The Art of KALIThe Original Martial Art of the Phillipines

Kali is one of the many umbrella terms, along with Escrima and Arnis, to designate indigenous martial arts originating from the Philippines (or FMA which is short for Filipino Martial Arts). This national weapon-based martial art heavily emphasizes the use of knives, swords and other improvised weapons (blunt or sharp) for both close and long range. It also does include striking with empty hands, joint locks, grappling and weapon disarms. For training purposes, a rattan stick is prominently used as a replacement to a sword.

The Philippines Archipelago

It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact period when the Filipino Martial Arts were founded and their origin. This is due to the fact that there are no surviving documents or records, such as manuscripts on armed combat or treatise with descriptions or images demonstrating such techniques.

However, this could be estimated to date as far as the 9th century in the Sri Visayan Empire of South East Asia up until the 13th century when pressed by Siam and Java (Majapahit Empire) the empire collapsed and 10 Datus (Tribe Chieftains) fled to the islands of the Philippines. The refugees then settled in the central part of the archipelago, which is now known as the Visayan islands (Cebu) and from there emerged a visayan identity and civilization. The Datus were of a warrior culture and brought with them the technology of forged blades to the islands and fighting system.

Ferdinand Magellan

In terms of documents, the earliest written records would be from the Spanish expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan who arrived with his crew in the Archipelago of the Philippines in 1521. He will ultimately meet his demise at the hands of Cebuano natives led by Datu (Tribe Chieftain) Lapu-Lapu in the Battle of Mactan.

It is interesting to note that in the Philippines, asking the locals for a school of “Kali” will get you looks of confusion as that martial art is not known by that name, but rather “Baston”, the stick, as Nick Papadakis found out to his dismay in his documentary titled “Kali means to scrape”.

There are many theories as to the origin of the word “Kali”.

One of them coming from Guro Dan Inosanto is that Kali is a contraction of the word kamot (hand) and lihok (motion) which alludes to the speed, agility, fluidity and accuracy often found in the art.

Another theory, according to Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje Jr, is that the word “kalis” derives from the filipino term for blade or swords and the Hindu God of Destruction, Kali.

The terms Eskrima and Arnis are due to the heavy influence of the 300 year of Spanish colonial rule where Eskrima is the filipino pronunciation of the Spanish word esgrima (fencing, skirmish) and Arnis from the the Spanish word “arnes” (armor).


The practitioners of Kali are often refered to as kalista, eskrimador for people who practice Eskrima and arnisador for people who practice Arnis (or Arnis de Mano).

From the ages of warfare, colonization, guerillas, to the days of “juego todos” (“anything goes” fights, historically referred to as death matches) and to competitive sporting events with protective gear, the art of Kali has come a long way from obscure origins and has flourished into a well-known martial art across the world, in modern culture and media.

For example, the art of Kali was used in fight choreographies in movies such as “Mission Impossible (1996)”, “Lara Croft:Tomb Raider (2001)”, “Resident Evil (2002)”, The Book of Eli (2010)” and the “Bourne Trilogy”.

As such, a milestone was reached in 2009 when Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri authored the Republic Act 9850 declaring Arnis as the “national martial art and sport” of the Philippines.