Ayyappan Thiyyattu: A Kerala Traditional Art of Colour, Music & Dance

Arguably the smallest community (of eight families) in the southern Indian state, Thiyyadi Nambiars are performers of a temple art that celebrates the mythology of a son born to gods Shiva and Vishnu-as-Mohini.

by Sreevalsan Thiyyadi


When it comes to traditional performing arts of India, not many would warrant its practitioner to possess all-round skills on par with a quaint old form from a territory down-country. Ayyappan Thiyyattu of Kerala requires the artiste(s) to be able to draw image, sing, dance and drum besides being bodily strong.


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So, what is it all about? Essentially a Dravidian Hindu offering that seeks to please a certain God — say, an hour-long vazhipaadu, as it is called in Malayalam at temples where it has a chunk of traditional venues till date — Ayyappan Thiyyattu would also find bigger versions on special occasions as a ritual art staged by a team. There it can be an elaborate day-and-night performance. In medium scale, it is an evening show ending by supper time, having had the preparatory work initiated after lunch. Whichever, Ayyappan Thiyyattu throws light on a streak of pre-classical aesthetics of sketching, music, choreography and percussion along the Malabar Coast which has had multi-faceted trysts with cultures for long.


As for the Thiyyadi Nambiar, it is a minuscule caste with semi-Brahmin status. The males wear the sacred thread (and canonically follow the 16 shodasha milestone rituals of Nambudiris — the Kerala Brahmins), but the Nambiar does not perform priestly rites in temples. The closely-knit community is limited to eight homesteads (tharavadus) in central Kerala (the districts of Thrissur, Palakkad and Malappuram today), but arensuspected to be originally natives of North Malabar where they continue to perform across several temples and aristocratic mansions. Some historians reason their southward migration to a threat many Hindus faced during the invasion of 18th-century Mysore king Tipu Sultan. 

The art form, thus, conventionally finds venue in north and central Kerala. Of late (since the 1990s), it is getting stages from temples and cultural organizations down the state, besides places outside Kerala and even abroad. After all, the Nambiars are Malayalis — a community which has a pan-global diaspora. The first wave of such dislocations (of Nambiars in search of a job elsewhere) left Ayyappan Thiyyattu, like many traditional arts in Kerala, to face an existential crisis in the 1960s and 70s. Even so, the art form did manage to come out of it. Today, it is finding new-generation practitioners who have successfully balanced learning the art along with modern education, and performing it while engaged in mainstream jobs.

The 4 main chapters

True to its spirit of propitiating Lord Ayyappa, Thiyyattu has all its central activities focused on the mythological character — curiously born to gods both of them males: Shiva and Vishnu in her recap role as the seductive Mohini (who had donned himself as a bewitching lady for the Devas to get back from rival Asuras the nectar [amrit] they had churned from the celestial Palazhi ocean). As for the art form, it has four broad chapters:

a) designing the Ayyappa image on the floor, b) narrating Ayyappa’s story and singing paeans of praise, c) essaying the aforesaid tale through hand gestures and dance to percussion accompaniment, d) ceremoniously erasing the lord’s portrait after sytlised rounds of circumambulations.


Kalamezhuthu: The first stage is called Kalamezhuthu in Malayalam. Kalam means a picture made of powders; ezhuthu means drawing. The exercise takes a minimum of half an hour (by a single artiste) to more than four hours when done in detail (by a team of three, four or more). The image sketched is of Ayyappa — with or without showing him mounted on an animal or, more curiously, with his wife and son.

 Yes, contrary to the popular belief, Ayyappa is not a brahmachari. The deity in the famed hill shrine of Sabarimala does enjoy his status as a celibate bachelor, but others cults consider him a grihastha (family man). Thus, as is the concept in quite a few temples across Kerala, Ayyappa is depicted in Thiyyattu as also flanked by wife Prabha (to his left) and son Satyaka. Accommodating three figures makes the Kalam bigger than the (more usual) ones where he is shown without the family. 


In other cases, Ayyappa is either shown singly (facing straight with the bow in the left hand and the arrow in right) or with his vahana — either the tiger/leopard or the horse. Whichever, the images are so ornate, which is typical of Kerala’s visual-art aesthetics famously evident in the regions mural paintings.


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The Kalam, at its frugal (and symbolic) best, takes the shape of a small white lotus. On the other hand, it gains tantric sobriety when sketched as Padmakkalam with a complicated yellow-white-black matrix of 17 swastikas and 24 ashtadalas around.


The five colours are all made of natural pigments: the powdered semi-dry leaves of vaaka or manchadi trees come for green, finely ground turmeric is yellow, rice powder is white, rick husk charred and ground is the black ingredient and turmeric powder rubbed with slaked lime lends the red colour. Grey is also employed by mixing the black and white.


Crucially, preparing the kalam powders has conventionally been a department vested with the Thiyyadi women — called Maruvolamma. But for that backstage role from the distaff side, Thiyyattu entertains only male participation.

Actually, the Kalamezhuthu succeeds a couple of preparatory rituals. The first is call ‘koorayidal’, where the lead Nambiar is formally handed over a black lengthy cloth, the koora. The artiste would then unroll it and stretch it well over vertical strips of coir strung to a rectangular space above him — amid the blowing of the conch. The sanctified floor below is meant for the sketching of the kalam.

Once the imaging is complete, the borders of the kalam are made decked up —with traditional lamps (nilavilakku), raw rice on plantain leaves which also accommodate de-husked coconuts and betel leaves. Further, just above the headgear would stand a vintage roundish stool which would be the resting place for the sacred weapon (thiruvayudham) along with the metallic mirror (valkkannadi).

