Garudan Paravai and Tookkam: Bird Masquerade and Claw Hanging in Kerala

Garudan Paravai at Pallypuratu Kavu, Kottayam, 24 Apl 2016.
Garudan Paravai at Pallypuratu Kavu, Kottayam, 24 Apl 2016.

When summer becomes unbearable during the month of Meenam or Metam that comes during April-May season, the ancient Kavus or sacred-grove shrines of mid and south Kerala; now turned into Brahmanical Hindu temples all around the lake Vembanad perform the Paravai and Tookkam, now widely called the Garudan Paravai and Garudan Tookkam. It is traditionally performed in the Kavus of Kottayam, Ernakulam and Alapuzha districts. It is a ritualistic performance in the form of a bird masquerade in which performers are embellishised in the makeup and costumes that resemble a bird with beaks and small stylised wings and dance and perform to the powerful rhythms of the Chenda or the traditional Kerala drum. They also entertain the spectators by picking up the currency and coins from the ground. Their fast gyrating movement is equal to the flight of the birds. This vibrant and powerful performance is on the decline now.

Paravis coming and performing on the Chadu or cart. Pallypuratu Kavu, Kottayam, 24 Apl 2016
Paravai coming and performing on the Chadu or cart. Pallypuratu Kavu, Kottayam, 24 Apl 2016

In the past in an associated ritual the performers were ritually mutilated with a metal claw at the lower end of their backbone and hanged partially on that claw from a high pole set on a cart that is pulled into the shrine in a procession and also pulled around the sanctum sanctorum thrice. It is also performed during the month of Kumbham and Makaram in some shrines during the days of Bharani or Pataamudayam. Earlier in Kavus like Manarkadu Kavu, Perur Kavu, Pallypuratu Kavu etc. near Kottayam bullock carts and hand drawn carts called Chadu were used to pull the performers on the pole to the shrines. Now pic up vans or mini lorries are used as the cart.

Vadayar Atuvela or river spectacle a form of Kettukazhcha on a boat near Vaikam having Buddhist carnival genealogies
Vadayar Atuvela or river spectacle a form of Kettukazhcha on a boat near Vaikam having Buddhist carnival genealogies

At Vadayar Ilamkavu south of Vaikam the performers are hanged in a huge country boat around a ritualistic spectacle called Kettukazhcha a pagoda like wooden architectural structure. The whole performance is also called Aatuvela or the performance in the river. This provides parallels with the Kaala Vela and Pooram spectacles of north that constructs the bull effigies and the horse effigies of the southern Kettukazhacha rituals. The Paravai image also closely resembles the Annam (swan) Kettu in Neelamperur Pally shrine which was a Buddhist Pally or Vihara till a few centuries ago. It is also worth observing that in the Kaala Vela or bull spectacles in Malapuram the cherub figures that we see in Ajanta and Ellora are also seen even today on both sides of the main deity.


Paravai and Tookkam ritual performance is distributed all along the rim of lake Vembanad and is culturally located in the former mid Kuttanad region, the land of Kuttan or Putan a rustic term for the Buddha. It is also performed in association with the full moon nights connected to Chitra Paurnami and Vaisakha Paurnami having key calendar connections with the birth and life events of the enlightened one. In Kottayam Manarkadu and Pallypuratu Kavus hosted hundreds of performers in the past. It is normally staged after midnight. During the day of Pataamudayam, the tenth sunrise after Vishnu Sankramanam, daytime performance processions called Kumbodam or Kumbha Kutam and Kavadi were also popular.

