The Devas and Asuras were bitter enemies. In one battle the Asuras were decimated. The only survivors were four of their women. Of them, Dhanapathy did severe penance to get the boon from Brahma. She was blessed with a mighty son Dharikasuran. With all the boons that Brahma had given him he was a very formidable force. One boon was that only a woman who has the blessings of Brahma could kill him. With the intent to conquer all three worlds he attacked the Devas. He also unleashed terror among the Sanyasis and Munis, sages and saints.
The Devas and the Munis fled to Lord Shiva for help. Shiva sent his daughter Bhadrakali to do the job. She was the perfect choice. On her birth she had been blessed by all the gods including Brahma. She beheaded the Asura after a fierce battle and presented the head before a delighted Shiva. Shiva told Bhadrakali that Dharikan’s end occurred at the same time as the death of the Asura king Ravana at the hands of Lord Rama. A great desire to witness the story of Sri Rama and his battle with Ravana grew in her mind. When she told Shiva about her wish he advised her to go to the land that Parasurama had reclaimed from the sea - Kerala. There she should dwell among the people,e blessing them with prosperity and they would enact for her, on the temple premises the stories from the Ramayana, stories which destroy all evil just by their telling. That was some time back in the mythical past. Tholpavakoothu or the Shadow Puppet Theatre of Kerala traces its origins more than two thousand years back. The genesis if this art lies even further back in the misty past. The stories were written in Sanskrit then and the art was known as ‘Olapavakoothu’ or palm leaf puppetry.
The puppeteers of Tholpavakoothu are called Pulavar, a Tamil word meaning Scholar. The man who leads the performance is an accomplished man, having deep understanding of the Sastras, Puranas, Epics, Astrology and Ayurveda, among other traditional knowledge. Above all these Pulavars are committed and consider it their social obligation to guide people to a truthful and righteous life. A unique feature of this art form is that it is the only theatre in the world which has a stage, the Koothu Madam dedicated for it. This building is never used for any other purpose.
The Ramayana stories are from the version by the Tamil savant and poet Kambar. Tholpavakoothu is part ritual and part moral instruction through entertainment. It is inseparable from life in Kerala. The puppeteer’s art demands besides knowledge of the scriptures, narrative skills in delivery and diction and expertise in puppet manipulation. Tolpavakoothu is normally performed over 21 evenings, each episode of the story is a continuation of the last. It is regarded as part of the ritualistic worship of the goddess. It used to be regularly performed in about 80 temples in Palakkad and neighbouring districts. Today it is performed in some 70 temples.
Tholpavakoothu is the preserve of a few Pulavar families who perform this ritualistic art form dedicated to Bhagavati, the Mother Goddess. This ritualistic art form is performed from January to May.

The Koothumadam or the theatre where the Shadow plays are performed is erected within the temple grounds, but away from the sanctum. It is a long open fronted building. The stage is positioned about 1.5m above the ground. It is constructed according to certain mathematical principles and is based on ancient conventions. It is called the ‘Nalpatheeradi kalari’ which literally means the ‘42 foot stage’. A thin white cotton sheet is stretched in the front of the stage; below this is fixed a black cloth. The white sheet represents heaven and earth whereas black symbolizes the netherworld, Pathalam. These sheets are known as Ayapudava. The open theatre space occupies almost the whole upper part of the facade. During the performance it is covered completely by the screen.  
A wooden beam known as the Vilakkumadam with 21 hollows carved in it is hung in position behind the screen. Coconut half-shells are placed in it. Filled with oil and with a cloth wick they function as lamps to light up the screen. The puppets are positioned between the Vilakkumadam and the Ayapudava. That is, the puppeteer holds them up before the row of lamps such that they cast their shadows on the white screen. Almost as long as the building, the Vilaku Madam hangs from the roof.Since Tholpavakoothu is performed for the Goddess, there is a small temple or Kochambalam, opposite the Koothumadam. The Devi watches the show from here with her relatives. This is often a temporary construction. However, there are temples where permanent Kochambalams have been built. In some temples the Goddess’ image is placed within the little temple.


In the past, 20 to 26 performers would be present within the Koothumadam to ensure an efficient performance. Now however, their number has been drastically reduced to two or three persons. In the old days the performance would start at 9pm and go on till 6 or 7am the next morning. Nowadays performances are from 10pm till 4am. During that ‘golden era’ more than 200 Koothumadams functioning actively at various temples in Kerala. Normally Pavakoothu is performed for 7, 14, 21, 41 or 72 days before the annual temple festival or Pooram/ Vela. There are a few temples where Koothu is performed after the festival.
Today, that era is merely a golden memory and only 108 temples present Tholpavakoothu regularly. Just the stories from the abduction of Sita Devi from Panchavati to Sri Rama Pattabhishekam (the Coronation of Sri Rama) are staged here. The Ramayana has six Kandas (chapters) - Balakandam, Ayodhyakandam, Aranyakandam, Kishkinthakandam, Sundarakandam and Yudhakandam. The Ariyankavu temple, near Koonathara, Ottapalam is the only venue where all six Kandas are performed, over a period of 21 days.
K. Viswanatha Pulavar has translated the complete story, all the six Kandas of it, into Malayalam.

The puppets for the play are fashioned by the puppet masters themselves. Deerskin was once used to make them but unavailability has forced the use of substitutes like the hide of goats and buffalos. After removing the hair and processing the leather, it is painted in the shape of the character. Then the figure is cut and shaped using chisels. The effect of the puppets is enhanced by artistically placed perforations. The puppets are painted, using vegetable dyes according to the guidelines laid down in the ancient palm leaf manuscripts. The thicker skin used nowadays cannot be made translucent hence Tholpavakoothu today employs stark black filigreed silhouettes and not the coloured shadows thrown by translucent figures. They are mounted on bamboo shafts that act as supports for the flat figures and allow the puppeteers to manipulate them.   