The Thiruvayudham, conceptually, represents the deity. Not surprising, thus, that it brought by the priest from the sanctorum — and there is a puja the priest offers subsequently to Ayyappa (and to Ganapati as well). This ushers in the second ritual called Uchapuja (noon-time propitiation). The Nambiar sings invocatory songs for Ganapati, Saraswati and Ayyappa, seeking their presence at the ritual. The follow-up is done with a score hailing 108 listed traditional Ayyappa temples of Kerala; it’s called Kaavennal Thottam. Post this, the Thiruvayudham returns to the sanctorum (sreekovil).

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Once the Ayyappa image is completed and the plot decked up, the priest does an offering. Kalampuja, as it is called, leads to the return of the Thiruvayudham to the Thiyyattu premises. The sanctification qualifies the kalam for worship — on par with the temple deity. 

Kottum Pattum

The term, literally, means drum and sing. In short, the rituals involves percussion-accompanied rendition of songs invoking Ayyappa, laced with a stylised narration of his story. The Nambiars line up in a row sitting cross-legged on one side of the kalam, and deliver ditties to the beats and rolls on the para, a smaller version of the chenda drum, and a couple of pairs of cymbals called ilathalam. They rhythms for the songs are set to cycles of six (panchari taalam) and seven (adanta) besides one (eka), while the literature is a mix of quaint old Malayalam (with pronounced streaks of Tamil). The tunes are regional, and remotely traced to certain ragas employed in the Sopanam style of Kerala music.

This section also goes for a narrative of the story of Ayyappa — mostly just his birth. The format is called Thottam, also sticks to the same mix of languages, but is devoid of music. The dialogues are at times rendered in an animated question-answer format that may sound similar to the shadow puppetry (Tholpavakkoothu) narration of the (Kamba)Ramayana in central Kerala.


This, simply, is mime enactment of the literature earlier mouthed as thottam. The Nambiar (either clean-shaven or bearded) does no make-up but drapes himself in a set of costumes that part-resembles classical performing arts such as Koodiyattam and Kathakali.

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Facial emotions are near-zero, while the restrained hand gestures and simple dance movements would trace their influences to folk, traditional and classical arts of the region. For percussion, there is the chenda and ilathalam to the pendulum beats on the para. Occasionally, Kerala instruments such as timila and maddalam are used. In its most elaborate form, the koothu can last 12 hours — from sunrise till dusk. The Udayastamanam Koothu would profile all the 12 stories associated with Ayyappa in the Thiyyattu literature — and is done by a single artiste.



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It is here that the tantric Padmakkalam is sketched (as the day-long ritual is mandatorily preceded by a forerunner Thiyyattu which uses the general kalam). The Koothu has a post-script of sorts where the Nambiar, on completion of a brief puja, carries a torch of oil cloth and takes it around the devotees as an arati of sorts. The ritual is called Thiriyuzhichil.

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As the oracle, his mission is to (respectfully) erase the kalam. Also called Komaram, he wields the Thiruvayudham (a small sword) and wears a garland whose movements would give an accentuating quality to the show of his body rigour that sometimes borders on acrobatics. Draped in white and red clothes round the waist, his rhythmic circumambulations of the kalam are typically slow, while the tempo gains with the passing of circles — 9, 11 or 13 of them, overall.

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It is not as if the Velichappad begins with the circular kala pradakshinam. He would have earlier got the sacred water, garland and Thiruvayudham from the priest — at a venue ideally below the banyan tree just outside the shrine, and in a ritual called Mullakkalpattu, which follows his entry to the temple precincts in a sober and austere procession.


The oracle, holding the sword, also dances to certain set patterns of rhythm on which he is first tipped on the drums which would sound the passage. The drumbeat-replicated-on-feet item is called Eedum Koorum. In a Kanalattam version of this, he would meanwhile pace toward three heaps of fire (prepared from jackwood pieces) and frenziedly reduce them to scattered flatten in phases amber pieces. 

At the kalam and amid the pradakshinams (parikrama), the Velichappad takes a coconuts-breaking interval. Symbolic of propitiating Lord Shiva’s Bhootagana (army of assistants), the coconuts broken may just be one, three or a few tens or hundreds —and, in the most elaborate way, 12,000! In the 12,000-category exercise, called Pantheeraayiram Thengayeru, the oracle would sit on a heap of de-husked coconuts and hurl them on to a flat granite stone one after the other.

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A massive assignment spanning roughly three hours (and sometime even five hours, depending on the choice of pace and perhaps stamina of the thrower), the Velichappad is assisted by a team of men who would ensure smooth supply of coconuts to both his hands. Each coconut would crash on to the stone in sync with the percussion beats (an ethnic melam ensemble involving the chenda and the ilathalam). Set to a leisurely start,the oracle would increase the speed over time (making his clockwork task look like that of a robot’s from a distance) and, towards the end, finish if off in a frenzy.

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Then, back at the kalam, the oracle would complete his rounds and leap onto the image in excitement, but is calm when he eventually erases the image with both legs — rhythmically and amid slices of vocal music. When it comes to blurring the face of Ayyappa, the oracle does it the (right) hand. Then, emerging from the kalam, the oracle utters ‘revelatory’ sentences — kalpana — in (presumed) trance. The prasadam is then distributed as the kalam-powder mix.

‘Heeyo(m)’, he sounds aloud three times, and then rests the Thiruvayudham back on its seat with a bout of fading shiver of the wrists — one that suggests an end to the frenzy and the artiste’s return to his self. The devout disperse.

 (The writer is an author-journalist based in Delhi, and an occasional performer of Ayyappan Thiyattu) 

(Photos Credit: Murali Varier, Sunil Varavoor, Rema Sriram, Ramesh Varma, Athippatta Ravi Namboodiri)




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