Category Archives: L. Hindu Arts, Architecture and Culture

Hinduism in Tamil Cinema

Tamil cinema is a difficult term to firmly define, and is a part of the much wider used term of ‘Indian Cinema’. A brief history of the development of Tamil cinema and of the politics surrounding it is helpful in understanding how and why Tamil cinema portrays Hinduism the way it does.

There was uncertainty among critics over what defined a film as Tamil early on in Tamil cinema’s development, for there was no firm or sole ‘Tamil’ element within Tamil cinema to define it (Hughes 22). While scholars agree upon the film Kalidas as being the first Tamil film, not everyone else agreed with this idea (Hughes 10). One film critic, for example, saw the film Valli as being the first Tamil film instead of Kalidas (Hughes 12). As the film critic differs in opinion compared to scholars, Hughes argues that this suggests that other ways of depicting the development of Tamil films do exist and that they would have been built upon differing criteria over the definition of ‘Tamil film’ (Hughes 12).

Tamil films at this time were not strictly to do with Tamil culture, language, or the location of the production. For example, the film Kalidas was filmed in Bombay like most Tamil films were between 1931 and 1934 (Rajadhyaksha 254). Part of the difficulty for critics with giving Tamil Cinema a firm definition was based upon the fact that many of these so called Tamil films, like Kalidas, had non-Tamil elements within them. The definition of a Tamil film was not solely based upon the film being shot in Tamil for it was usual for Tamil dramatists, actors, and musicians to be contracted by studios in Bombay and Calcutta and for them to be moved from the south (Hughes 9). Language was not always a firm definition for Tamil films either, as in Kalidas, most of it is in Tamil but the male lead speaks in Telugu (Rajadhyaksha 254).

Tamil films were also not simply to do with those who lived within Tamil Nadu as the production of these films at this time involved people throughout India and even people from abroad (Hughes 9). Production of films was not merely an independent affair as productions within the main Indian languages shared many things such as costumes, movie sets, stories, music, and even the actors with one another (Hughes 10).

Things began to change when Tamil films began to be produced mostly in the south, instead of places like Bombay (Mumbai), but this did not stop critics from questioning what was Tamil about Tamil Cinema (Hughes 16-17). Despite being locally based within their productions, Tamil films were still involved with a lot of different people from around India (Hughes 17). The producers and studios of Tamil cinema were also more interested in hiring people for their work experience over hiring those who spoke fluent Tamil (Hughes 17).

Another shift occurred within Tamil Cinema when the defining of ‘Tamil films’ became even more complex with the politics of the Dravidian movement (Hughes 18). Politics became more involved in these films as people, such as the DMK, began to use films as a means of pursuing their political desires. These political desires included the Tamil nationalists’ who argued that the Tamil culture, the Tamil people, and the Tamil language were the last bit of the original Dravidian culture that had once encompassed India (Younger 100). To do this meant that the nationalists had to cast out many aspects of Hinduism: Sanskrit and Hindi languages, the caste system, and even Hinduism itself as elements of an ‘alien’ ideology (Younger 100).

When paraphrasing Sumathy Ramaswamy, Ravi points out that the Tamil language is very important to the Tamil people as the language itself is now the ‘critical centre’ of the Tamil culture (Ravi 48). The Pure Tamil Movement wanted to get rid of the Sanskrit elements within the Tamil language (Hughes 19). They wanted to do this because they viewed Sanskrit as a language that had been brought by the northern Brahmin migrants and had been forced upon them (Hughes 19). The Tamil language was a means of going against the ‘alien’ ideology of Hinduism by using it instead of the Sanskrit and Hindi languages.  This common feeling of being in opposition to Hindi drew together many different types of people within the Tamil community when Hindi was being established as the national language of India (Ravi 48). Scholars also talk about a ‘cultural renaissance’ during the Anti-Hindi Agitation of 1965 which relates to this ‘opposition of Hindi’ for it contained anti-Brahminism ideas, the pushing away of traditional Hinduism as something from the north, and a growing distrust of anything northern (Forrester 22).

Politics are firmly connected and intertwined within Tamil cinema’s history for many politicians and their politics influenced what Tamil cinema produced. For example, C.N. Annadurai had a film called Velaikkari which scholars say had “a strong social theme and message” (Jesudoss 22) and he was also the founder of the DMK, the Dravidian political party, which opposed the Brahmin hegemonic notions of caste and religion (Jesudoss 22). Themes within Tamil cinema were largely influenced by the politics of groups such as the DMK and, therefore, these politics affected how different aspects of Hinduism were portrayed within Tamil film. Scholars often touch upon how Tamil cinema subverts popular Hinduism notions, such as the Brahmins being the elite, and focus a lot upon the ‘anti-Brahmin’ ideas that appear throughout many films.

E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker’s Self-Respect movement dominated Tamil films at this time and “brought anti-northern [and] anti-Brahmin themes” (Hardgrave 290). The hegemonic ideas (i.e. the caste system) of Brahmins being at the top of the system and the most powerful are linked tightly to many notions and ideas within Hinduism. These ideas are teased and questioned within Tamil film. For example, one scholar expresses how the Brahmin character, in a film with an urban setting, is often a character who is shown to be a self-righteous and principled individual who is trying to maintain traditional caste values (Ravi 49). When discussing how Nala Damayanti, a Tamil comedy film, differs from the usual conventions of Tamil cinema, Ravi explains that it seems to go against a usual Tamil cinema convention for it seems to have hero who is Brahmin (Ravi 52). Brahmins are rarely heroes in Tamil cinema (Ravi 49). However, he also notes that this character’s Brahmin-ness is condensed down into his dialect while it is from his actions that Ramji, the character, becomes associated with Tamizhan (Ravi 52). A Tamizhan is a “member of ethnic community defined by Tamil as his language and whose origin is in the southern sub-continent” (Ravi 52).

These sorts of films have not always been readily accepted by everyone. The film Parasakathi was banned, for example, for a time as it questioned the status quo. It was a film that talked about social problems as well as religious superstitions, and it had a big effect on the middle class people because it had Tamil sentiments and ideals (Jesudoss 23). When the screenwriter was interviewed, he stated that he had wanted to “introduce the ideas and policies of social reform and justice in the films [(Parasakathi and Velaikari)] and bring up the status of the Tamil language as they were called for in DMK policies” (Hardgrave 292). DMK policies called for the Tamil language to be seen highly and in opposition to Hindi.

The director of Parasakthi was also unsurprised that it caused a reaction for he stated in an interview that it was intended to and that the reaction was unsurprising for they “were challenging the social law itself” (Hardgrave 292). The director of Parasakathi used his films as a means of making political statements about religion as he stated that the DMK are not against ‘the temple’ but are against the people, who he called evil-minded’, who use it (Hardgrave 292). He also went on to explain that the DMK are monolithic, which goes against elements of Hinduism, and that they do not agree with the bribing of god with puja (Hardgrave 292). Puja is a term to describe a way of worship through ritual in Hinduism (Rodrigues 343). The film Velaikari also attacked religious ideas such as puja, which was used within the film and showed ‘issues’ within religion, and is considered to be a ‘revolutionary film’ (Hardgrave 291-292).

After the success of films like Velaikari and Parasakthi, Tamil cinema created a series of films with social themes (Jesudoss 23). They also used stories that related to Tamil ideas of things such as valor and love as well as their affection for their own language (Jesudoss 22-23). As Jesudoss explains when paraphrasing Baskaran, scholars consider these films and Tamil cinema to have produced a ‘major revolution’ and he explains that this was unsettling to those in the higher castes (Jesudoss 23)

Tamil cinema is credited by scholars to have brought about social changes (Jesudoss 23). It was used to strengthen some social and religious ideas but also questioned and tested traditions and customs (Jesudoss 23). Tamil Cinema formed into a means of culturally expressing the Tamil culture/people (Jesudoss 23). Today, Tamil films are still engaging with this cultural expression idea (Jeusdoss 23): reinforcing Tamil identity, Tamil language, anti-Brahminism, and questioning/challenging of different aspects Hinduism.



Rajadhyaksha, A. and P. Willemen (1999) Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Forrester, Duncan B. (1966) “The Madras Anti-Hindi Agitation, 1965: Political Protest and its Effects on Language Policy in India.” Pacific Affairs Vol. 39, No. 1/2: p. 19-36.

Hardgrave Jr, Robert L. (1973) “Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK.”  Asian Survey Vol. 13, No. 3: p. 288-305.

(2012) “What is Tamil about Tamil Cinema?” In South Asian Cinemas: Widening the Lens. Sara Dickey and Rajinder Dudrah (eds.). New York: Routledge. pp. 8-24.  Special edition of  South Asian Popular Culture Vol. 8 No. 3.

Jesudoss, Perianayagam (2009) “Tamil Cinema.” Communication Research Trends Vol. 28, No. 4: p. 4-27.

Ravi, Srilata (2008) “Tamil Identity and the Diasporic Desire in a Kollywood Comedy: Nala Damayanti (2003).” South Asian Popular Culture Vol 6, No. 1: p. 45-56.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The ebook: An Online Introduction. Online: Journal of  Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

(2008) Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry. Selvaraj Velayutham (ed.). New York: Routledge

Younger, Prakash (2010) S. Velayutham, ed. “Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of Indian’s Other Film Industry.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies Vol. 19, No. 1: p.99-102.

Related Research Topics


Kollywood vs. Bollywood


Tamil Identity

Tamil language

Politics within Indian films

Self-Respect Movement

Dravidian Movement

Anti-Hindi Agitation




Related Websites


Article written by: Holly Travis (2015) who is solely responsible for its content

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The Vastu Tradition in Hinduism

The vastu tradition is said to be the ancient science of designing and constructing buildings and houses with a corresponding plot of land. The root word vas in vastu means to dwell, live, stay, and reside (Gautum 17) (Kramrisch 82). The vastu-shastra is the manual used for the architecture on how sacred or domestic building must be constructed. The vastu-purusa-mandala is a metaphorical expression of the plan of the Universe and depicts the link between people, buildings and nature it is used to position a building on potential plots of land (Patra 2006:215-216). This mandala is so universal that it can be applied to an altar, a temple, a house, and a city.  Hindu temples are meant to bring humans and gods together.

The vastu shastra is found originating in the Vedas the most ancient of sacred Indian text, tracing back to at least 3,000 B.C.E., if not earlier. The knowledge of constructing and designing a building is found specifically in the Sthapatya Veda, which is a sub heading in the Artharva Veda which is the fourth Veda. Principles of vastu-shastra can be found in several other ancient texts such as Kasyapa Silpa Sastra, Brhat Samhita, Visvakarma Vastu Sastra, Samarangana Sutradhara, Visnu Dharmodhare, Purana Manjari, Mayamata, Aparajitaprccha, Silparatna Vastu Vidya (Patra 2006:215). Hindu literature also cites that the knowledge of sacred architectural construction of buildings was present in the oral traditions since before the Vedic Period. According to Indian experts the vastu is possibly the oldest sacred architectural construction in the world up to date (Osborn 85-86). The oldest master known for vastu is Maya Danava, acknowledged as the founder of this ancient sacred Indian architectural tradition (Osborn 87). It is said that “man can improve his conditions by properly designing and understanding the location, direction, and disposition of a building that have a direct bearing on a human being” (Patra 2014:44). Based on the experience of several generations it has proved that the building and arrangement of villages and capitals in ancient India gave health and peacefulness. The principles regarding the construction of buildings that are in the vastu-shastra are used to please the vastu-purusa; they are explained by the mandala vastu-purusa-shastra. 

