(Note: I travelled to northern Kerala to witness this in 2000)
An ensemble of bronzed male bodies moving in perfect symmetry. Twisting and jumping, twirling and bending, springing in mid-arc. A knee jerks upwards to touch a palm. Feet drum rhythms in time to intonations. Each individual male dancer -- ranging in age from seven to 60-plus -- caught in a frenzy of dance. Dance as devotion.
We watch, entranced. It is just past mid-March and we are at the shrine to the Goddess Poomalai Bhagawati at Talayaneri, near Payyanur in northern Kerala. The rites we witness are a part of an annual week-long spring festival called Pooram. It's an amazi ng spectacle to the urban eye.
As dozens of trained and coordinated dancers offer their choreographed movements as dakshina at the feet of the goddess, we begin to wonder at the origin of the festivities. For, their garb of redblack-and-white seems to date back to a primal time, to a pantheistic age. Why would these men, most of them in their prime, voluntarily spend months training for the ritual?
All the participants are from the local Thiyya community, who are traditionally toddy-tappers. Pooram, celebrated at numerous shrines in the region, combines within it several elements -- a celebration of Kamadeva through fertility cults (Kamane Veykal), an expression of joy at the coming of spring through dance (Poorakkali), and a subtle battle of wits between two Sanskrit scholars (Maruthukali).
Kama, the god of love, is at the heart of this spring rite. The festivities are related to the mythological burning of Kama by Shiva's wrath, followed by Rati's attempts to revive her husband. Kamane Veykal symbolises the lighting of the fires of love, p assed on from one generation to another.
As part of Kamane Veykal, pre-pubescent local girls, known as poo kunhis or flower maidens, spend 21 days at the Poomalai Bhagawati shrine. Supervised by an elderly matron, their ritual pieties are strictly codified. At dawn, after a dip in the temple po nd, the young ones -- with an unstitched cloth draped around their waists, their hair uncombed -- set out to gather flowers for the deity, singing songs of praise to her. Their diet is usually restricted to beaten rice with sugar and scraped coconut.
Their innocent chatter forms an underlying soundtrack to the festive sounds of drumming and chanting. They play with cowrie shells along the shrine's verandahs, darting in and out of the adults at worship, until they are summoned for a ritual bath or cal led to meet their parents. They are away from their classrooms temporarily, but with the blessings of the community.
At the end of the festival, the young maidens are allowed to oil and comb their hair, then draped in new clothes and, finally, carried in a procession to the shrine on the shoulders of the able-bodied young men. As Kama is liberated annually in this rite , voices implore his return in words such as:
When you come back, reach early, at the proper time, Kama!
Come back in time for the festival of Kunjangalam, Kama!
Alongside the young maidens being ritually aroused to the powers of Kama is the Poorakkali, the scintillating dances of joy at the reincarnation of the deity. Isn't it unusual then that adult women are mere spectators at this celebration? Scholars feel t hat though the dances were originally performed by female dancers, once men took to it, vigorous steps -- attuned to intoxicating beats -- gained social approval. And thus, the male dancers took over the traditional female preserve.
The athletic dancers' movements are reminiscent of kalaripayittu, the martial art. As their songs invoke deities such as Ganapati, Saraswati and Krishna, or pay homage to the powers of nature, Pooramala -- a series of dances in 18 modes -- is enacted und er the thatched roof of the enclosure in front of the shrine.
Poorakkali, which is restricted to a few shrines in northern Kerala, is performed by the communities which formerly wielded less social clout, including the Asari, Maniyani and Salia, we learn. Their enthusiasm for the spring rite is all-pervasive. A Thi yya doctor from Calcutta often takes leave for a month each year in order to participate in the Poorakkali in his native Kerala village.
Could it be that Poorakkali is less well-known outside its home ground because its participants are socially less privileged? Or because its shrines allow only restricted access? Were these rites a way for the once-oppressed classes to assert their claim to intellectual property rights?
Perhaps. For, what sets these spring rites apart is their combination of ritualistic devotion, visual elements and intellectual activity. The latter emerges through Maruthukali, a contest of wits in Sanskrit between two Panickers, each a scholar recognis ed by his community for his erudition. Each Panicker -- with an intricate golden Ramayana bracelet on his wrist -- takes on his opponent from a faction in the same village through expositions on the sastras, elaborate textual odysseys and incisive repart ee. Each Panicker prepares intensively for this event by delving into his personal collection of manuscripts. Eventually, one Panicker is declared the winner by the temple authorities -- until the next year.
As dusk falls on the seventh day, a procession, shrouded by temple cloths held high by the festive dancers, winds its way to the sanctified temple tank. As the drumming reaches a crescendo, the image of Poomalai Bhagawati is immersed in the pond by the h ead priest to a buzz of participation from the devout.
Then, all is silence. The poo kunhis resume their normal lives at school and amidst their sibling. The Poorakkali dancers wind their way back to their professional lives in towns; and the rival Panickers doff their bracelets and gird their loins for thei r next annual encounter.
As the shrine returns to everyday worship, images return to haunt the spectator from afar... the inner rhythms of Poorakkali -- ancient and still contemporary. Renewed by its deep roots in the native soil.
(The Hindu Business Line, 2000)