Kumbodam and Kavadi processions in Tamil Nadu. Photo from internet
Kumbodam and Kavadi processions in Tamil Nadu. Photo from internet

As the name shows Kavadi is a miniature representation of the Kavu itself with an arched horse shoe like Ajanta Chaitya Vatayana motif. Kumbham and Kutam are both miniature motifs and key icons resembling the Stupa’s global or spherical structure. Both these processions are of Buddhist origin when we analyse the semiotics and cultural significations. But after the middle ages ritual mutilations also crept into this Kumbodam tradition in the form of Sulam Kutu or body piercing using metallic little lancers as a result of Hinduization and its violent sado-masochist Himsa cults in the frenzy of Bhakti. Now the ritual is dwindling. In earlier days it was mostly the Avarna who were the performers in Paravai, Tookkam and Kumbodam. Velan, Viswakarma and Ezhava performers were there in Kottayam.

gyrating flight of the Paravai at Pallypuratukavu, Kottayam, 24 Apl 2016
gyrating flight of the Paravai at Pallypuratukavu, Kottayam, 24 Apl 2016

Since the Tookkam was barbaric and was misused by the caste Hindu hegemonic forces as a ritual re-enacting the symbolic submission and ritualistic mutilation of the Avarna before the Hinduized deity, especially Kali in violent and bloody form; it was banned in places like Ilavoor in the north of Ernakulam. Most of these Kali temples are altered Mahamaya sacred grove shrines or Kavus of Buddhism, violently taken over and modified into Hindu Kali temples.

It began with the Kavu capture or Kavu Teendal at Kodungallur and spread into the various interiors of Kerala after the 9th century conquest of the Kodungallur Kavu by the Hindutva hooligans or Sudra and Chandala Komarams who were given temporary license to do the damage to the ethical Buddhist civilization by Brahmanism and its oligarchies, the priestly-militia nexus in power. Sahodaran Ayyappan the pioneering social revolutionary of renaissance and poet has composed the song “O Dont go to the Bharani… O Brothers…” in early 20th century to check the Hinduization of the Avarna Bahujans in Kerala and to remind them of this cultural internal imperialism or Hindu colonialism of Brahmanism.

Annam Kettu or Pakki Kolam at Pally shrine, Neelamperur having clear Buddhist history, founded by Pallyvanar
Annam Kettu or Pakki Kolam at Pally shrine, Neelamperur having clear Buddhist history, founded by Pallyvanar in 17th century

The ancient Kavus were originally sacred groves or Sangha Aramas in the Buddhist period at least from BC third century when Asokan missionaries, the nuns and monks came and spread the letters and ethics among the people of Tamilakam to the middle ages when Hindu Brahmanism and its hooligan henchmen captured and converted these Kavus into Kali worshiping bloody ritualistic dens. The Aswati Kavu Teendal or ritual encroachment of the Kavu at Kodungallur still re-enacts this violent and bloody takeover in which nuns where raped and turned into Devdasis and monks where executed in unimaginable barbarism. They also demolished and removed the idols of the Buddha and his mother Mahamaya and her sacred-grove shrines were violently converted into Kali worshiping temples of ritual sacrifices and violent bloody cults. This was how Hindu Brahmanism was established through bloody pogroms and genocides of the Buddhists and Jains in Kerala by its subservient and moronic henchmen who were co-opted as the last and fourth Varna the Sudara in Kerala. Because of the brute hegemonic power of violent Hinduization some of the Chandala or Avarna Komarams or oracles are also following the Hindu style Kali worship and bloody ritual cults.
After this bloody takeover the priestly-militia nexus in power created the story of Kali killing the demonised other or the Buddhist in the figure of Darika the Asura. Demonisation precedes pogroms. Sri Lanka was demonised in Hindu epics like the Ramayana as it was a Buddhist country. According to the Hindu legend, Kali’s blood thirst was not satisfied by this covetous killing and then the greater lord Vishnu sent his vehicle the Garuda a huge eagle and it presented its blood so that Kali was quenched. This ridiculous and absurd story of a blood sucking Kali Mata is a cunning articulation of the demonization and then extermination of the south Indian Buddhists by the henchmen of Brahmanism and then the ritualistic re-enactment of the holocaust and the bloody pogrom in the yearly festivities at the shrine as a re-establishment of the caste Hindu order and hegemony over the Avarna or the former Buddhists.
The makeup, costume and performance legacies of Parava also place it along the Annam Kettu or bird effigy spectacle, part of the ritual spectacles in Kerala like Kala Kettu and Kutira Kettu in various ancients Kavus. Kettukazhcha tradition is clearly Buddhist and it articulates the agricultural and rural gusto and carnival co-operative community will of the village society. This is not ritualistically or aesthetically or visually akin to the kind of violent performances related to Kali cult as in Teeyaattu or violent and bloody cults and rituals in Padayani, both performed by the caste Hindu militia clans in high contrast.

