Kalari or Kalaripayattu of ancient India is the world’s oldest martial arts. Infact, it is the mother of all martial arts in the world. Ancient buddhist monks who travelled from India to China to spread buddhism are said to have taught these martial arts to the Chinese.
For instance, one of the buddhist monks Bodhi Dharma who founded the Zen buddhism and is called Chan in China was a Kalarippayattu master himself! From his native Kancheepuram in South Indian state of Tamilnadu, he went to China in 522 AD to the court of Chinese emperor Liang Nuti. He taught Kalarippayattu at the Shaolin monastery to the buddhist monks to defend themselves from the frequent attacks by local bandits and dacoits. It has to be noted that all far eastern martial arts are taught by Buddhist monks. In China it is Kung Fu, Karate. In Japan the Samurai warriors are Zen Buddhists.
The Shaolin temple itself was founded by an Indian Dhyana master Buddhabhadra. On one of the walls of the Shaolin temple a fresco can be seen, showing south Indian dark-skinned monks, teaching the light-skinned Chinese the art of bare-handed fighting. On this painting (see image below) are inscribed: Tenjiku Naranokaku which means: the fighting techniques to train the body (which come) from India.
Please note that Buddhism was born in India and then spread to rest of the world including China, Japan, Thailand, Srilanka, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia etc.
As a Chinese Ambassador to USA, Hu Shih once said India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.. He was referring to the spread of Buddhism into China.
Kalaripayattu means Practicing the arts of the battlefield. Kalari means battlefield. Kalaripayattu is sometimes in short called as Kalari . It is today more prevalent in the south Indian state of Kerala. This art is said to have had its origin in the Rishi Agastya and in Parashurama. Agastya is a great name in Ayurveda – the main Indian medical system. Parashurama is also said to have reclaimed the submerged Kerala from the Arabian Sea (Will write on this aspect of Kerala someday)
The oldest reference to this martial art is found in the Rigveda and Atharvaveda. In Rigveda it is mentioned that lord Indra defeated the daemon Vritasura using one of the marmam techniques of Kalari. Marmam are pressure points in the human body and experienced practitioners can disable or kill their opponents by a mere touch of the opponent’s Marmam. This technique is taught only to the promising and level headed persons, to prevent its misuse. For Indian movie fans, this technique is used in the famous Indian movie Indian of Kamal Hassan by the aged but still energetic hero who fights against corruption.
Sushruta, one of the famous Indian ayurvedic medical practitioner and researcher who lived in 6th century BC identified and defined 107 vital points of the human body in his book Sushruta Samhita. Of these 107 points, 64 were classified as being lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick.
Students start with unarmed kicks and punches, then would graduate to sticks, swords, spears and daggers and finally study the marmas.
The Discovery Channel says Possibly the oldest martial art in the world, Kalarippayattu is still being practiced widely today in the Indian state of Kerala. Shaolin chuan is said to have evolved from Kalarippayattu.
Additional Information added on May 26, 2013
Yijin Jing, a Chinese text written during the times of Ming dynasty, talks about 12 exercises attributed to 12 animals that Bodhidharma studied for 9 years and taught at Shaolin. This is also the root of the most animal based martial arts developed in China. The entire institutionalization of Martial arts and the roots of modern Kung Fu are from this Shaolin.
The Okinawan martial arts and the Korean martial arts have their roots in the book Ji Xiao Xin Shu written by the Ming General Qi Jiguang who based it on Shaolin Quan Fa, the first principles from Shaolin.
The Origins of Indian martial arts can be traced back to the Dhanur Veda of the ancient Indian Vedic Civilization. Vishnu Purana considers these martial arts as one of the 18 branches of knowledge. It is said that Parashurama who recovered the land of Kerala from the seas established 42 kalari training schools and trained 21 masters to protect the land he created.