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Sarpam Thullal - the Ritual Dance of the Snake Gods

Updated on August 8, 2013

KALAM containing the picture of 4 twinning snakes

AS THE PERFORMERS STEP INSIDE THIS DRAWING, THEY GET POSSESSED BY THE SPIRIT OF THE SNAKE GODS AND THEY DANCE TO THE TUNE OF THE PULLUVANS.
AS THE PERFORMERS STEP INSIDE THIS DRAWING, THEY GET POSSESSED BY THE SPIRIT OF THE SNAKE GODS AND THEY DANCE TO THE TUNE OF THE PULLUVANS. | Source

Sarpam Thullal is an ancient traditional worshiping ritual of Kerala still performed in some ancient Hindu Nair families. It is a spectacular ritual performance, done to appease the snake gods and thereby to bring prosperity to the family.

Sarpam Thullal, in Malayalam means dance of the snake gods. Sarpam means snake and Thullal is dance.

History

Earlier, In Kerala , every Nair Family used to have a temple for the snake Gods known as sarpa kavu . Sarpa Kavu used to be an open temple with no building to keep the deity. It just used to be a stone basement on which the idol of the snake would be placed and worshiped. This temple used to be filled with all types of trees especially bamboos and no one was supposed to cut down any of these trees or destroy the habitat of the snake gods. Even to this day, most of the people are scared to destroy trees in a Sarpa Kavu for they fear they might earn the wrath of the Snake Gods.

As Sarpa Kavu used to be considered , a temple to the Snake Gods , there used to be prayers and rituals centered around the Snake Gods and Sarpam Thullal used to be one important ritual of the many other rituals done to appease the Snake Gods.


In Short

During the dance of the snake gods i.e. Sarpam Thullal, believers assume that the spirit of the snake Gods come down from heaven and that the Thullal performers get possessed by these spirits, once they set foot inside the Kalam prepared .

Thullal performers are generally women .Once, the performers get possessed by the Gods they get into a state of trance and sways their body to and fro and dances to the music of the Pulluvans. This dance is generally fast and violent than calm simple swaying movements.The performers also rolls their heads with their generally long hair loose along with the swaying movements.The performance generally happens at night and lasts for some 6 hours .

The ritual continues for a week and every day the ritual starts by about 8 at night and ends by around 3 in the morning. After the entire ritual is over , the spirit of the snake gods are sent back to heaven through some prayers and poojas and then the temple remains closed for 7 days. This ends the ritual.

KALAM SHOWING 8 TWINNING SNAKES
KALAM SHOWING 8 TWINNING SNAKES | Source

Kalam and Panthal (drawing and Canopy)

KALAMS ARE DRAWN AND PANTHALS ARE MADE BY THE PULLUVANS.
KALAMS ARE DRAWN AND PANTHALS ARE MADE BY THE PULLUVANS. | Source

Thullal -- The beginning.

  • The entire ritual begins with the family astrologer fixing a date.
  • The entire family is informed of this date.
  • The singers (Pulluvans) are informed.
  • The priest (Kalathi kamal) is informed.
  • The items needed for the rituall are bought
  • The thullal performers are fixed.
  • The thullal performers and the priest start taking certain austerities.

On the Thullal Day

A colorful Kalam (it's a drawing on the ground using natural colour powders) is drawn in the courtyard of the house and figures of Snake Gods are depicted. Generally the Nagayakshi and Ashtanagakkettu are featured. Nagayakshi and Ashtanagakkettu are names of Snake gods.

A canopy is made just above the fields.

Once the drawing and canopy are complete, this region is kept holy and no one is allowed to step inside the field, other than the priest.

The priest of the thullal is called " Kalathi kamal".

The field is called " Kalam"

The canopy is called "Panthal"

The priest or the Kalathi kammal

The priest is known as the kalathikammal . Once the canopy and the field are ready, the priest performs certain prayers and poojas . The entire family is supposed to go through rigorous austerities and they abstain from cooking or having non-veg food and keeps their mind and body clean..