Only the Annam Kettu (bird effigy) ritual and form of Neelamperur Pally shrine that was consecrated after Mahamaya and the Buddha by Pallyvanar the last Buddhist Chera prince from Kodungallur is resembling the figure of the Parava. It is clearly not an eagle but a stork or swan like figure. The close association of the Parava figure to the Swan figure in Nalacharitam Kathakali is remarkable and significant. In costumes or Udutukettu also the Parava closely resembles the Kathakali style of swollen and fleeted white cotton attire. It is clear that it is not related to the Teeyaattu or Padayani wild forms but related to a much subtle and nuanced Mudra based stylistics and semiotic system like Kathakali that has its origin in the Attam tradition originally belonging to the Buddhist visual performance culture that was later Hinduised post the middle ages.

More of a swan than an eagle and closely resembles the Hamsa or swan of Kathakali having Buddhist lineages. Photo from internet.
More of a swan than an eagle and closely resembles the Hamsa or swan of Kathakali having Buddhist lineages. Photo from internet.

Its field and habitus well within the Vembanad lake rim and its aesthetic and performance style and legacies clearly connect it to the land of Kuttan or Putan, the Kavu or sacred-grove shrine conservationist culture related to the nuns and Mahamaya; and to the greater ethical and egalitarian culture of Buddhism in Kerala. It also fits well into the carnival spectacle or Kettukazhcha tradition of Buddhism as closely re-enacted even today in Vadayar Aatuvela; and also proclaims its key affiliations with the highly stylised semiotic discourse of Kathakali that has its roots in the symbolic or Mudra based aesthetic and semiotic cultural discourses of Buddhism in Kerala.
ajay sekher, 24 April 2016

Rivers Achankovil, Pampa and Manimalayar: Eco-cultrual Diversity of Pathanamthitta

River Pampa near Maramon, Kozhanchery, Pathanamthitta

Pathanamthitta is the gift of river Achankovil originating from the high ranges of the Western Ghats near the ancient forest shrine of Achankovil in the north eastern border of Kollam district so close to Senkotai and Tenkasi in Tamil Nadu.  Achan Kovil means the shrine of Achan or the supreme deity.  The Malayalam words Achan, Appan, Aliyan etc. have Sramana and Buddhist origins.

Kaviyoor Cave Temple; 5km east of Thiruvalla on TK road

Along with river Achankovil, Pampa and Manimalayar join in the Pathanamthitta basin in the west to make it fertile and lush green.  The place name combining Pathanam (ship) and Thitta (river bank and delta) explains the ancient riverside inland port or Pattanam (port town) on the banks of Achankovil.  Pathanapuram is also close towards the south.

Common Emigrants mud puddling near Kaviyoor rock-cut temple called Trikalkudi

All these three rivers drain to Kuttanad backwaters  ultimately to lake Vembanad in the west like Kodoor, Meenachil and Muvatupuzha rivers.  In the ancient times Pathanamthitta was part of this intricate inland waterways and wetland ecology and cultural water-scape.  The rise in the water level in those days allowed big vessels to come so inland as this ancient inland port town.

Trikalkudi Jain rock-cut cave temple, Kaviyoor. AD 9th c. in Pallava style

Orange-tailed Dart at Kaviyoor, Thiruvalla, Pathanamthitta

Pathanamthitta was part of Kottayam and Kollam districts till a few decades ago.  This beautiful new district has important cultural and ecological treasures that lure the travelers.  On April 30, 2011 I made a 200 km  midsummer drive through its tropical green contours, wetlands, deltas and dales.

