The eight mythical Serpent Gods
The Malayalam months of kanni (mid-September, mid-October), thulam (mid-October, mid-November), khumbam (mid-February, mid-March) and metam (mid-April, mid-May) are considered auspicious to conduct a Sarppam thullal, literally the “dance of the snakes”.
The concerned families erect in their serpent grove, a temporary shed decorated with mango and Peepal leaves (Ficus Religiosa) as well as fringes of coconut leaves (kurutola). In Sarppam thullal rituals, images of the eight snake-gods vary depending on whether they appear in a one, five, or seven-day ceremony. When the ritual lasts one day, only the morning kalam is monochromatic, the others are drawn with five colours. Beyond a one-day rite, the kalam are invariably white in the morning, yellow at noon, and adorned in five colours for the evening ones.
As the day progresses, coils and colours increase, and according to the Pulluvan, symbolize the rising and radiance of the austerities undertaken by the Nâga to protect humanity.
Nâgaraja is the "Serpent King" and irrespective of the number of ritual days, he always appears first. When the rite lasts a single day, he is represented coiled up in a Peepal tree (Ficus Religiosa) also called fig tree pagoda. If the rite lasts three days, the coils fit in a square.
Paranâga is a snake goddess, coiled around a Pana tree (Borassus Flabelliformis). On either side of the head, wings give her the appearance of a dragon. It is one of the most spectacular floor paintings.
The most amazing kalam in the closing ritual is the floor painting of Ashtanâga (the eight Nâga). The drawing takes place around a heap of green powder symbolizing a termite mound and known as a favourite spot for the snakes. According to the Pulluvan, the eight mythical snakes support the world and meditate for the good of humanity. Like the solar star, they represent the origin, the principle of life, and the end of all manifestation.
Kalampuja, honouring the gods
Once the sarppakalam is complete and decorations are made, a chief priest draws a bifid tongue or several of them on each head of the summoned serpent before placing various offerings like tender coconuts, bananas, rice, and flowers in front of the Nâga.
Kalampâttum and trance
During the food offering, the group of Pulluvan sing to the accompaniment of their instruments. The songs come from various sources, the Nâgastuti for example, sings in praise of the Serpent-Gods:
“Ô Lords of the herds of serpents, who are living all over the world. For people dwelling on Earth praying to Nâgaraja (the king of serpents) Maninâga serpent may reign! Kuzhinâga serpent may also reign! Karinâga serpent reign, reign! Paranâga serpent may also reign! Pâtâla serpent reign, reign. To please the great eight Nâga, adorations and offerings. Shower of tender coconut water, shower of milk, offering of rice and milk. Playing the vîna, the thumping kutam pot, the tinkling of cymbals will bring great blessings from the serpents.”
The ceremony continues with the main Pulluvan proffering a bunch of arecanut palm buds to each of the chosen women who will sit on the kalam. The musicians then call the Nâga to manifest through the priestesses who sit cross-legged among the patterns of life-sized hooded snakes.
“Ô Nâga dance! come and dance on the kalam! Ô Nâga come and dance on the kalam and swing your hair! Dance and come onto the kalam.”
Song after song, the women begin to sway, they close their eyes and enter a trance-like state as if possessed by the Serpent-Gods. They begin to tremble, swinging their long black tresses, throwing their heads back and forth, crawling, dragging their bodies, and wiping the picture little by little. The songs stop when they show these signs of possession. The chief priest asks the Nâga to introduce themselves and state their requests. Questions are asked, answers are muttered in a guttural voice, and in sibilant sounds. All the problems are now vanquished by the vivid ritual.
Once the music ends, the unconscious women come out of the trance breaking the spell and the Pulluvan paying their last respects, return home. The entire audience is ecstatic, transported to the threshold of a mysterious parallel world where the water spirit Nâga, the healers, and the guardians of underground treasures reside.
During my research and documentation in Kerala, I had permission to film the graphical processing of seven Nâga kalam. For each Serpent God, three different forms were exhibited (white in the morning, yellow at noon, and with five colours in the evening) as if in a ritual. Here are the videos of five Serpent-Gods: Karinâgam, Kuzhinâgam, Maninâgam, Paranâgam, and Asthanâgam. In northern Kerala, the drawing of the Nâga differs as well as the rituals. The Nâga floor paintings in this article were created by Mavelikara K. Gopinathan and members of his family who live near Mannarasala in southern Kerala.
The article is a translated excerpt from my book : "Kolam et Kalam, peintures rituelles éphémères de l'Inde du Sud", Editions Geuthner, Paris 2010.