Kalamezhuthu Pattu of Kerala

in Overview
Published on: 13 November 2018

Devakumar Thenchery

Devakumar Thenchery works as Assistant Professor in MES College of Architecture, Kakkodi, Kozhikode. His inclination towards traditional architecture made him pursue a PG Diploma in the subject and practice traditional and temple architecture along with conventional architecture. His PG thesis titled ‘Ritualistic Landscape of Kalamezhuthu Pattu of Kerala’ looked into the unexplored area of the ritualistic landscape of the art form. He recently completed his MArch in Conservation from School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal and is presently working on the concept of ritualistic landscape.


Festivals, rituals, and practices play a vital role in enriching the cultural heritage of India. Kerala, its southernmost state, occupies a major position on the cultural map of the country. Worship-related rituals contribute heavily towards this. The custom of worship dates back many centuries; our ancestors used different mediums to visualise their favourite deities. Among these deities is Dhoolishilpa, and the medium used to depict her is dhooli (powder). Kalamezhuthu Pattu (kalam means picture, ezhuth means drawing, and pattu means song; in essence, drawing a picture with song) is a mode of worship and an art form. A unique ritual art form of Kerala, it is performed at annual festivals and on special occasions. The art form is also known as kalam pattu, kalamezhuthu, or simply, pattu. In short, kalamezhuthu pattu is a ritual art that involves creating the form of favourite deities on the floor, singing songs in their praise, and finally, erasing the drawings through ritualistic dance steps.


The term kalam denotes the drawings or paintings done on the floor. This tradition of floor drawing is done in other parts of India; for instance, kolam in Tamil Nadu and muggulu in Andhra Pradesh. While these are typically done by female family members, kalamezhuthu is a communal art form done mostly by male artists. It is a broad term, referring to various types of kalamezhuthu across Kerala, with regional variations. Differences are evident in the content, execution, scale, duration, and purpose of the performances. In some cases, it is performed as a part of another ritual—for example, Mudiyettu (an art form performed in southern Kerala). Its most common deities are Bhadrakali, Vettakkorumakan, Ayyappan, and serpent gods. However, the kalamezhuthu pattu dedicated to Lord Vettakkorumakan is different from others mainly because of the image and the mythology associated with the deity, and is an example of classic kalamezhuthu of Kerala.


Vettakkorumakan Pattu


Mythology plays a great role in shaping any ritual. The same applies to the kalamezhuthu pattu. The mythological story associated with Vettakkorumakan is related to the epic Mahabharata. Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas (the five brothers from the Mahabharata), began a tapas (penance) for the blessings of Lord Shiva in order to attain a powerful weapon— pasupatastra (an arrow). Lord Shiva and Parvathy came to see Arjuna and bless him with the arrow. They appeared before Arjuna dressed as hunters to test him and reduce his overconfidence.


After they gave Arjuna the arrow, a son was born to Lord Shiva and Parvathy while they were still dressed as hunters. Thus, he was named Vettakkorumakan—‘a son for hunting’. He grew up in the forest as a mischievous and fierce warrior, causing destruction to both gods and saints. Upon request from the saints, Lord Mahavishnu, disguised as a brahmin boy with a churika (a sword) in his hand, went to see Vettakkorumakan. Mahavishnu agreed to give Vettakkorumakan the churika on the condition that he would not ever put it down. Vettakkorumakan received the churika with his right hand and kept the bow and arrow in his left hand. As he turned around to thank the boy, he realised that the boy had disappeared. In order to keep his word, he became forced to hold the churika in his right hand permanently and became unable to use the bow and the arrow. Thus, it is believed that Vettakkorumakan has the power of Lord Shiva by birth and Lord Mahavishnu by karma by receiving the golden churika from the brahmin boy.


Vettakkorumakan also has the image of being a hero or a protector. With the advice of his father, Lord Shiva, he went to the Nambumala range (a mountainous area in the present Gudallur district of Tamil Nadu) and lived in the forest area of the Nambumala Fort. He organised the tribal people living there into a group of soldiers known as Elagirivilli Chekavar. The tribal people treated him as a protector and began to hero-worship him. Even after his death, they remembered him fondly and wished for his presence when they were in trouble. They made several types of offerings to Vettakkorumakan, in order to achieve comfort in their daily lives. As time passed, the hero acquired the status of a god and their worship became ritualistic.


