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 cant 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.
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