Molly Kaushal
Associate Professor, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, India

Mudiyettu is a ritual art form practiced in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It is performed annually in different villages throughout Kerala along the rivers, Chalakkudy Puzha, Periyar, and Moovattupuzha among the Marar and Kurup communities in venues known as bhagavati kavus, temples, which are dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. The temple provides as the focal point for this ritual, and all villagers, irrespective of their caste, participate and play a specific role in its organization.

Mudiyettu is divided into two distinct roles. The first concerns ritual worship and the second involves the ritual enactment of a battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika, a popular Hindu myth. According to the myth, a demon named Darika became extremely powerful after being blessed by god Brahma, who promised him that he would never be defeated by any man living in the fourteen worlds. Darika, armed with this blessing, conquered the world and even defeated Indra (the king of gods). When his atrocities became intolerable, Lord Shiva was requested by the divine sage Narada to contain the menace. As Darika had blindly ignored the threat of ever being killed by a woman, Lord Shiva stated that he would die at the hands of a woman born not among human beings, but the goddess herself.

The ritual starts with the drawing of a large, impressive and ferocious image on the temple floor of goddess Bhadra Kali holding multiple weapons. The number of hands of the goddess determines the size of the drawing, which may be in the range of eight to thirty-two hands or even more, drawn in perfect symmetry in accordance with tantric calculations. A three-dimensional effect is illustrated on the ferocious figure by placing two mounds of colored powder on her breasts. Various colors prepared from rice, turmeric, charcoal, and green leaves of two specific trees and lime are used for this purpose. Wicker lamps and coconuts are placed at appropriate places to illuminate and decorate the drawing. This auspicious drawing is called kalam. An elaborate ritual prayer, called kalam puja is offered to the Bhadra Kali drawing accompanied by the singing of hymns called kalam pattu. These hymns describe the deity from head to toe.

To commence the second part of the ritual – the enactment of the Bhadra Kali myth – a lamp that was used to illuminate the kalam is brought to light the lamp at the performance arena because it is believed that it carries the spirit of Bhadra Kali. The beating of performance drums is an open invitation to all the devotees to witness the performance. Two people holding a curtain appear on the scene while the chorus of singers and musicians stand on one side singing invocation songs. This is followed by the main performance which is held in the temple courtyard. The myth unfolds in the form of a drama. The performers worship the lamp and circumambulate the temple. Spectators join the performers, running and dancing around the temple with a heightened sense of drama and excitement. The demon is ultimately defeated and his headgear or mudi is removed, signifying his decapitation. This dramatic sequence ends with the distribution of prasada, the ritual sacrament by the performers to the assembly in the form of flowers and other materials.

It is believed that performing mudiyettu purifies and rejuvenates the whole community. The staging of this ritual promises a peaceful future for humanity conveying a message synonymous with the Malyalam saying, kavu theendiyal kudivellum muttum, which means, “destroy the kavu and the whole village will perish without water.” Kavu is a stretch of virgin land and is worshipped as an abode to the goddess. It is always protected from human encroachment. The performance of this ritual in a sense signifies the protection of mother earth herself.