Gateway to Kaviyoor rock temple: Between two gigantic granite rocks, modified recently

I started from Kottayam in the morning and went to Thiruvalla straight down south on the MC raod. From there took the eastern route to Pathanamthitta.  Just 5 km east near Paipad backwater lake and on the western bank of river Manimalayar I visited Kaviyoor rock-cut cave temple.  This 8th century carved granite temple is associated with Jain and Pallava architectural tradition later converted to a Hindu Siva temple.

Protected by Dept of Archeology: Facing west the Kaviyoor Trikalkudi rock cut temple

The giant granite rock and surrounding area is still called Trikalkudi or divine rock settlement or divine footmark settlement.  Place names close to the locality like Pazhampally, Pallypuram and Mundyapally also expose the Sramana antiquity of the place.

Carved out of the rock: Front varandah and chamber of Kaviyoor cave temple

More than that Mallapally, Madapally, Vazhapally, Mariapally, Puthupally, Pallypurathukavu, Karthikapally, Karunagapally etc. are also surrounding this region.   To add to all this there is a Hanuman temple now called after Siva.  It could be well assumed that this was an ancient Jain cave temple like Kallil near Perumbavur in Ernakulam district in the north.

Pallava style Dwarapalaka in Kaviyoor cave temple: Earliest stone sculpture in Kerala, probably much older than 8th century

Local people still have the legends of Bhuthams (demonised Buddhists imagined after Brahmanical invasion) building the cave overnight like the Bhuthathankettu dam in Periyar near Thattekkad that was built by the Sramana sages for irrigating the Periyar valley and improving its agriculture.

Spring full even in summer towards the left of the cave

Devotee like Dwarapalaka in Pallava style, Kaviyoor rock temple

A local woman also told me that the foot mark engraved on the stone was on top of the rock but now being lost through various encroachments and erasures.  Jains traditionally worship the footmarks of their gurus or Thirthankaras.  There is also a brimming spring near the cave.  Jain shrines are also known for their medicinal springs.

Facade shows clear marks of chiseling, removal and erasure like Kallil temple: Originally Jain later converted to Hindu Saiva temple in the middle ages

Pallava style Ganes in Kaviyoor rock temple. Ganes and Saraswati were originally Jain sub deities like Padmavati and Khusmandini later Hinduized as goddesses

The facade also shows signs of chiseling and erasures.  The comparatively new stone phallus inside the chamber does not match with the antiquity of the surrounding carvings and is surely a later re-installation.

A hawk near Kaviyoor rock-cut temple 30 Apl 2011

Spring source at the top of Trikalkudi rock, Kaviyoor, Thiruvalla

Pipal in between the rocks at Trikalkudi rock temple, Kaviyoor

From there I re-entered the state highway connecting Thiruvalla with Pathanamthitta and went east a few more miles to reach Eraviperur (8 km east of Thiruvalla) the head quarters of PRDS a subaltern socio-cultural and spiritual movement established by Poykayil Kumara Gurudevan and the birthplace and memorial of Poykayil Kumara Gurudevan or Poykayil Appachan.

The hut in which Appachan was born and left his body in Eraviperur, Pathanamthitta

Poykayil Sri Kumara Gurudevan memorial, Eraviperur, Thiruvalla

I met the president and important people leading the institution.  They welcomed me as the translator of Appachan to English and showed around the place including the preserved hut of Appachan where he was born and left the body.

Sri C P Damodaran, President, PRDS

Then again went east to Marmon the venue of the annual Christian convention on the banks of Pampa.  Thanks to the summer showers all the rivers and water bodies in the district are full and brimming with fresh water.

