Attractions of Kerala - God's Own Country

Wildlife of Kerala

Culture of Kerala

For ages, the rich and vibrant culture of Kerala has intrigued people worldwide. The songs and dances of the people, their ballads, their rituals and their intellectual pursuits. Truly, the real treasures of Kerala lay in the cultural heritage of its people. Kerala has its own typical art forms which reflect the life and outlook of the people. From the renowned Kathakali, considered to be the complete art form as it synthesizes all that is best in the fields of drama, music and dance, to the folk dances which are reflection of the rhythmic impulses of a sensitive people. Recently, the UNESCO brought to light, a less known art form - Koodiyattom - and declared it as one among the 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is for the first time in the history of UNESCO that select art forms across the world have been given this recognition as part of its effort to safeguard expressions of oral heritage and traditional culture which are in danger of disappearing due to the effects of globalization. Given here are the descriptions of various classical folk and martial art forms of Kerala.


Classical Art Forms of Kerala

Oldest art form Koodiyattom, (literally, dancing together) is the Sanskrit theatre of Kerala which is believed to have originated two millennia ago. The plays are in Sanskrit with the Chakyars performing the male roles and the Nangiars (women of the Nambiar community) performing the female roles. The Vidushaka or clown recites the Malayalam translation for the benefit of the audience. Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam language owes its origin to Koodiyattom.



Kathakali (literally, story play), the spectacular classical dance drama of Kerala based on the guidelines laid by Sage Bharatha's Natya Sastra, the ancient treatise on dance and drama, is over 500 years old. This elaborate art form integrates dance, music, poetry and histrionics. And combines both the thandava (powerful energetic dance, as that of Shiva) and lasya (gentle graceful dance, as that of Parvathi) elements.


Chakyarkoothu, also called Koothu, is one of the oldest classical theatre arts of Kerala.

This solo dance is usually presented by members of the Chakyar community in the Koothambalams (temple theatres) of temples to the accompaniment of the mizhavu (drum in the shape of a large spherical copper pot) and elathalam. The Chakyar is an ideal satirist who uses narrative, mime, wit and innuendo to communicate with the audience, often cutting jokes even at the expense of the people present there. It is his prerogative, and custom has conferred upon him immunity from interruption during a performance. Themes are usually from the epics.

Folk Art Forms of Kerala


Krishnanattam as the name suggest, originated as a votive offering to Sree Krishna. The Performance, bases on the Sanskrit text Krishna Geethi, is presented across eight nights. The costume and make-up of Krishnanattam bear traces of resemblance to Kathakali and folk arts like Mudiyettu and Theyyam. Musical instruments used are maddalam, elathalam and chengila. All three elements of performance recognized by the classical Indian tradition, viz., acting, singing and dancing is important in Krishnanattam. The language is Sanskrit and the singing is done in sopanam style. A distinctive feature of Krishnanattam is the use of masks by some of the characters. Krishnanattam performances begin at night after the ritual closing of the temples' sandum sandorum. Krishnanattam is most commonly performed in the Guruvayoor temple, Thrissur.


Mohiniyattam (the dance of the enchantress) is the gracefully elegant classical dance form with lasya as the predominant element. The dancer is dressed in white and gold. The hair is gathered and put up at the side of the head and adorned with jasmine, in the traditional style. The entire technique in Mohiniyattam is of a graceful, gliding movement of the body, a circular use of the torso and a revolving in the half-bent position with the toe and heel used in a flowing rhythmic structure. Music is in the sopanam style with the drums and cymbals as accompaniments.


Patakam (literally, dissertation) is similar to Koothu in technical content, gestures and movements. However, the narration is through prose and song sequences. The costume is predominated by the red color - a red headdress and a red silk wrist band. The performer also wears heavy garlands around the neck and thick lines of sandal paste across the forehead. Patakam is also performed outside the temples.


Thullal is a modification of the Koothu and is characterized by simplicity of presentation, wit and humour. It owes its origin to Kunjan Nambiar, one of the leading poets of Malayalam. This solo dance with no stage or any other form of arrangement required is marked by fast and rhythmic movements. The dancer himself sings the lead to the accompaniment of the maddalam and elathalam. Thullal is classified into three - Ottanthullal, Seethankamthullal and Parayanthullal - based on the metre and rhythm of the songs and the distinctions in costume and dance. As most other art forms of Kerala, Thullal also has colourful costumes, with elaborate headgears and paintings of the face. It is usually presented during temple festivals.