There are five basic principles of the sacred science of sacred architecture, the first of which is the doctrine of orientation (diknirnaya), which related to the cardinal directions: north, east, south, west. Second is site planning which uses the vastu-purusa-mandala and is the examination of the soil through categories such as taste, color, etc. Third is the proportionate measurement of the building (mana, hastalakshana), which is divided into six sections: measurement of height, breadth, width or circumference, measurement along plumb lines, thickness, and measurement of inter-space. Fourth there are the six canons of Vedic architecture (ayadi, sadvarga), base (aadhistaana), column (paada or stambha), entablature (prastaara), ear or wings (karna), roof (shikara) and dome (stupi). Fifth is the aesthetics of the building (patakadi, sadschandas) which deals with the nature of beauty such as principles of texture, color, flow, the interaction of sunlight and shadows, these are some principles of aesthetics (Patra 2014:44). The most important requirement in the manual is that the site of a new building must be placed where the gods are at play (King 69). If the temple is unable to be built by a tirtha (a sacred ford or a crossing place that must be by sacred water) then another suitable site should be found. This can be a riverbank, a river junction, a lake, or a seashore. It can even be mountains, hilltops, or forests/gardens. It can also be placed in populated areas like towns, villages, and cities (King 69 and Osborn 87). Water was said to be a fundamental part of the gods’ play, therefore a sacred temple must be near water but if no water was present then man-made a water source. Directions also hold a particular significance (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest) they help to clarify the principles of the vastu-shastra.

Once the land has been chosen with appropriate knowledge the ground is then prepared properly using the geometrical design known as vastu-purusa-mandala. Then before the mandala is placed a Priest must perform a number of mantras a sacred utterance that urges all living creatures in the plot to leave so that the new land for the building will not kill any living things (King 69). The soil in the desired area of land must undergo some tests to show whether it is suitable or not. One test that occurs is a pit is dug in the ground and then is filled with water, and the soils strength is then judged by how much water is remaining when the next day arrives. Of course with this in mind before these tests can be done the soil must be examined in the following categories: smell, taste (whether it is sweet, pungent, bitter, astringent), color (white for brahmanas, red for kshatriyas, yellow for vaisyas, black for sudras, the color of the soil and the caste correspond with each other), sound, shape or consistency. After all that is done and if the soil is suitable, then the fertility of the soil must also be tested by plowing the ground and planting seed and recording the growth at 3, 5, and 7 nights. Then according to the success of growth, it is decided whether the soil is fertile and helps decide if this is a good place to build using the mandala (Kramrisch 13-14).

It does not matter whether the building is going to be a house, office, or a school the knowledge from the vastu-shastra must be taken into consideration in order for the execution to be successful. The walls that strengthen the temple are known as prakaras and they may vary in size and number in regards to the size of the temple. When building larger temples like the one in Srirangam they are occasionally surrounded by seven concrete walls that represent the seven layers of matter: earth, water, fire, air, either, mind, and intelligence.


The geometry and measurements of the vastu (blueprint) planned site is a very complex science. The shape must be a square that is a fundamental form of Indian architecture; its full name is vastu-purusa-mandala [the sacred diagram by which a temple is configured (Rodrigues 2006:568)] consisting of three parts vastu, purusa, and mandala. Purusa is a universal essence, a cosmic man representing pure energy, soul, and consciousness whose sacrifice by the gods was said to be the creation of all life. Purusa is the reason that buildings must be created using a mandala of him, which means a diagram relating to orientation. A mandala can also be referred to as a yantra (a cosmological diagram). The vastu-purusa-mandala adopts the shape of the land it is set on so it can fit suitably wherever it is placed. The mandala therefore accepts transformation into a triangle, hexagon, octagon, and circle if the area is consistent and it will maintain its symbolism. Even though the ideal shape is a square, its acceptance of transformation in shape shows the inherent flexibility of the vastu-purusa-mandala (Kramrisch 21 and Patra 2014:47). When configuring a temple they use this mandala of purusa to enable them to place the proper things in the proper directions and proper places (i.e. north, west, etc.) such as where the worship places or bedrooms must be and so forth. If the rooms in these buildings are appropriately placed this will keep the building healthy and keep the people in it happy (Patra 2014:47).

Another thing that the vastu-shastra states is that the layout for residences be placed based on caste; the brahmins (priestly class) are placed in the north, the kshatriyas (the warrior class) in the east, the vaishyas (the merchant class) in the south, and the sudras (the lower class) in the west.  When the land is purified and sanctified the vastu-purusa-mandala is drawn on the site with all the subdivisions helping to indicate the form of the building. The mandala is divided into 64 (8×8) squares and is meant for construction of shrines and for worship by brahmins, or 81 (9×9) squares and is meant for the construction of other buildings and for worship of kshastriyas (kings). These squares (nakshatras) are said to be the seats of 45 divinities that all surround a central open space that is ruled by Brahma (Chakrabarti 6-7 and Kramrisch 46). The square is occupied by the vastu-purusa his very shape of his body. His body with its parts, limbs, and apertures is interpreted as having the same boundaries or extent in space, time, or meaning and is therefore one with the 81 squares of the plan. The mandala is filled with magical effectiveness and meanwhile the body of man is the place of insight by the practice of the discipline of yoga (Kramrisch 49). The vastu-purusa-mandala is the vastu-purusa, his body is together with the presence and actions of the divinities located in the mandala, which is their yantra, the center is the brahmasthana and designates the center point of a building (it is a giant skylight) and its superstructure is the temple (Kramrisch 63).

The brahmasthana is the principle location in the temple because this is where the seat of the godhead will eventually be placed. A ritual is performed at this space in the vastu-purusa-mandala called garbhadhana, which invites the soul of the temple to enter the radius of the building. In this ritual a brahmin and a priest place a gold box in the earth during the ceremony of the first ground breaking. The interior of this box is an exact replica of the mandala squares and each square is filled with dirt. The priest then places the correct mantra in writing to call on the presence of the matching deity. When the base is complete the external features of the temple are brought to life through meticulously sculpted figures and paintings, these arts are generally conveyed as the forms of the divine entities (Osborn 90-91).     

It is said that the vastu-shastra is a very powerful ongoing tradition in India today and is in no threat of becoming extinct. The post secondary schools in India have classes to teach students about the variation of skills and techniques required in the science of sacred architecture. In these classes the literature is all written in Sanskrit, therefore in order for the students to learn the correct knowledge they must know how to read Sanskrit. They are taught everything required for vastu-shastra such as geometry, drafting, stone sculpture, bronze casting, woodcarving, painting, and so much more. When the students gain the correct knowledge and skills to be an architect in India they then graduate with a degree and then receive the title sthapati [(temple architect and builder) this title is named after Sri. M. Vaidyantha Sthapati a master architect, he was the designer and architect of some very popular temples and other Hindu buildings]. India has the most examples of sacred architecture that exist compared to all other countries in the world combined (Osborn 87). One of the more important requirements for vastu-shastra that is used today is the orientation of where parts of the buildings needs to be situated based on the points on the vastu-purusa-mandala. Hindu temples back in the nineteenth century were located at the heart of the city.  With that in mind today if one desires to go to a temple the most important temples are now all found in the suburbs, but they still have the same purpose, to bring human beings and gods closer together.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Boner, Alice (1966) Slipa Prakasa Medieval Orissan Sanskrit Text on Temple Architecture. Leiden: Brill Archive.

Chakrabarti, Vibhuti (2013) Indian Architectural Theory and Practice: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya. New York: Routledge.

Gautum, Jagdish (2006) Latest Vastu Shastra (Some Secrets). New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

King, Anthony D. (ed.) (2003) Building and Society. New York: Routledge.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple, Vol 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Meister, Michael (1976) Mandala and Practice in Nagagra Architecture in North India.” Artibus Asiae, Vol.99, No.2: p.204-219.

Meister, Michael (1983) Geometry and Measure in Indian Temple Plans: Rectangular Temples. Artibus Asiae. Vol.44, No.4: p.266-296.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meanings and Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Osborn, David (2010) Science of the Sacred. Raleigh: Lulu Press Inc.

Patra, Reena (2006) Asian Philosophy: A Comparative Study on Vaastu Shastra and Heidegger’s Building, Dwelling and Thinking. New York: Routledge, Vol.16, No.3: p.199-218.

Patra, Reena (2014) Town Planning in Ancient India: In Moral Perspective. Chandigarh: The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies, Vol.2,  No.6: p.44-51.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Introducing Hinduism-The eBook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, LTD.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (ed.) (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) Hindu Temples: Models of a Fractal Universe. Bombay: Springer-Verlag.

Vasudev, Gayatri D. (Editor) (1998) Vastu, Astrology, and Architecture: Papers Presented at the First All India Symposium on Vastu, Bangalore. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vedic Period



Caste System





Vedic Gods (divinities)

Purusa Legend





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Brandon Simon (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kanchipuram (City of a Thousand Temples)

The city of Kanchipuram is located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the banks of the Vegavathi River, thirty-one miles from the city of Madras (Schellinger 435). It is known as Siva Visnu Kanchi, or simply as Kanchi (Schellinger 435). In the Hindu culture, there are seven cities that are held as sacred, Kanchipuram being one of them. Although the city has earned the name “The City of a Thousand Temples,” it does not actually have a thousand temples located within the city. The city does however have a sizeable amount of religious sites and monuments that are used for worship. Centuries of Indian history can be seen when one travels to this holy city. Kanchipuram was established by the Pallava Dynasty and was named the capital of their empire (Schellinger 435).  After the reign of the Pallava Dynasty the history of this city is very vague. It was controlled by many other dynasties none of which lasted any substantial amount of years.

During the reign of Asoka (who was an adamant supporter of Buddhism and actively worked to spread the religion throughout India), the city fell under the control of his empire and had Buddhist stupas built within it. Records of various pilgrimages suggest that the Buddha himself may have visited Kanchipuram, which explains the flourishing of the Buddhist tradition within the city, however, there are many other reasons for the city’s popularity that are based on fact and not on religious speculation. The first king to rule over Kanchipuram was Sivaskandavarman, who ruled in the middle of the third century BCE (Schellinger 436). His status as the first king of Kanchipuram has been disputed, though there is a certain mythological story of how a man named Virakurcha married the daughter of a naga (a serpentine type creature) and became the first king of the Pallava Dynasty (Schellinger 435). This story is purely mythological but still raises the question about Sivaskandavarman really being the first king. During the Pallava Dynasty, temple building in India turned from using wood as a primary source for building temples, to stone, a material that is much stronger and adds greater strength to the structure – this is why the temples in Kanchipuram have withstood weathering for centuries (Schellinger 437). Education grew during the Pallava Dynasty, particularly in the religious studies of Buddhism and Hinduism; Kanchipuram now has several colleges affiliated with the University of Madras (Schellinger 438). Over the centuries temples dedicated to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have been constructed by the followers of these religions (Schellinger 436). The fame Kanchipuram has gained as a holy city is undoubtedly due to the fact that it has been the site for visits from great spiritual teachers and the many magnificent temples that have been constructed to various gods and goddesses. Another factor is the religious teachings and enhanced sense of spirituality that one gains from venturing into the city, which is a major factor in the pilgrimages that the people of India make to Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram has some of India’s most beautiful temples; one such temple is the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple. The emperor Rajasimha of the Pallava Dynasty is credited with commissioning the temples’ construction from 685 to 705 CE and dedicating it to the God Siva (Hudson 50), although there are other gods for whom the temple is also dedicated. It is the oldest temple in Kanchipuram and is famous for its architecture. An example of the famed architecture is one of the depictions of the god Siva carved into the temple as a begging ascetic on the south wall (Hudson 51), other carvings accompany this one and tell various stories that relate to Siva. This great temple was built in the 8th century by the architect Rajasimha and his son Mehendra (Dobbie 111), and is surrounded by smaller shrines. It is dedicated to the gods Visnu, Siva, Devi, Surya, Ganapathi and Kartikey, and its name means “Lord of the Cosmic Mountain” (Narasimha 96).  Another temple situated in the northern part of Kanchipuram is Ekambareswarar, which is the largest temple in the city and one of the main tourist attractions. It is dedicated to the god Siva; the temple is one of five major monuments built specifically to worship the god, each temple representing a different element (Ninan 132).  The legend behind this temple and one of the main reasons for its popularity is the story of Parvati. The legend states that Parvati, who was a companion of Siva, was praying underneath the temple’s mango tree, In order to test her faith and dedication, Siva set her on fire. Even while on fire, Parvati continued to pray and passed Siva’s test. She then constructed a Siva Linga (a mark used to worship Siva) out of sand to unite herself with Siva and the god came to be known as Ekambareswarar or “Lord of the Mango Trees” (Ayyar 71-72). There are many other legends pertaining to how this temple became one of the most revered places to worship Siva and a place of peace and spirituality but this is just one such example.

