Ritualistic Dances of Kerala- Evolution and Types


What are Ritualistic Dances? | Evolution of Ritualistic Dances | Types of Ritualistic Dances in Kerala

Dances of Kerala

Indian dances constitute various styles, generally categorized as classical and folk. As different aspects of Indian culture develop, new dance forms emerge based on the local traditions and the acquired characteristics from diverse parts of the country. In addition, epics and mythology contributed to this. The Government of India set up Sangeet Natak Akademi for performing arts to conserve and promote the cultural heritage of India. Indian dance traditions are widespread worldwide, influencing dance forms in South Asia and Southeast Asia in particular. 

Origin of Ritualistic Dance Forms

The customs and beliefs of the people are shaped slowly through their experiences and views that form traditions. Folk dances represent the culture of these regions to the public. Although not all traditional dances are recognized as folk dances, they try to emphasize the cultural heritage of the items. The continuous evolution of cultures led to the transformation of some folk dance items into religious dances. Ritualistic/ceremonial dances aim to enhance religious ceremonies and beliefs and not just portray traditions. Dancers often possess acrobatic skills in addition to dancing abilities. This specifically enriches their performance. Ceremonial dances are generally performed in social gatherings, mostly during yearly religious festivals/celebrations.

Types of Ritualistic Dances in Kerala


Theyyam is a ritual dance form famous in some areas by the name Kaaliyattam. It is performed in north Kerala or the erstwhile Kolathunadu. The main themes revolve around the glorification of the Goddess, her victory over the demon Daruka and other evil roles. Moreover, this form of dance worship consists of customs and practices that date back to thousand years. Keralolpathi

is a historical document that addresses the origin of the ritual art of Theyyam. It is a medium to God and hence, people seek blessings. There are approximately 456 types of this form and the duration of these performances is 12-24 hours with intervals in between.

The invocation in front of the village shrine or houses as ancestor worship includes elaborate rites and rituals. The first part of the performance, i.e. Vellattam or Thottam, includes the recitation of a ritual song talking about the legends of the shrine’s deity or the folk deity to be propitiated. There is no proper make-up or any decorative costume, except a red headdress. Specifically, folk musical instruments, vocal recitations and peculiar makeup (usually predominantly orange) and costumes are significant components of this dance form.

In this style, face painting constitutes makeup. Various patterns like vairadelam, kattaram, kozhipuspam, kottumpurikam, and prakkezhuthu have developed. Before starting the dance, the dancer must perform certain rituals and place the headdress on his head. Further, the dancer has to observe abstinence from food for the rest of the day.

A few of the famous theyyams in Kerala are Vishnumoorthi and the Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam.

Arjuna Nritham

Mayilpeeli Thookkam (or Arjuna Nritham) is a ritual art that revolves around the theme of an event mentioned in the epic, Mahabharatha. Arjuna, the most courageous among the Pandavas, appeased Goddess Bhadrakali with a devotional presentation using his dancing and singing skills. The dance in mayilpeelithookkam is Pyattu.

This form shares a few similarities with other dance forms that originated in Kerala. For example, the garment made of mayilppeeli (peacock feathers)  is for the waist, similar to the “uduthukettu” of Kathakali. In addition, there are dance movements identical to the techniques used in Kalarippayattu. Costume and make-up include green face paint and distinctive headgears. The performance goes on throughout the night and is usually in solo or pairs.


Mudiyettu is a traditional ritual theatre and folk dance drama from Kerala that depicts the battle between Goddess Kali and the demon Darika; this dance celebrates the victory of the Goddess. The ritual is a part of the bhagavathi or bhadrakali cult. They perform it in bhadrakali temples between February and May after the harvesting season.

‘Koimpata Nayar’, the local guide and Kooli, the attendant, aid the performer in the role of Kali. She does not do any rehearsal before the performance. Legends say that Daarikan, the epitome of evil, challenged Kali to a duel. Kali slew Daarikan with the blessings and grace of Lord Siva.

Mudiyettu performance requires around 16 people; this includes percussionists, Kalamezhuthu artists, and vocalists. Accordingly, the performers of Mudiyettu need heavy makeup accompanied with attire of upper-body dress with conventional facial paintings, tall headgear, etc. The wooden headgear has a mask of Kali. The costume is complete with an ornamental red vest and a long white cloth around the waist.

Kannyar Kali

Kannyar kali (Desathukali or Malamakkali) is a dance ritual performed in the village temples of the Palakkad district of Kerala. This form originates from martial arts. It usually takes place during the months of April and May as it associates with the Hindu festival, Vishu. It is an agricultural festival dance of the Nair community.

The dance begins at night and ends at dawn, continuing for three or four consecutive nights, depending on the villages. The men of the community gather around in circles and perform a rhythmic dance called ‘vattakali’ (circular dance). The vattakali is followed by several ‘puraattu’ that lasts for an hour. The purattu depicts the life and social customs of various castes and tribes of medieval Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The themes of these items vary depending on the style and music. For instance, it could be humorous, devotional, ferocity, love etc. 

Pandal, a specially made square stage is where the dancers perform. The pandal is located in front of the temple or its premises. It consists of a lighted lamp in the center and consists of a roof supported by nine pillars. Even though the songs are typically in Malayalam, they include the influence of Tamil too.


To conclude, Kerala is home to various kinds of folk dances that have evolved over the years to be named ceremonial dances and are performed during a specific period every year. Most of these dances portray the legends of Gods and Goddesses and their victory over evil. These stories tell us that no matter how long it takes, eventually, human beings too will be able to triumph over their struggles and misery. Music, drama and art embellish these forms and also enhance the visual experience provided to the audience. 

Another striking factor is the unity of the people, irrespective of caste, creed or gender when they take part in such festivities. Besides this, each form has its own unique essence depicted through the aspects of costume, makeup, rituals performed and musical instruments used. Apart from this, there is also a heavy influence of neighboring states like Tamil Nadu in the dance styles and songs chosen.

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