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Rites hindous

Gérard Colas
Gilles Tarabout

Modèles du rite, rites modèles

‘Traditionalism’ versus ‘innovation’

The politics of ritual change in South India

Caroline Osella et Filippo Osella


« traditionalisme » versus « innovation » du changement rituel comme politique (inde du sud)

Dans cet article, nous examinons les transformations des pratiques rituelles à travers l’ethnographie du kuttiyōṭṭam, une offrande sanglante calquée sur un modèle de sacrifice humain, exécuté chaque année pour et devant la déesse BhadrakāỊi dans le Sud du Kérala. En étudiant la pratique de ce sacrifice dans deux différents temples, nous observons à travers les années une expansion du rituel à l’extérieur de son réseau originel ; la participation de nouveaux sponsors ; une montée dramatique des coûts des rituels, ainsi que l’introduction de différents styles (de) rituels par de nouveaux groupes d’exécutants, débouchant sur une controverse entre « traditionalistes » et « modernistes ». Mais les oppositions entre « traditionnels » et « modernes », orthodoxie et hétérodoxie, authentique et une inauthentique sont remises en question dans les conversations avec les exécutants eux-mêmes ; ici l’accent est placé sur la créativité, le sens esthétique, les aptitudes à faire bouger le goût populaire et à introduire des performances artistiques nouvelles. Nous suggérons que l’hindouisme populaire et les pratiques rituelles sont toujours susceptibles de changement, ouverts aux contestations, aux redéfinitions, et aux innovations ; d’anciens rituels peuvent être délaissés ou modifiés tandis que d’autres sont mis en place ; de nouveaux éléments sont introduits dans des programmes ; des styles sans précédent sont adoptés. Ces changements, qui ne sont ni rigides ni linéaires, tendent à s’insérer dans un contexte de transformations sociales plus larges, apportées par ceux-là même qui se débattent avec ces bouleversements.

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  • 1 We have received generous financial support for various periods of fieldwork and writing-up during (...)

1Some Malayali ideas about ‘tradition’ (pāramparyam) and modernity (the modern) via an ethnography of the Hindu ritual arena are to be considered. We will discuss a specific ritual, kuttiyōṭṭam, a blood offering taking as a model full human sacrifice, performed every year for and in front of the fierce (ugra) goddess Bhadrakāli in various temples around South Kerala. Here we deal with Puthenkulangara, a large, wealthy public temple managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board, and Palakkavu, a small, family-owned temple. Over the number of years in which we have been anthropologically involved–as recorders, participants and observers–with kuttiyōṭṭam, (firstly in 1990 & 1991 and then again in 1995 & 1996)1 we have observed in Puthenkulangara an expansion of the ritual outside its original catchment area; the participation of new sponsors (patrons/jajmans); a dramatic rise in the ritual’s costs; and the introduction of different ritual styles by new groups of performers, with resulting controversy; attempts by other temples, including Palakkavu, to emulate Puthenkulangara’s success in attracting people and cash towards its celebrations. Research into the ritual’s earlier and recent histories suggests some ways in which the story of kuttiyōṭṭam is enmeshed with the region’s other stories: colonialism, Hindu reform, land redistribution and struggle, and (most lately) migration to the Persian Gulf.

  • 2 According to the varna system, Hindu society is divided into four savarṇar (within-the-varṇa) group (...)
  • 3 Īḻavars are classified by the Indian Government as an OBC jāti (Other Backwards Communities), that (...)

2The sponsoring of kuttiyōttam–an extremely expensive and public ritual– is usually taken up as an expression and public sanctioning of wealth and status. Predictably, the appearance of sponsors from communities and families previously (i.e. before the official abolition of the most stringent forms of caste discrimination, in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries) excluded from the ritual (lower castes, ‘new money’ families) has led to attempts at exclusion or delegitimation among the local upper-caste élite, savarṇa2 Nāyars. This is done via attempts to fix identification of certain practices and styles as ‘traditional’, setting ‘tradition’ as a yardstick to judge the ‘proper’ performance of authentic rituals. Low-caste or new-moneyed sponsors (generally Īḻavars, an OBC3 avarṇa jāti some of whose members have achieved a degree of economic success) do not (in the eyes of the upper castes) have either the symbolic or practical capital–in terms of expertise, connections and knowledge–necessary to identify and hire out the services of the best, most ‘traditional’ ritual performers and hence to conduct ‘traditional’ kuttiyōṭṭam. Their ritual naiveté, putting them into a position where they rely heavily upon guidance by their hired performers, allows for an acceleration of processes of introduction of new styles and innovations. The local old-guard conservatives’ oppositions between ‘traditional’ and ‘new/modern’, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, authentic and inauthentic, are, however, clearly unsettled in conversations with performers themselves, be they from an established, high-caste ‘traditional’ troupe or from one of the burgeoning recently-formed, ‘mixed’ troupes (euphemism indicating that a troupe includes or is composed of lower, formerly untouchable, castes): here the emphasis is on creativity, aesthetic sense and the abilities to shift popular taste and introduce new artistic performances.

3Blood sacrifices to powerful and ‘violent’ (ugra, bhayaṅkaram) forms of the goddess (usually chickens or ‘vegetarian’ substitutes, cucumbers for instance) are commonplace throughout South India. Mock human sacrifices are similarly not limited to Kerala itself but are found in various forms, such as ‘hook-swinging’ in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (see e.g. Oddie 1995; Obeyesekere 1984 & 1990 for Sri Lanka; Padel 1995 for discussion of human sacrifice in colonial India). Kuttiyōṭṭam itself has been reported in parts of Tamil Nadu (Reiniche 1979: 176; Dumont 1986: 429-430) and Southern Kerala (Tarabout 1986: 332-335; see also Mateer 1870: 221-222; Id. 1883: 92-93; Thurston 1906: 63), while Brouwer (1995: 430ff.) reports a similar side-piercing phenomenon in Karnataka, and we have seen it performed in several smaller temples throughout our fieldwork area (central Travancore). What makes kuttiyōṭṭam at Puthenkulangara particularly significant is the scale of the ritual, the fame of the songs associated to the sacrifice, the reputation of the performers and–for devotees–the great powers of Puthenkulangara Amma.

  • 4 Following the 19th-century development of the colonial economy, we witness the rise of an economica (...)

4Up until the end of the 19 th century Puthenkulangara temple belonged to four related Nāyar families–Kerala’s traditional upper caste élite–living in proximity of the temple; kuttiyōṭṭam was their sole prerogative. Low-caste avarṇa (‘untouchable’) villagers were excluded from access to the temple and could not conduct kuttiyōṭṭam; Īḻavar–low-caste ‘toddy-tappers’–had the right, however, to perform another mock human sacrifice–tūkkam tuḷḷal, hook-swinging–on the day after the conclusion of kuttiyōṭṭam. When the administration of the temple was taken over by the Travancore Devaswom Board, the four original families lost some of their customary ritual rights and the temple’s constituency was eventually extended from four to thirteen neighbourhoods. At the turn of the 20 th century the temple and its festival became the centre of bitter and at times violent disputes between Nāyars and Īḻavars. Spearheaded by few wealthy and powerful members of the community4, Īḻavars stopped performing hook-swinging, a ritual generally stigmatised as low-caste. In 1936, following the promulgation of temple entry legislation, low-caste villagers gained full access to the temple and Īḻavars were then able–as members of a newly-constituted modern inclusive Hindu ‘public’–to claim full rights to act as sponsors of the more prestigious blood sacrifice, kuttiyōṭṭam (F. & C. Osella 2000).

  • 5 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful all-India right-wing nationalist Hindu organisation.

5Given the high costs involved in the sponsoring of the sacrifice, kuttiyōṭṭam continued to remain the privilege of the local Nāyar élite and a handful of wealthy īlavar families. But in the 1960s the temple began to fall in popularity, a decline taking place against a background of severe political unrest preceding and following the implementation of land reforms, eventually leading to a polarisation of political interests and allegiances throughout rural Kerala, including the Puthenkulangara area. The local Nāyar community clearly aligned itself with anti-union and anti-Communist politics; Īḻavars and other untouchable groups, overwhelmingly tenants or landless labourers, were at the time gathered on the opposing side. The temple, with its festival and associated rituals, including kuttiyōṭṭam, became among the savarṇar castes the focus of a conscious effort to entrench and objectify a generalised opposition to left-wing policies and social reforms into a comprehensive ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservative’ (tacitly high-caste) identity expressed through the defence and continuation of local ‘ritual traditions’. As elsewhere, at the centre of this ‘traditionalist’ turn stand RSS5 militants and sympathisers who, over the years, have taken on a prominent role in the running of the temple and its festival. But the RSS ostensible project of a unified ‘traditional’ Hindu community is just one of the many interests which continue to be played out in temple politics (Fuller 2001; Chiriyankandath 1998: 212ff.). Importantly, the prestige which is still attached to taking prominent positions in public ritual/religious activities fuels new or old rivalries between particular families and communities competing for status.