The Vaikuntha Perumal is the second imperial city built by Nandivarman II Pallavamalla, who was one of the emperors of the Pallava Dynasty (Hudson 52). It has many architectural marvels such as the massive vimana or towered sanctuary that rises above the temple and is said to be the place that the god of the temple dwells (Hudson 52). This structure has carvings depicting the establishment and history of the Pallava Dynasty, from its founding to the construction of the Vaikuntha Perumal (Hudson 52). Inside, a huge carving of Visnu is depicted as a god king and is facing west. On the outside of the temple there are three other sculptures facing the remaining cardinal directions (Hudson 53).

Rituals and ceremonies are a part of daily life in Kanchipuram. Various temples, sometimes share the same rituals. For example, a ritual performed at the Ekamra temple is also performed at the Varadaraja temple. The ceremony features priests of the temple making offerings to Varadaraja five times a day (Hudson 58). Yet, before the offerings are made, the Brahmins (priests) must summon Visnu’s presence within the temple through the uttering of mantras (Hudson 58). This praying to Visnu essentially wakes up the god and sets into motion all other rituals that are to take place that day. Along with the daily rituals and ceremonies are festivals that take place throughout the year. Festivals are conducted according to solstices and equinoxes. They are timed to coordinate with a day in the life of a god, where the winter solstice is the sunrise and the summer solstice is the sunset (Hudson 60). The year is also divided into different sections of months in which various festivals are to be performed. The beginning of the year, January, is a time to be thankful for the sun and a time to renew friendships (Hudson 61). The end of a year is called Margali and is from December to January and is the time of the year for meditation at the temples of Kanchipuram and reflection on the new knowledge one has gained throughout the year (Hudson 62).

Kanchipuram silk weavers are credited with producing the finest saris not just in South East Asia but also in the entire world. One factor that sets Kanchi saris above other saris is the silk that these garments are made from. Hand-woven, they are designed for auspiciousness. This means that the saris are meant to bring good fortune and happiness to the women who wear them and is directly related to the auspiciousness of events and persons the wearer may encounter (Kawlra 62); this quality of the saris gives them a religious appeal to their buyers. Also considered a part of the stages of life for women, various designs and patterns of the cloth can indicate the women’s different statuses – for instance, whether or not they are married (Kwalra 62). The makers of the clothing are called Padma Saliyars, and along with being skillfully trained in the art of weaving, they also have to have great knowledge of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. The weavers also conduct their lives and work with good practice so as to heighten their own auspiciousness and allow them to transfer this into their weaving (Kwalra 64). The weavers of raasi saris consult constellations in an effort to remain in accordance with the cosmos and avoid inauspiciousness. Failure to avoid weaving during certain times of the year is said to result in “bad luck” for anybody involved in its selling, weaving or even wearing (Kwalra 64). The shop that produces the saris is regarded as an auspicious shop and purchases made there have to follow an almost ritualistic transaction. This means that when a customer purchases from the shop the sari has to be exchanged in front of the shop deity and wrapped in white cloth to ensure purity and auspiciousness (Kwalra 65). This concept of auspiciousness is not a factual reason for the saris’ high value; a more concrete reason is likely the quality of the product and its importance in religious rituals and wedding ceremonies that take place within the city.

The city of Kanchipuram is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and spiritual cities in India. Its history is permeated in mythology and mysticism and can inspire a sense of wonder in the visitor or researcher. The large number of temples offers an interesting view into the Hindu religion and its practices. They have been the sites of many pilgrimages for the ascetic traveler and the aspiring scholar. Famous religious figures have been said to have traveled to the city and worshipped there. This has added to the fame of Kanchipuram, as well as its revered status as a “sacred city.” Depictions of various gods and the beautiful architecture of the city shed light on a not-so-distant Hindu past that has influenced many religious followers. The rituals and ceremonies that are daily occurrences in Kanchipuram give the city a sacred appeal to the outsider. Along with a very prominent religious appeal, some of the residents profit from the production of the city’s famed saris and offer potential auspiciousness for the person that owns one. Kanchipuram will undoubtedly remain a place where worship and spiritual teaching of the Hindu religion can occur and will hold its place as one of the most sacred cities in India.
References and Further Recommended Reading

Ayyar P.V. Jagadisa (1993) South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Dobbie, Aline (2006) India: The Elephants Blessing. Cambridgeshire: Melrose Book Press Limited.

Gopal, Madan (1990) India through the ages. K.S. Gautam, (ed). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Hudson, D. Dennis, and Stratton Hawley John (2010) Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kawlra, Aarti (2005) Kanchipuram Sari: Design for Auspiciousness. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Narasimha Rao, P.V.L (2008) Kanchipuram: Land of Legends, Saints and Temples. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications.

Ninan, M.M. (2008) The Development of Hinduism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Padman, Kaimal (2005) Learning to See the Goddess Once Again: Male and Female in Balance at the Kailāsanāth Temple in Kāñcīpuram. Oxford University Press

Schellinger, Paul E (1996) International dictionary of historic places: Asia and Oceania. Singapore: Toppan Co.


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Article Written By: Josh Prefontaine (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Magicians and Sorcerers in Hinduism

Magicians and sorcerers have a long history in Hinduism. The ancient Atharva Veda’s most salient teaching is sorcery (Bloomfield xxix). This Veda contains mainly mantras used in witchcraft or sorcery, in the curing of diseases, for destruction of enemies, etc. (Whitney vi). Many scholars have categorized the hymns of the Atharva Veda in different classes, as the hymns are meant to: secure long life, get good wishes of the deities, ward off misfortune, pardon the misdeeds, obtain the kingship, as well as others (Whitney ix). Other examples of these hymns include: charms to cure diseases and heal wounds; imprecations against demons, sorcerers, and enemies; charms to obtain a husband, wife, or son; and charms to obtain prosperity in house, field, cattle, business, gambling, and kindred matters (Bloomfield vii-xiii).

Many of the modern performances of Indian magic are simply tricks. Perhaps the best known of all the feats performed by Indian conjurers is the mango-tree trick (Carrington 5). A seed is placed in some earth and a mango-tree miraculously grows in mere moments (Carrington 6-8). The secret of this trick is the pliability of the tree; the leaf and twigs of the mango-tree are exceedingly tough, and can be folded into a very small space without breaking (Carrington 9). Thus they will resume their former expanded condition very rapidly, without any traces of the folding process (Carrington 9). Perhaps another of the best known tricks is the dry-sands trick (Carrington 26). A handful of sand is placed into a bucket of water, yet when removed it is completely dry (Carrington 26). This trick relies on the preparation of the sand; the sand must be cooked with a small amount of lard which covers the grains of sand with a slight coating of grease, rendering it impervious to water (Carrington 26-27).

The folk understandings of tribal magic among the Oraons of West Bengal and the Chotanagpur area is quite different from modern street magic-tricks. Kali Mai has traditionally been the major goddess of the village black magician (McDaniel 231). When Kali Mai’s power is sought, he erects a mud altar for her and sacrifices a red chicken and a black goat, thereby granting the magician what he wishes (McDaniel 231). Among the Savara people, a tribal group known for their skill at snake charming, Chandi may be evoked for both love magic and exorcism (McDaniel 38). A man who desires a woman collects the dust from her footsteps and brings it to the shaman (ojha) who chants an incantation three times; afterwards he sprinkles the dust upon the woman and she finds herself attracted to him (McDaniel 38).

A good example of folk tantra is a small handbook called the Dakini Tantra (McDaniel 78). It is written in Bengali, though it contains many Sanskrit mantras and is used by local tantric healers (McDaniel 78). It contains various instructions on how to enchant people, cure various bites, how to deal with ghosts and witches, as well as practices to gain vak siddhi, so that whatever a practitioner says comes true (McDaniel 79). The krisna satkarma or black magic rituals, traditionally teach the tantrika how to control both the physical world and other people (McDaniel 80). This includes varieties of hypnosis, creation of paralysis, bringing disease or madness, and other rituals to gain supernatural powers (McDaniel 80).

Faith healing has long been practiced in India. The Atharva Veda refers to amulet use on many occasions; an amulet is a sacred thing charged with the strength of a spirit (Niyogi 26). Amulets could not only heal, but also protect the wearer from any evil consequences (Niyogi 26). The materials used to construct such amulets were of the utmost importance, along with certain preparations and certain observances of ritual formalities (Niyogi 26). Amulets made of rice could grant the wearer long life and to protect against demon possession splinters from ten holy trees were to be worn (Niyogi 26-27). Spirit possession also has a very crucial role to play in the area of faith healing (Niyogi 91). Most spirit possession occurs on Tuesdays and Saturdays, though in some villages such phenomena occur on Fridays or Mondays (Niyogi 91). Bhar Haoya is a type of possession trance, typically a passive experience in which the medium opens his/her body so that the expected spirit being may enter into it and express himself or herself through it, usually by using the medium’s vocal organs (Niyogi 92). The mediums emphasize that “nothing will be effective without faith, nor even the best doctors; but with sufficient faith one can be cured with plain water” (Niyogi 94). Other mediums do not need to enter into a possession trance, as they can heal the discomforts with the aid of healing spirits (Niyogi 111). It appears that these spiritual healers can identify the sickness of a patient just by having a look at him or her. However, it is difficult to confirm if these healers can actually heal the patients (Niyogi 111).

A Sanskrit fragment in a collection of Balinese hymns and fragments called the Mahamaya describes the supranormal effects of meditation upon Visnu’s maya, here to be understood as that god’s ability to change his appearance at will (Goudriaan ix). Maya is an important element in Indian religious history, essentially meaning ‘magic’ (Goudriaan 1). Very often in the Vedas the word maya stands for the creation of a real, material form, be it human or non-human, by means of which the creator of that form shows his incomprehensible power (Goudriaan 2). Maya is a neutral force; when used by the gods it is a force for good though in the human environment maya is liable to degenerate into deceit or illusions (Goudriaan 2). Maya can be used by sorcerers to present themselves in the guise of wild animals, as when the demon Marica confronts Rama and his companions in the form of a gazelle in the Ramayana (Goudriaan 4). The Jatakas describe Brahmins who act as sorcerers; they can create a rain of precious stones, they know the languages of animals, they understand the science of conjuring demons and spirits and they ward off diseases and snakebites (Goudriaan 230).

Some modern accounts of sorcery have received media attention in recent years. A tantrik in a Bankura village confessed to beheading a newborn and licking the blood dripping from its severed head; he performed this act in public and police had to rescue him from being lynched by the locals (“The Times of India” 2012 February 3). Such events are not uncommon in rural India, nearly 2,100 people accused of witchcraft have been killed between 2000-2012 (“The Washington Post” 2014 July 21).

