Snakes and snake worship has been an integral part of Kerala culture since ages. In fact it is believed that snake worship existed even before the adaptation of the Aryan Hindu practices. Many traditional homes had snake shrines called Pambin Kavu or Sarpa Kavu where regular poojas and rituals take place periodically. Unlike other temples, Sarpa Kavu would be an open temple. The idols were stone sculptures of Snake Gods all set in a stone platform. The temple would be in midst of thick overgrowth of trees specially bamboo and creepers. The Kavu was believed to a sacred place and nobody was allowed to disturb the flora or fauna therein. Even in this day when the old Sarpa Kavus are thought of being used for other purposes, it’s a tradition to hold poojas and ceremonies to appease the Snake Gods and get their blessings
Sarpam Thullal or snake dances is a ritualistic art form performed to appease the Snake Gods and bring prosperity and good health to the family. Since snake is also considered to be the symbol of fertility, childless couples too promise to hold Sarpam Thullal to please the Snake Gods and to be blessed with an offspring.
Sarpam Thullal is traditionally done by the ‘Pulluvar’ community. There are some interesting theories about how the ‘Pulluvar’ community came into existence. ‘Pullu’ is a bird believed to bring bad tidings and the community which wards off the undesired effects of the ‘Pullu’ bird by their songs and rituals are called the ‘Pulluvar’. Or it could be that the creator Lord Brahma used a ‘Pullu’ (grass) to create the community so they are called ‘Pulluvar’. One other reason given for the name is that when the Khandava Forest was burning one serpent took shelter with the lady of the Naganchery Illam. When the community learned of this she was outcast from the Brahmin community. ‘Pulluvar’ are considered to be her descendants.
The offering of Sarpam Thullal is considered very sacred and so the practices too are observed very strictly. An auspicious day is decided and the Pulluvan informed about the same. The whole family starts observing fast by eating only vegetarian food etc a week before the ceremony specially the Kanyakas (young girls) who are selected to be sitting inside the Kalam (drawing).The Kanyakas are young girls who haven’t yet reached puberty. On the auspicious day a Pandhal (canopy) is erected and an intricate drawing of Snake Gods is done inside the Pandhal. This drawing is done by the traditional artists using organic colours. It takes hours to complete the drawing. The drawing will usually be of entwined snakes with bid spread hoods. The Pandhal too is decorated with flowers and garlands lending a festive look to the place.
The Pulluvan and Pulluvathy (the woman), with their traditional instruments Pulluva kudam, (a pot with strings attached) Naga Veena (violin like with a single string instrument) and Kuzhi Thalam (cymbals) take place besides the Pandhal. The ritual starts by welcoming the Snake Gods to the Pandhal by the traditional Velakku (lamps) and Thalam (decorated plates) borne by the women of the family. The Pulluvan then starts the singing and the Pulluvathy repeats and accompanies him. They start with Ganapathy Aradhana and then other deities. The Pulluvan also does a ritual called Thiri Uzhichal wherein he moves around the Kalam with a lighted wick in an elaborate dance form. Meanwhile the Kanyakas are made to sit in front of the Pandhal with some flower boughs in their hands. Later as the Pulluvan starts worshipping and singing about the Snake Gods the beat changes.
These songs are very soulful in the beginning and sets the mood but later the tempo is increased gradually. As the mesmerizing songs increase its tempo the girls get into a trance and sway to the music. It is believed that the spirits posses the Kanyakas during the Thullal and whatever prophecy is done by the Kanyakas while in trance is considered from the Gods. As the tempo reaches the crescendo the Kanyakas still in trance, move about the Kalam and wipe off the drawing with their body movement. By the end of it they are exhausted and pass out as the song stops. The whole ritual lasts up to 5-6 hrs.
This routine sometimes happens for a week. It ends with the Kudam Nirakkal. This is the process of filling the pot of Pulluvan with the material offered as promise, normally rice.