Series of rituals, symbolism, and belief systems


The ritual is designed mostly in accordance with the aforementioned mythological narrative. The whole process has a series of rituals, each with a specific meaning. The permanent venue used to conduct kalamezhuthu pattu, known as paattupura (a building used exclusively for kalamezhuthu pattu) houses a small sanctum for the deity on one side; the remaining space is dedicated to the floor drawings and other rituals. If the kalamezhuthu pattu is to be conducted in temporary venues, a paattupura is constructed using locally available materials such as coconut palm leaves and areca nut tree frames. The rectangular space used to draw the kalam, known as paattumandapam, is oriented in the east-west direction. The space is usually demarcated by poles in the four corners. The roof is made up of woven with rope and covered with a white cloth. These settings of pattumandapam are same for both permanent and temporary venues.


The first ritual of kalamezhuthu pattu is uchapaatt, which evokes the presence of the deity inside the paattumandapam. The Kurup (a skill-based community that plays a role in the rituals of singing and drawing kalam) receive the koora (a piece of silk) from the owner, and with the consent of those assembled at the venue, spread it over the ceiling of the paattumandapam. The Marar (another skill-based community of traditional drummers) blow a conch three times to mark the auspicious event. The process involves taking the sanctified sword from the sanctum to the paattumandapam; meanwhile, the priest makes offerings and the Kurup sing thottams (the oral tradition associated with the ritual). The Kurup use the nanthuni (a stringed instrument) and kuzhithalam (a small cymbal). The Marar play the chenda (traditional drum of Kerala, which has a timber trunk and two sides). The sword is then taken back to the temple. It is believed that once the uchapaatt is done, the remaining rituals of the kalamezhuthu pattu should be completed at any cost.


Shrishti (creation) is the next step; shrishti, sthithi (preservation), and samhara (resorption) are the bases of life, according to Hindu mythology. A three-dimensional form of the deity is drawn on the floor using five colours made from natural materials. These are white (rice powder), black (burnt paddy husk), green (air-dried leaves of henna, cassia, etc.), yellow (turmeric powder), and red (a mix of turmeric powder and lime water). The colours represent the Pancha Bhoota (five natural elements).


The size of the kalam is decided according to the dimensional system of vasthu shastra (the traditional system of architecture); its average size is eight feet by 10 feet. After marking the boundaries, the main Kurup make single line drawings with white powder. Each drawing is completed in a particular order. This method is known as paadadi kesham—to elaborate the bottom parts first, complete the middle portion next, and end by detailing the crown. The posture and expression of the deity in the kalam are based on mythology, so there is fury in the eyes and a smile on the lips. It takes two to three hours to complete the drawing. The paattumandapam is then decorated with garlands, tender coconut and areca nut leaves, and tender coconut. Oil lamps in the four corners enhance the beauty of the kalam and makes it look immaculate.


While the kalam is being done, there are performances that involve the use of different instruments. These include the thayambaka (a performance using chenda and ilathalam (a cymbal-like instrument) in which one person leads the concert and others support him), keli (a fusion performance using chenda, madhalam (another percussion instrument), and ilathalam), and kuzhal pattu/kombupatt (a concert of kuzhal, a wind instrument). Once the kalam is completed, devotees pay their respects to their favourite deities and circumambulate the kalam. This is the stage of sthithi.


Samhara begins when the Komaram start erasing the kalam. Before that, the team, including the Komaram (the dancer, who is considered the representative of the deity), Kurup, Marar, owner, and other devotees, go out for an outdoor process called mullakkal paatt. It is believed that the deity goes out to see his devotees and then goes hunting. The process involves taking the sanctified sword from the sanctum to a pre-assigned place for worship, followed by a partial repetition of the events of the uchapaatt. After this, the priest gives kaduthila (Vettakkorumakan’s weapon) to the Komaram, whose attire closely resembles that of Vettakkorumakan in the kalam. The whole team returns to the paattupura with melam (the grand orchestra).


