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Many ancient family houses in Kerala have special snake shrines called Kavu. Sarpam Thullal is usually performed in the courtyard of houses having snake shrines. This is a votive offering for family wealth and happiness. The dance is performed by members of a community called Pulluvar. In the first stage the pulluvan draws a kalam (the field) in with two or more twining snakes in the courtyard. An oil lit traditional lamp and one full measure (nirapara) each of paddy and rice are then placed in front of the kalam. In the second stage, the idol of the snake is brought out from the Kavu in a procession called thalapoli to the uproarious tumult of percussion instrument (panchavadyam).
A number of girls with their hair pleated up like the hoods of snakes and reminiscent of the legend of the naga kanyakas partake in this procession. The idol is placed in the kalam and the poojari performs ritual offerings while the girls sit in two rows on the side of the kolam. The poojari then dances round the kolam to the rhythmic beating of para (a crude drum) and elathalam (bell metal cymbals). All the while a pulluvan and pulluvathi (male and female singers) sing special devotional songs set to tune and rhythm by nanduni (a primitive type of veena, a stringed musical instrument) and pulluvankudam (a primitive musical instrument consisting of an earthenware pot and strings) respectively. As the song gathers momentum the girls begin to dance, swaying their bodies slowly at first and steadily ascending in tempo. The dance finally erupts into a violent frenzy of rhythmic fervour, culminating in a trance.
Sarpam thullal creates a third dimension in your mind and thoughts. It takes you to a different level, beyond what is seen through your eyes and heard through your ears. The best way to put it is it's an act where the performer becomes the performance. It's an act where the dancer becomes the dance and the musician becomes the music. We can't differentiate between the performer and the performance. For many it is a practice or more a ritual, but it is not merely so. Worshipping snakes is a practice which exists in almost all religions. Snake worship in Kerala is closely associated with the worship of nature. Forefathers were clever enough to create a habitat which is eco-friendly and supports the livelihood of a family which is very close to the nature. The kulam-kavu model is one of the most admired eco-friendly models of habitat. Kavu supports the plants and trees which provide oxygen and the kulam supports the water bodies which purifies the habitat.
Sarpam thullal is done to appease the snake gods which represent mother earth. Sarpam thullal is generally done to bring off-springs which is a lyrical manifestation of life itself. Participants and organizers encompass a wide range of people belonging to different castes and backgrounds. It celebrates the life in harmony and promotes the idea of co-existence where each of the communities contributes unconditionally towards the cause. Sarpam thullal is as old as the snake worship practice in India, which is as old as the mother earth. The ritual has evolved and is evolving over the years but has not changed much. So basically it is the cross-section of society and celebrates free spirit or life itself.
People generally take a vow and Sarpam Thullal is done after the fulfillment or accomplishment of the vow. But in most of the scenarios Sarpam Thullal is done by couples who are deprived of an offspring. They strongly believe that Snake God can fulfill their dream of having a baby.Sarpam Thullal predominantly in the past and today is conducted in Nair Tharavads.
The ritual can take place in before or after the vow accomplishment. The family astrologer is the one who normally initiates the process or in certain places it is an annual or regular practice. They conduct Sarpam Thullal regularly, for example every year or once in six years for example. Once the date is finalized by the family, it is time to call the Pulluvan and Pulluvathy. Pulluvan and Pullvathy and their assistants hold the skills and responsibility of creating the aesthetic requirements of the Sarpam Thullal. They create a pandal and decorate it. The normal practice is to conduct Sarpam Thullal thrice a day. The selection of the girls who will later become the mediums or manifestations of Snake Gods is done by the family. Generally two girls/females are supposed to sit in the Kalam but certain places it is six. In the past women did not have any restrictions. That is, women of any age was chosen to represent the Snake Gods. But, maybe because of the way the society and the perceptions changed, today in many places females between the ages of 10 to 60 are not allowed. Typically the karnavar of the family or an elderly person represents and supports the manifestation of Naga Rajavu which widely practices in south kerala.
The entire family is supposed to go through a rigorous vritham, they abstain from things such as cooking or having non-veg food. In the past the kanyas or the chosen females who represent the Snake Gods used to live in a different pandal. But these days it may be practically impossible to do so. The pulluvan and his team create a floral decoration using various natural colors. The floral decoration is called Nagakalam. Nagakalams are of various types such as Bhasma Kalam (A kalam which is made of just ash powder) and Varna Podi Kalam. Each time the size of the Kalam increases and the kalam drawn on the final ritual is called Astha Naga Kalam. The kanyas normally wear mundu and blouse for the ritual. They may wrap a veshti or thorthu mundu over the blouse. Certain places the kanyas wear pavada and blouse. In the past the participants were not supposed to cover their upper bodies and they used to wear mundu in a specific style which is called as Tattudukkal or Tharudukkal in Malayalam. Nagarajava generally wears mundu. Once the pulluvan and his team is done with decorations and other preparations the kanyas are called to the venue. They normally sit in the kalam or besides the kalam. In certain places where there are more than two kanyas, they stand besides the kalam. Nagarajavu generally stands inside the kalam. kanyas are given pokulas or arecanut flowers. The pulluvan starts singing and playing the veena (one string violin like instrument) and pulluvathy sings along and plays the kudam. The initial lines are generally sung in praise of Ganapathy, followed by other gods. Then the beat or thalam changes along with the song. Later part is dedicated to Serpent gods and the kanyas sitting in the kalam. The overall ambience becomes vibrant and exotic with the music, the colors and the fragrance. The kanyas generally feels that the snake which is drawn on the floor has come alive. Some of them have experienced vibrations all over their body and they feel their body is resonating towards the vibrations.
Studies and analysis says certain kanyas felt that the nagayakshi drawn on the floor became alive and was moving across their bodies. Generally psychology describes such kinds of mental status as trance. The myth or the common belief is that the Nagayakshi enters the kanya's body and the kanya becomes the Nagayakshi. The devotees see the goddess Nagayakshi or the serpent god Nagarajavu in the kanyas. They start waving their bodies and hair vigorously in sync with the music and the beats. The movement is normally sidewise and back and forth. In that hysteric mood certain kanyas climbs up the branches of trees and some even jumps into the kulam or pond. Generally during this stage the body becomes very humid and to bring it back to normal tender coconut water is poured on to their heads and body. Turmeric water, rose water etc. are also poured. The kanyas moves across the kalam and smashes the kalam off using the pokula in their hand and their long hair. Certain places Nagarajavu or the karnaver or an oracle enters a trance during the final stage and joins the kanyas. Finally the kanyas reaches an exhaustive stage where they loss all the energy and become unconscious and lie on the floor. The main pujari or master of the ritual splashes water on their faces and then slowly they regain their normalcy. LIke I mentioned before the Sarpam Thullal ritual normally happens thrice a day. Many scholars and research analysts over the years have tried their level best to analyze the minds of the Kanyas. But they could hardly draw any success, the basic reason being pointed out as, the kanyas normally losses themselves in the process and they generally could nt recollect anything that happened in the Sarpam Thullal. Sarpam Thullal today is dying a premature death. It is a fancy and expensive affair and most of the families are shying away from the ritual. Another reason may be in current social scenario it may be hard to find females who can be the manifestation of god or can experience trance.
Certain places, people from the spectators get possessed and they are actually helping the cause. To save the sanctity and tradition, a few at least pretends of getting Urayal or Trance. Today, in many places it is sourced to a third party vendor who take the entire responsibility including ensuring the availability of the Kanyas. In that case the organizer just needs to pay the party a fixed amount.