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My tryst with Kali, the Filipino art of blade fighting.

Stab & Slash: Knife Fighting Or 'Kali' Is The Most Peaceful Thing I’ve Done In A Long Time

My tryst with Kali, the Filipino art of blade fighting.

“But what if I do it like this? With some sort of choke hold. What would you do?”

“You don’t know what I’m capable of.”

“Iss sab ka kuch fayeda nahi hota ladayi ke time.”

These are regular conversations I have had with martial arts practitioners in the last year. The subject of martial arts has constantly been shrouded in a ‘fish market’ exchange of opinions that challenge the merits of each different style and school in context of a combat scenario. It’s quite tiresome. Combat, after all, is the only common ground these arts share with each other.

Wax on, wax off?

I was slightly disappointed to find few practitioners interested in the benefits of developing their art outside of fighting. Or at least, I didn’t recognise any traits of said thought. Those romanticized spiritual and philosophical connotations in martial arts teachings that we know from books and historical accounts, are nonexistent. Mr Miyagi was never in the building. Therefore, considering that I’d spent a quarter of a century with virtually no memorable violent encounters – a winning streak I’d like to continue indefinitely – martial arts never truly inspired any interest in me. That was until I read about the Filipino revolution against the Spanish, and was introduced to the country’s age-old martial tradition.

The average Filipino warrior could fight using spears, staffs, sticks, short swords and knives. Image source: Wikipedia.comThe average Filipino warrior could fight using spears, short swords and knives. Image source:

I developed a morbid fascination with Kali. It is one of the oldest martial arts on the planet. Its first recorded accounts came from Spanish travelers who ended up on the shores of the Philippines prior to the invasion in the 16th century. It was one of the first Arts I’d read about that defied a lot of the other more popular traditional Arts’ concepts about engagement. For a regular dude like me, the roots of traditional Martial Arts seemed to have been born of a pacifist nature; focusing heavily on inner peace and all of that spiritual yoga jazz. Kali seemed to treat this root lesson more like a post-it reminder on its desk. It assumes the worst. Its nature is to recognise when and how shit goes from bad to worse to a brawler's rave party – and then proceed to try mastering it. Only one is meant to be left standing. A warrior’s guide to combat. Being young and curious, this got my gears all greased up. While I pictured heading to the Philippines to train at some point in my life (pipe dream), a friend promptly ended up discovering a school in Delhi a day after I’d mentioned my interest in the art to her. Splendid.

Combat. Not fighting.

The first class I attended at a school called Combat Kali, began with me being partnered with a student. They handed me a rubber knife, and asked me to stab the man in front of me. I would then proceed to spend the next two hours trying to stab and/or slash the gentleman with my blunt knife replica in the middle of Delhi’s district park on a Sunday evening. A year into learning the Art, not much has changed. But we still look forward to getting a few shots in on each other every weekend. And it’s not like things end there. A class evening usually ends with the group heading out for a couple of beers, and practising a little more once we’re drunk. Primarily, one of the reasons I get hurt so often. The last time I got doe-eyed, I tried flipping my instructor over. It didn’t work, he fell on my ankle, and now I haven’t been able to walk for the past two weeks. I digress.

So far I’ve only had a slip disc, torn a ligament or two and bruised a bit. It’s a besederSo far I’ve only had a slip disc, torn a ligament or two and bruised a bit.

The etymology of the word Kali, some sources state, came from the Filipino words kamot meaning ‘hand’ (weapon wielding hand, to be precise), and lihok meaning ‘flow of the river’. Which means that a millenium’s worth of study about the nature of flowing with an edged or impact weapon gripped in the hands, and thousands of lives lost on the battlefield, eventually created the art form as we know it today. This simple concept reformed Kali’s techniques of extreme close quarters combat, into what looks like poetry in motion; much like dance. Interestingly, quite unlike any other sport or art, the objective behind the pretty movement was to learn how to incapacitate, maim, and/or kill someone. Quite the dichotomy.

