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The History of Kali

The Filipino martial arts of Kali, Eskrima, and Silat are world renowned as devastating stick fighting systems. A relatively unknown fact is that these arts are equally as efficient in unarmed combat. Training in these arts provide:

  • Increased hand-eye coordination;
  • Sharpened reflexes;
  • An understanding of body mechanics, leverage, and evasion.

The history of any fighting art is a reflection of the society and culture from which it was formed. The Filipino arts are no different.

Early records of the Malay Sri Vishaya empire dating from the 8th century AD contain references to Kali as the martial art of the Philippines. According to one Kali master, the word Kali comes from the words kamot, meaning ‘hand or body’, and lihok, meaning ‘motion’. Kali is also known as the mother art to both Eskrima and Arnis.

In the early part of the 16th century the first famous foreigner to encounter Filipino sticks was a Spaniard named Magellan,who burned their homes and tried to enslave the people as part of the great Spanish conquest.

It was on the small island of Mactan, in what is now the Province of Cebu, where Magellan was stopped by the fiery chieftain Lapu Lapu and his men. Villagers in cotton cloth fought the armoured Spaniards on the beach. They battled Spain’s finest steel with pieces of rattan, homemade lances and sharpened, fire-hardened sticks. Magellan died there and a statue of Lapu Lapu on Mactan island credits the chieftain for Magellan’s death.

After Magellan’s death the Spaniards returned with reinforcements and firearms. Alhough the Filipinos understood combat with bladed weapons, sticks and empty hands, they had little chance against Spanish guns. When Spanish rule was secured, the Filipino martial arts were outlawed. In defiance of Spanish law, the Filipinos practised and preserved the outlawed martial arts by integrating many combative moves into native Filipino dances.

The old Filipinos who made stick fighting an art preferred to hit the bone and preferred a stick to a blade. Instead of a clean cut, the stick left shattered bone. As the end of the stick can travel many times faster than the speed of the empty hand, the Kali practitioner or Eskrimador developed faster reflexes, speed, coordination, timing, and increased eye focus. This is why stick combat is taught before empty-hand combat, unlike many other arts.

The common denominator of all Filipino arts is their principles of combat which are based on a pattern of angles that all attacks must follow, regardless of the style or weapon.