Not all accounts of modern sorcery are malevolent. In November 1993, a small group of Swedish tourists was taken to the Bank of the Ganges to watch an exorcism (Glucklich 141). A young woman, who had previously had a miscarriage, feared that her neighbour had thrown a curse on her to abort yet another child (Glucklich 141). The exorcist, Ram Prasad, laid out a wreath of marigold flowers in a circle and took three clay pots to the river (Glucklich 141). One of the pots was filled with water, the second with water and wine, and the third with only wine (Glucklich 141). He then lit three lumps of camphor inside the circle of flowers and proceeded on to the clove ritual, which was the main part of the exorcism (Glucklich 141). He touched her head with the clove and said, “You are the Goddess of Religion (Dharma), I will not stay here, I will not stay here, I will completely not stay here,” (Glucklich 142). He then touched the clove to her stomach and added, “I will tell you again, Mother of Religion, if she has any problem in her stomach or a headache or anything else, it will go out” (Glucklich 142). He then changed his voice to that of the goddess and said, “I am finishing everything, it is completely clear (as milk of milk and water of water), you will be clear and pure like milk” (Glucklich 142). He then made a guttural grunt as he pulled the clove away from the girl’s stomach and said, “This sickness will be gone, look I am taking out the witchcraft” (Glucklich 142). He then placed the clove into the mouth of a live fish and released it into the river while repeating, “I will never come (again), I will never come” (Glucklich 142). He ended the ritual after the fish was gone and then told the girl to touch the water where the puja had taken place (Glucklich 142). Later that night, at his house, Ram Prasad performed another puja and chanted, “It has gone completely,” seven times, offered wine to Ma Sakti and a necklace of flowers (Glucklich 142). He put a divination rod on the floor and lit seven pieces of camphor on it (Glucklich 142). Later he asked it if the illness was completely out of the girl, and it indicated that it was (Glucklich 142).

Magicians and sorcerers have long had a place in India, and they shall continue to for the foreseeable future as they are so ingrained in the fabric of Indian traditions, beliefs, and society.



Banerjee, Falguni (2012, February 3) “Tantrik confesses to child sacrifice in Bankura.” The Times of India. Retrieved from

Bloomfield, Maurice (1969) Hymns of the Atharva-Veda, Together With Extracts From the Ritual Books and the Commentaries. New York: Greenwood Press.

Brunton, Paul (1934) A Search in Secret India. London: Rider & Co.

Carrington, Hereward (1913) Hindu Magic: An Expose of the Tricks of the Yogis and Fakirs of India. Kansas City: The Sphinx Publishing Co.

Frost, Thomas (1876) The Lives of the Conjurers. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Glucklich, Ariel (1997) The End of Magic. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goudriaan, Teun (1978) Maya Divine and Human. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kapferer, Bruce (1997) The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keshavan, M. S.; H. S. Naravanan; B. N. Gangadhar (1989) “‘Bhanamati’ Sorcery and Psychopathology in South India A Clinical Study.” British Journal of Psychiatry; Vol. 154: p.218.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCoy, Terrence (2014, July 21) “Thousands of women, accused of sorcery, tortured and executed in Indian witch hunts.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Niyogi, Tushar K. (2006) Faith Healing: Studies in Myths and Rituals in Medicine and Therapy. Kolkata: R. N. Bhattacharya.

Shah, Tahir (2011) Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey into the World of India’s Godmen. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Sorcar, P. C. (1950) Hindu Magic. Calcutta: S. Gupta.

Unknown (2014, July 11) “3 arrested for murder of suspected sorcer.” The Hindu. Retrieved from

Whitney, William Dwight (2000) Atharva-Veda-Samhita. Delhi: Parimal Publications.

Yelle, Robert A. (2003) Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural Language in Hindu Tantra. New York: Routledge.

Related Topics for Further Investigation














Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jesse Elliott (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Art of Odissi Dance

The ancient art of odissi dancing finds its origins in the eastern state of Orissa on the Indian subcontinent. Commonly called orissi, the intricate dances are performed at many religious Hindu ceremonies and milestones in life (see Anne-Marie Gatson 81-82). It is thought that this art form has dated back to antiquity based on the findings of carved reliefs in caves throughout the foothills of Udaygiri in the province of Orissa (see Kyriakidis 155). Although typically performed by a devadasi (a servant or “wife” of a deity) there emerged three separate sectors of the dance, one of which included young men: mahari (nachuni) the temple dancers, nartaki (bahar gauni) the dancers of the royal court, and gotipua the acrobatic dance where young men portray the role of women (see Vankataraman 69). Mahari dancers, also known as the devadasi, are the temple dancers.

Odissi is a dance founded around a Vaishnavite frame of mind, so typically one would worship Lord Visnu or one of his reincarnations or the Lord Jagannath [Lord of the Universe] (see Anne-Marie Gatson 80-81). If one is to be considered a devadasi they are initiated into the lifestyle with the tying of a strip of cloth from the Jagannath idol around their head. From this point on they are considered to be a wife of the Lord; they are not to indulge in home cooked food and are forbidden to look at an audience while performing because of the sakta and tantric approach portrayed within the dance. A devadasi represented ultimate sakti and procreation (see Venkataraman 68). The nartaki style of the dance is usually performed as a theatre dance or outside of the temple for various festivals and celebrations usually pertaining to the Lord Visnu or Krsna. Gotipua is the style in which young men dress as women to portray roles of a story, usually centered around Krsna. An important characteristic of this style is the acrobatics incorporated into the piece along with the traditional musical score and steps [soon altered by Guru Debaprasad Das, who changed the melody of the song into a poetic meter making it easier for men to follow (see Venkataraman 75)] (see Venkataraman 69).

Holding a strong sense of cultural pride this stylistic art held as a strong tradition throughout Orissa up until the 17th century when invasions from various Mughal emperors as well as the British imperialistic movement into India, caused the art form to deteriorate into almost complete disuse (see Venkataraman 69) female dancers were now considered little more than courtly mistresses to the British generals and army men. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the art of odissi finally began to flourish once again into a strong revival thanks Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Mahadev Rout, Guru Raghu Dutta, and Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra in the early 1940s (see Venkataraman 69). Its blossoming and acceptance into everyday Orissa culture was a slow process but by the 1960’s, after the finalization of the fundamental aspects of the dance, it was a strong part of everyday activity for many young men and women drawn to the use of traditional song and dance (see Venkataraman 69-70).

Usually beginning with a floral offering to Lord Jagannath, as well as either Bhumidevi [Krsna’s mother] or Visnu, the performance follows a very strict movement vocabulary and rhythmic syllable format (see Venkataraman 70). The purpose of this dance is to usually portray a story, many based around the life of Krsna and Radha, so the pallavi [thematic line of a song: “pa” coming from the sanskrit word padam meaning word or phrase, “lla” coming from layam meaning poetry or rhythm, and “vi” vinyasam meaning imagination (Subishka Subramani] is vital to the dance. Melodies of verses for the devadisi to perform to are usually sang by four men who read from the Gita Govind [written by the great poet Jayadeva, whom is said to be the husband of princess Rajasundari, who within her dowry was accompanied by dancers and musicians which were the foundation of the temple ritual we know as odissi today (see Venkataraman 64:50], a book which portrays the events of Lord Krsna and more notably his relationship with a particular gopi named Radha, his lover (see Rodrigues 80-81). Mentioned earlier as first being discovered in ancient reliefs throughout Orissa, the dancers have been described as portraying such stances throughout their dance as though they were preparing to be placed upon the walls; for many Indians these stances reflect pure femininity and womanhood (see Rodrigues 80; Venkataraman 67). One of the most characteristic stances of odissi is the tribhanga posture which separates the body into three sections: the head, torso, and lower half of the body [note that there are no sharp hip movements, but rather torso isolations that give the perception of hip work (see Venkataraman 69)]. Another integral aspect of the stances throughout the dance is the use of mudras, commonly seen as only hand gestures, which each stand for or symbolise a certain aspect of life or object that one might use, such as Krsna and his flute. Mudra literally means “stamp” or “seal” as to bring together and finish a certain step and complete the story which is being portrayed, even the tribhanga could be considered a mudra seeing as they can involve the whole body or just separate aspects such as the hands, feet, or eyes (see Venkataraman 60-80, margin notes).

Throughout its initial presence in history and its revitalization the tradition of odissi dancing has been influenced or altered due to other aspects of Hindustani music and classical dance, as well as some influences from Buddhist traditions such as chanting within the music and some postures which are taken throughout a scene (see Venkataraman 64). Although the odissi dance we have come to know today is but a revitalization attempt, and not the original art form it was centuries ago, many natives to the state of Orissa are quite picky and staunch as to how far they believe one can alter the way odissi is performed. The most accepted and practiced version of the dance is the style that was created by Guru Pankajcharan which is famous for the delicacy and liberated approach to women although it was Guru Kelucharan and Guru Bhubaneswar who set the framework for the styles to build upon (see Vankataraman 69-70). Although originating in India, this dance has not stayed within its borders, Guru Debaprasad Das is known for putting odissi dancing on the international map, as well as for altering some aspects such as the tempo and speed of the music, gaining some inspiration from tribal and non-classical Orissan art and groups, as well as adding a strong gotipua aspect (see Venkataraman 75) which has inevitably allowed a love and large student body for the dance to develop in the modern century.

Although odissi dancing is thought for many to be nothing but a national identity or temple practice, many of those who perform the ancient dance have noted that it is more than just a tradition used for temple worshiping; it is more than just a dance for an audience and a god, but it brings stories to life, is the expression of ultimate and fulfilling devotion, as well as an act which brings Indian philosophy to life and liberation of the spirit (see Anne-Marie Gatson 82).



Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Kyriakidis, Evangelos (2007) The Archaeology of Ritual. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute Publications.

Venkartaraman, Leela (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition in Transition. New Delhi: Lustre Press.


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Temple Rituals

Temple Dances




Gita Govind

Classical Indian Dance

Orissan Culture

Revival and Reinvention of Classical Dance

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Article written by: Shelby Zuback (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindustani Classical Music and Spirituality

Music is an integral part of Hinduism as it reflects the sruti of the gods while acting as a conduit for worshipers to engage with for spiritual growth. Hymns performed in this style have strong roots in the Vedas and Hindu mythology. The core components of raga, tala and swar strive for a balance of the song in a similar manner to the concept of dharma. Northern India’s Hindustani genre has evolved over time since its origins in the Vedas, it has remained a fundamental part of Hindu society throughout Perisan, Arabic and British influences. This music has capitalized on the new technology of film and audio recording to spread not only more thoroughly in India, but globally.

Classical Hindustani music represents traditional Vedic texts where songs and verses have been passed down in written and oral form for centuries and are still used today for worship. The four Vedas consisting of the Rg Veda, Artharva Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda are all used as sources for songs and hymns. The Rg Veda contains the hymns to the deities, the Artharva Veda has the incantations, the Sama Veda includes the words spoken in the hymns and the Yujur Veda includes a guide to sacrifices. The Sama Veda is among the most central texts for converting the divine words of the gods to human beings as it contains many songs of worship. The hymns are a vessel for revealing the origins of all creation as shown through sruti (Johnson 55-6). The concept of sruti reflects the idea that works of the Vedas originate from divine sources, this opposes smrti which is a term for religious texts that originate from mortals. There are two genres of music that are spread throughout India, Hindustani Classical in the North and Carnatic in the South. Hindustani Classical music is an oral portrayal of the Vedas which was most likely brought into India with the Aryan people. This hymn-based style evolved into a new form of music which has been influenced by Persian and Arabic cultures; it was embodied in the sub-genre called Qawwali which is a popular form of worship music for the Sufi tradition (Gafoor 2). Many other forms of music have branched off from this including Khyal which includes similar ragas to Hindustani Music. North Indian music has roots in the Vedas but has since been influenced by other cultures, however the essence of spirituality through the Vedas remains.