It's all fun and games till you get poked with a penIt's all fun and games till you get poked with a pen

The idea is simple. If the object or tool is pointy, I can pierce skin and flesh with it (“Go for the eyes,” my instructor keeps telling me). If it is edged, I can lacerate through skin and flesh with it. If it is blunt, I can smash bones and bludgeon someone with it. These are perhaps the most rudimentary concepts of Kali, and every other frill is meant to be a means to meet that end.

Surely enough, the difference between combat and fighting became clearer as I began practising. The two have been part of human nature since the beginning. Historically, fighting is one of the oldest sports known to man. There is a sense of honour and integrity attached to the athletic discipline. Going toe to toe and trading strikes mano a mano, the decision on the best man or woman is made, and the fight is over. More importantly, everyone gets to go back home.

The focus is more to ‘flow’ than to ‘fight’The focus is more to ‘flow’ than to ‘fight’

Combat, on the other hand dwells in a separate realm that most of us urban folk have never, and should never, witness. Kali was meant for the battlefield. It was meant to be used in a place where everyone has a simple choice between killing or getting killed. Kali, to me, seemed to be more like the ‘bad girl’ amidst her contemporaries. She doesn’t give two hoots about rules and conduct, as long as the job is done. There is no honour and integrity attached to survival. You either survive and live to tell the story, or you don’t. This idea makes the art of Kali quite unfit for sport fighting, and what I imagine would be the average street brawl. “I’d rather be behind bars than be six feet under,” I remember my instructor recite the words he learnt from his Guro. That thought is usually where the fun and games stop. I can never imagine myself having to kill. For me, having to use Kali in a fight is out of the question. The art and its philosophy make it a point to flood the brain with enough graphic and grim knowledge of violence against the human anatomy, that most practitioners naturally develop an aversion to the very idea of fighting.

The true application. Train the muscle and work the brain.

Considering that fighting has been completely ruled out of the picture, I quickly recognised the true beauty behind the art. Apart from its inherent inclination towards being very comfortable with violence, for the average practitioner, Kali is one of the most meditative activities we can indulge in. While each move and technique signifies a potentially lethal attack, their execution and practice in the class room comes in the form of slow, methodic, elegant and poetry-like motions of the body. If I were to talk about realism, the most beneficial reward of training in Kali has been that of improved reasoning and cognitive capability. That is the true and most immediate reality of practising Kali as a civilian. Sure, I recently suffered a micro fracture to my ankle, and bruises and muscle aches are everyday rewards. But, Kali has done more for my mind than my body.

A smile that got scraped away along with skin and a piece of my dignity.A smile that got scraped away along with skin and my dignity

Practitioners like Doug Marcaida and Paul McCarthy have used Kali as a therapeutic art, responsible for rehabilitating people suffering from everything including anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (in war veterans) to depression. The art has been scientifically noted to increase neurogenesis, concentration, and the ability to solve complex problems. There is a significant endorphin and dopamine secretion, rewarding mechanisms that fire when we do something constructive like work out at the gym, or have sex. These biochemical changes enhance and bleed into almost all aspects of life including the physical, psychological, personal, social, and to a certain extent, spiritual. Kali’s focus on ambidexterity, hand-eye coordination, and increasing levels of complexity in the flow of the hands and feet, are some of the reasons why the art stands apart. I’m a lazy dude who doesn’t ever imagine sticking to any one practice over a long period of time for fear of it becoming redundant. But, having practised Kali for almost a year, I might just consider continuing with it through the course of my life.

Kali was designed for anyone, but is not meant for everyone. While a majority of our generation still sticks their noses to a computer screen for the better part of their existence, breaking away from their sedentary life and assuming one that garners more functioning of both body and mind is necessary. I suggest you stop stressing, pick up a knife, and go to town with it. You might just fall in love.

Video by: Alam Pratap Singh Chhina

Kali 101:

1. Kali is a weapon-based Filipino fighting system popular among various special forces.
2. It is mainly for recreational purposes with the parellel benefit of self defence.
3. Kali can be practised by anyone. Whether you’re 7 or 70.
4. Only a handful of schools teach traditional Kali in India. Most of them are in Delhi.
5. Although Kali is much like a dance, it focuses on flow more than form.
6. Kali has become increasingly popular in cinema. Watch it in the Bourne series, and Taken.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Aditya Varma
Photographs by Aditya Varma and