Padayani Rural Tantras

  "The Aesthetics and Embodiment of Beliefs and Identity"

Dr. Marc-Paul Lambert

19Th May 2013


South Indian tantras are often associated with temple practices as introduced by the Brahmins. If tantric scenology acts as a physical model that will work for the whole classical Indian theater, one may overlook the importance of another model based on the Mask technique developed through village cultural practices with Pre-dravidian origins.

Unlike classical theater, there is no rural canon available to produce the scenologic instruments adequate for its study. Still, the number of rural genres is forty times higher in Kerala than classical ones. The visual representation and the scenographic environment in the rural register together with special notions of rhythm and spatial design shape the different modes of perception. Besides, India faces the problem of dance terminology to define other sacred practices in a culture dominated by the classical model.

Through Padayani: - a ritual practiced in Central Travancore, dedicated to the Mother-Goddess, let us see how genuine rural tantras contribute to a distinct danced body in the context of the temple venue, with the support of the trance technique.

Padayani rural Tantras

We are talking of a group of warriors from Central Travancore, Kerala, with a leading caste represented by the Nayars; all settled in the Ghats on the high tops, at the east of a strip coast in a rainy area. Padayani cult includes 40 villages; 22 active centres, 5000 devotees, 800 dancers, and a dozen of transmitters. It is one among the great rituals dedicated to the Goddess, of the same family as Mudiyettu, Theyyam, or Thookkam. Danced exclusively by men, the difference in Padayani lies in the assignments of the dance activity: the exclusive means for the performers to reach divine realm. Ritual is addressed as a trance sacrifice with the use of Masks, each of them is unique and portrays the actual danced body of the Mother Goddess.

Characterisation with Masks

In the Oorali Padayani section the beginning of Padayani, the officiating priest embodies Mala, the God of the Mountain (no Mask).

Among many Masks, we can see on the illustrations Bhairavi - “The Huge Sound”, which designates Mother Goddess; Pishachu is a male monster; Marutha - The Other Mother - portrays the Mother of Pre-dravidian populations; Kalan Kolam is the Master of Time and Master of Death; Anthara Yakshi is the Goddess of air movements; Kurathi an old dance with its peculiar vision of Mother Goddess figure belongs to the community of Blacksmiths; Pakshi is the Bird. 

The Pre-dravidian legacy

In the first place, it may be important to alter the way we should look at the famous kolam-Masks, painted in the portrait of the deity:

 “In Malayalam, says Vineeshnath from Elanthoor village, we do not say “draw a kolam”, but “write a kolam”. The eye must exceed the decryption in a physical reflex focusing on painted surfaces, according to the distribution of masses and colours, as you would do inside a painting frame, to perform an expected path of the eye over the Mask - let’s say Bhairevi - ; from one object to another : the elephant, then Naga, then frieze, then central figure, etc.. It is both this mode of writing - a poem in a way - and a proper reading mode : the intuitive movement of the eyes, which convey the meaning of the Mask.”

Musically, the ritual is based on a generic rhythmic structure called Adantha; the modes of its vaithari enunciation matched for the drums, singing, and dancing, are processed collectively. By carefully looking and listening to each other, everyone is gradually setting up to the performance level. These protocols, in addition to their respective apprenticeships, have been traditionally used by the group, whether dancers, singers, or percussionists, from times immemorial. The term “Padayani Tantras” was once used by Dance master Reghukumar, in 2000, a time I was studying physical behaviours in the temple sanctuary during worship. Years ago, the transmitter was giving me a clue. André Padoux, a specialist of tantric questions in France, would probably not object the analogy, so relevant are the geography and the deity - the figure of Mother Goddess -, together here. The author, when comparing the geographical diffusion of tantras, asserts in his publication “Understanding Tantra”: “It is possible that Dravidian South India played a significant role in the beginnings of tantra as a phenomenon.” What Padoux suggests is that all identification procedures in the Goddess ritual are present in devotional forms from the old South, before Brahminic colonisation, but he does not explain how. The expression “Padayani Tantras” seems odd at first, since tantras are generally known as an offspring from the Vedic legacy; how can they be applied to rural art forms, on the controversial domains of “Dravidian” rites performed in front of the temple? knowing that the only combination of Brahminic elements in the rural cult can blur the importance of their legacies. In all cases, it tended to hide them aesthetically throughout history, when the process of brahminisation was dealing particularly with movement and gesture. Setting a date “far in the past” for a human memory, does not help either to understand how things really happened from one step to another, the anthropological assimilation being embodied in a very slow pace. Like dance : the way a dance style settles and the way it changes its aim in the significant gesture might take centuries, this is how its understanding evolves in the mind of the doer as well as the viewer, by adaptation to the new society, and this is the way also it can get lost when the nature of its interest changes.