There are many elements to North Indian music including tala, raga, thaat, swar and gharana. A raga is a mode in music which Hindustani music incorporates not only a melodic scale but also as a colour and emotional state. While there are many ragas there are six main modes which can be split into 126 raginis or wives and putras or sons. Each raga is correlated to a certain time of day, season or to a specific deity and should be played when its requirements are met (Saxena 442). These six main ragas are the hindole, deepaka, bhairava, sri, malkounsa and megha. The hindole raga is meant to be played in spring or dawn and represents love of all things. The deepaka raga is meant to be played during the summer or the evening and represents compassion. The bhairava raga is for autumn or the morning and represents courage. The sri raga is for autumn or twilight and represents love between two people and deep emotions (Leante 189). The malkounsa raga is for winter or midnight and represents valour. The megha raga is meant for the afternoon or a rainy day and represents courage (Ramakrishna 114). The tala is a succession of beats which remains consistent throughout the song, it allows the musicians to improvise while still remaining within the bounds of the raga. The individual components of Hindustani music follow within the margins of dharma showing a balance of karma. One of the most notable parts of a hymn is the swar or voice that is a human’s natural instrument which can be used with great effect to convey tone, inflection and mood. Hindustani Classical music employs the vocals of a singer much like that of Western music in that there are seven notes in an octave and seven swars in an octave. Western notes are known as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do while Hindustani swars are shadaj, rishabh, gandhar, madhyama, pancham, dhaivat and nishad or written as sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni (Sharma 7). It is important to be mindful of these swar when composing a raga because as Lalita Ramakrishna states “swara is that which is revealed after the penultimate sruti, that which is smoothly pleasant, that which has resonance, that which by itself delights the listeners” (Ramakrishna 32).

In Hindu belief, the first musicians were divine in nature consisting of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Visnu and Siva who were known as the creator, the preserver and the destroyer respectively (Jagdish 832). Brahma used cymbals, Vishnu played a drum and Siva was the dancer. Krsna is the human form of Visnu and is often depicted playing a flute and Saraswati who is the companion of Brahma is shown playing a vina instrument (Ramakrishna 211). As music is represented in not only the Hindu Trinity but also lesser gods and goddesses it is sensible that Hindustani music has flourished as a form of spirituality. To worship the gods using their instruments and singing hymns of their words can be seen as a pinnacle form of devotion. Johnson describes Vedic hymns as revered to the extent that the word Om (or Aum) is a gayatri or mantra itself. He argues that Om is the “holiest hymn in the Veda” (Johnson 57). This mantra can be seen as the essence of all words and therefore all songs and hymns which reflects the absolute reality and are depicted through it. The medium of song is a useful tool for worship; written words are static and non changing, oral works can be dynamic and reflective of new and changing ideas (Ramakrishna 17). This allows an individual to stay within their belief system and yet display their own uniqueness. Laura Leante gives evidence to this idea when she writes “different meanings are attributed by individual listeners while at the same time, at a deeper level, all of these meanings are grounded in the embodiment of the music” (Leante 188). A comparison can be drawn to the phrasing of music under a raga with the musician improvising yet remaining within the bounds of the tala. This ability to add a distinct inimitability to a song makes Hindustani music a spiritual action as the musician or listener are participating in a dynamic sense.

Hindustani music has gone through a few changes since its conception centering around the hymns of the Vedas to the merging of Persian and Arabic cultures. It was transmitted throughout the population within a gharana, which is a term applied to a family or lineage of musicians. A long-established gharana family would pass down their musical traditions from the elderly to the young and by doing so create a reputation of rich music that could garnish royal patronage (Sharma 24-25). A Gharana would focus on one form of raga or tala, perfecting them to the extent that the listener could identify the family just by the music played. This system was not to last as the British laid claim to India in the 18th century and many ways of life were altered including the gharana system (Beck 28). In its place evolved a one on one guru-shishya system. Modern Hindustani music has once again changed with the Western interest of the hippie movement in the 1960’s. This is best exemplified by the integration of the popular Rock group The Beatles and traditional Hindustani musician Ravi Shankar. Quandros and Dorstewitz summarize this merging of two cultures into a new genre for mass audience consumption in this quote: “Music can thus act as a symbol for the spontaneous creation of a community through participation in a shared practice” (Quandros 65). This modern form of music has capitalized on new technology allowing Indian music not only to reach Indian royalty but the common Indian as well; it has also expanded its influence globally reaching Europe and North America. While Bollywood is in Southern India it has still been influenced by Northern Hindustani music; this vast film production hub has far reaching influences in the East which has spread Indian music across many countries.

Hindustani music draws on the inspiration of the Vedas and the Hindu Trinity’s musical representation to engage and entertain the worshiper. It continues to develop from its inception to modern times altering with the advancement of new technologies and cultural influences but at its root it still remains a balance of raga, tala and swar for spiritual growth and personal immersion in Hinduism.



Beck, Guy L (2007) “Hindu music, now and into the future.” Hinduism Today, vol. 29, no. 4: 28-31. Hinduism Today: Himalayan Academy.

Gafoor, S (2012) “Sufi Sama/ Music/ Qawwali.” Indian Streams Research, vol. 2, no. 9: 1-5.

Jagdish, Chavda (2010) An Iconology of Shiva and Vishnu Images at Kailasanatha Mandir, Ellora, Maharastra, India. Scarborough: National Association of African American Studies & Affiliates.

Johnson, Kurt A (2011) “‘Lisping Tongues’ and ‘Sanscrit Songs’: William Jones’ Hymns to Hindu Deities.” Translation and Literature, vol. 20, no. 1: 48-60.

Leante, Laura (2009) The Lotus and the King: Imagery, gesture and Meaning in Hindustani Rag, p. 285-206. Ethnomusicology Forum: Taylor & Francis.

Quadros, A., & Dorstewitz, P (2011) “Community, communication, social change: Music in dispossessed Indian communities.” International Journal of Community Music vol. 4, no. 1: 59-70.

Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (2003) Spirituality and the Music of India. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company.

Sharma, Manorma (2006) Tradition of Hindustani Music. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.


Related Readings

Jauhari, Shruti (2011) Elements of Hindustani classical music. New Delhi: DK Printworld.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (2009) Hindustani music and aesthetics today: a selective study. New Delhi: Hope India Publications.

Swarup, Rai Bahadur Bishan (2008) Theory of Indian music. Varanasi: Pilgrims Publishing.


Related Topics

Hymns of the Sama Veda

Khyal and Qawwali


South India’s Carnatic music


Related Websites


Article written by Scott Pewar who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kutiyattam/Koodiyattam Sacred Dance Tradition

The Kutiyattam/Koodiyattam Sacred Dance Tradition

Kutiyattam is a sacred dance tradition practiced in Hindu temples in India, specifically in the Kerala region, and it is the oldest living theatre tradition as it is believed to be over two thousand years old (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia). “In 2001, Koodiyattam was officially recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia). The performance of this tradition includes elaborate costuming and make-up, chanting, exaggerated facial expressions, and hand gestures. Kutiyattam is not only a mixture of the sacred and the traditional, but also of improvisations from the actors during the performances, which can last up to several days or even weeks (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia). The lengthiness of these performances led to Kutiyattam no longer being performed as a whole in the modern world; instead it is split up into multiple acts, which are taken as separate entities in and of themselves (Pfaff 135). “A Kutiyattam performance can be separated into four parts: pre-play activities (purvaranga), descriptions of the past in flashbacks (nirvahanam), the performance and elaboration of the text itself, and the final rituals (mutiyakitta). Each of these parts also consists of several different sequences” (Pfaff 135).

In the performance of Kutiyattam, everything has meaning; nothing is done on a whim or without intention. Therefore, it makes sense that even the construction of the kuttambalam, sacred theatres on the grounds of Hindu temples in Kerala where the Kutiyattam is performed, would have spiritual significance. The assembly of a kuttambalam is linked to the concept of vastupurusamandala, which is a combination of three words: vastu, Purusa, and mandala (see Richmond 52). Vastu is a concept associated with the boundaries of existence and, in this case, relates to the boundaries of the temple and the kuttambalam as representations of the “Divine Cosmic Essence (Purusa)” (Richmond 52). With Purusa being the sacrificial god, the building of a temple and a kuttambalam, as well as the performance of Kutiyattam are seen as sacrifices. “The mandala is a ritual diagram or plan which guides the form or existence of a sacred place. [It] is not an architect’s blueprint […] it is the space which reflects the Hindu world view and conception of the universe” (Richmond 52-53). Furthermore, Hindu concepts of time are also represented in the construction of a kuttambalam: layers making up the altar correspond to the number of seasons and the number of bricks used correspond to the number of days in a year, for example (Richmond 53). This careful and meaningful construction of the temples and the kuttambalam display the spirituality inherent in the tradition of the Kutiyattam.

Further demonstration of the meaning and spirituality intrinsic to all aspects of Kutiyattam is the rite an actor goes through in order to transcend this world, as they are believed to do, and successfully enter into the sacred world of Kutiyattam and the way in which actors are said to lose themselves in the roles of their characters. The importance of the actor in Kutiyattam performances is paramount, though not all scholars agree as to whether or not the actors fully lose themselves in their roles. In the opinion of some scholars, such as Mundoli Narayanan, the actor never truly loses himself in the role and it is never forgotten that he is indeed simply an actor playing a role (Narayanan 140). Performing Kutiyattam is said to be akin to entering a sacred space and therefore, all of the rules regarding ritual pollution and purity apply. The rite an actor undergoes is believed to protect both him and the sacred space from pollution. Moreover, in the opinion of some scholars, when the actor completes the rite, he is believed to be preparing himself for transcendence in being as well. In other words, it is believed that he loses his own personality and prepares to immerse himself in the personality of his character (Richmond 55). The process of an actor losing oneself so fully in a role is especially apparent in the trance dancing in West Java. In these performances, it is believed that not only do the actors lose themselves in their roles, but it goes beyond that to the belief that the actors lose themselves in an altered state of existence whereupon they become the hosts for another being (Foley 28). In this state, the belief is that the actor does not merely become someone else temporarily, but is literally replaced by someone or something else for the interim of the performance.

The performance of Kutiyattam is imbued with meaning and is taken seriously because it is serious and it is important. Kutiyattam is spiritual, sacred and has strong ties to religion and ideals of sacrifice. The actors are meant to be representing cosmic beings and mythical characters, so they wear elaborate costumes and intricately detailed make-up. They do not look like normal, everyday Indians because they are not supposed to be normal, everyday Indians (Richmond 56). The performance of Kutiyattam has preserved traditions and belief structures from over two thousand years ago as outlined in the Natyasastra (Sullivan 98). The performances are not merely for entertainment, they are seen as sacrifices, devotional offerings, et cetera. An example of the traditions preserved by Kutiyattam can be found in the rituals that take place prior to a performance, which serve to “consecrate the stage, making it pure and auspicious for the performance to follow, much as a sacrificial site or temple would be consecrated before being used” (Sullivan 99). This consecration is important because, as previously stated, the kuttambalam and the Kutiyattam are both seen as sacred spaces and as such, they must be protected from ritual pollution.

