Neelamperoor Padayani is a ritual festival held at Neelamperoor, Kuttanadu taluk, Alappuzha district, Kerala. It is a fifteen-day long festival in which various effigies of human and nonhuman figures are displayed. There are different kinds of performances in Kerala and Neelamperoor Padayani is the only kind of padayani which makes effigies instead of performing dances using masks and headgear. Etymologically, the word padayani has been evolved by combining two separate words, 'pada’ meaning a group of militants and ‘ani’ meaning row. According to Anandakuttan, a Padayani scholar, the word ‘padayani’ in Neelamperoor can be read in connection with the style of arranging flower panels or rows in making the effigies.
Neelamperoor Padayani is performed in the Neelamperoor Palli Bhagavati Temple, outside the inner wall of the main shrine, which is located on the left side of the Kurichi-Kavalam road, a by-road from Kottayam-Thiruvananthapuram main road. The temple is one of the oldest temples in Kerala which is said to have been built between AD 250 and 300. It is believed that Cheraman Perumal, a Chera dynasty ruler, had become a Buddhist monk and spent his last days at Neelamperoor. While he was the ruler of Kerala, Hindus accused him of having favoured Buddhism and refused to cooperate with him.
As matters got worse, he agreed to conduct a debate on Hinduism and Buddhism. If Buddhists won the debate, Hindus had to accept Buddhism as their religion. However, if they lost, the king agreed to abdicate the throne. Accordingly, scholars of both religions participated in the debate. Hindus fielded six eminent scholars from South India to argue on behalf of their religion and won the debate. Thereafter, Cheraman Perumal abdicated the throne and left the palace to be a Buddhist monk. Perumal thus came to Neelamperoor and settled there and later built a Buddha Vihara. On the right side of the front wall of the temple is a temple-like structure called ‘Perumal Vadam’, where Cheraman Perumal, the king who pioneered and patronised Padayani, is worshipped and venerated. When Buddhism lost its position in Kerala, the Vihara built by Perumal was replaced by a new Devi temple in Neelamperoor. It is said that Neelamperoor Padayani is organised as a reminiscence of Perumal’s visit and his initiation of the Padayani festival in Neelamperoor. The festival represents a synthesis of both Hindu and Buddhist cultures.
Neelamperoor Padayani is also said to be the ‘festival of nature’ because of its close associations with the surrounding ecosystem where it is performed. Neelamperoor village is part of a wetland agricultural ecosystem, topographically elevated from the surrounding areas and dotted with vast stretches of paddy fields, marshes, ponds and small patches of island formations. Effigies are made from natural materials like stem of arecanut tree, dried leaves, the stem sheath of banana plantain, lotus leaves and chethi (ixora) flowers.
Kolams of Neelamperoor Padayani
Neelamperoor Padayani is also called ‘Kettu Padayani’, meaning the Padayani of making kolams (effigies). Kolams are multi-dimensional figures representing animals, supernatural deities and ritual objects. The kolams which are presented on each night during the festival are known as adiyanthira kolams (compulsory kolams). There are 13 adiyanthira kolams in Neelamperoor Padayani, each varying in dimension and appearance. During the first eight days, the kolams made are two-dimensional, and for the rest of the days three-dimensional kolams are made. In addition to the compulsory kolams, subordinate kolams are also made and performed. The figures of subordinate kolams may range from animals to Puranic characters. A rectangular open ground can be spotted on the right side of the main shrine, which usually functions as a space for kolam kettu or the workshop for making kolams and other preparations. The courtyard on the front side of the temple serves as the stage where kolams are displayed and performed.
The kolams are made during the day time and are used for performance at night. There is a gradual variation in size and shape of kolams which is noticeable from the first day to the last day of the festival. The kolams of Neelamperoor Padayani are made entirely of natural materials. The leaves of lotus plant, colocasia and jackfruit tree are used in the making of kolams. Stem sheath of banana plantain and ixora flowers are also used for the decoration of various kolams. Kolams made from the leaves of jackfruit tree are very small in size and are called plavila kolams. Small kolams are designed in a manner in which it can be carried on the shoulders. Annams are bigger kolams, the size ranging from five to 50 feet. Some of the types of kolams are discussed below:
Kolams of abstract ritual objects
Poomaram (blossoming tree): It is a very simple structure made of a leafless stem of a perumaram, a tropical tree, decorated with chethipoo (flower of ixora plant). Poomaram is the kolam associated with the fifth day of the festival.
Thattukuda (layered umbrella): It looks like an umbrella. It is made of a two-meter long stem of a perumaram with a dome-like structure on the top made of vattayila, leaf of a tropical tree called vatta or chandada. This kolam associated with the sixth day of the festival.
Paravalayam (layered circles): It is made of the outer fibrous skin of the mid-stem of a coconut leaf bunch. The rings are made out of the elongated and flexible outer layer of the skin. These rings are tied into a long stem of the perumaram tree. The number of rings could be five, seven or nine. The stem of the tree is aligned at the centre and the concentric rings are tied to the stem. The size of the rings vary from bottom to top and the big circle is fitted at the bottom. This kolam associated with the seventh day of the festival.
Kodikkoora (temple flag): It is a flag-like structure made of the stem sheath of a banana plantain. This kolam is associated with the thirteenth day of Nelamperoor Padayani.
Ambalakkotta (miniature temple): It is a miniature temple made of plantain stem and ixora flowers. This kolam is associated with the fourteenth day of the festival.
