripayattu,” she recollects.

Meenakshi Amma's example brought more girls and women to kalaripayattu. “Learning the martial arts makes women fearless,” she says.
Meenakshi Amma’s illustration introduced more girls and gals to kalaripayattu. “Learning the martial arts would make gals fearless,” she suggests.

Meenakshi Amma stepped into her husband’s shoes as a gurukkal right after his loss of life in 2009 and has been teaching younger and previous, gentlemen and girls from across the state and overseas. In 2017, “She was like a mom to her college students,” says Kunnathukuzhi Francis Thomas Gurukkal, just one of her pupils who runs a kalaripayattu school of his personal in Wayanad.

In 2017, Meenakshi Amma was awarded the Padma Shri, 1 of India’s greatest civilian awards for her do the job. In her paper in Women’s Reports, Ashitha Mandakathingal writes, “The significant media protection Meenakshi acquired right after her national recognition put Kalaripayattu in limelight in national headlines making it popular chatting position, major to the revival of Kalaripayattu in present-day Kerala.”

Seeing an previous girl handling spears, swords and sticks simply created a want and self esteem between youthful gals to master kalaripayattu. “Women must just take up payattu to empower by themselves,” Meenakshi Amma states. “It not only can make the physique much better but also can help in improving endurance, concentration, and regulate more than motor skills.” She provides, “Learning the martial arts will make girls fearless.”