The religious aspects of Kutiyattam are apparent to some scholars such as Bruce M. Sullivan in that they are “very much in the Vaisnava tradition; they invoke Visnu in the prologue and closing benediction and feature praise of Visnu, Krsna and/or Rama,” though Kutiyattam is not exclusively performed in Visnu temples. Ergo, one deity may be venerated in a temple devoted to another deity (Sullivan 100). The religious facets of Kutiyattam are believed to be further exhibited by the audiences that typically attend the performances, which are generally made up of Brahmins, royalty, temple servants, or other devout Hindus. Furthermore, Kutiyattam is most often performed in relation to religious festivals (Sullivan 100). In the opinion of some scholars, Kutiyattam is meant to be entertaining as well as providing a religious experience that is pleasing both to the audience and to the deities, which are also believed to be in attendance. This overall experience is defined in the contested theory of rasa, wherein the audience is said to become active participants in the religious aspects of Kutiyattam and not merely passive observers (Sullivan 101). Not all scholars agree about the importance of rasa; some, such as Mundoli Narayanan, argue that this theory was developed long after the establishment of Kutiyattam itself and therefore was not an original intention in the creation and performance of Kutiyattam (Narayanan 140).

The theorized religious experience is thought to be even more intense for the actors in Kutiyattam performances because, as previously stated, the actors are believed–by some–to be transcending to a higher plane where they are portraying Gods or those that are God-like. “Master performer Ammannur Madhava Cakyar described his acting as a sacred religious duty (dharma), comparable to doing yoga or saying a prayer” [in an interview with Bruce Sullivan (1992); quoted Sullivan 103].

Some important features of Kutiyattam besides the characteristics of rasa are features which come from outside of the text such as the implementations of nirvahanam, the language of gesture, and the repetition of lines. Nirvahanam is the background of a character as created and demonstrated by the actor, which reveals a character’s history and motivation and which, in and of itself, may take several days to complete (Sullivan 105). This language of gesture element pertains to elaborate hand movements and exaggerated eye and facial movements that the actor utilizes during the performance. These gestures and movements all have specific meanings and are meant to elaborate on the text and, in the opinion of some scholars, aid in the development of rasa (Sullivan 106). The repetition of lines is a feature seen as being employed in order to promote understanding, as Kutiyattam is performed in either “Sanskrit or a dialect of Prakrit” and only a scholarly few speak these languages, and to cultivate an appreciation of the poetry and emotions that are involved (Sullivan 107). Each line is repeated three times in order to accomplish this goal.

In order to make Kutiyattam more accessible to the masses and keep the tradition alive by increasing its popularity, in the recent past and in the modern world today, there is a revolution occurring within the practice of Kutiyattam, though some argue whether this is indeed necessary (Sullivan 107). One change that is argued to be important in making Kutiyattam more accessible is the endeavour to shorten the performances by, for example, removing the repetition and “extensive pantomime” (Sullivan 107). Moreover, in some incarnations, the actors or producers are removing the nirvahanam altogether as they see it as unnecessary [G. Venu in his production of Sakuntala as referenced by DuComb 101].

Kutiyattam was originally performed exclusively by men of the Cakyar caste and women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste and, until the 1950s, these performances were confined to the kuttambalam. However, in 1955, Kutiyattam master Mani Madhava Cakyar began to perform outside of these temples because he was concerned about the preservation of the tradition. Mani Madhava Cakyar’s troupe performed all over India and Kutiyattam began to grow in popularity as Mani Madhava Cakyar made changes such as performing in the more widely-spoken Malayalam language, as opposed to Sanskrit, and not only performing plays based on the Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, but performing secular plays as well. The “classical art form” of Kathakali, which emphasizes music and dance over precise and practiced acting, grew out of this revolutionized Kutiyattam (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia).

References and Further Recommended Reading

DuComb, Christian (2007) “Present-Day Kutiyattam: G. Venu’s Radical and Reactionary Sanskrit Theatre.TDR: The Drama Review 51:3 (T195) Fall 2007. ©2007 New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Foley, Kathy (1985) “The Dancer and the Danced: Trance Dance and Theatrical Performance in West.Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 28-49: University of Hawai’i Press.

“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia. 12 Jul 2008, 13:38 UTC. 9 March 2012, 17:38 <>.

Narayanan, Mundoli (2006) “Over-Ritualization of Performance: Western Discourses on Kutiyattam.” TDR: The Drama Review (1988-), Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 136-153: The MIT Press. University of Hawai’i Press.

Pfaff, Walter (1997) “The Ant and the Stone: Learning Kutiyattam.” TDR: The Drama Review (1988-), Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 133-162: The MIT Press. University of Hawai’i Press.

Richmond, Farley and Yasmin Richmond (1985) “The Multiple Dimensions of Time and Space in Kūṭiyāṭṭam, the Sanskrit Theatre of Kerala.Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 50-60: University of Hawai’i Press. University of Hawai’i Press.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) “Temple Rites and Temple Servants: Religion’s Role in the Survival of Kerala’s Kūṭiyāṭṭam Drama Tradition.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Apr., 1997), pp. 97-115: Springer. University of Hawai’i Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Trance dancing in West Java

Cakyar caste

Nambiar caste


The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

Mani Madhava Cakyar












Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Belinda Dunford (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Odissi Dance



Odissi is a solo form of Indian dance that combines music, song, and its specific style, which includes mudra (hand gestures) and pantomimic movement to convey complex stories of love, personal sacrifice, and humanity’s relationship with the various gods (Jenkins and Watson 67). This dance form has not had a smooth or unchanging history for the last 2200 years, and much of its development has been either sketchy or unknown (Schechner and Zarrilli 128). After going through pressures, and a reconstruction in the 1940s/1950s, Odissi has undergone a restoration which makes it what it is today (Lopez 155).

The first piece of evidence for dance in India was found in rock-cut caves of Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar, where there is an edict of the Jain emperor Kharavela. He refers to himself as Gandharva-Veda-Buddha, who is an expert in dance, drama and music (Venkataram 62). Apart from these caves, there is also extensive evidence of Indian dance in temples that hold sculptures and carvings that depict figures dancing [for more on India’s early dance history, refer to Venkataram (2002)]. One of the oldest forms of Indian dance, Odissi has archeological evidence that traces its origins back to ancient times. This dance style dates back to the first century BC, with it being first seen in the rock-cut caves of Udayagiri as well (Lopez 155). What is specific to this style of dance though, is that its origins begin in Orissa, an Indian state that lies on the East coast, along the Bay of Bengal.

Manuscripts pertaining to the rituals of Lord Jagannath are the first record of dance in Orissa, where the dance was performed at his world famous temple in Puri. At this temple, the dance was performed extensively as on ongoing ritual by devadasis, or female temple dancers, who performed the dance for the pleasure of the Lord. Dancing as a ritual for Lord Jagannath is mentioned in the Agni Purana, Vishnu Purana, and Srimad Bhagavatam, which suggests that dancing as a daily ritual (seva) for the Lord is been indispensible and very important for centuries (Lopez 156). Lord Jagannath is an Oriyan manifestation of Krsna, whose great wooden murti or image resides at his temple in Puri, where the devadasis (literally, “servants of God”) sang and dance for him (Schechner 1041).

The devadasis that performed these rituals were also known as Maharis (the devadasis were the equivalent of the Maharis in the South), who were maidens of the gods, and in this case, married to Lord Jagannath, who was the presiding deity in the temple. After they were ritually married to the god, they thereafter served as wife and handmaiden to the deity, and danced in ritual worships and ceremonies (Sehgal 863). These women were initiated into the temple community with a piece of cloth (from the Jagannath idol) being tied around their head, which identified them as being married to the Lord, and thereafter they could no longer eat home-cooked food (Venkataram 68). Because these women were wed to the god, they were held in high respect, due to them being characterized by the deity’s divinity. Those that were chosen to be Maharis were only those women that were seen as extraordinarily talented and beautiful. The institution in which these women participated was highly evolved and sanctioned by society, as they were seen as the epitome of female beauty and grace (Sehgal 863-864).

With the passage of time, there were soon intermittent attacks by rulers on these rituals that were performed by the Maharis, which disrupted the temple ritual. By the mid-eighteenth century, under the rule of Maratha, the temple dancer had become associated with concubinage (Venkataram 69). In 1947 in Southern India, devadasis were banned from the temples, because they were perceived to be associated with prostitution. In Puri, the Maharis continued to perform their seva (service) in the temple until the 1960s, because the same stigma was eventually attached to them as well. The practice of performing the ritual then died of its own accord under enormous political, economic, and social changes in India. There was also the added pressure of the maharis to discontinue their seva (Lopez 167-168).

A way that the maharis temporarily surmounted the pressures (for a short time) and helped with the preservation of their ritual dances was to teach odissi to the young gotipuas (Schechner and Zarrilli 128). Gotipuas were employed in the temples, and worked alongside the Maharis. These were young, handsome boys that dressed in costumes to look like girls so they could sing and dance both in temples and in public ceremonies with the Maharis (Sehgal 865). These boys, through the maharis teaching them the various odissi dances, still possessed and preserved the basic vocabulary of movement and rhythm for Odissi in its new Gotipua manifestation (Venkataram 69).

Odissi is said to embody both the Mahari and the Gotipua forms, but contemporary Odissi had its real beginnings in Orissa Theatres in the crucial period of the 1940s, where the first stirrings of a new dance in Orissa was set in motion. Then, in 1957, in a joint effort between gurus and scholars, an oath was made to collectively rebuild the dance (Venkataram 70). Through this restructuring, Odissi has become the dance form that it is today.

As for its survival in post-colonial India, it hinges on it being deemed a classical dance (which it has). With this “classical” designation, the dance form receives high social and cultural status, which makes it more likely to receive official patronage and the support of state cultural institutions (Coorlawala 270). Since it has received such patronage and support, the dance form has become very popular and acquired a large following in not only all major Indian cities, but around the world (Venataram 78).


Odissi is a combination of Lasya and Tandava styles of classical dance. The dancer quickly changes from one style to the other according to the expressional needs of the number. This dance style is characterized by the stomping of the dancing foot. There is also a bhanga, which involves bending, bowing, or stretching out of the body that reflects the “threebend” shape of Indian sculpture. These bhangas are used to their advantage to show different aspects of the story and the moods, therefore, they are charged with great emotional expression (Sehgal 867-868).

The central posture that Odissi revolves around is the Tribhanga, where the head, torso, and lower half of the body are deflections, with each part bent in opposition to the part above, which creates a three-bend figure. This along with the square half-seated Chauka (which has the feet kept apart and the knees flexed sideways) forms the core stylistic posture. There is also a constant change of levels that is demanded by Odissi, which would look very choppy and odd if shown by ‘unfinished’ performers. A last important feature of this dance form is pirouettes (brahmaris), which are executed both clockwise and counter-clockwise with the dancer maintaining a half-seated position (Venkataram 72).

There is a rigidity that has emerged in the Odissi circle, where original works should stay original, and dancers should not experiment with the dances or change them. This stiffness is probably brought on by fears of losing all the hard work that brought this ancient dance form back to life. Gurus are depending on the future generations to carry this dance forward, so it is not lost again.  But because the dance already had to change once due to pressures from the outside, and seeing what has been accomplished with the dance in the last half a century, there is no doubt that Odissi will change with the times (Venkataram 81).