To further illustrate this ritual, once the team is back inside the venue, the Komaram performs a ritualistic dance called Eedum Koorum while the chenda beats in the background. After this event, the priest takes the sword to the sanctum and the Komaram begins the kalapradakshinam (circumambulation of the kalam). The Marar play the chenda according to the steps of the Komaram, who is required to make a minimum of three rounds; this number may increase if the venue is more spectacular. This is followed by the kalam pooja (worship of the deity depicted in the kalam). This ritual is usually performed by the thantri (chief priest). The Kurup start the thottams after the kalampooja. At the end of the thottam, the Kurup perform Thiri Uzhichil, a way of paying respect to the bhoothagana (the followers or assistants of the particular god) of Vettakkorumakan. Then, the real samhara commences.


The Komaram cuts the coconut leaves in the paattumandapam using the churika and erases the kalam by dancing to the beat of the chenda. This event is known as the kalam maykkal and symbolises Vettakkorumakan killing wild animals during a hunt. During this event, the Kurup sing another set of thottams. It is believed that to relax after hunting, Vettakkorumakan drinks coconut water. Thus, the ritual of thenga eriyal (breaking coconuts) is performed. At least one coconut is broken, but this number goes up to 12,000 in special cases. After breaking coconuts, the Komaram erases the rest of the kalam, and finally, blesses the devotees. He then distributes the kalam powder as prasada (offering). The last rite is koora valikkal, in which the Kurup removes the koora from the paattumandapam and returns it to the owner. This marks the end of the rituals.


Thottam: The oral tradition


Songs play a major role in folklore studies. Primitive folk songs originated from the rhythm of nature. The thottam paatt has a key function in other ritual arts like Theyyam, Theeyyatt, Mudiyett, etc. Thottam, associated with kalamezhuthu pattu, is known as kalam paatt or thottam paatt. It has been transmitted through generations and has no written records. Thottams provide clues about the culture and social setups of ancient times. Darikavadham thottam, sung during the kalamezhuthu pattu, is dedicated to the goddess Bhadrakali and the serpent gods and tells of the origin of the kalamezhuthu pattu and its preparations.


During the uchapaatt, the Kurup sing two segments of thottam: the first one is dedicated to Lord Ganapathy, Saraswati, and Sreekrishnan; the second one is about Vettakkorumakan and the temples and places that he visited—this is known as vazhinada thottam. The second segment is repeated at a slower pace for the mullakkal paatt. After the kalam pooja, the Kurup present thottams with two or three segments. The first one is known as ammanachaya and is about Vettakkorumakan; the second is a katha or story from the epic Mahabharata; the third, seen only in the Malabar region, is known as padappattu. During kalam maykkal, the Kurup sings six sets of thottams, which are also about Vettakkorumakan’s heroism.


The content and characteristics of the thottams sung by the Kurup are:


  • Description of action—one segment in the thottams of the Kurup is about the 14 materials that have to be collected for the puja.

  • Mythical background of the deity—the story is narrated.

  • Praises and the invocation of blessings.

  • Highlighting the dramatic moments captured in the drawing.


Thottam or thottampatt make up a branch of Malayalam poetry. Presently, their authenticity is being lost and some are on the verge of extinction.


The kalamezhuthu pattu ritual holds high value as intangible cultural heritage. All five domains of intangible cultural heritage set by UNESCO are embodied within it:


  1. Oral traditions and expressions, including language, that act as a conductor of the intangible cultural heritage.

  2. Performing arts.

  3. Social practices, rituals, and festive events.

  4. Knowledge and practices about nature and the universe.

  5. Traditional craftsmanship.


Thus, it needs to be preserved in its current state—the form in which it is performed these days.




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Mundekkad, Babu. 2002. Kallatta Kuruppanmarude Kalamezhuthupattu (Malayalam). Kottayam: DC Books.


Priya. Krishnadas. 2014. ‘Vettekaran Paattu’. Online at http://aswadanam.com/index.php/en/arts/89otherfolkartsmainpage/192vette…  pattu?showall=1&limitstart= (viewed on September 27, 2015).


Raman, Thiyadti. 2012. Ayyappan Theyattu (Malayalam). Cochin: DC Books.


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UNESCO. 2016. ‘Identifying and Inventorying Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Online at http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/01856-EN.pdf (viewed on April 7, 2016).