January brings with it a fair mix of hot days and chilly nights. It is that time of the year when Kerala gears up for festivals. While many festivals remain occasions for the people in the locality, there are some like the Kottangal Padayani, the annual festival at Kottangal Bhadra Kali temple sees a lot of people from different part of the world come together.
In short, if you are a traveler-reveler, Kottangal, a village in Pathanamthitta district on the banks of the Manimalayaar is where you should be heading. For the faithful, it is a festival to celebrate the mother goddess, for an academic, it is the rare art form that keeps pulling at his heart strings, and if you are a traveler who loves the general mood of festivals, there is a lot here that you can cherish and write home about.
In January, Kottangal, an otherwise sleepy village, wakes up to the rhythm of ‘thappu’ (a one-sided percussion made of buffalo skin) and into the light of burning choottu(dry leaves of coconut) to celebrate, to live Padayani, a rare ritual art form performed only in a few Devi temples in Central Travancore.
The festival which is held in Makaram every Malayalam year, (January), is at the same time a complete ritualistic art packed in eight days per se and a culmination of separate art forms crossing genres. The last four days of the festival are the most important ones as they are filled with rituals and thus offer a treat for all those who have a flair for folklore and are interested in savouring extraordinary moments of native theatre which is being reinvented all over the world.
Padayani is the re enactment of a masque performed by ‘Devas’ to douse the anger of Goddess Kali after she ended Darikasuran(a demon), according to legends. (Those who are into folklore and subaltern studies can question the introduction of Arya gods into a local myth; however, this article is does not delve into such ventures). It is performed in around 30 temples in Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha and Kottayam, though with local variations. Among the temples where it is performed are Kadammanitta, Neelamperoor, Elanthoor, Eraviperoor, Kunnamthanam and Kottangal.
This year’s Kottangal Padayani started on January 20 with the ritualistic choottuveippu, in which the head priest of the centuries-old temple lights dry coconut leaves heaped at the Padayani ground with a flame from the lamp inside the sanctum sanctorum. Padayani is performed in the dead of the night of the following days. After the usual practices associated with temple festivals and some art performances to entertain the people who throng the temple, the rituals or ritualistic art forms are performed during the wee hours of the day.
‘Kolam Thullal’ is the main ritual. Kolams are masks of various sizes made of with drawings using natural colours on them. The kolam dancers perform to the songs in praise of Gods which are composed in rare dravida verses and accompanied by the heady beats of thappu.
The kolams are of various types such as ‘Bhairavi’, Yakshi, Pakshi and Maruthai. By the end of the songs, the dancers reach a state of 'possession' and are literally taken out of the kalam or ground. The performance of Kalan Kolam which narrates the story of Markandeyan’s limitless devotion to Lord Shiva is a classic example for this.
According to believers, offering a Kalan kolam performance is equal to conducting a Maha Mruthyunjaya Homam. Other rituals include, Velakali, in which trained children reenact a war in the form of a dance, again to the accompaniment of thappu and chenda. (Padayani, in Malayalam means a war formation). During the ritual called Adavi which is performed on the fifth and seventh days of the festival the Padayani ground turns to be a forest with trees brought from various parts of the region. The revelers as if in a frenzy climb the trees and break the branches in the memory of the mythical Lanka dahan.
Kottangal padayani is organized by two ‘karas’(sections of a region) – Kottangal and Kulathoor. Each kara performs the same rituals on alternative days in a competitive spirit, although the passing of times has brought down the spirit a bit.
As I mentioned elsewhere in the article, Padayani offers different types of aesthetic experiences to different people. While it is only, but a very important, part of the religious life of the natives, academicians and artists from across the state look at it as an opportunity to learn more about the discipline of folklore. More than being a mere ritual practice, at times it questions the social orders and hierarchies too. The funny interludes between kolam thullal are an instance.
This year's festival came to a conclusion on January 27, with the Valiya Padayani or the grand finale. So next January, find some time to throng Kottangal to be a part of the festival and learn the ways a people relive its once-lived and forgotten past.