The Terms in Detail

The Drawing → “kalamezhuthu” and “Kalam”

Kalamezhuthu in Malayalam means “drawing of the kalam” and kalam means the field where the snake gods dance.The Kalam is one of the most important element of the ritual and it provides a mystic and sacred atmosphere to the ritual . It is a sort of tantric drawing that invokes an atmosphere of sacredness and spirituality .It Is the field where the snake gods dance . The Kalamezhuthu is done by the Pulluvans. They draw the Kalams using natural colours.

It is in this kalam that the thullal performers ( women in a state of trance, possessed by the spirit of the Snake Gods) sit and dance.


The canopy or “Kuruthola panthal”

Kuruthola Panthal is the canopy and it is made above the kalam such that the kalam comes inside the canopy. The canopy is made of kuruthola. The panthal is also made by the Pulluvans. Kuruthola is fresh and young coconut leaf.

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The Singers or the pulluvans

They are a certain caste of people and they are designated with the powers to please the snake gods with songs of praise . They hold the skills and responsibility of creating the aesthetic requirements of the Sarpam Thullal. They draw the ‘Kalam , makes the canopy and sings during the ritual.

The Pulluvars sit in front of the Kalam and they sing using some special musical instruments.They use Pulluvan kudam for the drum, Pulluvan veena for the violin. Pulluvan kudam is a large earthenware pot with a string attached to it and is used as a resonating musical instrument.


KALAM SHOWING 2 TWINNING SNAKES
KALAM SHOWING 2 TWINNING SNAKES | Source

As I Saw It.

In January this year, I was invited for a snake dance performance. I was very much surprised by the idea of the Sarpam Thulal for I had not seen anything of that sort till then. It was spectacular. By the time I reached , the drawings and canopy had been done and there were a lot of lighted lamps around the kalam. It started by around 8 pm and went on till 2 in the morning.

  • The ritual started with the Pulluvan singing about Ganapathy (Hindu God) and other Hindu Gods like lord shiva, Murugan and Ayyapa,
  • The idol of the Snake gods were brought from the Kavu in a procession known as Thalapolli. Kavu is the abode of the snake Gods .
  • Then the priest offered some poojas in front of the kalam.
  • This was followed by a dance performance by a Pulluvan . This dance performance was done with steps that looks like kalari steps.(kalari is a form of maritial art of Kerala)
  • Then, the thullal performers were called to the venue. The performers take very strict austerities and they abstain themselves from even touching the people around, on the day of the ritual. Once they reached the field they were given some coconut flowers

After this, the music slightly changes and the beats become a bit more fast paced and strong. The music, the colourful Kalam , the Panthal and the lighted lamps , together gives a mystic mood to the entire situation and the Thullal performers started swaying to and fro . Slowly , the pace of movements increased and they got into something like a state of trance . The people say, in this state of trance , it is the spirit of the snake gods entering them and slowly the dance movements becomes violent but of rhythmic fervor and then the performers in their state of trance slowly calms down and sits in front of the kalam and then they answered certain questions asked to them about the family.

After this, the music again starts and they erases the Kalam with their loose hair in tune with the song. Then they would accept the offering and pull down the canopy with all their strength and then faints. And as they faints , it is believed that the spirit has left them .

They are then taken into the house, they rest for sometime and they come out of their state of trance.

Now while they rest, the next kalam would be drawn by the pulluvans. They also makes a fresh canopy . The Pulluvans are real experts in this for they drew the entire kalam in less than 10 minutes.Then, the entire process is repeated.

Everyday, there would be 3 kalams.


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There were 2 things that I felt at the end of the ritual :

First , I was awestruck watching the performance.

Secondly, I felt a lot of respect to the idea of our forefathers that they introduced such a custom so, that the snakes would be protected and as snakes remain protected for fear or for love , their abode which has a lot of trees remains protected and this would ensure the safety of the birds that would nest in this abode of the Gods.

Hope you enjoyed reading this article.

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