6Since the 1970s, the fame of Puthenkulangara Amma has grown steadily, with thousands of devotees nowadays taking part in her annual festival; with the temple drastically increasing its income through devotees’ donations; and with kuttiyōṭṭam establishing itself as the region’s most powerful and prestigious individual offering to the goddess. These developments need to be understood within the context of a generalised renewal in interest and participation in religious activities fuelled by Gulf migrants and their families. In the last fifteen years there has been a general proliferation of temples (and churches) and of rituals which specialise in assisting Gulf migration and promoting financial success, as well as offering solutions to the problems created by migration itself. Amid all the innovation and expansion, we simultaneously also see moves towards ‘orthodoxy’ or conservatism. The emerging new-moneyed middle classes have been instrumental in the renovation of many family temples and lineage associations, or in turning simple old ancestor shrines into full-fledged family temples with Puranic deities. By donating money to local temples and sponsoring public festivals, they have also been able to take on positions of responsibility in the management committees of mainstream temples, often disrupting existing power structures based either on lineage seniority or customary ritual rights. Here public religious activities–especially temple festivals–are local sites of struggles for precedence, prestige and status through which individual and collective/caste projects of social mobility are articulated and given expression (F. & C. Osella 2000: 154ff.). Changes brought by new-moneyed devotees in the religious/ritual sphere in Puthenkulangara, set in a context of an already complex political temple history, have generated debate and conflict on the nature and role of tradition and innovation.

7We now turn to a composite and general brief description of what kuttiyōṭṭam entails in the post-1980s.


8Kuttiyōṭṭam–literal meaning, ‘stabbing and running’–is a mock human sacrifice. Local patrons from thirteen neighbourhoods (kara) attached to the Puthenkulangara Bhadrakāḷi temple vow to sponsor the offering of a costly human blood sacrifice to the goddess, a ritual undertaking which will take months of preparation and cost many thousands of rupees. At Puthenkulangara, BhadrakāỊi is represented as slayer of the demon Dārikan, inebriated by the demon’s blood she is drinking. She is in an extremely violent and powerful mood, eager to receive more blood as an offering in return for fulfilling the vows of her devotees.

9Kuttiyōṭṭam itself is performed on the day of Khumba Bharani–the goddess’ birth-star (nakṣatram) day in the month of Khumbam (mid-February/mid-March)–but the ritual begins with several days of preparation at the sponsor’s house, undertaken under instruction by the hired all male semi-professional troupe who are expert in kuttiyōṭṭam and who will act simultaneously as performers (singers and dancers) and as ritual specialists, under the leadership of a senior expert man (āśān). On Śivaratri (the night of Siva, understood locally as BhadrakāỊi’s ‘father’) a large canopy (maṇḍapam) is erected in the courtyard of the sponsor’s house and a temporary shrine to Bhadra constructed. From this day, sponsor, family and all performers should observe vratam (‘abstinence’ from meat, liquor, sex and so on). Two ‘pure’ (i.e. pre-pubescent) boys are brought to the house, given new clothes and haircuts, and temporarily ‘adopted’. Everyone is clear that the two boys–themselves of course acting as substitutes for the sacrifier himself–should ideally be the sons of the sponsor, but in practice (partly because the boys after the sacrifice are ritually dead and hence inauspicious) sponsors temporarily ‘adopt’ a couple of children, usually from poor, low-caste labouring families. The boys stay day and night in the house of the sponsor for the duration of kuttiyōṭṭam and are treated as members of the family. Under the canopy and before the shrine, in front of a large crowd, the two boys have six nights in which to learn the four different dance steps which they will eventually have to perform in front of Bhadrakāli at Puthenkulangara temple before the conclusion of the sacrifice. The dance steps are performed to the accompaniment of four different songs praising the goddess and recounting her fight against the demons. Teaching the dance is the job of the hired troupe, who also conducts the sacrifice itself–the skin piercing on the final day–and procures for the sponsor the two boys.

  • 6 Kummi pāṭṭu are songs usually–but not exclusively–performed by women during some annual or temple f (...)
  • 7 Iḍḍali (soft rice patties) and sāmbār (a vegetarian curry) are popular Kerala dishes.

10The six nights of preparation are a public occasion on an unimaginable scale –far bigger than a wedding–attracting a large number of the sponsor’s relatives, friends and neighbours. Instruction of the boys occupies only a small part of the evening (half an hour at the beginning and end of each night’s performance). For the rest of the night (around four hours), the performers/ritual specialists present their troupe’s repertoire of kummi songs and dances6 done in the same general style as the central ones taught to the two boys. Nobody who appears at the house is turned away from these nights, while everyone attending is offered hot drinks, betel nuts and cigarettes and substantial hot snacks (which should be different each night). No expense should be spared, and all comers should receive lavish hospitality. To run out of sāmbār or iḍḍli7 would be a disaster: householders must be ready to prepare and serve up food to two hundred guests a night, at least. Many informants made explicit reference to the great sacrifice of Dakṣa (referred to as the goddess’ father and Siva’s father-in-law).

11After the six days’ practice comes one day’s rest, and early in the morning of the eighth day the performing troupe dress up the two boys as ‘kings’, with mock gold crowns and bangles, lavish make-up, banana-leaf and red silk waistcloths and so on. They are taken to the goddess’ temporary house shrine where before a large crowd, their sides are pierced by the āśān with a silver thread.

A householder-sponsor stands surrounded by his family members, dependents, servant carrying the money-box and the sacrificial boy, ready for procession to Puthenkulangara temple, 1995.

A householder-sponsor stands surrounded by his family members, dependents, servant carrying the money-box and the sacrificial boy, ready for procession to Puthenkulangara temple, 1995.

Photogr. Filippo Osella

12Having performed their four dance steps in front of the goddess at the house, the two boys are then taken out, hands carefully raised–we were told–to avoid touching the silver threads, in a huge procession along major roads to Puthenkulangara temple. Processions are led by the sponsor and his family and include friends and neighbours as well as caparisoned elephants, temple drummers, musicians and various troupes of performers of ritual/religious and mimetic arts (e.g. peacock dancers; floats with religious tableaux). Throughout the procession, which often takes several kilometres and two to four hours to reach Puthenkulangara temple, some of the performing troupe sing songs to the goddess through a portable p.a. system mounted on a lorry; others walk with the boys, protecting them from the crush and ensuring they come to no harm. Along the way, processions stop in front of every temple or shrine they pass for the two boys, together with their instructors, to perform the four basic dance steps. After some hours, the temple is in sight, with a massive crowd in and around it and with kuttiyōṭṭams from several directions converging upon it.

13Processions form queues to get in, whereupon the boys are taken to the front of the entrance of the main shrine, watched by thousands of devotees. Here, after performance of the four dance steps, the āśāns swiftly remove the bloody threads from the bodies of the boys–who sometimes faint at this point, from emotional exhaustion rather than pain–and offer them to the goddess. The boys are carried away to be bandaged up. Finally, all participants in the procession return to the sponsor’s house where they are offered a full vegetarian feast meal. On the following day, the hectic days of kuttiyōṭṭam draw to a close with the sponsor breaking the vratam abstinence by offering a non-vegetarian meal (accompanied by alcohol for menfolk) to the performers/ritual specialists and all those who have helped to organise and conduct the sacrifice. At this meal, the performers and the two boys are presented with gifts and payment (dakṣiṇa) for their services. The boys are returned–now ritually dead– to their parents.


14From the point of view of those who sponsor kuttiyōṭṭam, the sacrifice has two dimensions: status consolidation, to which we will return later, and fear of retribution. The first is fear of retribution from the goddess. People (generally men, occasionally senior women) initially decide to offer kuttiyōṭṭam as a massive act of devotion in order to obtain a specific boon from the deity, often in times of particular distress or necessity, the performance itself being delayed until the particular desired positive result has been obtained. But in most cases, given the high costs entailed, the promised kuttiyōṭṭam does not get done immediately a good result is obtained, but tends to get postponed until such time as things begin to go wrong in the devotee’s life. Consultation with an astrologer will confirm that the goddess is displeased for not having yet received what she has been promised and is beginning to enact her revenge: Bhadrakāli is famed as never failing to give help to her devotees and as extraordinarily powerful, but she is also quick tempered and vengeful against those who break their vows to her. At this point delays are no longer possible and a kuttiyōṭṭam is organised to satisfy the goddess.

15Srikanthan Kurup, a small Nāyar trader and fourth of five brothers–three of whom are in the army, another working for a Government Dairy–organised a kuttiyōṭṭam in 1991 in his mother’s house. When we first talked to him the day before the beginning of the sacrifice he explained that

Many years ago I promise Puthenkulangara Amma a kuttiyōṭṭam because I had lent Rs. 5000 to a Muslim, but he would not give it back. I started a court case against him and thanks to the help of Amma I won: I was awarded Rs. 6000, the debt plus interest. But at that time I didn’t know the cost of kuttiyōṭṭam... Eight years ago, when I was travelling with my twin brother, I ran to catch a train and fell under the wheels and lost part of my foot. At that time my brother decided that we needed to do it (kuttiyōṭṭam) and two and half years ago we began to save money...

