My grandmother’s home, tucked away in a corner of Aliparamba, was where you would find me every summer break. When I think back now, there was never really much to do there — but as a child, curious and excitable, I would spend days on end occupied with this and that: sometimes climbing trees (much to my mother’s chagrin), and sometimes reading under them; gorging on ammama’s cut manga pickles, and sometimes helping her make it. Evenings were spent in the courtyard watching the sun go down. We had visitors often. Sometimes, a group of sari-clad women would come by our home, assemble around us and sing. I could never tell what they really meant, but hearing my name in their songs was enough to get me excited.
As I grew older and came to appreciate arts and culture more, I asked my ammama about these ladies. I learned that they belonged to a special community called the Pulluvars, traditional bards who go from home to home, singing songs of prosperity and blessings. Families believe that inviting these bards to perform their Pulluvan Pattu (ritualistic song tradition) will bring them good fortune. “How come they knew my name?” I asked my grandmother. “Before they start singing, they always take down the birth stars and names of family members,” she answered. The intention basically is to ward off the evil eye by eulogising the serpent gods. After every performance, we would give them grains and coconuts before they moved on to the next home.
As the years passed by, I saw the Pulluvar ladies less and less. “It’s become a rare practice these, for them to wander from house to another,” my grandmother said. “Unless you invite them of course.” Many families invite the Pulluvars to perform a ritualistic puja to bless their family. A few months ago, ammama’s neighbour had organised one on a large scale. Since the whole ritual centres around serpent worship, it is usually conducted on days considered to be sacred to snakes, such as the aayilyam day (the auspicious day which falls under the star aayilyam).
The puja started early evening. About a hundred people had gathered around their house. The Pulluvars, a group of about ten, were busy preparing for the ritual. During the first stage of the puja, the artistes draw a life-size kalam on the ground. Kalams are large figures in geometric shapes made with rice, turmeric and other powders. It is believed that drawing of a kalam invokes the deity. In this case, the artiste drew a form of the serpent, and then proceeded to make offerings of noorum paalum (lime and milk) to the deity.
Snake worship and mysticism are central to the art of Pulluvan Pattu. So an element of pantheism does reflect in this particular type of worship: Kerala is filled with serpent temples and sacred groves, where snakes are extensively worshipped. There are many famous temples dedicated to snake worship in Kerala, chief among them being Mannarassala in Alleppey, Paambu Mekkattu in Thrissur and Perlasseri in Kannur.
After the kalam puja, the head of the family presents the performers with a bunch of coconut flowers. The performers take it as a cue to start their dancing (sarpam thullal) and singing (pulluvan pattu). The act unfolds dramatically, with slow movements and soft music. Their haunting voices are accompanied by three simple instruments, made by the community themselves: the veena, a primitive stringed violin; the kudam, an earthenware pot with strings attached to it and the thaalam, or bell metal cymbals. As the tempo of the music increases, so does the pace of the sarpam thullal. The performers move in rhythmic, frenzied steps imitating movements of snakes, almost trance-like.
What I was surprised to see that it wasn’t only the Pulluvars who were in a trance. Some members of the audience too were completely engrossed. It is believed that wishes and prophecies come true only when such a level of hypnosis is achieved. After a while, the dancers lowered themselves to ground level and were writhing on the floor, thereby rubbing off the ink from the kalam drawing.
The ritual is truly over when every bit of the kalam drawing of the serpent has been removed completely. Apart from blessings and good fortune, one other very important takeaway from the whole procedure is a simple lesson about the cycle of life, symbolised by the kalam artwork : that destruction is close on the heels of creation, and that nothing is permanent in our lives.
kalam: a geometric, patterned drawing made as a part of a ritual
noorum paalum: offerings of milk and honey
sarpam thullal: a frenzied dance performed by the Pulluvars
pulluvan pattu: ritualistic singing accompanied by a couple of instruments by the Pulluvars
veena: a simple stringed instrument
kudam: an earthenware pot
thaalam: bell metal cymbals