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| Last Updated:: 24/01/2017

Snake Worship in Kerala

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cult of snake worship in Kerala is closely interwoven with the life of the people of the State and is a component of its rich cultural heritage. Both within the sacred groves and outside snakes are still revered and worshiped with much piety in this State. The stillness within the deep shade of the groves, the feeling of the wilderness provided by the forest-like vegetation, the unique rituals, practices and taboos still associated with snakes, the mystery associated with treatment of snake bite victims, the fascinating folklores associated with the ‘kavus’ and snake worship are all part of the rich culture of the land. One may feel the presence of some primeval powers in the Sarpa Kavus (serpent groves) in Kerala. Perhaps nowhere else in India is the cult of snake worship so intricately linked with the daily lives of people as in Kerala. This is despite the fact that snakes are killed in large numbers all the time on the mistaken notion that all of them are venomous.

 

 

 

The tradition of snake worship in Kerala is often traced back to the myth of Parasurama (incarnation of Lord Vishnu) reclaiming Kerala from the sea. Keralolpathi, an old text on the legendary origin of Kerala states that Parasurama wanted to constitute 64 gramas or villages of Namboothiri Brahmins in Kerala after its reclamation from the sea, in order to expiate the sin of his exterminating the Kshathriya race. However, the Brahmins were attacked and not allowed to settle in Kerala by Naagas, or serpents very abundant at that time in Kerala. The serpents were believed to be the inhabitants of the subterranean world, locally known as Paathalam or Naagalokam. The dejected Parasurama went to Mount Kailash and prayed to Lord Parameswara for help. The Lord advised Parasurama to go back to Kerala and pray to the Serpent King Vasuki. An agreement was then reached between King Vasuki and Parasurama. Vasuki ordered the serpents to move away from human habitations and occupy anthills and holes. The human inhabitants were asked to set aside an area in every homestead for the serpents and to regularly worship them. As a result every Brahmin house (Mana or Illom or Tharavadu) in Kerala had set apart an area in their compound for serpents. As this area was kept undisturbed, they turned into a forest-like overgrown patch or a grove, often referred to as the Sarpa Kavu.

 

 

 

The serpent groves were initially circular in form and were often surrounded by a low wall to prevent cattle and other creatures from entering (Jayashanker, 1999). A stone basement called Chithra-kootam is built in the middle of the Sarpa Kavu. Several granite idols of snake Gods are placed on the Chithra-kootam. A passage is opened to the seat of these images from the outside and great care is taken that the grove is not dishonoured by the touch or even the approach of non-pious persons.

 

 

 

Apart from sacred groves, the serpent idols are also installed inside the regular temples of Kerala; Naagaraja is installed either as a principal deity in a separate sreekovil or as a subsidiary deity outside the Naalambalam on a separate platform, positioned either at the east, west, southwest or south side. The prathistas include Naagaraja and other important attendant Naagas, Sarpayakshi, Naagayakshi or Naagakanyaka or a combination of these. The ashta naagas are represented by Anantha, Vasuki, Thakshaka, Kaarkkotaka, Sankhan, Gulikan, Padman and Mahapadman. Among these Anantha and Vasuki are installed as deities in most of the temples in Kerala; the former is given importance in Vaishnavite shrines, the latter in Shaivite shrines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In several temples of Kerala idols of serpents can be found under a large banyan tree. There are innumerable serpent groves all over Kerala, now represented by a single banyan tree and idols of snake deities. The poojas are performed for serpent deities also before the main pooja in the sanctum sanctorum, and devotees go around the altar of snake deities and offer special poojas. Many temples have provisions for special poojas for serpent deities, particularly on the ‘aslesha’ (star) day (Aayilya pooja).

 

 

 

The Sarpa Kavus in Kerala

 

 

 

There may be about 2,000 sacred groves in Kerala and serpents form the main deity in at least half of them. Mannaarssala and Pampumekkattu Mana are the sacred groves in Kerala famous for snake worship.

 

 

 

 

 

Rituals

 

 

 

The Sarpa Kavus in Kerala function or at least functioned till recently as cultural centres of the village folk. The rich and diverse traditions, rituals and the lore of the people of Kerala only reflect the richness of the natural surroundings. The rituals offered at Kavus vary from place to place, according to the type of important deity presiding over the grove.