Cultural influences

History of Padayani as a genre has gone through two major cultural colonisations. First one is brahminic: Brahmins settled in Central Travancore sometimes during the 15th Century AD: we will delve extensively on that aspect. Second colonisation happened two centuries ago; British colonisation relies on the varna system and political forces in place to establish its own cultural and political influence. In that case, alien influence is not dealing with body behaviours or cultural gestures per se, it is the whole State infrastructures and language uses that are modified. Still with time changes can be perceptible from the standpoint of life experience. We should keep in mind that only seventy years ago, Padayani was not considered as a “folk” genre; the expression did not even exist in Travancore.  This terminology is recent. The word “folklore” was created in Europe in the late 18th Century, in the context of national romanticism, mainly after Johann Gottfried von Herder’s influences (the English term “folk” for “volk” in German). While European folklores favour myths and popular beliefs in the forms of an idealized collection of tales, and ultimately with a political nationalist agenda, the unique and sacred aspect of its faiths, its constant concern not to essentialize the world but to bring the divine approach into a sensory experience, oppositely pulls Padayani performance in the category of organized religions.

Each performance in the cult is meant to be unique, whereas slight disruptions may happen; cultural traditions can be subverted when a forced character is applied to the cultural event; a culture only formed to produce demonstrations of its identity would induce a connotation of contempt and a depreciation of its spiritual values, which is a resentment shared by many rural artists. A series of changes in the art production economy and their acceleration in the Indian tourism industry probably led many genres to a “folklorization” step. We are referring to the adaptation of light design and sound design to modern times; less fire more electrical light, less vocal effort more sound systems; the invasion of private advertisement on the ritual site; the addition of multi-entertaining programmes like plays and classical dances previous to the ritual; a massification of the audiences; the truncations of many pieces, and reductions in the programmes.

In Padayani, the rural cult produces its own mythology and its own cosmography. Its historic anteriority on the whole Vedic and Hindu culture is indisputable although a confusion in the popular basis, added to a constant belittlement in the varna context, tend to diminish the sacred contents of the dance tasks. There is the inclination in Kerala in the doxa, to see or compare rural legacy to classical Indian productions : – the expression “Classical and Folk” or “Classical versus Folk”, a contemporary archaism, is commonly applied to describe hierarchically some societal currents crossing the Indian field of performing arts; classical arts being more exposed and financially supported. On a larger scale, the expression “Classical versus Folk” evokes a number of historical oppositions between classes. Kerala State and indeed Padayani genre have met such issues in their recent political history, notably with the communist engagement of poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan. One can find the same type of opposition in the West, in dance at the end of the 19th Century, when new artists (Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller,…), happened to break successfully with the conventions applied to pantomimes inspired from European or American ballet, whereas these classical dance forms used to be controlled and financially supported by the dominant class. As we know, causes of the opposition between castes in India are older and deeper; they are rooted in a collection of mechanisms occurring in the field of knowledge, transmitted from master to student and printed in visions and perceptions. Many times, Kadammanitta Vasudevan Pillai throughout his publications used to bring to the light the genuine musical specificities out from the rural musical patrimony. Pillai can testify because he is a practitioner and a transmitter; my approach is complementary to his, on the basis of movement analysis and dance observation, also because we have been working for two decades, altogether with the transmitters Reghukumar and Presennan, on specific issues related to Padayani dance legacy in Kadammanitta village. Let me focus on the core of the relation operated between the dancer and the deity when embodied by the Mask, we will be able to observe the specific performance it creates, according to the audience capacity to get emotionally involved in the dance process.