Said to be the corrupt form of Deivam or God, Theyyam is one of the most outstanding folk arts of Kerala and has its origin in the northern parts of the State. Also called Thirayattam, (because every Thira or village performed this ritualistic art at the village temple) this primitive ritualistic art reflects features of a tribal culture. It is performed in temples and kavus (sacred groves) to propitiate the deities and a Theyyam acts as a medium between the deity and the devotee.

Kalampattu or Kalamezhuthu pattu is another folk art form that belongs to the northern regions of Kerala. This art form which is over 600 years old is performed by a group of five to fifteen people in Bhadrakali and Ayyappa temples. The ritual is performed around the kollam - an elaborate picture, usually of Bhadrakali, drawn on the floor, using five colours. The performance in the light of temple torches lasts through the night. The singers are neatly dressed with women wearing their hair on the side of the head. A series of songs (kalampattu) are sung to the accompaniment of nanthuni (stringed instrument) and elathalam.


Kaliyoottu is an eight day long colorful folk ritual which re­enacts the combat between goddess Durga and the demon Darika. The ritual is performed in different stages. The climax of the play - the ritual called Paranettu - is performed on a specially constructed 100 feet high stage on the eighth day.


Kanniyarkali or Deshathukali which is a ritual art and a swift dance form performed to the accompaniment of devotional folk songs and the resounding drum beats is usually staged in Bhagavathy temples.


Kavadiyattam is a ritual dance offering in Subramanya temples. The group of devotees wearing bright yellow or saffron costumes with ash smeared all over the body, dance in a frenzy carrying kavadis on their shoulders. Kavadis are colourful bow shaped wooden structures raising six to ten feet high. The ambalakavadi is structured and decorated like a temple. The pookavadi has clusters of colourful paper, cloth or plastic flowers arraigned on it. The resounding beats of percussion instruments like udukku and chenda and the nadaswaram (a wind instrument) are characteristic of the kavadi procession.


Kummatti is a ritualistic ceremony to propitiate the Devi (Goddess) where performers wearing masks and adorning garbs made of grass, dry leaves etc. go from house to house singing and dancing.


Kumbhamkali or Kumbhamthullal (pot dance) is a folk ritual dance of devotees carrying pots on the head.


Kuthiyottam is a ritual art exclusive to the Devi temples of South Kerala. A team of artists perform this song and dance ritual. The songs include those in praise of Durga and other deities, padapattu (war songs) and kalaripattu (martial art songs). Instrumental accompaniments are mainly percussions, ganjira, bells and chaplankatta. Faces are painted and red curtains are used as partitions on the stage.


Thattumelkoothu is a devotional folk art. The dance is performed on a special platform which is carried around the temple by devotees even as the performance goes on.


Poothamkali is a folk art performed in the Bhagavathy temples of Malappuram. Pootham is a character who accompanied Durga in her combat with Darika Asura. The performers, usually three in number, undergo a week of austerity before presentation. Colourful and intricately designed masks carved out of the pala and murukku trees are the highlights of the attire. The fifteen minute performance starts slowly and works up to frenzy towards the end. The thudi provides rhythm to the dance which is usually rendered at night.

Sarpa pattu

Sarpa pattu or Sarpam thullal or snake dance is a ritual art performed in shrines and temples devoted to Nagaraja, the king of serpents. It is performed by women who belong to the Pulluvar caste, in a specially decorated pandal, before the sarpakalam (snake designs on the floor). The women dance in a frenzy to the rhythm of the sarpa pattu, until they fall down exhausted. The sarpa pattu is performed to the accompaniment of pulluvakudom, a stringed instrument.

Thidampu nrittam

Thidampu nrittam which is over 700 years old is a ritualistic art form of North Kerala. The dancer moves to the rhythmic beats of the chenda carrying the thidampu (the symbolic image of the deity) on his head. Seven artists accompany him on percussion instruments while two others hold aloft the ritualistic lamps. The artist wears much jewellery and a decorated turban known as Ushnipeetam.


Mayilnrittam or Mayilattam is a ritual art performed by artists in peacock costume. It is performed in Subramanya temples in South Kerala.


Padayani (literally, a column of army) is a colourful ritual art which is symbolic of the victory march of goddess Kali after defeating the demon Darika. The elaborate costume of this art form bears slight resemblance to Theyyam.


Thiyattu is a devotional offering to goddess Bhadrakali and Sree Ayyappa. This ritual art is performed in a specially decorated pandal, before the kalam (five colour design on the floor), nilavilakku (the traditional lamp) and peetam (stool). The performance usually starts at dusk. The artists sing and dance to the rhythmic music of the chenda, elathalam and chengila. The costumes bear resemblances to that of Ottamthullal and Kathakali. The distinctive features are huge jingling anklets and face make-up with tiny dots.