There are puppets to represent 71 characters, in 4 main categories - Sitting, Standing, Walking and Fighting. Besides these, puppets to depict scenes from nature, battles and ceremonial processions are also used. The puppets all have one movable arm and hand and some have other movable parts.

The instruments that provide musical accompaniment for the performance are Ezhupara, a cylindrical drum made from the wood of the jack-fruit tree, with both ends covered by calf-skin and Chilenka (anklets) for the underlying rhythm.  Shankha (conch), Chenda and Madhalam (drums), Ilathalam (cymbals), Chengila (gong) and Kurumkuzhal (a short wind instrument) are other instruments used on special occasions.

The first chapter of the epic Ramayana is the ‘Balakandam’. It tells of the birth of Sri Rama, his childhood and concludes with his marriage to Sita Devi. The second Kandam, ‘Ayodhyakandam’ tells of the intrigues of his father’s second wife that forces the king to decide to crown Bharata and to exile Sri Rama. ‘Aranyakanda’ recounts the story of period of exile in the forests. Sri Rama with Sita Devi and Lakshmana his younger brother meet sages and demons. This chapter ends with the abduction of Sita by the demon king Ravana. The focus of the fourth book, ‘Kishkindakandam’, is the story of the meeting of the exiled Rama with the monkey god Hanuman who becomes his trusted lieutenant. Sundarakandam narrates the events that lead up to the final battle. The concluding chapter Yuddhakandam relates the story of the final battle, the return of the victorious Rama to Ayodhya and his coronation.
The performance of Tholpavakoothu is preceded by a set of rituals that signify the sanctity of the plays and the esteem bestowed on the practitioners. The conventions were very much more elaborate in olden times. In those days the members of the committee that administered the temple would visit the house of the Koothu Pulavars and would present him with vetila and adakka – betel leaves and nuts. This auspicious gift expressed the regard that they had for the great maestro. Although this tradition has been done away with in most temples, a few like Panthakkal Bhagavathi Temple at Pattambi and Vazhalikavu Temple have continued this tradition without a break till date.

The Puppeteers arrival is greeted with the sound of drums. Later in the evening a hanging lamp – Thooku Villaku is brought from within the temple to the Koothumadam and lit there. Then a Thayambaka, an ensemble performance by the chenda, a cylindrical drum takes place. The puppet masters prepare the theatre for the screen. The Priest of the temple hands the fresh, black Ayapudava and two brass pots of rice to the most senior Pulavar, who then asks the gathered people three times if he may put up the Ayapudava. After receiving three positive replies the screen is tied in place. After that eleven coconuts are halved and the halves filled with oil.

When all preparations are done the Mada Pulavar enters the temple and after observing all the prescribed rituals he receives the command from the oracle to commence the play. Accompanied by the oracle and drummers on chenda, the Mada Pulavar goes around the temple. After this the ritual known as ‘Koothumadam Kottikayaral’ takes place where the ensemble of performers is ceremoniously accompanied by drummers on the chenda to the Koothumadam. Now the puppeteers take up their positions behind the screen within the building.

‘Kalarichinthu’ is next wherein the Pulavar reverentially sing hymns in praise of the Gods beginning with Ganapathi and then Saraswathi, Shiva, Vishnu and Murugan. After this the senior puppet master lights a wick from the ‘Thooku Villaku’. Entering the Koothumadam he proceeds to light the wicks in the oil filled half coconuts. Now the theatre is lit up from within and ready for the performance. After that they chant slokas to the Goddess at whose temple they are performing. Then they thank the inhabitants of the area, in particular the family that had served them food. This last ritual is known as ‘Sadhya Vazhthal’ or praising the feast. They also chant a benediction – the blessings of the Goddess upon the land and its people.
The rituals continue and the junior Pulavar bow to their seniors; then together they bow down to their puppets. The Tholpavakoothu now commences and to the music of drums and cymbals the hands of the puppeteers manipulate the puppets to enact the story that is narrated by the senior Pulavar.
Every night these rituals from the ‘Koothumadam Kottikayaral’ on are repeated for the appointed number of days. Each night a new episode of the epic story of Ramayana is told.
On the last night the Coronation of the victorious Sri Rama is enacted. Before that performance there is a ritual when the sacred arrow of Sri Rama or Ramasharam is handed to the head Pulavar. This shaft is fashioned from Palmyra wood by a person of the Kurupu community. During the scene of the coronation of Sri Rama this is placed in his hand. With that Koothu is concluded for the year at that temple.
However the rituals are not over. The black Ayapudava that was tied across the theatre building is removed and returned to the temple along with the Ramasharam. The white Ayapudava is divided and distributed among the puppeteers. The temple committee now seeks the advice of the Pulavar on some crucial matters or problems. The role of the puppeteers is seen to be greater than that of mere performers; they are also considered divine advisors and mediators. At the end of this session they all share and chew betel leaves and nuts to signify an auspicious conclusion to the Koothu of that year. The Pulavar depart with their puppets to the next temple where they are to perform. This final consultation is still observed at some temples, notably Vazhalikkavu near Cheruthuruthy.

Tholpavakoothu Sangam is an Institute for research, training and performance of this ancient art of Kerala. The Institute conducts shadow puppet plays all over the world. It has the facilities to research all aspects of shadow puppetry. A theatre comparable to the traditional theatre in which Tholpavakoothu is performed is available. Many international students come here for research.
Tholpavakoothu Tholpavakoothu
Viswanatha Pulavar