The Dancer, the Mask and the Deity

In fact tantrism covers many aspects, even though we tend to favour the spiritual one and isolate the phenomenon from its original background. On a sociological point of view, “Padayani tantrism” concerns OBC casts (Other Backward Casts), and the Scheduled Castes. Jathis share a number of concepts with the original vedic tantra legacy, but we may not ultimately relate tantrism only to an issue of classes or castes. What we sense while listening to village stories told by gurus, is a clear chronology embracing different religious events. We understand in the inventory of the movement practices, why transmitters are not questioning their validity on the epistemic grounds of history, it is because for them the whole construction is already fully relevant in the dance approach to the Nature worship: I mean, Padayani is a constructed ritual in the mind of its transmitters , before Brahmins ever settled in the South.

In Pre-Dravidianism (in transmitters narratives), Mother Goddess cult begins, roughly speaking, in South India, – 6000 BC (source K.V. Pillai). Vedism in North India starts a little later, meanwhile for the first time, Shivaism travels south and settles in the Ghats mountains, known as “Dravidianism”. Thus, when Mala God figure applies to the worship of Padayani, this means that a particular Shiva aspect has been inherited from the North, and from the Vedic cult.

Ultimate meeting between the two traditions (Vedism and Mother Goddess worship), is formally finalised in the region of Kerala,  around – 1000 BC. An on-going assimilation still continues to develop in small pockets, a few villages from our area of study. Near Naranganam, in Naduva Tupaara Mala’s locality, there is a worshipping site where the substitution of symbols is still operating between the two religious orientations. We can see the villagers building their Shiva temple directly on to the Mala God rock. One notices another occurrence close to this locality; in Kadammanitta Padayani centre, the term “mandala of the Deity” refers to the territorial expansion of the Mother deity over the village, whereas another distinct part of the ritual, “the Rounding of the territory” is occurring under the protection of Mala God, with Shiva attributes, including the trident as shown on the shrine.

There are many other tantric aspects we could list: the idea of Brahminic five aggregates - Panchabutha (earth, water, fire, air, ether space) is transposed in the rural cosmography with names of tree species, referring to living symbols or metaphors, and arranged into a song performed by Dance master Presennan, and so on. But it is on notions such as “Brahman” - the absolute divine, and “moksha”- the idea of the liberation of the self, that rural conceptions remain powerfully impervious to the colonisation of the minds.

Prevailing view in tantra is that Man is able, in a certain way, to identify with the deity. Because rituals in Padayani are working on physical danced exertion, similarity stops here, for there is no chance in rural conceptions to experience full divinity in this world, in a living body and a human consciousness. Along with this conviction, dance masters disapprove yogic work (Presennan), such as asanas (yogic postures) and the practice of energy retention; breath control is considered a dangerous activity for the sanity of the individual. However, no clear opposition stands between beliefs and faith when the Brahmins settle. Social adaptability in the process of cultural transfers, from Brahmanism to rural religious practices, aims to gather people around what will be known as the Hindu religion. Colonial settlement in the whole South stretches back over thousands of years; a certain type of awareness, body awareness among the colonised must have taken that time to evaluate and share the coming Brahmin legacy –. It would be unlikely to think that a religious change could cause direct social confrontations ; although it does, symbolically in Kurumpala, with the collective destruction of the temple replica on the last ritual day.

Still the example of the gigantic mandala with its four stone entries on the territory of Kadammanitta, definitely proves that a number of tantric techniques have passed from one group to another, into the rural cult.

