Jibilesh is a proud member of the Pulluvan community, who traditionally lead special ceremonies to worship the snake gods. He learned the songs of his community from infancy and started helping out at poojas when he turned 17. What pays the bills at his house, however, is his job as a headload worker.
At 41, Jibilesh is an expert at preparing the elaborate sarpakalam drawings, playing the Pulluvan veena and singing praise of the Nagayakshi and Nagarajan. The period around Karkkidaka Vavu day on the Malayalam calendar is the busiest time of the year for Jibilesh and his mother Chinthamani. During the holy month, they are called to temples in different parts of the district where they practice an art that has been in their family for several generations – Pulluvan Pattuand sarpakalam ezhutthu.
Chinthamani, now 55, started taking part in the ceremonies when she was only around five years old. She used to accompany her father, who practised the tradition before her, to poojas at temples and houses. She, in turned, trained Jibilesh.
“We begin preparing the drawing around 8 a.m. The big kalam can take around 12 hours to prepare. There are rules that have to be followed strictly – you cannot step on it, the lines must not be broken, the lines have to be drawn in certain directions,” Jibilesh says, at his home at Ponnurunni in Kochi.
The most important rule for a Pulluvan is to maintain purity of mind, body and deed. “Only if you are pure will your prayers find success,” he says.
Despite his dedication to his work, Jibilesh finds it impossible to make a living singing praise of the gods.
“Now I can get only around eight or nine poojas at temples in a year, most of them around this month. Whatever little I get I save so I can buy something for my children during Onam,” he says.
The woes of the Pulluvan community are a product of the changing times. Ceremonies to honour the snake gods were closely related to agriculture and the harvest cycles.
When farms disappeared, the Pulluvans lost their stature in society. Sacred groves in houses have been cleared to make space for flats and brand new houses.
Without much support from the government, the community and its unique songs and traditions are slowly becoming irrelevant. Its members are looking for other job opportunities. “My nephew is in automobile engineering. He has learned our ways but he has no interest in practising poojas. You cannot make a living doing just this,” says Jibilesh.
Sacred groves dedicated to snake gods were also an important way of protecting trees and biodiversity. Jibilesh says that flash floods and dry spells are a result of man’s disregard for nature. “When you cut all the trees and damage the environment, the snake that is protector of the land itself will attack you,” says Jibilesh, his words a warning for all.