Tholpavakoothu is the Keralite version of Puppetry. It has been practiced as a traditional art the Bhadrakali temple towards northern KeralaThrissur, Palakkad and Malapuram districts and has been around since the 18th century. The temples have Koothu Madams where the Tholpavakoothu are performed. Tholpavakoothu literally means play or performance of dolls made of skin / leather. They are also called Pavakoothu ( paava – doll koothu – play / performance) or Nizhalattam (Nizhal – shadow, attam – dance / play). The dolls / puppets are made of leather – skins of buffalo’s, deer’s or goat’s and are held behind a white screen. A line of bright wick lamps are lit behind the puppets so that their shadow falls on the cloth and is visible to the audience.

Tholpavakoothu as a play is performed throughout the night. The theme of the Tholpavakoothu are traditionally usually based on Ramayana especially excerpts from the Kamba Ramayana (written by Kambar a renowned poet and Tamil scholar). And that is one of the reason that the play is accompanied by dialogues in a dialect which is a mix of Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit. But in recent times other themes too have been staged on Tholpavakoothu performances. The traditional instruments that accompany in the performance of Tholpavakoothu are Ezhupara, (drum), Ilathalam (cymbals). Shankha (conch), Chenda and Maddalam (drums), Chengila (gong) and Kurum-kuzhal (a short pipe) as per the occasion.


Legend says that this art form took its birth in Mount Kailas the abode of Lord Shiva. Goddess Kali was born from the third eye of Lord Shiva and the purpose of her birth was to vanquish the Asura (demon) Darika. When Goddess Kali was busy killing Darika she could not witness the battle between Lord Sree Rama and the demon king Ravana. So after she came back to Mount Kailas and wanted to witness the battle it was depicted for the first time as a Pavakoothu (puppet play) for her. Thus the tradition of narrating events of Ramayana to Goddess Kali using puppets started. Tholpavakoothu is an art form in which we can see the mix of Dravidian and Aryan culture.

The artists who perform the puppetry are called Pulavar (meaning well versed or learned and knowledgeable in Tamil). They undergo years of training to learn the puppetry and also master the Ramayana. As in any performance the show starts with the Ganapathi Aradhana(prayer). During the Pavakoothu, the artists, while conversing with each other as the characters, do so in a sing song manner which makes the play lively. The Pavas (puppets) are in general ¾ of a meter. They are designed / cut in different postures like sitting, standing, lying down etc. They are glued to a thin stick. The limbs and other parts which have to be moved to enliven the play are glued to thinner sticks. Each artist then holds one puppet at a time and using both hands and simultaneously moving them creates animated characters on the screen.


A row of wick lamps are placed on a wooden beam and provides bright illumination from behind the puppets and so the shadow becomes very sharp. To perform a proper Tholpavakoothu of the whole of Ramayana, about 200 puppets depicting around 70 characters and around 40 artists are required. And it takes 21 days to do the complete the story of Sree Rama. Not all Pavakoothus are for 21 days. The performances can be for 7, 14, 21, 41 or even 71 days. Either the whole Ramayana or specific Khands (portions) are performed. And it is believed that Kali beholds these performances and enjoys them.