16Throughout the unfolding of the various phases of kuttiyōṭṭam, particular efforts must be made to ensure that the goddess is ‘satisfied’ (tṛpti) with the sacrifice. An astrologer, consulted at various stages during the ritual, will establish whether the goddess is present during the kuttiyōṭṭam and is pleased with the way it has been conducted, or whether she has not been satisfied and the sacrifice has to be done again. But sponsors, audience and performers are also involved in this process of establishing success, keen to pick up and discuss various incidents–a downpour of rain, an accident to the sponsor or his family, a large or small attendance on the preparatory nights–as good or bad omens which indicate BhadrakāỊi’s pleasure or displeasure. In stories we have heard in all kuttiyōṭṭams we have attended and with all the people we talked to, an old woman in tattered clothes arrives at the house of the sponsor demanding either food or water. She is generally recognised by women in the sponsor’s house as Bhadra in disguise, her specific requests are met and she–like the other guests –is offered hospitality, after which she disappears, saying, “Yes, I am satisfied now.”

17The intentions of the sponsor and family are also evaluated in public discussions which highlight some general areas of consent on what should be the premises of a successful kuttiyōṭṭam. It should be organised without thinking of costs, a total sacrifice whereby the sponsor should be prepared to offer everything he owns, first of all his own son (s) and then a considerable portion of his wealth; it should be conducted not for ostentation but as an act of pure devotion, showing humility and total submission to the goddess; songs and dances should be done according to certain established rhythms and forms. Such criteria are employed in gossip to evaluate the propriety of sponsors’ intentions and behaviour. Particularly vulnerable to criticism are those identified as outside the ‘usual’ circle of kuttiyōṭṭam patronage, that is new-moneyed and/or low-caste avarṇar devotees. These new comers are invariably accused by the high-caste conservatives who dominate local kara and temple community life of being too ‘flashy’, too much concerned with showing off their wealth and making reputation, lacking humility, respect and devotion to the goddess. In 1995 the kuttiyōṭṭam of Vijayamohan–an Iḻavar who has been living with his family in the United Arab Emirates for the last eighteen years and had just returned to his brother’s wife’s house to sponsor the sacrifice–drew unmitigated negative comments from Nāyar neighbours. While Vijayamohan and his wife greeted visitors ‘modestly’ dressed, they were reproached for wearing ostentatious jewellery. The house, moreover, was adorned not only with the usual decorations and lights, but also with a large flashing neon sign reading ‘Vijayamohan kuttiyōṭṭam’ mounted next to the outline of an illuminated chariot driven by Lord Krishna rendered in twinkling multicoloured bulbs. Not only did Nāyars made a big joke (implying Vijayamohan’s ignorance) out of Arjuna’s absence from the chariot, but commented animatedly about “the absence of bhakti [devotion]”, arguing that “in the past people were terrified that anything would go wrong, displeasing the goddess, while nowadays kuttiyōṭṭam is only a status display of sponsors”.

  • 8 On the last night before the procession the performing troupe will sing a song praising the sponsor (...)

18Arguments about the need for humility tend to obscure another important dimension of kuttiyōṭṭam: as a public event which establishes and objectifies the sponsors’ status and reputation as a patron/big-man. This occurs at several levels and has a clear competitive dimension. Firstly, as we have already mentioned, kuttiyōṭṭam is generally recognised as an extremely expensive ritual–a minimum of 150000 Rs. (£ 2200) was needed in the early 1990s- and taking up sponsorship is a clear demonstration of personal wealth. We calculate that by the late 1990s the escalating cost (currently estimated by one āśān at between Rs. 400000-700000) means that anyone who was not a migrant and earning in foreign currency was effectively likely to find kuttiyōṭṭam prohibitively expensive. The high-caste small-time government officials and landowners who sponsored kuttiyōṭṭams up to the 1980s are progressively being elbowed out. Preparation and organisation also require good connections–for example in order to hire a reputed troupe of performers–and a great deal of support from relatives, friends and neighbours–to cook and serve food every night to hundreds of guests. Through the ability to mobilise extensive webs of patronage, sponsors publicly assert their reputation as ‘big-men’, a reputation augmented by the size of the crowd turning up every night to enjoy the singing and dancing and by the number of invited VIPS spotted among the crowd. The overall behaviour of the sponsor and his family during the kuttiydttam–from their dress, the type of food served, to the way they entertain guests and performers–is also ‘read’ as an indication of cultural competence and sophistication. A successful sacrifice publicly demonstrates the spiritual worthiness of the sponsor whose offerings are accepted by and please the goddess, setting him up as a major devotee. The final procession from the house of the sponsor to the temple is not only witnessed by thousands of people but is also conducted in open public competition with other local kuttiyōṭṭams. Here the sponsor will try to attract the larger possible number of people, outdoing other processions not only in size, but also in the number of ‘items–elephants, musicians, performers of ritual arts, etc.–brought to the temple. Particular effort is put into arriving at the temple around noon, when the largest crowd is present, and to not losing precedence–and hence face–by having to queue up to get to the main shrine behind other processions. Finally, during preparation nights local people stroll around the neighbourhood and pop in to visit a number of kuttiyōṭṭams, comparing and evaluating the style and scale of each event. Sponsors may also visit each other’s functions in order to evaluate the competition, making hasty changes to their programme in order to lure spectators over. Successful, large-scale kuttiyōṭṭams are remembered–nowadays they are invariably recorded on video–and talked about for a long time.8

Female family members of the householder-sponsor carry talapoli (sacred flames and auspicious items) at the front of the kuttiyōṭṭam procession, Puthenkulangara, 1995.

Female family members of the householder-sponsor carry talapoli (sacred flames and auspicious items) at the front of the kuttiyōṭṭam procession, Puthenkulangara, 1995.

Photogr. Caroline Osella

19We suggest that sponsors experience a tension between two contradictory demands, both requiring public performance and both subject to scrutiny and evaluation. In order to please the goddess, the essence of performance is sacrifice and spectacle, requiring lavishness. And yet the ethos of this lavish performance is that it be performed in a humble spirit of submissive devotion (bhakti). Another two dimensions of kuttiyōṭṭam, as an act of self-interested fearful devotion and as a public objectification of wealth, status and personal power, necessarily and clearly impinge on each other and cannot be separated. Eventually, the idea of staging a low-key, small kuttiyōṭṭam makes neither cultural nor ritual sense: a well attended kuttiyōṭṭam ending with a large procession accompanied by many elephants, musicians, floats, etc. will certainly satisfy the goddess. The fact that a particular kuttiyōṭṭam has attracted large crowds and outshone others is an obvious augur that the sacrifice has gone well and the goddess is pleased. By vowing to offer kuttiyōṭṭam, sponsors set themselves on a very dangerous path which can end up in a double disaster–goddess displeased and public humiliation–or lead to divine blessings as well as public recognition and fame. One unlucky īlavar liquor contractor (new-money, low-caste and despised occupation) had to offer kuttiyōṭṭam three times before being assured (by astrologers and popular opinion) that it had gone well and therefore pleased the goddess.

A trusted family servant carries the box of money collected as donations during preparation performances, which will be offered at Bhadrakāḷi’s temple, Puthenkulangara, 1996.

A trusted family servant carries the box of money collected as donations during preparation performances, which will be offered at Bhadrakāḷi’s temple, Puthenkulangara, 1996.

Photogr. F. Osella


20The increased popularity of kuttiyōṭṭam is related to Gulf migration and the emergence of new moneyed middle classes. Given that success or failure in Gulf migration is often determined by imponderable factors beyond migrants’ control, it is of no surprise to find an increased attraction towards goddesses like Puthenkulangara Amma, vengeful and potentially dangerous, and yet so powerful as to fulfil all devotees’ wishes. At the same time, kuttiyōṭṭam offers to new-moneyed middle classes–prominent among them Gulf returnees–a public stage from which to establish reputation and status as well as the possibility of asserting claims to power and precedence vis-a-vis local élites (see F. Osella 1993; Tarabout 1997; F. & C. Osella 2000).

21As explained earlier, kuttiyōṭṭam has been redefined as a ‘traditional’ ritual offering associated to the (savarṇa) Nāyar community, a specifically Nāyarhence, in the context of Kerala, upper caste–means of expressing devotion and asserting prestige. Processes of ‘traditionalisation’ of the sacrifice, accompanied by a political shift of the local Nāyar community towards the brand of Hindu revivalism promoted by the RSS, finds expression in a number of pamphlets published by the temple’s management committee, by devotional associations and by some devotees, which connect the history of the temple and of kuttiyōṭṭam on the one hand to mainstream Hinduism and on the other to the histories of a few local high status Nāyar families. In 1991 a Nāyar sponsor remarked, commenting on recent changes, that: “Only us Nāyars (and above) have the finances and achievements [status] to do it [kuttiyōṭṭam] and I only remember one Iḻavar family doing kuttiyōṭṭam in the past. Before, all troupes were Nāyars, now some are mixed, but we [Nāyars] don’t like it and don’t call them.”

