The Malayalam calendar month of Dhanu has just passed. For the womenfolk in the culturally rich state of Kerala, this month is synonymous with Thiruvathirakkali dances and the divine traditions associated with it. Thiruvathira is celebrated on the day when the new moon and the Thiruvathira star come together. On this day, girls and women dress up in the traditional, Malayali settu mundu attire and dance to the tunes of age-old Thiuvathira pattu (songs).

Geetha Sharma from Kottappady, Guuvayoor in Thrissur district of Kerala has been performing and teaching the dance form to her students for years now. She gives us a sneak-peek into the history and the traditions linked to it. Believers of Hinduism celebrate this occasion as the birthday of the all-powerful Lord Shiva and spend the day in prayers to him. There are many other popular mythological tales associated with the day. One story talks of how Goddess Parvathi disrupted the deep penance of Shiva on this day with the help of the God of love, Kamadeva. Parvathi was intent on winning Shiva as her husband. Known for his destructive fury, Lord Shiva burned the interfering Kamadeva down to ashes for disturbing his meditation. Eventually pleased by her commitment, Lord Shiva finally accepted Parvathi as his wife. A distraught Rathi, Kamadeva’s wife, begged for Shiva’s mercy and pleaded with the couple to restore her husband’s life. Lord Shiva succumbed to her tearful pleas and brought Kamadeva back to life as Ananga (meaning bodiless), symbolizing true love and not just physical attraction. Another tale talks of a widowed Brahmin girl who was Goddess Parvathi’s comrade. Saddened by her friend’s plight of having lost her husband, Parvathi requests Lord Shiva to bring her husband back to life which the Lord finally agreed to. While beliefs in these legends may vary from region to region, the festival of Thiuvathira is always celebrated by women to receive the boon of Nedumangalyam or a long-lasting and happy married life.

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The terms Thiuvathirakkali and Kaikottikali are nowadays used interchangeably in different regions of Kerala. In Northern parts, the art form is popularly known as Kaikottikali, whereas it is referred to as Thiruvathirakkali in South Kerala. The rituals and traditions in both regions are however nearly the same. The preparations for the day are aptly described through the lines

Kannezhuthi kuriyitt
Pattuduth karukamaala choodi
Kaalukazhuki ……

This can be roughly translated as

Apply kohl to your eyes, apply sandal paste mark on your forehead
Drape yourself in Pattu, adorn yourself with a kauka garland

Wash and cleanse your feet …

Unlike most other dance forms, Thiruvathirakkali is different in that there are no instruments backing the dance. The beats and rhythm are set to the clapping of hands by the dancers, hence the name Kaikottikali (Kai meaning hand, kotti meaning clap and kali meaning dance). With stage performances and programs being increasing in number, instruments like the Edakka have begun to be used for support. For Kummiyadi sections of the performance, the use of Maddalam has gained prominence. Geetha teacher is currently experimenting with the Maddalam as a supporting instrument. She is also organizing a full performance using this on February 12th, 2018 at the Melpathoor Auditorium in Guruvayoor.

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On Makayiram star, the previous day to Thiruvathira, a special dish called Ettangadi is prepared as an offering to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi. Ettangadi (literally translated to eight markets) is made with eight varieties of tubers, raw banana, coconut, jiggery etc. The dish is consumed after the offering is made to the Gods. On Thiruvathira day, women awake early and visit the nearby Shiva temple to offer their prayers. Their breakfast generally consists of tender coconut and bananas at the temple. On this day, womenfolk abstain from having food items made from rice. Instead dishes from arrowroot flour like Koova Varattiyathu and Koova Paayasam and Thiruvathira Puzukku made with tubers, raw plantains, broad beans and coconut are cooked. They sing songs and engage in festivities and dancing all through the night. Another ritual at night is Dashapushpam choodal (adorning hair with ten varieties of flowers) or pathirapoo choodal (adorning hair with flowers at midnight). For newly married girls, the first Thiruvathira after the wedding is celebrated on a grand scale and is known as Poothiruvathira. For our curious readers, the ten varieties of Dashapushpam are Karuka (Cynodon dactylon), Vishnu kranthi or Krishna kranthi (Evolvulus alcinoides), Thiruthali (Ipomoea Sepiaria), Kayyonni (Eclipta alba), Mukutti (Biophytum sensitivum), Nilappana (Curculigo orchioides), Valli uzhinja (Cardiospermum halicacabum), Cherula (Aerva lanata), Poovankurunnila (Cyanthillium cinereu) and Muyalcheviyan (Emilia sonchifolia).

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A complete Thiruvathirakkali performance includes the sections - Ganapathy, Saraswathi, Padam, Vanchippattu, Kurathi, Kummi and Mangalam. As a dance form, Thiruvathirakkali has more of the lasya element inherent in it and does not rely on mudras (gestures) or acting. The songs form the basis of the dancers’ action. Each dancer tries to align herself completely with the songs through their movements. The steps that they perform bring out the expressions conveyed in the songs. These songs have been handed down from one generation to the next and have been experimented upon by performers today. The ways of expressing each song through performances may vary based on the interpretation of choreographers and dancers.The themes of songs vary from topics like coconut trees and mango trees to songs on Lord Shiva and the divine. Geetha teacher herself has written songs which are being used for performances today. In Geetha teacher’s words “The festival and dance is solely dedicated to women and is a true celebration of womanhood .”