From the organized language to the Mother Goddess

Now, there is a striking difference when you compare body movements which belong to the Brahmin priest during his religious service, and the activity of a Padayani dancer at the time of performance. Distinct scenologies: ways of acting the body in relation to the context and environment are being processed while facing the original kawu; one inside the temple; one outside on the kalam, the venue devoted to performance attached to the temple structure.

“I’m inviting tonight the Padayani troupe to dance, not in front of the temple but instead, in front of the kawu”, says Biju, Paravoor Committee director, in March 2013. Two different ritual scenes exist on the temple venue; – two different cultural models manifest and show contrasts in the way they both physically relate to the Mother Goddess, the central figure. Notwithstanding, it is certain that all Padayani worshippers feel Hindu: the common religious belief. What is curious is to find that, from the temple structure to the kalam, two different anthropological models did not actually breed or mix into a new one.

It should be stressed that the Indian tantric phenomenon as seen from the West, is mainly the perception of Western researchers, implying special practices as inspired or extracted from the corpus of Hindu rituals, in reference to Shiva or Goddess’s worship. I quote Padoux again; Wilson speaks in the 19th Century, of a practice called “left hand worshipers of the Goddess”whom, he notes, are numerous among Shiva followers, having strange and repugnant practices related to worship of multiple gods, and often frightening and bizarre speculations”.

The word “tantra” in the Hindu context may be problematic when used in texts commentaries, for it never is completely defined. A few terms come across: the word “tantrika” - the celebrant of the rite ; “tantrashastra” ; tantric teaching... The word is composed of two syllables. Main syllable, TAN, means, extending in the direction of… with an object, a shuttle ; creating a fabric by combining at least two threads in a body movement, back and forth, therefore installing a mood for rhythm. Or else, “tantra” means the idea of a text, a collection, that Padoux prefers. A number of texts like Panchatantra (the Five Books) have no relation with tantric practices; conversely, many Buddhist texts can be called tantras whereas in the Hindu corpus, some fundamental works known as agamas (traditional texts) pertain to authentic tantras. From the 5th Century on, the three terms tantra, tantric, tantrashastra begin to be used in commentaries. These notions stand opposed to the Vedic source: first oral, and ultimately the written word in the religious canon, so much they transform the legacy into practices daring to embody the Divine figure.

Indian Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists (Vajrayana worshippers) emphasize via the living figure of the guru, a peculiar aspect of a unique revelation passed from the Divine Being to the devotee. As a consequence, tantric practices in the divine approach are considered superior to Vedas and yet, if the written canon gives clear status of the myths and the cosmographic context of the legends, practice as the guru implements it, would place the individual in a direct relationship with the divine, in a frame or we can say a scheme where the whole active mental representation finds its justified physical activity. The reason is that cardinal idea in tantra is not to think but to move the body. The worshipper while performing oral, physical, and mental activities is supposed to become the Deity during the identification process; these are the roots for questions related to the sociological plan. We know that everyone in the Brahmin caste is subjected to the rule of varnas. Vedas establish the context, the four castes frame , which compels a tantrika who acts “according to tantric rules”, to behave socially. Precepts of purity and moral principles demand to act in strict respect for vedic commands. Curiously, it is a common fact that every Brahmin priest, today, is an expert in tantras officiating in the temple. We will not insist on the idea of hierarchy omnipresent in these constructions. Royalty in India and Nepal histories allowed great use of tantra; likewise it should be stressed that India or Bhutan are still not departed in our 21st Century from these old rules. Still in the course of these developments, there is another current which flourished and contributed with changes brought to the North Vedic canon. Revolutionary conceptions became to highlight subsequently, through oral teachings, a “sharing process” happening during secret activities (left hand worshippers). These tantras of a different kind are based on sexual activity; we can find their illustrations in the many sculpted group figures adorned on temple walls, under the Pallava and the Cholas.