Current Performers/Dancers

One of the most famous and influential Odissi performers is Sanjukta Panigrahi. She “was born in Orissa into a Brahmin family, and defied the prejudice of her caste as the first girl to pursue Odissi dance as a career.” She began studying at the age of five under her guru, Kelucharan Mahapatra. Sanjukta is considered as one of the rediscoverers of Odissi dance, and was an outstanding exponent of the dance (Varley, 249). She co-founded the International School of Theatre Anthropology in 1979, which holds sessions that showcase many traditional dances from around the world for the entertainment and education of spectators (Varley, 252). Sanjukta passed in June of 1997 after succumbing to cancer. (Varley, 249)

Gargi Banergee is an Indian immigrant who came to Canada with her mother in 1987 after her father had passed from cancer. She learned Orissi from Ratna Roy, who taught in Seattle, at the age of ten. Gargi learned the dance style quickly, and was winning both national and international competitions at fifteen years old. At eighteen, she was a dancer, teacher, and a full-time student at Simon Fraser University. Now, being 32, she is considered as being the one who helped revive Orissi dance and bringing it not only to Vancouver, but also to Canada (Pande, np).


Coorlawala, Uttara (1993) The Classical Traditions of Odissi and Manipuri. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

Jenkins, Ron and Watson, Ian (2002) Odissi and the ISTA dance: an interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi. New York: Manchester University.

Lopez y Royo, Alessandra (2007) The Reinvention of Odissi Classical Dance as a Temple Ritual. Los Angeles: University of California.


Pande, Suniti (1998) Orissi Dance…ancient tradition revived in Vancouver. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, Vol. 32, Issue 1.


Schechner, Richard (1986) Given to Dance (Film Review). Hoboken: Blackwell (on behalf of the American Anthropological Society).

Schechner, Richard and Zarrilli, Phillip (1988) Collaborating on Odissi: An Interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kelucharan Mahapatra, and Raghunath Panigrahi. The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sehgal, Sunil (1999) Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons.

Varley, Julia (1998) Sanjukta Panigrahi: Dancer for the Gods. New Theatre Quarterly 55, Volume 14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Venkataram, Leela (2002) Indian classical dance : tradition in transition. New Delhi: Lustre.

Related Research Topics


Gotipuas                                                         Lasya                                                  Tandava

Puri                                                                 Lord Jagannath                                 Devadasis



Related Websites

Article written by Sara Crozier (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Jayadeva and the Gitagovinda

Among the myriad of Indian epic poets, Jayadeva, the twelfth century composer of the unparalleled Gitagovinda (Song of the Cowherd), stands alone as a poet of paramount prominence. As a fervent devotee of Krsna, there is a strong undercurrent of Vaisnava faith (the worship of Visnu or his associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krsna, as the original and supreme God) and bhakti (loving devotion) in his articulation as he sings of the mystical amours between Krsna and Radha. As Jayadeva elaborates the love of this cosmic duo, he creates an aesthetic atmosphere of sringararasa or erotic-mystical mood that is bliss for the devotees of Krsna. Indeed, the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva, divinely adorned and devotionally oriented, is a source of religious inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaisnavism [for a detailed analysis of Vaisnavism, see Dimock (1966)].

The widely renowned lyrical composition and religious eroticism of the Gitagovinda earned sainthood for Jayadeva, and has been a powerful influence on several genres of creative and performing arts in various parts of India. It is the incredibly vivid imagery of this devotional text finds itself as an ideal subject for India’s visual and performing arts (Kaminsky 2). It is Jayadeva’s intent, not only to rouse the devotional depths of the bhakta (those engaged in devotional worship or bhakti), but to transport one literally into the heart of the love scene. The sensory imagery of Jayadeva’s poetry allows the reader or devotee to be a honey bee on a lotus blossom: seeing, touching, smelling the flora and fauna of the enchanting Indian forest. One gets close enough to “taste the sweat glistening on the upper lip of the young maiden [Radha]”(Kaminsky 2), experiencing the beatific delights of sporting with her lover. The jingling of the bells draping Radha’s waist titillates and tantalizes the soul’s inner ear as the reader sways with the melodious motion of their lovemaking. For the bhakta, it is in the union of this woman and the deity in the form of a man that the soul can find a path to oneness with the cosmic essence of the divine [on the depiction of tangible and intangible elements in Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, see Mahapatra (2008)].

The birth and life of Jayadeva are masked in the various legends and regional paeans of the provinces of West Bengal and Orissa, each province claiming him to be their own (Kaminsky 24). Indeed, after completing the Gitagovinda, such was Jayadeva’s fame and eminence, that numerous local versions of this legend grew into disagreeing traditions about Jayadeva’s origin and poetic activity. Contemporary scholars of Bengal, Orissa, and Mithila have published claims locating the hamlet of his birthplace in their respective regions. Indeed, two strong traditions say that “Kindubilva” mentioned in the Gitagovinda is either a village near Puri in Orissa or a village in the modern Birbhum district of Bengal. A third tradition recognizes the village of Kenduli near Jenjharpur in Mithila as Jayadeva’s place of birth (Miller 3-5). Sources are ambiguous on whether or not he wrote the Gitagovinda while he was the court poet of Laksmanasena Kam, the last Hindu king of Bengal (1179-1209) (Siegel 209-210), but it is generally accepted that after the completion of the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva and his wife went on a pilgrimage to Vrndavana.  For now, it is relatively safe to say that Jayadeva resided and wrote in eastern India during the latter half of the twelfth century (Miller 4).

Despite the difference in opinion of Jayadeva’s origin, all accounts that sanctify Jayadeva’s life reveal that he was born into a Brahman family and that he became a gifted student of Sanskrit and a skilled poet. In spite of this, he abandoned scholarship at a young age and assumed an ascetic life, devoting himself entirely to God. As a wandering poet and mendicant, he would not rest underneath the same tree for more than a night for fear that attachment to the place would breach his vow of asceticism (Miller 3).

His life of renunciation and denial came to an end when a Brahman in Puri (in Orissa along the eastern coast of India) claimed that the god Jagannatha, “Lord of the World” [Jagannatha is considered to be a form of Visnu, although some scholars maintain that Jagannatha was Buddha (also considered by Hindus to be the 9th avatara or incarnation of Visnu). Others assert that he is really Krsna, the 8th of Visnu’s avataras. For a more detailed analysis of Jagannatha see, Raya (1998)] himself had ordained the marriage of Jayadeva to the Brahman’s daughter. The Brahman’s daughter was Padmavati, a young girl who was dedicated as a devadasi (religious dancing girl who gave praise to the gods and shared the tales of their greatness through dance for devotees) in the temple. Jayadeva agreed to the marriage. Padmavati served her husband and he shared her devotion to Jagannatha. As Jayadeva composed, Padmavati would dance — whence came the inspiration for the Gitagovinda (Kaminsky 25).

While composing the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva envisioned the climax of Krsna’s supplication to Radha as a command for Radha to place her foot on Krsna’s head in a symbolic gesture of victory. But the poet was reluctant to complete the couplet, in respect to Krsna, which would place Radha in a position superior to that of Krsna, as well as commit an ancient taboo of touching anyone with the foot –a symbol of spiritual pollution (juta). Leaving the poem incomplete, Jayadeva went to bathe in a river and, as the story goes, in his absence Krsna appeared in his guise to complete the couplet; Krsna then ate the food Padmavati had prepared for Jayadeva and left. When Jayadeva returned, he realized that he had received divine affirmation in exalting Krsna’s loving relation to Radha.

The Gitagovinda, deceptively simple in its exterior beauty, that is, in its exotic and sensual crust, has an abundance of meaning embedded in structurally complex forms. It is expressed as a sequence of songs interspersed with recitative portions in cadenced forms of classical kavya verses (classi­cal Sanskrit verse) (Miller 7). There are twelve main parts which can be referred to as cantos, divisions of a long poem. The Sanskrit term for this is sargah and will be used from this point on. Within each sargah are short narratives and songs, and each song has a particular tala and raga associated with it. Talas are rhythmic cycles which lie beneath the structure of an Indian musical piece and a raga is a melodic form that evokes a particular mood, most of which are selected for specific times of day, year, weather conditions, emotional states. These states of emotion are known as rasa (Kaminsky 46-47).

Several types of Indian dance and vocal music tell the legends of Radha and Krsna through these musical modes and rhythmic cycles. As it has been generally acknowledged that Jayadeva was inspired by the religious dancing of his wife, this is a likely explanation for the melodic structure of the Gitagovinda (Kaminsky 47).

While dramatizing the amours of Krsna and Radha on the surface, the Gitagovinda simultaneously conveys the deep ethos of devotion of the individual soul, its yearning for God realization and finally achieving the consummation in service of God. Or again: outwardly it describes the love, separation, longing and union of Radha and Krsna, the cosmic duo, in the mystical forest, Vrindavan, along the bank of river Yamuna. But metaphysically it expresses the pining of the individual soul (jivatma) for the mystical union with the divine soul (paramatma). Indeed, in the words of one scholar: “through the thrilling love episode of Radha and Krsna, the poet Jayadeva takes us stage by stage to the highest pitch of God consciousness and God realization” (Tripathy 5).

Indeed, while the poem’s subject is the estrangement of Radha and Krsna caused by Krsna’s dalliances with the other gopies (cowherd girl), Radha’s anguish at Krsna’s abandonment, and the rapture which attends their final reunion, the poem reverts repeatedly to devotion of Krsna as God:

If in recalling Krsna to mind there is flavour

Or if there is interest in loves art

Then to this necklace of words–sweetness, tenderness,


The words of Jayadeva, listen ( Miller 69).

In fact, Jayadeva’s objective is inducing “recollection of Krsna in the minds of the good” (Archer 65) and inserts a vivid description of the Indian forest in springtime exclusively, he says, in order once again to stir up remembrance Krsna. When, at last, the poem has come elatedly to a close, Jayadeva again insists the reader to adore and venerate Krsna and “place him forever in their hearts, Krsna the source of all merit” (Archer 65).

The story of the Gitagovinda may be briefly told. The poem opens with a description of the occasion when Radha and Krsna first join in love together:

“Clouds thicken the sky.

Tamala trees darken the forest.

The night frightens him.

Radha, you take him home!”

They leave at Nanda’s order,

Passing trees in thickets on the way,

Until secret passions of Radha and Madhava [the epithet of Krsna which also means “honey like” and “vernal”]

Triumph on the Jumna riverbank (Miller 69).

In this way the love of Radha and Krsna arises — the love which is to govern their hearts with ever growing fervour. Next, the reader, or the devotee, is captivated by Krsna and Radha’s surroundings: the trees are lush and thick with leaves, and flowering creepers are intertwined within their branches–symbolic of the lovers’ embrace. Spring is fully aroused, the birds are lively, love is ripe in the air. The couple are dressed in splendid colours of gold, red, and yellow and they are draped in gold and pearls.

Krsna is the eighth avatara (incarnation) of Visnu, and the first sargah continues with the heart touching, vivid and melodious account of the ten incarnations based on the evolutionary process of the creation and development of the animal world, each of which “came to the rescue” in various ways. According to the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, when virtue subsides and vice prevails, God manifests himself to establish righteousness [It is on this that the theory of incarnations of God is based, see Tripathy 5-9].

The poem then leaps a period of time and when the drama opens, a crises has occurred. Radha, after long enjoying Krsna’s passionate embraces, finds herself abruptly abandoned. Radha‘s friend, sakhi, tells her of Krsna’s amorous play with the other gopies, his feet stroked by one of them, his head cushioned on the bosom of another whose “heaving breasts are tenderly outspread to pillow it” (Miller 76). One beautiful damsel murmurs sweet words of praise into his ear, others care for him tenderly. He himself embraces one of them, kisses another and fondles a third (Archer 93).

