published on June 10, 2006

SARPPAM THULLAL, A Mystical Dance.

 An experience
 On a rain-swept afternoon our bus meandered through a pot-holed road to the heart of a hamlet in Kerala, in the South Western state of India. I sat wondering about the fruitfulness of braving the torrents. Could I ever peep into the heart of a ritual tradition without adequate knowledge of anthropology? Could I ever understand its significance with the scepticism and the analytical frame of a modern mind? Yet the journey could be worthwhile, as I had only heard about this ancient ritual practice and never seen it performed.

Sarpamthullal is an annual event in ancient homesteads performed by Pulluvas a community of village minstrels. The songs they sing evoke nostalgic memories perpetuating an eco-myth. The loud ‘tum tum’ of Kudam, an earthen pot with a string attached, announced the event. Roused by a music that plucked at the heartstrings,
people from around gathered at the venue. A small group of rural folk, most of them the members of a single extended family had come to take part in their special occasion.

The invocation

  A group of three men were giving finishing touches to an elaborate picturesque design.  Sarpa kalalm is the large pictorial arena where this ritual drama enacts its mystique.  From the elaborate pattern of vibrant colours, hooded snakes rise up larger than life. The knotted, twining serpents cast a spell under the light from the
bell-metal lamps. Nearby, the small shrine dedicated to the snake is alit like a little temple.
      Once the kalam is made, music close to chanting begins: loud, pulsating, and evocative. The powerful beat rising from the pulluva Kudam,(  a pot with strings attached) the wining of Naga Veena(one stringed violin like instrument) and the clanging of kuzhi thalam.(cymbals) form the prelude to this ecstatic folk drama.
      It was growing dark. Two women sang an invocation striking the chords of the kudam that echoed the heartbeat of the night. The lonely aching of the Naga Veena mingled with the music of rain as cymbals chimed. The young women of the host family holding thaalam (brass-plates with flowers and lighted lamps) brought the idol of the snake in a procession from the shrine to the kalam. The crowd waited eager-eyed.
          I speak their language; live in the same state; eat the same food. Yet, how different I felt: an alien among a known people! Knowing, still not really knowing, I watched trying to comprehend the mystique of an ancient ritual.

The spell

        The night outside throbbed; the lights glimmered; the rain whined. The leafy decoration of the venue swam in the wind like snakes, their shadows moving in the gloom. The pictures of multi-coloured, coiled snakes, the bare-bodied human forms moving among dancing shadows, and the moaning of the stringed instrument created a strange feel. The songs sprang from the immeasurable depths of India’s racial memory. Images, long buried, were bobbing up and down the River of life flowing inexorably from the beginning of time. And the velvet music flowed melting everything.
        Soon, one of the men began to move around the kalam in rhythmic steps with a flaming flywhisk in his hands. Thiri uzhichil simulated the eerie movements of a hooded snake. His black head, black finely cut beard, his gleaming eyes, and his rhythmic movements slowly cast a spell. Over the large carpet like design, the twining forms seemed to move in harmony with the movement of the man and the rhythm of the chant.  Snakes seemed to move here, there, everywhere. Darkness impenetrable, flickering lamps, a hypnotic dance with fiery balls, wind and rain among the trees, a strange feeling overwhelmed me. The musical notes mounted, strange, turbulent, insistent, and plaintive. It floated out upon the night loosing itself in the rain. Not knowing why or how, it touched my untutored heart. Not really understanding, the mystery softly played deep within. I sat compelled and involved in an electric atmosphere. As I listened, some strange wonderful magic made something within me stir, flutter, and then soar…
        The maidens who sat cross-legged among the patterns of hooded snakes began to sway. It was surreal: their closed eyes, their trembling hands, their flowing hair, and their sleepy state. Their swaying bodies moved everywhere as if the pictures of the snakes had risen alive. Hysteria shook some other women of the family. They rushed from within the house moving as  in sleep, took the silky-white bunch of the buds of the palm tree, mumbling visibly began to dance. They rubbed the pictures of the Kalam off by dragging their bodies, pulled the leafy decorations, swayed and moved around. It was a snaky world! The whole scene seemed part of a dream, a voyage beyond space and time. The songs, the singers, the dancers, and the viewers were transported into a world of tuneful magic with the fragrance of myth, fact, and fantasy. And the night poured out its soul in melodic
resonance. The snaky figurines crawled towards the shrine. People poured water; the unconscious women were carried off. The spell broke. I opened my eyes into the world of reality, gazed at the darkness of the heavens, and felt my tears blending with the raindrops.
      I went there with doubts and conflicts. But the night brought me a revelation. I recovered what was lost– the ecological balance we need, a retreat from the sick hurry of our times, a chance to contemplate the glory of a lost vision that held all created things sacred. I knew not if I would ever be stirred again as
that surrealist drama moved me.
        *              *              *              *          *          *
        Driven by curiosity, I went to meet and talk to the professional troupe the following morning. A young man, his mother, wife and two uncles carry on the tradition of their family with utmost devotion. They are busy through out the season. It was their great grandfather who collected all the songs, handed over by word of mouth. I asked them about the mystery of trance. But, they told me of a hundred stories that my childhood memories recalled. Being great believers in the unfathomable mystery of their art they could not satisfy my intellectual curiosity.
        On my way back, I stopped at my sister’s house. Her husband, a
practising psychiatrist offered some explanation for this strange phenomenon. He talked at length of the of the complexity of human psyche, of racial memories encoded in the genes, of some being susceptible to hypnotism, of mass hysteria, of telepathy, of clairvoyance. I recalled a strange phenomenon recorded in a memoir and my sister contributed her experience of a similar event.
 When I set out, the rains had almost stopped. The sky smiled and there was the promise of sunshine.

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