Chavittunatakam is an art form which evolved due to Portuguese influence. It developed under the auspices of the church in Kerala with the object of presenting Biblical themes. The actors stamp with their feet on wooden platforms to the tune of songs and drums. Music is important in Chavittunatakam. Stories include that of Christian saints, Charlemagne and Napoleon.


Pulikali also known as Kaduvakali is a common sight in Kerala during festive seasons. Performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red and black, dance to the loud beats of percussion instruments like the udukku and thakil.


Thiruvathirakali is a dance form which is a pointer to the old customs followed in Nair tharawads (joint families) where the women of the house dance elegantly around the ceremonial lamp or floral decoration on festive occasions to the accompaniment of the thiruvathira pattu (song). Kummi is another form of Thiruvathirakali.


Margamkali is an art form popular among the Syrian Christians of Kerala, where twelve persons sing and dance around a nilavilakku (lamp) with eleven burning wicks. The lamp is believed to represent Christ, and the performers, His twelve disciples.


Cherumarkali is a harvest dance in which the dancers, both men and women move in a swift rhythm, linked in a back lock or holding arms. The costumes are in striking red and white.


Kolkali is a group dance form of the farming community in Kerala. Twelve to twenty four dancers move rhythmically in a circle around the ceremonial lamp, tapping the two feet long wooden sticks held in their hands.


Vadithallu is almost similar to Kolkali and is a folk dance in which artists tap the short sticks held in both hands.


Oppana is a Muslim bridal group dance where the bride dressed in all her finery sits in the centre while the others move around her singing and clapping their hands rhythmically.

Martial Art Forms of Kerala


This comprehensive system of martial arts, regarded as one of the oldest and most scientific in the world, evolved in North Kerala. The State has produced many a hero whose exploits find expression in folk songs and legends. One of them, Thacholi Meppayil Kunhi Othenan has been immortalized in vadakkan pattukal (northern ballads) as one of its greatest exponents.


Velakali is a ritual art where fifty or more performers in the traditional attire of soldiers, bearing colourful shields and swords, dance with war like steps in perfect orchestration to the thakil, suddha maddalam, elathalam and kuzhal. It is called thirumumbil vela when performed before the deity and kulathilvela when performed near the temple pond. A few fighting techniques of Kalaripayattu are also included in the performance.


Parisakali was developed by the Mappilas of North Kerala as a folk art. It is a game played in the form of a mock fight by boys holding short sticks in one hand and a red straw-board shield in the other.

Music of Kerala

Sopana sangeetham

This is sung in front of sopana (steps in front of the sanctum sanctorum). Sopana sangeetbam has a distinct style. Bhakti movement in Kerala influenced sopana sangeetham and most of the lyrics (asthapathi) are based on Jayadeva's (thirteenth century poet) immortal work, 'Geeta Govinda'. The song varies according to the time of performance and the deity. Musicians always stand on the left side of the sopana and singing stops once the shrine opens. Instruments used are edakka and chengila.



Suddha-maddalam, komb, edakka, elathalam, timila are the five instruments used besides sankh (conch) for Panchavadyam. The Panchavadyam can have different types depending on the number of instruments. The minimum requirement is three thimilas, one suddha-maddalam, two elathalams, two kombs and one edakka, besides the sankh. The positioning of an artist in apanchavadyam mela (concert) is also important. Timila and suddha-maddalam artists face each other. Elathalam artists stand behind the timila artists and komb artists stand behind suddha-maddalam artists. Edakka drummers face each other and the sankh blower stands in front, next to them. Panchavadyam starts with the blowing of sankhs. The famous Thrissur Pooram gives an opportunity to witness playing of a full complement of Panchavadyam.



This is mainly confined to temples. Chenda, komb, kuzhal and elathalam are the main instruments used. For a complete performance, the minimum requirements are 33 veekuchendas, 33 elathalams and 11 each of komb, kuzhal and muttuchenda.


This differs from Pancharimelam slightly, though the instruments used are the same. While the beating of chenda in Pancharimelam is done with two sticks, only one is used for drumming in Pandimelam. Another difference lies in the blowing of kuzhal, which in Pandimelam is done in Bhairav Raaga­.Pandimelam can be seen in its full splendor during Pooram at the Sri Vadakkumnathan Temple compound in Thrissur.


This can be seen during festival days, especially when the temple deity is taken out in procession. Only chendas and elathalams are used. The artist uses his palm and stick for drumming.

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