In the central Travancore region of Kerala, experience a ritualistic celebration that predates religion.

And on the sixth night of medam, when the moon was a perfect semicircle in the sky, the earth of Kadammanitta, Kerala, stirred and stretched herself awake to the beat of a warm thappu, the indigenous drum. The simple one-two beat grew into more complex rhythmic ensembles. The aashan caught hold of the beat; it writhed between his teeth and escaped but he snapped it up in his hand, released it into the drum circle, keeping time with the thappu and the chenda. It was closer to midnight when the chootu torches were lit, the first flames flared and the first kolam reared its head at the Kadammanitta Padayani.

The town has been carved into the hills with restraint, blanketed by the quietness of a people mindful of how much they take and what they give back. And when the people of Kadammanitta give back to the devi, Bhagawathi, they do so with fanfare and great faith.

Padayani is a festival celebrated in the Bhadrakali temples in the central Travancore region of Kerala. A ritualistic celebration that predates religion, from a time when man lived in awe of nature, and sacrifices and praise were offered to the sun, moon and the mother goddess. The advent of Hinduism gave the goddess a name and a legend that Muthachan, a Padayani veteran, narrated: “Darika was a demon who asked the gods to make him so powerful that no man could kill him, a wish the gods granted. He went on a rampage, and the gods, realising their folly, sought Shiva’s consul. Shiva opened his third eye and unleashed Kali, enraged and bloodthirsty — she beheaded Darika as the gods had hoped, but her fire raged on, destroying all in her path. Then Shiva called upon his little demons — Marutha, Pishachu, Yakshi — who assumed different kolams, or forms, and danced before Kali till she smiled.” 

It was cooler in the large room, insulated by hundreds of palm fronds and areca lathes. The men had started early, judging by the stack of masks, waiting for the colours of brick and burnt leaves that would define the cheeky, chimerical faces of the asuras. Their tongues stuck out, eyes fiery and mouths stretched in a comical, gummy grimace that morphed into something more maniacal in the dark night and light of the flames. The men invoke the benevolence of the goddess, her protection. They celebrate her as the creator and destroyer with a thumping mix of music, the song of voices that have been enriched with years of sangeetham, and the primal, lustful dance of the devil and his many faces looking down at you and cackling madly.

Marc Lambert, an ethnoscenologist and dancer, has visited Kadammanitta annually for the 20 years to watch and participate in the Padayani. “There is no Padayani without Marc Lambert” is common refrain in this town. “It is a mistake to compare Padayani to pagan culture. It is older than pagan and Egyptian cultures. It is imperative to step up and be free from this western tendency to assimilate everything to Greek culture,” Lambert says.

It was the eighth night of medam; the air was brimming with a song about Markandeya.“Now they are singing the flashback,” Muthachan explained. “The couple prayed to Shiva for a child and the god said, “Mortal, I have heard your plea, but you will have to decide — a boy as bright as the stars, whose life will be snatched away at 16? Or one as dim as darkness, who live to a 100?” The choice was made, and Markandeya was born. But closer to his 16th birthday, upon learning of his fate, he turned to the god who started this cruel game. Shiva needs to act fast if he is going to fight Kaalan for Markandeya.” And Muthachan smiled.

Kaalan’s face was blackened with charcoal and the kolam rested on his head, securing his role. He swung the sword in his right hand and the burning torch he waved in his left. As the story progressed and the beats got quicker, Kaalan lunged into the crowd, slicing the air with his sword and breathing the fire in his hold. Under the influence of his role, the music and energies of the people who watched him, he slipped into a trance.

“It is the dancer’s task to relate to his steps — the dancer is not in a normal state and the trance continues to build. He has a special task with regard to the expression of the deity. It is a special state of mind.” Lambert’s words resounded as Kaalan was possessed by an unseen force. People gathered to hold him down and restrain him as his body launched into convulsions. He kicked and screamed, but there were five of them and, in an unexpected moment of stillness, he gave in and breathed.

Ajith is a sturdy man, neck thick with muscles, strong shoulders and a generous girth that settled down on him with middle age. He’s an auto driver, but first, he’s a Padayani percussionist and dancer of the Bhairavi kolam, a form six feet tall. “Different people have different thoughts in their head when they dance; some are ceremonious, some want to shine, some have a lot of faith.” As an afterthought he adds softly, “I have fear.”

He does not explain and changes the topic, talks about the sanctity of the master-disciple relationship. “The children start young — they draw and paint, carve out the kolams, tune the instruments; they sing and dance and grow with these demons in a sort of social entrepreneurship, encouraged by their guru. It is his siddhi, talents, we imbibe, his grace that we need to do well and it is a lifelong relationship of love and respect.” Perhaps it is the rigour of a lifetime dedicated to art, or simply the boon of the devi; in Kadammanitta, the art comes to them as naturally as breathing. “Marutha, Yakshi, Pishachu, Maadan — all these demons are innate, they are a part of me. I have grown up with their stories whispered in my ears. I have met them in the faces I painted and known them better in the songs I sang and finally became one with them in performance. They will never leave me and it does not matter, the seas I cross, the distant lands I travel to... when it is time they will bring me back to the Devi.”