22The association of kuttiyōṭṭam to a specific upper-caste ritual tradition and to political conservatism–together with its popularisation through radio, television and music cassettes, to which we will return later–explains its expansion among conservative Nāyars beyond its usual geographical constituency–the thirteen neighbourhoods around the temple. In Valiyagramam (our main research site some 10 kilometers from Puthenkulangara), while during our first fieldwork (1989-1991) villagers had only heard of or seen the final kuttiyōṭṭam processions, with only a handful of people who had affinal relations in Puthenkulangara having ever attended the whole ritual, by 1994 kuttiyōṭṭam music was played in most local family and public temple festivals, either through music cassettes or by live performances of kuttiyōṭṭam troupes. Between 1993 and 1996 three different local Nāyar families–all three being branches of the village’s Nāyar erstwhile landed élite (see F. Osella 1993) – had sponsored the sacrifice, even though the final day entailed an exhausting lengthy procession.

  • 9 Ramachadran’s ignorance stands in contrast to the knowledge of some Nāyar sponsors, such as D. Pill (...)

23Generalised references to ‘tradition’ are employed to evaluate the organisation of specific kuttiyōṭṭams, the endeavour of the sponsor and the performance of the troupes of ritual specialists. We have already seen that newcomers are the targets of criticisms which, by questioning their devotion and cultural competence, seek to de-legitimise their participation and claims to status. That these new-comers are not just new-moneyed but also often low-caste (avarṇa) Iḻavars suggests that ‘traditionalisation’ of kuttiyōṭṭam has also the specific scope of keeping at bay the emergence of a new, potentially threatening non-upper-caste middle class. Ilavar sponsors cannot of course either justify their participation or claim status entitlement by reference to ‘tradition’: in the old 19th-century system they were barred from taking part in kuttiyōṭṭam or even entering the temple compound and could only offer the less prestigious ‘hook-swinging sacrifice’. Ramachandran candidly admitted to us that he did not know much about kuttiyōṭṭam: “On the final day [procession and offering of the sacrifice at the temple] people will tell me what to do. Some rituals are there but I don’t know what exactly.”9 What Īḻavar upcomers do then is to answer criticism by arguing that the very category of ‘tradition’ is spurious. They claim that Puthenkulangara temple is not in fact as old as conservative propaganda suggests (1200 years old) and that it was actually built during the last 500 years as a duplicate of another nearby temple which used to be visited by local people. Moreover, they claim that it was migrant manual labourers who introduced what is now the main feature of the entire festival, the presentation of keṭṭukkāḻca–20 metres high wooden structures–to the goddess. They tell the story that in the middle of the 19 th century, while working as corvée labour for the construction of Kollam-Chavara canal–some 60 kilometres south of Puthenkulangara–labourers saw keṭṭukkāḻca being prepared by local people. They made a vow that if the goddess helped them finish their work and return to Puthenkulangara in time for her annual festival, then they would build keṭṭukkāḻca for her. Here not only are Īḻavars suggesting that kuttiyōṭṭam and its associate rituals cannot be that ancient–some suggesting that the festival as it now exists was introduced just fifty years ago from a neighbouring area–but that continuous innovations and borrowings from the outside lie at the core of religious life. One villager recalled that there had always in his memory been keṭṭukkāḻcas, but that it was only ten to fifteen years ago that people had begun to offer them on two days instead of one. Sadashivan, member of one of the local leading Ilavar families, dismissed altogether Nāyar traditionalists saying: “Tradition? What tradition? Even Puthenkulangara Amma is not local, she is from Kodungalloor [North Kerala]. She only stopped here while on a tour of Kerala... Temple, dēvi [goddess], keṭṭukkāḻca, kuttiyōṭṭam, they all come from somewhere else!!”

  • 10 Nādasvaram and pañcavādyam are groupings of musical instruments. Karakam and ammankūṭam both involv (...)

24From this perspective, the introduction of bright neon light decorations for the house of the sponsor, hiring out one of the much criticised new troupes of performers with their film-style songs and dances, or being generally a touch too ‘flashy’ (jāta, cettu), are not abomination–as the ‘traditionalists’ would have it–but expressions of new aesthetic forms and values which modify and enrich existing ritual practices and make valid contributions to what is intended to be a goddess-pleasing spectacle. As we watched a video of one kuttiyōṭṭam with the sponsor in his home, he commented laconically on the procession as it unrolled: “There’s nādasvaram, that’s a Tamil item; karakam, Malayali, borrowed from Tamil ammankūṭam; pañcavādyam, Malayali; kāvaṭi, Tamil.”10


25The troupes of semi-professional kuttiyōṭṭam performers are necessarily drawn into these debates on ‘tradition’ versus ‘innovation’. After all, their presence and expertise is essential to the conducting of the sacrifice: not only do they sing and teach the two boys their dance steps, but they also provide the sponsors with the boys themselves, give advice on how to proceed night after night, make all the necessary ritual preparations, make or rent decorations for the house and temporary shrine and hire all the other performing groups which are taken in procession to the temple. A good troupe will attract large crowds during the six preparation nights, enhancing the sponsor’s chances of being judged as ‘successful’ and pleasing the goddess. The 20-30 or so troupes working around the temple are extremely powerful and central agents, upon whom sponsors must rely. The question of whether one is sponsoring a ‘new’ or ‘traditional’ form of kuttiyōṭṭam relates to a great extent to what the performers do or do not do: the role of a sponsor is eventually limited to trying to hire, in an extremely competitive market in which famous troupes are booked years ahead, a performing troupe with a style in accordance to his–traditionalist or innovative–tastes.

26The performing troupes, usually around 15-25 people (8 to 10 singers and the rest dancers) are extremely tuned in to the issue of sponsor taste. To some extent troupes offer a sponsor what they judge him to want. “We go to the house and get a sense of the atmosphere there”, the members of one of the most successful troupes told us, “during the six nights we also adjust our performance to the mood of the audience: no kuttiyōṭṭam is ever the same!” The troupes’ main aim is to offer a performance which will please the public as well as the goddess, gaining in the wake of their success a reputation and hence more bookings for future kuttiyōṭṭams. And it is in this effort to build fame and reputation that even troupes which are considered by sponsors to be ‘traditional’ admit that they are bringing in every year a number of subtle changes, slowly shifting tastes and ritual forms. For example, the dressing and decorating of the two sacrificial boys as kings, regarded by many sponsors as ‘traditional’, was in fact introduced some thirty years back by the brother of one famous troupe’s leader (āśān), himself a kuttiyōṭṭam performer but also involved in theatre. It occurred to him, his brother related, that the boys could be put into costume and make-up like the mythological kings of popular stage plays: it is now inconceivable that anyone would not so transform the boys’ appearance for the final, dramatic day. The same troupe leader told us that, “There are no consistent customs; we used to have only one lamp in the temporary shrine for the goddess, then we used three and now there are nine. Now the custom is to use metal items for pūja: sometime in the future there will probably be plastic items.” Another remembered the days before the cūral muṛi–the thread used for side-piercing–was a gold or silver wire: “We actually used to make it; it was bamboo cane made sharp and polished; used to really hurt.” Even the basic formation of two boys is not stable: we have seen lavish kuttiyōṭṭams with four and even six boys, while performers remembered single boys being used. Older performers remember that when they were young (some 50-60 years ago) the singing and dancing lasted only for a couple of hours every night at the most and only one story was sung. Moreover, kuttiyōṭṭam then was a private family affair, no unrelated spectators were invited and only family members and performers received food.

27But the most important changes are brought to the core of the performance: the songs and dances. As you will remember, at the centre of kuttiyōṭṭam stand four dance steps which, accompanied by four songs with different rhythms but similar in style (called tānavaṭṭam), are taught to the two boys. The four songs should make up a complete story and each one has a different rhythm and associated steps: the first song is long and slow, the last one short and fast. For all troupes, the main story is about the goddess fighting and slaying the demon Dārikan. Beside the main ones, a number of other stories are sung, where praises to the goddess are replaced by stories from Hindu epics. But performers say that often one full story cannot be fully rendered with its many plots, subplots and characters, within the limited space of four songs. So, to each story–which remains fixed within any particular troupe from year to year and might be similar across troupes–is added an extra, ‘free’, song, kummi, which picks up and develops some of the themes of the main story. Apart from the initial and final half-hour when the boys are instructed in their dance to the accompaniment of the basic four-song cycle, kummi songs take up the bulk of each night’s performance. These added songs, written anew every year, differ slightly from the main songs; they tend towards faster rhythms, being more melodic and open to influence from popular music. Similarly, the dance steps which accompany kummi songs are more harmonious and inventive, drawing from other popular dances and art forms. A number of performers argued that the introduction of kummi is a rather recent innovation (perhaps 25 years old) and due to the increased popularity of kuttiyōṭṭam: before, only the main story was sung and was concluded within four songs.

  • 11 This is a Hindu devotionalist movement centering on Sathya Sai Baba, its spiritual leader. It is ra (...)

28All the members of troupes we talked to told us that it is through kummi songs and dance steps that performers can express their musical and performative skills. Shah is a newcomer singer and troupe leader who has recently moved into the area from the city. He is a Sai Baba devotee11 who holds regular house bhajanas (religious/devotional songs); he and his brother work as actors and singers in live theatre and Malayalam television. Shah, who has made several audio recordings of his songs and who gets called for public performances around a wide area, is violently criticised by local ‘traditionalists’ for the flamboyant style of his songs but much loved by all young people. He often performs five or six kummis after each main song, arguing that the latter ‘are too slow and boring; people come to kuttiyōṭṭam only to hear kummi’. One of Shah’s famous songs, which divides public opinion, is the ‘Prawn and green mango song’, in which a busy housewife is enabled to go to see kuttiyōṭṭam because Devi comes to help her get the dinner cooked on time. Housewives and curry-making alike are considered by traditionalists unsuitable topics for devotional songs, being insufficiently lofty and not drawn from Puranic stories. Troupes like Shah’s are also accused by ‘traditionalists’ of being “too melodic and singing as if they were doing pop songs”; their dance steps may also be accused of becoming “too effeminate, like tiruvātira [dance done by Nāyar women at Ōnam, Kerala’s new year festival]”.

