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Art & Culture

Folk Dances

Kerala has a rich variety of folk dances. They are highly developed and reflect the temperaments and moods of the localities in music and costume. Nature silently and unobtrusively has moulded these dances just as the lives of the people who dance them.

Religious colouring is seen in almost all of these folk dances, even in those performed in connection with harvests, sowing of seeds, festivals etc., so much so that their secular nature is always at doubt. There is difficulty in classifying these dances as social, religious and martial. Many of these dances are performed by men alone, some exclusively by women. There are also dances in which men and women perform together. Most of the folk dances are performed to the accompaniment of songs which are sung by the dancers themselves or occasionally by a group of musicians. Some dances are performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments only. In several dances the performers form a circle and clap as they dance. Sometimes, instead of clapping they strike small sticks which they hold in their hands. The customs and ornaments are peculiar to the places to which they belong. The eloquent, effortless ease with which the dances are executed and the overwhelming buoyancy of spirit are wonderful. In these folk dances there is no difference between the performers and the audience. Almost all of these folk dances are simple but beneath this simplicity is a profundity of conception and a directness of expression which are of a high artistic order.

There are more than fifty well-known folk dances in Kerala. Of them the Kaliyattom, Mudiyettu, Kolam Thullal, Kolkali, Poorakkali, Velakali, Kamapadavukali, Kanniyarkali, Parichamuttukali, Thappukali, Kuravarkali and Thiruvathirakali are the most popular.

Sangha Kali

This is also known as Sastrakali, Chathirakali or Vatrakali. Essentially a socio-religious dance which was a very favourite and popular pastime of Namboodiris, it was performed as a votive offering. The origin of Sanghakali may be traced to the numerous gymnasia (known as Kalaris) in ancient Kerala where physical exercises and military training with special stress on physical feats and swordsmanship were given.The last phase of the dance is called Kudameduppu. It is martial in character and actually in the form of combat exercise displaying the skill in swordsmanship and the mastery of techniques in the use of other weapons.

Kaikotti Kali / Thiruvathirakali

Kaikottikali, also known as Thiruvathirakali, is a very popular, graceful and symmetric group-dance of the women of Kerala often performed during festive seasons like Thiruvathira and Onam . It is a simple and gentle dance with the lasya element predominating, even though the thandava part is also brought in occasionally, when men also participate as seen in some parts of the Malabar area. Typically dressed in Kerala style with mundu and neriyathu and the hair bun bedecked with jasmine garlands the women dance in gay abandon, singing melodious Thiruvathira songs which are well-reputed for their literary flourish. One of the performers sing the first line of a song while the rest repeat it in chorus, clapping their hands in unison. Moving in a circle, clockwise and at times anticlockwise, at every step they gracefully bend sideways, the arms coming together in beautiful gestures, upwards and downwards and to either side, in order to clap.


This is ritualistic dance springing form the Bhagavathy cult. The theme depicts the glory and triumph of Bhagavathy over the demon Darika. The characters are all heavily made up with gorgeous costumes, intricate and elaborate and with conventional facial paintings, tall head-gears etc. Attired and adorned exotically with a unique weirdness and hideousness, the characters seem quite supernatural.

Kakkarissi Kali

Prevalent among the Kuravas of Thiruvananthapuram district, this group dance is very vociferous because of the shootings of the participants and also the wild beatings of primitive drums like para, veekkan chenda etc.

Dappu Kali

A group-dance of the Moplahs of Malabar. The performers from two rows of ten of twenty. They beat on the dappu which each dancer holds in his left hand and dance with exquisitely symmetrical swaying of the body and astonishing co-ordination of rhythm steps, flexion of body and timing of dappu.


A mixed dance in which both men and women participate. The performers move in a circle, striking small sticks and keeping rhythm with special steps. The circle expands and contracts as the dance progress. The accompanying music gradually rises in pitch and the dance reaches its climax.

Poykkulau Kali

Also known as marakkalattom, this is a stilt dance performed in connection with temple festivals. Theme songs are sung in which the fight of the goddess Durga on stills against the Asuras who attacked her in the guise of snakes, scorpions etc., are portrayed. The rhythm is kept by percussion instruments.


This is a dance prevalent among the Malavans of North Kerala. Models of oxen are made up with leaves and twigs, and carried on shoulders behind which numerous dancers with crude facial marks and skirts made of tender fronds of coconut, dance in exotic jubilance to the accompaniment of instruments like chenda and kinni ( a bronze plate ).


folk dance prevalent among the Thiyyas of Malabar, usually performed in Bhagavathy temples as a ritual offering during the month of Meenam (March - April). Poorakkali requires specially trained and highly experienced dancers quite thorough with all the techniques and feats of Kalaripayattu, a system of physical exercise formerly in vogue in Kerala. Standing round the traditional lamp, the performers, dance in eighteen different stages and rhythm, each phase being called a Niram.