As Radha broods on his behaviour, she is filled with bitter sadness; Radha’s yearning and lamenting in a faltering voice choked by heavy tears made even the water birds weep sorrowfully (Miller 1975: 659-665). Yet her love for Krsna is so strong she cannot bring herself to blame him. Radha’s pain of separation (viraha) from Krsna draws her interest away from worldly concerns and leads to meditation on Krsna which is the essence of bhakti that leads to the attainment of spiritual union with Krsna who is the quintessence of divinity (Siegel 66). It is Radha’s intuitive, unfaltering, all-inclusive dedication to union with Krsna which serves as a paradigm for many followers of bhakti. In this sense, one scholar has commented: “the pain of separation from the divine is in itself a source for joy as it encourages, or forces, one to meditate on the qualities with which one longs to unite” (Kaminsky 27).

As Radha sits longing for him in misery, Krsna suddenly repents, is filled with remorse and abruptly goes in quest of her. He does not know, however, where to find her and as he wanders he expresses his grief. The third Sargah reveals Krsna as he searches for Radha and laments:

She saw me surrounded in the crowd of women

And went away

I was too ashamed,

Too afraid to stop her.

Damn me! My wanton ways

Made her leave in anger (Miller 82).

Seated alone in his arbor of love, Krsna dwells on the thought of his devotee, Radha, and presently Sakhi comes to him to assure him of her passionate love for him. Without him she cannot bear to live, for every moment is filled with suffering and misery. Surely he, the source of love, will respond to her need.

It is well into the evening, the crescent moon in the sky. It looks as if Krsna will spend the night alone in misery. It is said that because of her ego, the Lord, Krsna was kept away. Due to Radha’s jealousy, or impure thoughts, Krsna, as the divine, is unable to reach her (Greenlees xvi). The idea here is that without ego, one is released to accept god’s grace.

Then, well into the darkness of the night, Sakhi finally convinces Radha to overcome her jealousy and pride which have been keeping her apart from her beloved. The scene is exceedingly dark, but the rushing Yamuna river coming from between the feminine curves of the undulating hills can be seen. Sakhi coaxes Radha to enter the bower of Krsna who sits in anticipation. In this way, Sakhi is like the guru who is responsible for uniting the human soul with the Divine (Kuppuswamy 41):

Loosen your clothes, until your belt, open your loins!

Radha, your gift of delight is like treasure in a bed of vines.

In woods on the wind-swept Jumna bank,

Krsna waits in wildflower garlands (Miller 93).

Krsna is splendid in his brilliance. His gold and pearl jewellery, white floral garland, and the white of his eyes brighten the darkness and provoke Radha to come to him. Now, Radha becoming less timid raises her eyes to meet those of Krsna. One can get a sense of an impending passionate unite.

The subsequent stanzas of the poem then reveal a reversal of devotion. Krsna asks Radha to place her feet on his head and declares his devotion to her. God is expressing his dedication to the human soul. Or as later Vaisnava texts have revealed, Radha is actually a goddess sprung from Krsna’s divineness (Kaminsky 49).

To the delight of the reader, or devotee, the lonely night ends with the ecstatic reunion (samyoga) of the lovers. The entire twelfth sargah offers the reader the full flavour of the ecstatic reunion of Radha and Krsna:

When her friend had gone

Smiles spread on Radha’s lips

While love’s deep fantasies

Struggled with her modesty

Seeing the mood in Radha’s heart,

Hari spoke to his love;

Her eyes were fixed

On his bed of buds and tender shoots (Miller 122).

Jayadeva continues:

[Radha’s] beautiful loins are a deep cavern to take the thrusts of love–

Cover them with jewelled girdles, clothes, and ornaments, Krsna! (Miller 124).

Finally Radha, the individual soul (jivatma), has achieved union with Krsna, the divine soul (paramatma).  Then with a final remembrance of Krsna as God and celebration of the song itself — its words “sweeter than sugar, like loves own glorious flavour” — the poem ends.

The dramaturgy and the poetics in the Gitagovinda have been skilfully crafted to touch the innermost core of the disciple and inspire the noblest of emotions. For this reason it is a literary legacy of India. Its spiritual essence, mystical imports, erotic undertones, sensory imagery and lyrical fluidity have perplexed critics, bewildered scholars, mystified saints, enthralled lovers, enlightened devotees and engaged people at large emotionally and sentimentally. Jayadeva, through his mystical love songs, has brought to light the strong desire of individuals for communion with divinity, and this mysticism has created extensive philosophical and metaphysical connotations that have had a profound influence on the religious outlook and spiritual psyche of devotees.


Archer, W.G (1957) The Loves of Krsna in Indian Painting and Poetry. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Dimock. E. C (1966) The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava- sahajiya Cult of Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greenlees, Duncan (1979) The song of divine love: Gita-Govinda of Sri Jayadeva. Madras: Kalakshetra Publications.

Kaminsky, Alison M (1988) Radha: The Blossoming of Indias Flower in art and Literature. PhD diss., Long Beach: California State University.

Kuppuswamy, Gowri and Muthuswamy Hariharan (1980) Jayadeva and Gītagōvinda: a study. Michigan: College Book House.

Mahapatra, Gadadhar (2008) “Depiction of Tangible and Intangible Elements of Nature in Gita Govinda Kavyam.” Orissa Review 14.10, pp. 22-27.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1975) “Radha: Consort of Krsna’s Vernal Passion.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95.4.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1977) The Gitagovinda of Jayadeva: Love Song of the Dark Lord. New York: Columbia University Press.

Raya, Bidyutlata (1998) Jagannātha cult: origin, rituals, festivals, religion, and philosophy. Michigan: Kant Publications.

Siegel, Lee (1978) Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Article written by: Stephenie Madany (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kathakali Dance

Many traditions in Hinduism include the use of dance as a form storytelling. Bharat Natyam (one of the more popular forms of Indian dance) (Courtney), Kuchipudi (from South-East India, composed of “graceful movements and [a] strong narrative”) (Courtney), and Manipuri (from North-East India, performed on religious occations) (Courtney) are just a few of many dances that are found in India. Kathakali Dance is one such form that conveys a story to its audience through theatrical display.  Kathakali Dance is thought to have originated in the seventeenth century and is defined by Caldwell in Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence, and Worship of the Goddess Kali as “an operatic form of ritual theatre in Kerala” (Caldwell 286). The literal translation of the word Kathakali means “Story-Play” and has become a popular form of story-telling in India. As one source tells it, Kathakali came about when the Raja of the time had a dream where the Gods paid a visit and taught him a new type of dramatic dance (Barba 37). Over time the performances of Kathakali have changed slightly from their original form. In the beginning, masks were used on the actors, but later this changed to the use of makeup. The actors originally would carry out the two elements of the performance which was reciting the texts and acting them out. Now the actors take on a mime type role and are solely responsible for the acting portion of the performance and there are two accompanying singers with musicians that are responsible for the verbal telling of the story (Barba 37). It is expressed in one source that the alterations that Kathakali underwent (from the time it came to be, to the form that exists today) stopped its changes with the coming of the eighteenth century and it has remained the same from that time up until now (Barba 37).

The performance of Kathakali usual begins in the evening and lasts long into the night (Caldwell 72). It is themed around the Puranas (group of texts about ancient myths), the Ramayana (epic tales about the Prince Rama) and the Mahabharata (The Great [Story of the] Descendants of Bharata) (Courtney). Kathakali uses a lot of different forms of communication in order to convey the story being told. These forms are seen in costume use, elaborate makeup, music, song, dance and verbal noises that are not in any language but are used to project an emotion. The common themes in Kathakali are the interactions between good and evil gods; they are always an interpretation of grand events that took place with the gods (Barba 38).

The costumes used are very pronounced and designed with the inclusion of bright colours and intricate patterns, where the makeup is very striking with colours that are just as rich as those on the costume. The costumes are thought by some scholars to have a borrowed element from another type of Indian dance called mutiyettu [which, unlike Kathakali, is more of a ritual act involving becoming possessed by the gods (Caldwell 252)] (Caldwell 77). But some scholars also think that mutiyettu borrowed ideas in the ways of makeup from Kathakali (Caldwell 77). Both costumes and makeup are very important elements within Kathakali, they help in inform the audience of which character is which, especially since the actors do not talk.

In order for recognition to take place, colours are given a general designation to a particular character for representation. For instance, green is the colour used on “Satvik characters – gods, heroes, and noble kings.” (Devi 95). A white beard is designated to a higher class monkey being, while a black beard represents “forest hunters” such as Lord Siva (Devi 95). A red beard on a character is the symbol for the main Kathakali demon, and all characters have their face painted in a way that accentuates the facial features (i.e. the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth) so that facial movements that are an important part of the dance are easily viewed (Devi 95).

The roles of women are traditionally played by men. What informs the audience of gender is the use of a smooth non-blemishing base makeup colour (usually white) that helps enhance such feminine characteristics as the eyes, eyebrows and the lips (Devi 87). Another type of female that is portrayed is the demon goddess, who is much more radical, including fangs and protruding wooden breasts (Devi 96). Good and evil is a major factor in Kathakali performances and so it is crucial for the audience to be able to recognize the nature of the characters. Such an example is the meanings behind the colours in makeup used on a characters face, with green usually meaning good, red meaning anger and black meaning evil (Devi 90). The costumes worn also help in determining the type of character being portrayed. The male gods tend to have a wide circumference to the base of their outfits which are quite similar to dresses but do not go down to the floor allowing for the feet to still be seen (Courtney). The female characters tend to have more slimming dresses that reach closer to the floor, and the demon goddess character has a wider dress that looks a lot like the males outfits but involves more black and dark colours to convey the presence of evil (Courtney).

The story is narrated by individuals that do not take part in the acting. The story is told in a language called manipravalam, which is “an artificial courtly literary language combining Malayalam and Sanskrit” (Caldwell 17). The singers are also accompanied by a variety of instruments which largely consist of different percussion instruments. There are four main instruments, three being different styles of drums and the fourth being cymbals (Courtney). The other instruments include a conch shell, gong, and trumpet. (Devi 87) The actors add to the suspense of the story through the use of the beat, adding emphasis for a dramatic scene, and a build up of energy for a climatic rise.

Due to the fact that the actors have no vocal roles in Kathakali, they must convey the story through dance, hand gestures and facial expressions. Certain hand movements or swaying of the body or placing of the feet convey specific meanings. It could mean such things as a river, a cave or the growing of a lotus flower (Devi 104-105). The hands, and more particularly the fingers positions and movements are a type of sign language (mudras) used to express the alphabet in a type of Sanskrit language (Barba 38). The story is told not only in the movement of the limbs but also what is expressed on the face. The eyes have a very active role in the Kathakali and it is something that the actors have to be trained in, to be able to perform properly, for the eyes are to move with the arms and hands, with a lot of eye rolling and shaking, they are almost always moving (Nritta Drishti which means ‘dancing of the eyes’) (Devi 106). An example of the silent communication that takes place through the movement of the face can be seen in the expression of fear where the actor “raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs laterally and rapidly, his nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions.” (Barba 39-40). Although the actors have no lines to speak, they do include yells, screams, and cries to emphasize the events taking place in certain parts of the performance (Devi 106).

Kathakali dance has survived up to present day and are still performed. The stories told through the form of dance have the power to reach out and touch its audience without them having to be able to understand the language. With the aid of costumes and the actions of the interpretive actors, even if no means is conveyed the performance is still able to captivate.


Barba, Eugenio and Simonne Sanzenbach (1967) “The Kathakali Theatre” The Tuane Drama Review Vol. 11, No. 4. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Courtney, David and Chandrakantha (2010) “Kathakali” Music of India. Real Audio. (Thursday, March 11, 2010)

Devi, Regini (1990) Dance Dialects of India. 2nd Ed. Delhi: Jainendra Prakash Jain At Shri Jainendra Press.

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Article written by: Christina Erickson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content