29The majority of lead singers in each troupe, as well as some of the dancers, are involved at various levels in performance arts throughout the year, commonly in theatre companies or as playback singers for film songs (Caldwell 1999: 45-51). Some are even performers in Malayalam language TV soaps. The most successful troupes make professional recordings of their kummi songs. Tapes are then sold throughout the year and played at temple festivals across a wide area. Several troupes have performed on television and had their songs broadcast on the radio (see Tarabout 1997: 141 ff. on the ‘folklorisation’ of non-Brahminical temple performing arts). We should not however assume that a shift in form–from ‘unregistered performance’ to recorded and duplicated commodity, similar to the shift sometimes posited from oral to literate culture– necessarily entails either an ossification of form or a stop to proliferation of versions. Rather, we find a dialectic or negotiation in which audience taste– perhaps already formed and influenced through listening to pre-recorded tapes–and performer aesthetic–ever eager to display virtuosity and artistry– combine to produce ever new and variant forms (Qureshi 1995). As Babb (1995: 5) argues, “Standardisation is a central issue in the study of the impact of modern media on religious culture [...] some media, such as film and television, do have a strong propensity in this direction [...] however, other media–good examples are chromolithography and audio cassettes–seem to be able to register the variety of South Asian tradition even as they also project more unifying religious visions.”

30For these semi-professional troupes, kuttiyōṭṭam is mainly a vehicle for artistic expression which allows them to perform in front of keen audiences–of people and deities. On one hand concerned with their own popularity, but on the other refusing to be tied to stultifying styles and forms, they carefully use the kummi songs and steps to shift public tastes, kummi rhythms and themes slowly percolating into the four main songs/steps. As one dancer told us, “Sometimes one of us will find a new step and we’ll try it out with the group and if they all like it and the āśan agrees that it’s good, we’ll then incorporate it.” Several āśans gave us copies of the lyrics of songs which they themselves had composed. Low-caste, new-moneyed Gulf migrants play an important role in this process of change: their lack of commitment to ‘tradition’ makes them more sympathetic to innovative styles and practices. Singers like Shah, whose artistic boldness attracts hostility and violent opposition from traditional quarters, can thrive by appealing to the tastes of these newcomers, cornering for themselves in the process an extremely lucrative niche of the ritual market while furthering their success as performers.


  • 12 The island is well known throughout Kerala as site of the church and shrine of Saint Gregorios (Met (...)
  • 13 As in Puthenkulangara, originally there were four branches–one for each cardinal point–but one died (...)
  • 14 Unlike Puthenkulangara, this temple is mentioned in the Unnuneeli Sandesam (1350-1365), a sort of t (...)
  • 15 The saṃkalpam (imagination) is that of the goddess returning drenched in blood from killing Dārikan (...)

31To bring into a wider context Puthenkulangara’s discussions about ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’, we will move now to another temple, Palakkavu, located some 20 miles north of Puthenkulangara, on an island on the river Pamba.12 Palakkavu is a Nāyar-owned family temple, belonging to a large erstwhile taṟavāṭu (house-cum-land matrilineal unit) divided into three main branches,13 of which only one has direct rights in the administration of the dēvasvam (deity’s properties). The temple–famed for its unique 16th-century mural paintings14–is dedicated to BhadrakāỊi, here represented, as at Puthenkulangara, as the daughter of Kodungallooramma. At Palakkavu the goddess is considered to be so blood-thirsty that the door of the main east-facing shrine is kept permanently locked,15 daily pūja (worship) being done instead to another– less fierce and north-facing–form of the same. Pūja to the locked goddess is done instead from a little passage which opens from inside the shrine of the north-facing goddess. The temple is surrounded by a large eight acres kāvu (sacred grove), where many fierce spirits and malevolent ghosts are said to wander. Most people feel ambivalent about visiting the temple during daytime and express frank horror at the thought of passing nearby during night-time.

32The temple’s history (of which there are several versions in circulation) is as complex as Puthenkulangara’s. There is general agreement that the temple was built by a Kṣatriya tampurān (local ruler), who by praying to Bhadrakāli had ‘convinced’ her to become his family goddess. According to the current ‘owners’ of the temple, the veḷiccappāṭu (goddess’ oracle; see below) serving at Palakkavu had a great reputation as vaidyan (Ayurvedic practitioner). In 1751 one of them cured a minister of the then Travancore king Martanda Varma (in power from 1729 to 1758), who had become ill with smallpox, whose seeds are said to be scattered by the goddess. As recompense, Martanda Varma not only made lavish donations to the temple, but also granted some land around the temple to the veḷiccappāṭu’s family. This donation created first frictions and then outright hostilities between the local Kṣatriya family–who had constructed the temple, but whose territory had been annexed to the Travancore kingdom by Martanda Varma–and the Nāyar veḷiccappāṭu’s family–who had gained land titles from Martanda Varma himself. According to living members of both families, the dispute was taken to the court of law and was eventually settled in 1952 in favour of the veḷiccappāṭu’s family. Some twenty years later, another dispute arose, this time between two different branches of the same veḷiccappāṭu’s family who, in the meantime, had become the sole ‘owners’ of the temple. The issue of ownership must be clarified. Temple properties (large tracts of land and other possessions, such as gold ornaments donated over the years by devotees) belong to all effects to the goddess herself, but are officially entrusted to descendants of the veḷiccappāṭu’s family who administer it on behalf of the deity. In fact, this new dispute concerned the administration and exploitation of temple properties and the control of the income derived from activities such as, for example, a government-sponsored paper factory built on temple-owned land. A ‘junior’ branch of the family claimed rights over the temple’s administration equal to those of the ‘senior’ branch, which, according to matrilineal inheritance rules, would normally be the sole trustee. The dispute was again resolved by the court which upheld the rights of the senior branch; but in the meantime the paper factory, which as a result of the dispute had been impounded by the tribunal, had gone bankrupt.

  • 16 Viṣu corresponds to the vernal equinox, but more precisely it indicates the entering of the sun in (...)
  • 17 In the absence of sponsors who foot the costs of the sacrifice, the performing group (s) will perfo (...)

33In Palakkavu as well, the most important offering to the goddess is kuttiyōṭṭam, performed annually on viṣu day.16 As in Puthenkulangara, the sacrifice unfolds over a number of preparation nights held in the house of the sponsor. A significant difference here is that the singers and dancers will also visit and perform in the houses of local families connected to the temple; similarly, during the final procession to the temple the sacrificial boys and the performers will stop along the way to sing and dance in front of any house which displays offerings (usually a lit oil lamp and some money, in some cases fireworks) for the cortege and goddess. But importantly kuttiyōṭṭam here is a much smaller affair, conducted mostly by families directly associated to and living in close proximity to the temple on the island. Whether there are individual sponsors or not, every year there are at least two kuttiyōṭṭam:17 one performed on behalf of the Nāyar taṟavāṭu as a whole, and the other for the Viśvakarmma community (mostly coppersmiths and goldsmiths). Both communities have avakāśaṅṅaḷ (customary rights) in the temple: the Nāyars as ‘owners’ (main custodians/administrators) have overall precedence, while Viśvakarmikkars have several duties and minor rights of access gained through their involvement in the temple’s construction and renovations.

  • 18 Even nowadays elephants are not allowed on the island and marriages cannot be conducted in the vici (...)
  • 19 A slightly different story is reported by Mateer (1870: 197-199): “One of the Mackenzie manuscripts (...)
  • 20 There are no local stories explaining the link between Viśvakarmikkars and kuttiyōṭṭam. Many local (...)

34Unlike Puthenkulangara, here there are widely known aitihyams (legends, popular stories) explaining the introduction of kuttiyōṭṭam. Although there are multiple versions, the general gist of the stories is that the goddess installed in the temple by the local ruler was extremely powerful and fierce, requiring annual sacrifice of 101 chickens, ten goats, one elephant and one virgin girl (kanyaka).’18Once, the Kurup (non-Brahmin temple servant), having sacrificed all the animals, was getting ready to kill the girl, but as he raised the sword the girl let out loud laughter. The veḷiccappāṭu, who was present at the sacrifice, immediately became possessed by the goddess, who declared through him that she did not want the young woman because she was pregnant. The goddess also said that from then on no real human sacrifices would be necessary and kuttiyōṭṭam would be enough. The door of the east-facing inner shrine (śrīkōvil) was closed never to be opened again–if opened, the goddess would require again real human and elephant sacrifices–and a less powerful (north-facing) goddess was installed next to the old shrine. Meanwhile, the veḷiccappāṭu adopted (or married) the pregnant woman: her children formed the Nāyar taṟavāṭu which, as we have explained, eventually took away control of the temple from the tampurān.19 The taṟavaṭu renovated the temple and to do so brought a number of Viśvakarmma families (coppersmiths and goldsmiths from Madurai district, in Tamil Nadu). These ex-untouchable artisan families introduced kuttiyōṭṭam dance steps and were given the duty of performing the sacrificial skin piercing.20 As a reward for their ritual duties the Viśvakarmikkars gained the right to sponsor and conduct their own kuttiyōṭṭam, and to receive a pinch of gold from the goddess’ ornaments to make up the tali (women’s gold pendant indicating married status) for their daughters’ marriages. Nowadays there are more than fifty Viśvakarmma families living in the proximity of the temple, some still working as coppersmiths–specialised in making brass items, such as large paddy-cooking vessels, church bells and temple ‘flag posts’–, others having become, as we shall see, successful goldsmiths. Kuttiyōṭṭam is thus unequivocally connected (in stories and practice) both to the Nāyar taṟavāṭu and the local artisan Viśvakarmma community.