Be that as it may, whether the old or new modes of worship, none matches the ancient tantric rural models in the South, not in the protocol, not either in the ethic model. In contrast, tantric activities performed within rural conditions are a consequence of a social will. Often used in English by the ashans in Kadammanitta, this peculiar idiomatic expression: “in the face of the society”, underlines the public aspect of a spiritual work conceived on a collective scale. It should be noted that Mala god worship, the rural part of Shiva worship in Padayani, first and oldest to provide a Man-god cult in the cult of the Goddess, totally escapes the tantric deity construction. Moreover, the sequence of events in Ourali Padayani, as it is called, is clearly not meant to be a ritual dance.

Hence, when the transmitters Reghukumar or Presennan address the issue of “rural tantras”, both are raising no less for a rural dancer than the question of the divine reference model, and the question of the identification technique. As for the dancing body, cosmos is felt and “given in totality” (Reghukumar); manifested in the dance gesture as well as the percussion gesture. Another domain of exploration applies in the physical means to the cosmographic representation. This aspect covers dance teachings and technique in relation with the Mask. Then, what  about tradition and transmission? What is really happening when the dancing model, on the basis of the rural training routine, experiments a transformation in the dance construction[1]? Villagers, since the period of Brahmin penetration in the region, have been able to witness a process of appropriation and the spatial relocation of deities – a Temple matter –, constantly evolving in Kerala. One can still observe today in some centres, how brahminisation procedures in Kerala temples happen to redefine the rural cosmography for demonic figures such as the Yakshi-s (female “vampires”), or demons like Pisasu and Madan. But rural devotional figures are bringing to the colonised society a contentious issue in terms of moral values (they are evil creatures), that seems to be resolved in the new temple context; the various figureheads located inside the structure are registered under appropriate Hindu names: Mother Goddess is portrayed as Bhagavathi, Badrakali, Kali,… each one according to the energy level and the character of the place. Near Trivandrum, in Aaazhakulam, Bhagavathi temple was created thirty years ago on rural foundations, and underwent many changes. Generally, a procedure of abstraction occurs for entities, or territories, like the symbolization of the forest operated in a reserved altar on the side of the temple, – it happened in Kadammanitta, two years ago. A shared feeling dominates in both cults that the idea of divinity is a requisite to man's salvation. Still there is something more interesting to note: these primal rural figures are reassigned into a new image, in the form of an idol enclosed in an elevated altar, disconnected from the earth; yet to the perception of a dancer, we can say they are also disconnected from gravity.

Main experimentations in both Tantric cults and their narratives converge to a common notion: life is a continuous act, an unceasing movement that feeds and generates itself. In this regard, Presennan Ashan evokes a giant “sex machine process”, perceived as the first principle how nature works. The idea of a peculiar human movement is formalised in the temple through the principle of Shiva-Shakti, symbolized with the statue of shivalingam, and an instrumentarium which crosses the female yoni. More specifically, praying any deity in the temple involves a particular approach: it is done facing the idol. A physical separation is marked between the priest and the idol. Tantric work in the sanctuary promotes an hyper-activity of the upper body, marked by a proliferation of the arm figure that becomes an iconic widespread multi-arms figure. Each movement performed by the priest is a sign that can be invested in a different performative approach, with the same scenology applied to social entertainments. I’m referring here to the classical theatre of Kathakali, or Kudiyattam, where the notion of mudra has mutated and developed into a theatrical language designed for proscenium performance.

Tantras may be also practiced privately in a different form, along with what Westerners have privileged from the tantra notion, in small circles of individuals; the devotee’s body in this context is submitted to sexual arousal. There can be many interpretations on the way tantra works here, is it by a “physical contact and bodily matter exchange”, or is it “with a mental identification to the image process”? An educational current among this legacy, –what we may call the secret aspect of Indian tantric legacy – insists on requiring “all senses, tactile contact included”, but no text is too specific about that; which indicates a taboo dimension when an expected sensorial experience should occur in the divine relation, that can only be passed through oral teaching. This scenario questions quite interestingly what the term “divine” really covers.