Annam (swan): Annam is a very important kolam in Neelamperoor Padayani. It is an imaginary bird found in ancient literature. Annam is a three-dimensional figure of a swan made of dried leaves of banana plantain, fresh leaves of lotus and the stem sheath of plantain and ixora flowers. Three different types of annams can be seen in Neelapmperoor Padayani based on its size. Onpathe-kol annam is the velya annam or big annam, that has an approximate height of twelve metres. Anche-kol annam is the medium-sized annam that has an approximate height of seven metres. Rande-kol annam is the smallest annam that has an approximate height of three metres.
The making of velya annam (performed only on the fifteenth day) usually starts in the kalam (Padayani ground) from the first day itself since it requires more manpower and dedication. It needs tremendous human labour and the work starts more than ten days in advance before its installation and performance. The biggest annam is anchored on a main wooden pole called chottanakku or thandellu. This elongated pole is fixed on a square-shaped wooden frame at the bottom, which has four wooden wheels to move the entire structure. The making of velya annam includes materials like wood, dried plantain leaves, leaves of colocasia and lotus, flowers of ixora and the stem of a banana plantain. They make the skeleton of swan bird on the square-shaped bottom frame with flexible stalks of areca palm and bamboo shoot. The stem is tied together with natural creepers and fibre of banana plantain. Later, the skeleton is covered with dried plantain leaves. The spongy scaled surface of the dried plantain leaves is then covered with green slimy leaves of lotus and colocasia. Then they decorate the slimy leaf cover with the fresh white scales of carved plantain stem and ixora flowers. Carved plates of plantain stem sheath are pinned on to the green slimy surface of the lotus leaf cover. The hard wooden surface of the bottom frame gives anchorage to the spine of the annam.
Aana (elephant): Two different types of aana kolams are made in Neelamperoor Padayani. One is a two-dimensional plavila kolam made from the fresh leaves of jackfruit tree and the other one is a three-dimensional life-size representation of a male elephant. The plavila kolam of an elephant is a compulsory kolam and is performed on the tenth day of the festival. The bigger one is made of dried leaves of banana plantain and jute bags.
Simham (lion): Simham is a three-dimensional kolam made of dried leaves of banana plantain and lotus leaves and is displayed and performed on the sixteenth day of the festival.
Kolams of Puranic characters
Hanuman: It is a two-dimensional figure of Hanuman made of leaves of the jackfruit tree and performed on the eleventh day.
Bhima: It is a two-dimensional figure representing Bhima made of leaves of the jackfruit tree, performed on the twelfth day.
The mythology of making of kolams in Nelamperoor Padayani revolves around the story of Bhima’s search for the kalyana sougandhikam flower for his wife Panchali, which is one of the famous stories in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. While out in search for the flower, Bhima crosses mountains and forests and finally reaches Kadalivana, the divine abode of Hanuman. The different kolams installed and performed in Neelamperoor Padayani trace Bhima’s quest in search for the elusive flower. The order and pattern of making the ritual objects from the first day to the last day are in tandem with the linear events in the Mahabharata story. The green colour symbolises the forest through which Bhima travelled. The red flowers depict the beautiful blossoms Bhima came across when he went further into the dense forest. The thattukuda (layered umbrella) kolam depicts the mountains he had to climb on his quest. The installation of the sage is to signify his coming across the monk in a tapas (meditative) state. The elephant installation is a reminder of Airavata, the heavenly white elephant of Indra. The Hanuman kolam signifies Bhima’s encounter with Hanuman in the forest where the latter was blocking his path in the disguise of an old monkey.
Major ritual events
Choottuveyppu (lighting of the fire): The priest of the main shrine lights a fire from the sanctum sanctorum and passes it to the village head and offers prayers to Perumal in Perumal Vadam. Later he enters the Padayani ground in front of the temple and lights the choottukatta (dried coconut leaves tied up in long bundles used as flame torches). On his return from the Perumal Vadam, the people gathered around in the ground shout ‘koohoo’ and ‘huyyo’. This act is repeated for the first three days and is called choottuveyppu.
Kudampooja kali (ritual dance): Kudampooja kali is one of the main ritual events in Neelamperoor Padayani. It is a dance performance with people moving in circles around a campfire in the kalam. There are singers who narrate the story of Bhima’s search for the kalyana sougandhikam flower, and support the dance with songs and oral meters. Dance is only allowed when the singers utter vaytaris (non-linguistic oral meters) and otherwise everyone sings in a circle around the campfire.
Thotakali (ritual dance): Thotakali is a ritual dance performed to the beats and rhythms of folk songs. The performers line up in two rows and weave a piece of white cloth during the dance ritual. The songs narrate the story of Bhima and Hanuman.
Velakali (ritual dance): Velakali is a ritual dance in which performers carry figures of velapiller (small human figures) made of leaves of the koova plant and coconut tree. While carrying the figures, the performers bend down and move forward and backward in accompaniment to songs.
Pacha: Pacha is the Malayalam word for the colour green and plant leaves begin to appear from the fourth day onwards in thekalam. When the village leader turns from the Perumal Vadam with the lighted choottukatta, people repeat the same vaytari of ‘huyyo’. A human actor with a branch of perumaram (a tropical tree) and choondapana (a variety of palm tree) circles the peepul tree on the north-west corner of thekalamon the same day.
Plavila Nirthu: The kolams made of leaves of the jackfruit tree come to an end on this day. They make Bhima kolam on this day. Kudampooja kali and Thotakali are performed before the arrival of Bhima kolam. These dance performances are accompanied by songs and vaytaris.
Kuda Nirthu: When the second phase of the Padayani ends on the eighth day, the kolam is performed. After the Kudampooja kali and Thotakali rituals, figures of previous days are performed with rhythmic song and dance on the same day.
This brings to an end this unique festival of Kerala, where art, myth, performance and ritual come together in an unusual and mystical way.