  • 21 Unlike Puthenkulangara, here Nāyar taṟavāṭu sponsors might sacrifice their own son (s), often toget (...)

35In 1996 there were three main kuttiyōṭṭam performing groups, born from recent splits of an original group composed by Nāyars belonging to different branches of the temple-owning taravatu–making up the singing party–and dancers belonging for the majority to the Viśvakarmma community, including some–lower status, non-taṟavaṭu member–Nayars. At the same time, the Viśvakarmma community had usually, but not exclusively,21 provided boys for the sacrifice. The reasons for these splits are complex, the most apparent being conflicts between Nāyars and Viśvakarmikkars and between different Nāyar factions. Briefly, recent Gulf boom related increase in demand for gold ornaments made the fortune of local goldsmiths, while Nāyars remained stuck to declining paddy agriculture and relatively low-income government jobs. The result is that while Nāyars have maintained control of the temple–although, as we have seen, in the midst of bitter infighting within the taṟavaṭu–, many Viśvakarmikkars, on the strength of their recently-acquired superior economic position, grew uneasy about playing secondary ritual roles. Janarthanan, founder of the Viśvakarmma splinter group, openly expressed his resentment: “... in the old Nāyar-led group, Nāyars did not allow anyone else to do the singing, even if they could do it well. Nāyars did not want to do the dancing either, because dancing is a very tiring physical activity. They sang, we danced. They used to sing faster and faster, making us move like monkeys, and then laugh. I don’t know whether we [the Viśvakarmma community] were asked or told to dance for Tampurāṭṭi [the goddess]: in any case we couldn’t refuse because we have a bandham [relationship] with her.” From the original group, clearly split between singers (all Nāyars) and dancers (all Viśvakarmikkars), one Nāyar-led group split off, composed of Viśvakarmikkars and young Nāyars. This group had a very short life as most of its Viśvakarmma members left to join Janarthanan, forming an almost exclusively Viśvakarmma group. A few remaining members formed a new ‘junior’ group, led by Kumar, a young Nāyar singer, and recruiting youths from Nāyar, as well as low caste Pulaya, Aryar and Viśvakarmma communities. This is a significant development since Pulaya (former agrestic slaves) and Aryar (fishermen) villagers used to be completely excluded from kuttiyōṭṭam. They did however take part in the annual temple festival, taking in procession and offering a number of kāla (large wooden image of a bull; Tarabout 1986: 485) on the day before kuttiyōṭṭam. According to Nāyar informants, this practice was discontinued in the 1980s because the drunkenness of Pulaya and Aryar devotees allegedly led to fisticuffs between participants. For Pulayas and Aryars the stopping of kāla processions is but one example of ‘Nāyar greed’, exclusion being seen as an attempt to keep the temple and its revenues tightly in Nāyar hands.

36These splits amongst performing groups are also connected to recent plans to ‘develop’ the temple and to attract wealthy new sponsors for kuttiyōṭṭam. disputes which have rekindled old animosities between taṟavaṭu branches. This process started in the early 1990s with the appointment of a new temple secretary–praised by some, hated by others–who undertook a major programme of renovation of temple premises, including the construction of a new canopy at the main entrance and a theatre stage. Major efforts have been made to redefine the identity/or ‘specialisation’ of the temple, best known in the area not so much for its kuttiyōṭṭam, but for the fierce goddess’ power to entrap ghosts and malevolent spirits taken to the temple by troubled devotees and to neutralise the effects of evil magic. Palakkavu is the temple where, according to a legend famous throughout Southern Kerala, Kaṭamaṟṟattu Kattanār (the Christian catechist/priest from Kaṭamaṟṟattu) left the yakṣi he had captured by sticking a nail through her head. This yakṣi is worshipped outside the main temple–in a small shrine on the north-west side. Yakṣis may be described as the dangerous and blood-thirsty ghosts of women who died bad deaths and/or as “helpers” of the goddess. In many popular stories yaksis appear at night at crossroads, seduce passing men and, after sexual intercourse, suck their blood, killing them.

  • 22 Sacrifices of pregnant women–as in Palakkavu’s stories–are usually associated to and said to be an (...)
  • 23 Dēvapraśnam can be described as an astrological diagnosis of a deity’s wishes.

37At the same time, the Nāyar taṟavāṭu had provided the temple a long line of veḷiccappāṭu-cum-mantravādi (goddess’ oracle-cum-sorcerer; discontinued thirty years ago) famously specialised in the cure of smallpox and notorious for their knowledge of evil magic.22 In other words, the popular perception of Palakkavu is that of a powerful but frightening and inauspicious place to be visited only in dire circumstances. Unlike Puthenkulangara, here no outsider would either visit the temple casually or hang around its premises after dark. Marriages, babies first feeding and other auspicious ceremonies are not conducted in or around the temple premises. The power of the temple seems to be connected more to the world of the inauspicious and the malevolent than to the benign and auspicious. In order to change this image, an astrologer was called to conduct a dēvapraśnam23 which confirmed that the goddess no longer wanted to mind yakṣis and other ghosts, but was happy to continue to receive kuttiyōṭṭam. The astrologer also suggested the introduction of new rituals, such as an annual Kumāri pūja (worship of small girls dressed up as benign goddesses), pleasing to the goddess and also extremely popular in other local temples.

  • 24 Akin to Puthenkulangara, these are Gulf returnees and emerging middle classes which have benefited (...)

38Attempts–successful or otherwise–to redefine identities of deities or to change temple rituals are not at all unusual in Kerala and are generally associated to shifts towards brahminisation of ritual practices connected to wider processes of social mobility (F. Osella & C. Osella 2000: 154ff.). This is also true in the case of Palakkavu, where the adoption of a less contentious ritual endeavour is directed towards attracting new (wealthy) devotees,24 and to some extent also towards responding to Christians’ accusations that the temple and its sacred groves are haunted by witches and evil spirits. On the island itself, and less than one kilometer from the temple, stands the famous Syrian Christian church of Saint Gregorios, which every year attracts thousands of Christian pilgrims and has recently been rebuilt with millions of rupees donated by wealthy devotees working in the United States and the Gulf. This new church– built in modernist style and making use of video-links and closed-circuit television to broadcast weekly services to large congregations–and the Christian community more generally stand not only for prosperity and wealth, but also for modernity and innovation. In Kerala, Christians have waved the stick of ‘devil worship’ and ‘barbarism’ towards popular Hinduism at least since colonial times, generating amongst Hindu communities attempts to ‘reform’ or ‘modernise’ popular religious practices (see F. Osella & C. Osella 2000: ch. 5).

39At Palakkavu, however, performers and temple administrators find themselves in a quandary, a perhaps unresolvable tension between tradition and innovation. If future developments impinge upon removing the temple’s ‘traditional’ association to ghosts and evil magic, at the same time ‘tradition’ is also the temple’s strongest selling point. Palakkavu’s kuttiyōṭṭam is admired by connoisseurs such as local amateur historians, generally reckoned to be very close to ideals of what constitutes a ‘traditional’ performance, an image which local performers and temple committee are obviously keen to encourage, actively participating in its construction: the singers/dancers are said to be local amateurs performing for devotion, even in the absence of sponsors; the singing and dancing are coarse and relatively simple in style, lacking the melodic and choreographic sophistication developed among semi-professional troupes operating around Puthenkulangara; at the centre of the sacrifice stands a temple-owning Nāyar taṟavāṭu which commands the ritual services of (lower caste) artisan clients; the whole performance is relatively inexpensive (around Rs. 15000, including food, performers’ fees and donation to the temple, a fraction of Puthenkulangara’s normal costs) and non-commercialised; nightly performances attract only family members and neighbours; sponsors often sacrifice their own son (s).