 

 

 

According to folklore, serpents are among the most powerful and highly benevolent divine spirits. A few Namboothiri families, as in the case of Mannaarssala and Pampumekkattu, are the chosen priests for these serpent Gods and Goddesses. The belief in Kerala is that the serpent Gods are displeased by even slight lapses in the performance of rituals and ‘poojas’ to propitiate them and by activities such as neglect, trespass, and pollution. Once annoyed they cause serious problems to the people, both physical and mental.

 

 

 

Nurum Palum

 

 

 

Nurum Palum’ is one of the most common items of worship in the Sarpa Kavus of Kerala. It is the offering of rice powder and turmeric powder mixed with cow’s milk using tender inflorescence of coconut or areca nut. The offering is done on special occasions, particularly in ‘aslesha’ day in the month of Aswina, which is supposed to be the birth month of Naagaraja.

 

 

 

Pulluvan Pattu (Sarpam Pattu)

 

 

 

Pulluvan Pattu or Sarpam Pattu is performed to please the Serpent God. The Pulluvans are sought after by families frequently to perform rituals and services for the serpent deities. In the villages, the Pulluvan and his wife, Pulluvati visit houses on auspicious days like the first of every Malayalam month or the Aslesha day in the month, which is the birthday of the serpent. Pulluvas sing songs in honour of the more powerful serpent Gods, who are believed to be the protectors and guardian angels of the land. The songs are known as Pulluvan Pattu or Sarpam Pattu. They sing this song to exorcise the evil eye cast on the children. While singing, the Pulluvan strums on a small violin like instrument called ‘Naga Veena’ or ‘Veenakkunju’ (one stringed violin-like instrument) and the Pulluvati sings along with him providing the rhythm by playing the ‘kutam’ (an instrument made by covering an earthen pot with the skin of a calf and fixing a string to it; also known as Pulluvakkudam). By pulling the string and plucking with a piece of wood or stone, a rhythm with tonal variations is created. They also conduct the ceremony of ‘Pampin tullal’ to propitiate the serpent gods and obtain their blessings.

 

 

 

Pampin Thullal

 

 

 

Pampin Thullal or serpent dance is a ritual art performed in Kerala in relation with serpent worship. This ceremony takes place during the Malayalam months of Kanni, Thulam, Kumbham and Medam, which corresponds to September-October, October-November, February-March and April-May. The Ayilyam or Aslesha star is considered as the auspicious day for this function. The monsoon months are not selected for this ceremony because it is believed that the serpents would refuse to come out of their subterranean abode during this season. There is also a belief that monsoons bring with them thunder that might shake up and break the serpents’ eggs. This also shows the synchronization of rituals with the cycles of seasons.

 

 

 

Pampin Thullal is performed in a specially decorated pandal or thatched shed close to the serpent grove or in the courtyard in front of the house. The floor of the shed is plastered with cow dung and decorated with flowers. Kalams of serpent Gods (sarpakalam) are drawn on the floor using powders of different colours. Bronze oil lamps are lit in the Kalam with offerings of coconuts and rice. The Pampin Thullal is performed to propitiate all the five varieties of serpent gods - Naagaraja (the king serpent), Naagayakshi (the queen serpent), Karinaagam (black serpent), Paranaagam (flying serpent) and the Anchilamaninaagam (five-hooded and jewel carrying serpent). Generally Pampin Thullal lasts for five days, with one of the varieties propitiated on each day.

 

 

 

All these rituals and folklores in Kerala indicate the deep rooted image of serpents in the minds of Keralites since long. Even though the more sophisticated teachings of Hinduism condemn the magical and superstitious attributes of religion and modern science consider these rituals substanceless, the mystical philosophical arguments in favour of age old rituals and customs cannot be disregarded.

 

 

 

In Kerala, from time immemorial, the concept of conservation and nature has been carefully woven into the various religious beliefs and customs. Serpent groves are a prime example of this approach. Despite this the Sarpa Kavus in Kerala are under severe threat due to the disappearance of joint family system, grazing, anthropogenic interventions, loss of faith in religious rituals and taboos and changes in socio-economic scenario. The eco-centric tradition of India gave importance to every living creature in the ecosystem and recognized the intricate interconnections between the living and nonliving, which ensure free flow of matter and energy.

 

 

 

 

Not to speak of the pivotal ecological role played by snakes in controlling the increasing population of rodents and snakes themselves, conservation of existing Sarpa Kavus would help ensure ecological sustainability and livelihood security of the local communities. Above all, the cult of serpents as an ecological and cultural symbol cannot be simply disregarded by any person in Kerala.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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