However, the approach to the divinity stays distant and totally internal in the case of the temple worship. One feels, says Padoux, this sense of “being able to control the world”, at a time the worshipper, alone in a one-to-one relationship, feels physically invested with divine power; – that particular aspect in Padayani is meant to be dramatically externalized and shown publicly. There is this idea in the rural cult, that spirit is the body flesh and bones, or that any “spirit” coming naturally into life would manifest it into a dance. The dancer in his dynamic approach stands out differently as a model, when tonic functions work to rise energy during the phases of spiritualization of the self. Tantric commitment to the Nature figure occurs at the other end of the body: rhythmic impact of the feet on the ground delivers a traditional language performed in relation to “Mother Earth”: it is a call and a vibration. Its pulse spills out to the community assembled around the dancer; it passes upwards in the body of the dancer and becomes the expression of divinity, always accompanied with arm movements. Force is mostly vertical and spiralled; it is internalized as a longing desire for the deity, the dancer expresses that drive physically with appropriate rhythm, which requires in terms of dance a tremendous physical effort to create an “energy circulation” between different “spheres of reality” (the performing state), from the ground up and around the spine, to the cosmos. The Mask indeed may become at that point, for all active members in the audience, a projection for space change and changing metaphors. There are also many chances that the dancer is not alone to perform on the kalam; several images of the same Mask may evolve together; all these factors will impact the cult and the audience as they develop in the ritual, for one should keep in mind that performers have a divine status, and an exorcist function: a therapeutic power beyond the mere function of being “folk-dancers”.

Cultural evolution between different classes and castes have not changed the sense of the rural dance act in Padayani art-form, although such remark is only valid for the few centres who are keeping rhythm process in full acceleration till the end of the piece, which at some point will lead the dancer to trance. The other reason is partially understandable: a sort of firewall protection system has been set (dance special techniques, studied further in a different publication), deeply printed in peoples mind throughout history, but ignored as for their efficiency in the social context of varna system, and this is another important path of exploration. However, anthropological and cognitive processes will manifest different options into the construction of the divine image when aesthetics are deliberate in regards of the tradition legacy, which is the choice left to the transmitter, – any transmitter from the group.

Let us conclude with a laconic statement given by Kadammanitta temple priest, whose philosophical position underscores the separation of body and spirit enshrined in the brahminic thought:

“I was appointed here six years ago. I started three years ago to be interested in these festive celebrations, where our (Brahminic) share is extremely scarce. I don’t know what people are exactly doing, or what is the purpose of this cult? [I explain that the performers offer their dancing bodies to the Goddess ; the Brahmin nods] – Yes, we Brahmins, are only concerned with the "spirit in man" ("the mind"), and nothing else”.


Paris, International Ethnoscenology Colloquium 2013, “The Aesthetics and Embodiment of Beliefs and Identity”, 19th May 2013.



[1] - Last seminar gathering all Padayani centres and specialists (dancers, singers, percussionists) took place in Kadammanitta, in April 1998.


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Kadammanitta Vasudevan PILLAI

1993 - Padeni  published by The State Institute of Languages, Trivandrum, 437 p

1994 - « Musical traditions, Folk  music of Kerala » pp 42-43, in International Congress on Kerala Studies Abstracts, à Trivandrum. Volume III, A.K.G. Centre for Research and studies, Trivandrum, 110 p

1997 - Padaniyude Jeeva Talam, published by Kerala Basha Institute, 460 p

2001 - « An introduction to the ethnomusicology of Kerala », published by The Dravidian University of Andhra Pradesh, 10 p


2010 - Comprendre le tantrisme, Albin Michel, Spiritualités vivantes, 150 p

SPECIAL INTERVIEWS (1995-2013) with Kadammanitta Reghu Kumar, Presennan Kumar P., Kadammanitta Vasudevan Pillai