40But while Palakkavu’s kuttiyōṭṭam conjures up an image of traditionalism cherished by many a Nāyar–and that would bring tears of joy to Puthenkulangara’s die-hard Nāyar traditionalists and RSS activists–at the same time, overt appeals to tradition bring back images of dangerous ghosts and an overfierce goddess. Moreover, as the temple is privately owned, non-local devotees would find themselves in a position uncomfortably close to that of clients, rather than wealthy status-seeking sponsors. This becomes apparent on the final day of the sacrifice, when kuttiyōṭṭam processions arrive in front of the temple. Here sponsors have to give ritual cash (dakṣiṇa) not to a temple priest or an anonymous government employee as in the publicly owned Puthenkulangara, but instead to the Nāyar taṟavāṭu’s kāraṇavan (family senior male) who in return gives the silver/gold thread used to pierce the boys, thus granting permission to conclude the sacrifice. For some of the performers–the Viśvakarmikkars–tradition is equally unpalatable, merging as it does rights in the temple and duties towards the goddess with ritual services and obeisance once due to their Nāyar patrons.

41And what about appeals to innovation and change? Here again we find an impossible tension: innovative practices–such as discontinuation of some rituals and introduction of new ones–should bring in new sponsors and hence allow temple administrators and performers to cash in on the increasing popularity of kuttiyōṭṭam across the district. But at the same time it can put some of the performers–especially Nāyars of the dēvasvam performance group–into an impossible reversed role of clients towards their taṟavāṭu’s former low-caste artisan clients. To avoid the shame that public recognition of the economic superiority of lower caste former dependants would bring, in 1996, the dēvasvam performance group turned down a booking from a wealthy local Viśvakarmma family–owners of three jewellery shops in the nearby town. Unable to find other sponsors, they had to perform for free on behalf of the whole Nāyar community. On this occasion, Janarthanan’s troupe took on the kuttiyōṭṭam booking, but their caste position as Viśvakarmikkars (low-caste ex-untouchable) greatly constrains their future, since in this area, as in Puthenkulangara, kuttiydṭṭam remains closely associated to Nāyar ‘tradition’ and prestige.

42Meanwhile Kumar–founder of the mixed-caste ‘youth’ splinter group–has been particularly keen to draw on his own and his fellow members’ artistic skills–many are involved in non-professional theatre and music groups–to expand the repertoire of his group’s songs. At the same time he has tried to eliminate from the last day’s procession particulars which he described as ‘shameful’, such as excessive drinking or some of the dancers’ decorations–for example, garlands of red chillies around the neck and or eyes thickly blackened with kohl. For these young performers, who are attracted to kuttiyōṭṭam by the dream of making a break in the glitzy–and also urban and modern–world of radio, television and films, such practices appear as over ‘traditional’, tarring the performers with the rustic brush of unsophistication and uncouthness popularly associated with the rural life and, by extension, to low status more generally. Kumar, with words which remind us of Shah, Puthenkulangara’s maverick performer, argued that “... as long as you do the singing and dancing in front of the temple, everything else in kuttiyōṭṭam can change.” It is perhaps too early to know whether Kumar’s group will succeed in convincing devotees to accept changes in style and form, but unlike Puthenkulangara, in Palakkavu the ‘ritual market’ is not big enough to absorb self-declared innovators and in its short life this group is yet to find a paying sponsor.

43The current drive towards proliferation of specialised temples and rituals is then constrained by local taste, which determines preferences over style of ritual which will be adopted. A fierce but controllable goddess such as Puthenkulangara can be adopted by anyone, whereas a fierce goddess whose power appears to be linked to the inauspicious and malevolent world of ghosts sorcery and demons, and whose character remains overwhelmingly blood-thirsty, will not be taken up so keenly. Meanwhile, the authenticated ancientness of Palakkavu and its retention as a private temple associated to a ‘traditional’ castebased division of ritual labour and rights make it far less amenable as terrain for wider inter-group struggles and far less likely to be adopted by newcomers. On the contrary, Puthenkulangara’s contested ancientness and its appartenance to the public sphere of the state, the Travancore Devaswom Board, make for a more open arena.


44The changes we have described are not at all remarkable: kuttiyōṭṭam is part of a number of rituals which are performed outside or in front of temples and elsewhere by non-Brahmin ritual specialists and thus less subject to the constraints of‘scriptural’ Hinduism and of Brahminical orthodoxy (see e.g. Fuller 1992; Hiltebeitel 1991; Frasca 1990; Caldwell 1999). We note that for the Puthenkulangara temple hereditary Brahmin high priest (tantri), kuttiyōṭṭam, like other popular and customary rituals which take place outside of the temple, makes no sense and is totally unimportant whether as ritual or as contributing to BhadrakāỊi’s power or pleasure. What counts for the tantri is the monthly mock blood sacrifice (araktam guruti using turmeric and lime powder to make a red fluid) which he performs inside the temple’s main shrine. This itself is of course also a change which has been brought about by the modem state’s abolition of blood sacrifices–prior to 1925 kōliveṭṭu, actual sacrifice of a cockerel, was performed outside of the main shrine (see Tarabout 1997: 130-135 on the relationship between the state and temple ritual change). For the tantri, kuttiyōṭṭam is done simply for ‘people’s imagination’, being an imagined human sacrifice, and no harm would come if the practice were to stop, unlike the guruti which is essential.

45We find, however, that analyses such as those developed by Humphrey & Laidlaw (1994), aiming to present general theories of ritual based upon a substantial opposition between Brahminical/liturgical rituals–characterised by repetition and fixity or, at best, limited reconfigurations of fixed elements–and popular/performative practices–stressing performer agency and innovation– fail to capture rituals such as kuttiyōṭṭam. Here discussions between sponsors, public and performers clearly articulate preoccupations about the results of the ritual (pleasing the goddess and hence avoiding her retribution) to concerns about the correct performance of the ritual itself (songs and dance sequences, etc.), suggesting that at least in popular understandings these matters are not kept apart. In the case of kuttiyōṭṭam we find it more helpful to turn to Catherine Bell’s notion of ‘ritualization’, understood as a process of naturalization, of “... strategic production of expedient schemes that structure an environment in such a way that the environment appears to be the source of the schemes and their values” (1992: 140). Importantly, these schemes are embodied by performers/ritual agents not as rigid structures, but as a flexible practical knowledge to be used contextually in the most appropriate and effective way.

46While mainstream temple rituals might appear to be more fixed and slower to change, popular Hinduism and ritual practices–in Kerala as elsewhere in India–are explicitly in a state of flux, open to contestations, redefinitions and innovations: old rituals might be dropped or modified while new ones might be introduced from neighbouring areas. New items are brought into programmes; new styles are adopted. As Michael Carrithers suggests writing on “polytropy as the norm” (2000: 836)–where polytropy or ‘many turnings’, expresses the multiplicity of directions in which people may turn in their religious practices: “On one side stand purist critics, often religious specialists but others as well, who represent –or who represent themselves as representing–some settled practice and belief, while on the other side stand the users of Indian religions [...] who move from one holy person to another, according to their desires and needs [...] But among neither users nor critics are the allegiances necessarily fixed or exclusive, or the roles immutable” (ibid.: 836-837).

47But changes are not steady and linear: radical and innovative ritual changes tend to take place in the midst of wider social transformations, brought about by agents who are themselves struggling with upheaval. In the case of kuttiyōṭṭam we can connect its inception at Puthenkulangara and subsequent shifts in its expression with various social shifts from the late 19 th century onwards: a modernising economy and infrastructure, intensifying and facilitating links between places and people; the partial collapse of old landed élites and their reactionary defence of diminishing power bases; the struggle for the abolition of untouchability and low-caste efforts to claim equality and dignity; and most recently Gulf migration, recent economic liberalisation and the consequent rise of a new-moneyed middle class. Ritual supplies the ever-shifting ground for contestations of control, tournaments of worth and assertions of status while confronting these social changes (Dirks 1991; Peabody 1997; De Neve 2000).

  • 25 We note, of course, that actually appeals to both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ as poles of a contras (...)

48Meanwhile, participation of new performers and sponsors in kuttiyōṭṭam, by allowing for the introduction of innovative styles, heightens anxieties about the authenticity of ritual performances, leading to widespread preoccupations and (politically-charged) debates about what is ‘traditional’ and what is not. Orthodox Nāyars, RSS supporters and amateur pamphlet producers who attempt to standardise and record (in print and audio media) authorised or correct versions of ‘tradition’ are engaged in an activity just as modern as the endeavour of those parvenus who openly opt for innovation and change.25 At the same time, both the nature of ensuing tensions between ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’ and their possible–or impossible–resolution will vary according to highly specific historical and social contexts. In Palakkavu, attempts to reform and modernise have lead to a stalemate between tradition and innovation. While traditional kuttiyōṭṭam has failed so far either to expand or to attract wealthy new sponsors, its older constituency of ghost-afflicted devotees has dwindled. As interest in novative kuttiyōṭṭam continues to grow, Valiyagramam’s kuttiyōṭṭam enthusiasts–living half-way between the two temples–have found Puthenkulangara’s highly competitive environment more suitable to their status ambitions than Palakkavu’s more ‘traditional’ structure.