River Pampa near Maramon, Kozhanchery, Pathanamthitta

I remembered accounts of C V Kunhiraman addressing the huge gathering in the Maramon Convention on the banks of the great river to talk about caste and the vitality of conversion in fighting it in the early decades of 20th century during the hey day of Kerala renaissance social struggles.

A Shikra at Maramon, Pathanamthitta

On crossing the river Pampa on the eastern bank I met another revolutionary speaker immortalized in a bronze statue.  It was C Kesavan in metal delivering his historic Kozhanchery address in 1935 during the Nivarthana Prakshobham or joined struggle by Christians, Muslims and Ezhavas.

Muloor memorial near Keralavarmasaudham, Elavumthitta, Pathanamthitta

Enjoying  rice and spicy fish curry from a restaurant near the Pampa bridge I resumed my journey via Thekemala to Elavumthitta (around 10 km from Kozhanchery) the land of another brave son of the soil enriched by rivers Pampa and Achankovil.

Epitaph explaining his philosophy of humanim and keen sense of equity: Muloor in eternal versification

It was Muloor S Padmanabha Paniker who questioned Savarna hegemony in poetry and literature in an unquestionable fashion towards the end of 19th century in Malayalm and paved the way for Asan, Karupan and Sahodaran and a whole lot of Avarna or untouchable poets and writers in Malayalm through his brilliant verses and literary interventions that shook the cultural monopolies of the Savarna lords for ever.  I reached his renowned home named after his friend, Keralavarma Saudham around 3pm.  The newly preserved home and monument by Govt. of Kerala are a treat to the eye and the mind.

Poet's home named after his friend as Keralavarmasaudham, Elavumthitta, Pathanamthittta

It was getting cloudy and it began to drizzle.  The humidity and heat of Pathanamthitta just before the summer showers are really challenging during this time of the year.

Muloor Memorial Govt. UP School, Elavumthitta, Pathanamthitta

But it is also a unique experience of nature in its own.  At  Elavumthitta I also visited the the Govt. UP School that is named after Muloor.  A Buddha Engineering college for girls is also coming up in the region near Ayathil the wife house of Muloor.

Shrines dedicated to Narayanaguru and local deities near Keralavarmasaudham, Elavumthitta

From Elavumthitta I drove to Pathanamthitta the capital town of the district and visited my publishing friends Saju of Prasakti Books and Hari of Fabian at the Library Council Book Fair happeing in Co-operative College premises.

Interior of Keralavarmasaudham: Full of portraits of poets and lines from poetry

Browsing through some of their new titiles that they gifted to me and savoring tea with them I went up to Konni a few miles south on the Muvatupuzha-Punalur Hill Highway to enquire about the new Konni-Achankovil road now being developed by Kerala PWD.

Muloor home amidst the greenery of Elavumthitta, accessible through road from Pathanamthitta and Kozhanchery, some ten km from these centers

I went up to the margin of Pathanamthitta district and touched the border of Kollam through this new route by driving through the teak plantations for a few miles.  Then talked to the local people and they informed me that the route lacked tarring in a mid 10km stretch in its 40 km course.  I began my return journey through Konni-Pathanamthitta-Kozhanchery-Thiruvalla-Changanassery-Kottayam at around 6.30pm. The roads are good in this route.

Blue-tailed Dart in Elavumthitta

I reached home in Gandhinagar, Kottayam at around 9.45pm.  Thanks to our little Maruti 800 the 12 hour and 200km drive  on a hot and humid midsummer day was sensational and empowering in various ways in which I learned and experienced a lot about my neighboring district; its past, present, culture, nature and people.

Beauty of Elavumthitta architecture: Govt. rennovating the cultural treasures of Muloor home

I also found out a new thing about our rivers. Rivers are accessible and could be experienced through roads as well.  But there is nothing like sailing through the rivers themselves and touching their fresh water with your hands.  Compared to other districts Pathanamthitta rivers seem to be free from plastic wastes and pollution as well.

Grey Past and Green Present: From the top of Kaviyoor Trikalkudi rock temple