49In Puthenkulangara, the recent origins of the temple and of kuttiyōṭṭam are both remembered and widely acknowledged to be rooted in the bringing in and copying of attractive items seen elsewhere, even as the local élite attempts to bound, fix and eternalise a static local history. The 1970s ritual expansion via opening up to new performers and sponsors and the reinvigorated debate about what makes for ‘success’ have once again sharpened debate between those who would lay claim to be guardians of unchanging tradition and those who are trying to enter the arena. The former are constantly shifting ground as they try to hold back a tide of social change and increasing participation; the latter, in their openness to experimentation, engage with a long-term practice which we see unfolded most clearly in the memories and stories of performers–a tradition of borrowing and innovation in the interests of enlarging the spectacle and offering pleasure to a hard-to-placate goddess, imperatives which set their own fast-paced escalation of demands for something new and attractive. As one performer eventually remarked in response to our persistent questioning about form, “It’s not copying Bhadrakāli dancing on the demon’s body [...] it’s not like Siva’s tāṇḍavam dance [...] listen, maybe we can’t say any more than that the whole thing is just there to please Dēvi; yes, you can say like that.” When Dēvi herself is capricious and ever-changeable, and her satisfaction can only be determined after the event, never predicted or guaranteed, then the effort of the traditionalisers to halt the pace of ritual change and fix the performance to a style located somewhere in a glorified past are surely doomed to failure.

50c. o. & f. o.



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1 We have received generous financial support for various periods of fieldwork and writing-up during the period June 1990 to September 1996, from: the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain; the London School of Economics; the Leverhulme Trust; the Nuffield Foundation; and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We have been affiliated to the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, to the Madras Institute for Development Studies, Chennai, and to the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, Paris. We would like to thank G. Tarabout, G. Colas, C. J. Fuller, K. Gardner and J. P. Mitchell, as well as participants to workshops in Sussex and Paris, for comments on earlier drafts.

2 According to the varna system, Hindu society is divided into four savarṇar (within-the-varṇa) groups: Brahman (religious specialists), the highest, followed by Kṣatriya (or warriors), Vaiśya (traders) and Śūdra (servants). Castes lower than Śūdras are considered to be outside this four-fold division and are therefore classified as avarṇa (outside-the-varṇa) castes and subject to stringent distance pollution practices (hence the–colonial–term ‘untouchables’).

3 Īḻavars are classified by the Indian Government as an OBC jāti (Other Backwards Communities), that is alongside other communities suffering a weight of accumulated discrimination which has rendered them economically and socially weak. These communities benefit from limited measures of positive discrimination, such as reservation rights in colleges and universities. Scheduled Castes (S C) comprise communities which had been even more discriminated against and receive full reservation in public employment and education. On the contrary, according to the same government’s scheme, Nāyars are classified as a ‘forward’ caste, alongside other groups felt historically to have been privileged, as exemplified for example in their extreme over-representation in highly sought after Public Service sector jobs.

4 Following the 19th-century development of the colonial economy, we witness the rise of an economically and politically powerful–and yet stigmatised by virtue of low-caste status as Untouchables–Īḻavar élite. Experiencing a strong tension between their class and caste positions, at the turn of the 20 th century this section of the community leaded (successful) campaigns for the abolition of caste discriminations and the implementation of democratic representation.

5 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful all-India right-wing nationalist Hindu organisation.

6 Kummi pāṭṭu are songs usually–but not exclusively–performed by women during some annual or temple festivals. The performers sing standing in a circle and dance clapping their hands rhythmically.

7 Iḍḍali (soft rice patties) and sāmbār (a vegetarian curry) are popular Kerala dishes.

8 On the last night before the procession the performing troupe will sing a song praising the sponsor (poli pāṭṭu). The text of one of these songs reads as follows: “... The luckiest man in the world organises this festival, he is an uttaman, the best. The gṛhanayākan [householder] is a lucky man indeed. He does Bhadrakāḷi vaḻipāṭu [ritual offering] of kuttiyōṭṭam. Srī Bhadra’s most important thing is kuttiyōṭṭam; to get famous we pray...”

9 Ramachadran’s ignorance stands in contrast to the knowledge of some Nāyar sponsors, such as D. Pillai, whose kuttiyōṭṭam we followed in 1990. During the final feast after the conclusion of the sacrifice D. Pillai announced to the performing troupe that he had written his own kuttiyōṭṭam song and began to sing it (amidst great embarrassment of the audience).

10 Nādasvaram and pañcavādyam are groupings of musical instruments. Karakam and ammankūṭam both involve carrying heavy brass pots on the head filled with green leaves or flowers. Kāvaṭi are decorated arches which rest on the shoulders and frame the face/head.

11 This is a Hindu devotionalist movement centering on Sathya Sai Baba, its spiritual leader. It is rare in this rural area, itself a sign of ‘foreign or city returned’ status.

12 The island is well known throughout Kerala as site of the church and shrine of Saint Gregorios (Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Gregorios of the Malankara Orthodox Church).

13 As in Puthenkulangara, originally there were four branches–one for each cardinal point–but one died out.

14 Unlike Puthenkulangara, this temple is mentioned in the Unnuneeli Sandesam (1350-1365), a sort of travelogue in verse which describes a journey from South to North Kerala.

15 The saṃkalpam (imagination) is that of the goddess returning drenched in blood from killing Dārikanasura.

16 Viṣu corresponds to the vernal equinox, but more precisely it indicates the entering of the sun in the sign of mēṭam (Aries). It is also the first day in the first Malayalam month, mēṭam (mid-April/mid-May) (Tarabout 1986: 89-90).

17 In the absence of sponsors who foot the costs of the sacrifice, the performing group (s) will perform each night in the compound of a different house belonging to its own community. On viṣu day there will be a procession to the temple with singers and dancers, but no blood sacrifice.

18 Even nowadays elephants are not allowed on the island and marriages cannot be conducted in the vicinity of the temple.

19 A slightly different story is reported by Mateer (1870: 197-199): “One of the Mackenzie manuscripts states that an annual human sacrifice of peculiar atrocity was accustomed to be offered in former times at a fane of Bhagavati, or Kali, in the Tiruvalla district [where Palakkavu is located]. A young woman, pregnant with her first child, was selected and brought in front of the shrine. She was then beheaded with one blow of the sword, so that the head rolled up in front of the image, on which the blood of the victim was sprinkled. A similar sacrifice is said to have been offered till A. D. 1744. In the year following a possession of the goddess came upon a bystander, when the sacrifice was about to take place, directing that it should be discontinued. Since then it has been wholly set aside. The posterity of the woman and child spared on this last occasion are now called ‘Adhichamar’ and live together in a small community of forty or fifty souls...”

20 There are no local stories explaining the link between Viśvakarmikkars and kuttiyōṭṭam. Many local people said, however, that it would be ‘natural’ for a goldsmith to perform his sacrificial duties as he normally pierces children’s ear to make holes for wearing earrings. Significantly, however, Brouwer (1995: 430ff.) reports that during the Munīś vara festival in Tintani (central Karnataka) members of the Viśvakarmma community dance and pierce their tongues and sides with needles of increasing size.

21 Unlike Puthenkulangara, here Nāyar taṟavāṭu sponsors might sacrifice their own son (s), often together with another boy from the Viśvakarmma community.

22 Sacrifices of pregnant women–as in Palakkavu’s stories–are usually associated to and said to be an evidence of mantravādam (evil magic) (Hiltebeitel 1989: 356).

23 Dēvapraśnam can be described as an astrological diagnosis of a deity’s wishes.

24 Akin to Puthenkulangara, these are Gulf returnees and emerging middle classes which have benefited from India’s post-1990 economic liberalisation.

25 We note, of course, that actually appeals to both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ as poles of a contrast pair are modern phenomena.

Table des illustrations

Titre A householder-sponsor stands surrounded by his family members, dependents, servant carrying the money-box and the sacrificial boy, ready for procession to Puthenkulangara temple, 1995.
Crédits Photogr. Filippo Osella
Fichier image/jpeg, 86k
Titre Female family members of the householder-sponsor carry talapoli (sacred flames and auspicious items) at the front of the kuttiyōṭṭam procession, Puthenkulangara, 1995.
Crédits Photogr. Caroline Osella
Fichier image/jpeg, 65k
Titre A trusted family servant carries the box of money collected as donations during preparation performances, which will be offered at Bhadrakāḷi’s temple, Puthenkulangara, 1996.
Crédits Photogr. F. Osella
Fichier image/jpeg, 53k


They have studied Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and have been teaching anthropology since 1993. From 1998, they have been, respectively, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) and at the University of Sussex (UK). They have carried out several periods of extended fieldwork in Kerala and the Persian Gulf, and have published on social mobility, migration, consumption, agrarian relations, masculinities and sexuality.
– 2000 Social Mobility in Kerala : Modernity and Identity in Conflict, London, Pluto Press.
– 2003 co-ed. with R. Chopra, Masculinities in South Asia : Context of Change, Sites of Continuity, New Delhi, Kali for Women.
– 2004 co-ed. with K. Gardner, Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia, London, Sage.

They have studied Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and have been teaching anthropology since 1993. From 1998, they have been, respectively, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) and at the University of Sussex (UK). They have carried out several periods of extended fieldwork in Kerala and the Persian Gulf, and have published on social mobility, migration, consumption, agrarian relations, masculinities and sexuality.
– 2000 Social Mobility in Kerala : Modernity and Identity in Conflict, London, Pluto Press.
– 2003 co-ed. with R. Chopra, Masculinities in South Asia : Context of Change, Sites of Continuity, New Delhi, Kali for Women.
– 2004 co-ed. with K. Gardner, Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia, London, Sage.

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