This is ritual dance propitiating the goddess Kali. Small temporary shrines are constructed and variously decorated. A branch of the Pala tree is taken round the temple by about 10 to 12 persons who dance all the way to the rhythm set by percussion instruments and to the vociferous shouting and chanting of the accompanying crowd.

Sarpam Thullal

Many ancient family houses in Kerala have special snake shrines called Kavu. Sarpamthullal is usually performed in the courtyard of houses having snake shrines. This is a votive offering for family wealth and happiness. The dance is performed by members of a community.

Ayyappan Vilakku

Numerous miniature temples are constructed out of tender coconut frond and plantain leaf-stalks. Then songs are sung on the legendary right between Ayyappan and Vavar. In tune with the various rhymes and rhythms of this devotional song, two dancers in the costume and make up of Ayyappan and Vavar perform, striking with swords and defending with coconut fronds.

Parichamuttu Kali

This is martial folk-dance which had its origin during the day when kalaripayattu, the famous physical exercise of swordplay and defence, was in vogue in Kerala. The performers dance with swords and shields in their hands, following the movements of sword fight, leaping forward, stepping back and moving round, all the time striking with the swords and defending with shields.


Mainly performed as a votive offering in temples where the presiding deity is Lord Subrah mania. Here a number of dancers dressed in yellow or rose clothes and smeared all over the body with ashes and each with an ornate kavadi on the shoulder, dance in a row to the rhythmic beatings of instruments like udukku, chenda, etc., Sometimes nagaswaram is also used.

Bhadrakali Thullal

This is a devotional offering of Pulayas for the deity Bhadrakali. Special pandals are constructed in the fields after the harvest and the dances are performed. They are quite drawn-out and have numerous phases.

Vela Kali

A martial dance of the Nair community. This depicts ancient warfare in Kerala in all its ferocity and valour. Armed with shining swords and shields and dressed in exotic costumes they dance with vigour and force. The dance ends with the victory of good evil.


The wood Purathu means limitation or mimicry. It is a humorous folk-play which many characters like Chettiar, Chettichi, Kuravan and Kurathi are cleverly imitated to evoke laughter.

Kampadavu Kali

A war dance which is the legacy of an ancient past. The dance is performed in circles and the dancers utter wild war cries as it gathers momentum. The group formations are many varied and the power and variety of rhythm exquisite.


Ammana is a hollow metallic ball which contains numerous metallic pieces inside. Women perform the ammanattom dance, using four to twenty-four ammanas which are thrown up and caught deft missing none.


After worshipping the deity the performers gets over a one wheeled platform over which is the pillar like utholakam. There is a hook at one end of the utholakam to which is attached the backside skin of the dancer. This end is then raised up. Hooked to the utholakam, the dancer is thus suspend in the air almost horizontally in which posture he executes certain physical feats and dance movements and the whole platform is taken round the temple deity thrice.

Aivar Kali

Aivar Kali literally means the play of the five sets. This is performed by members of Asari, Moosari, Kuravan, Thattan, and Kallasari communities. It is often staged in connection with temple festivals like Velela, Thalapoli etc.


Padayani or padeni in colloquial speech, is one of the most colourful and spectacular folk arts associated with the festivals of certain temples in southern Kerala (Alappuzha, Kollam, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam districts). The word padayani literally means military formations or rows of army, but in this folk art we have mainly a series of divine and semi-divine impersonations wearing huge masks or Kolams of different shapes, colours and designs painted on the stalks of arecanut fronds. The most important of the kolams usually presented in a padayani performance are Bhairavi (Kali), Kolam (god of death), Yakshi (fairy), Pakshi (bird) etc.


A devotional offering performed in Bhadrakali temples. A set of performers known as Thiyyattunnis alone are entitles to perform it. The theme is usually the killing of Darika by Bhadrakali. The Unnis first draw the picture of Bhadrakali (called kalam) on the floor, with a five different types of colour powers. Then the dancer in the costume and make-up of Bhagavathy with special head gears, pleated skirts and painted face dances before the Kalam, to the accompaniment of devotional songs.

Bhootham Thullal

The concept is that the devil-aides (Bhoothams) of Lord Shiva are coming to see and enjoy the temple festival. The make-up of the Bhoothams consists of peculiar costumes, at once colourful and captivating. Large headgears, projecting rounded eyeballs, high-ridged noses, protruding tongue, flowing black hair behind the pleated skirts and overcoats all conspire to make the dancers appear completely supernatural.

Kolam Thullal

This is a ritual offering usually performed to get rid of the troubles caused by evil-spirits. Here a number of characters, with hideous make-up and flat big head-gears dance to the accompaniment of primitive percussion instruments.


Theyyam, otherwise known as Kaliyattom, is an ancient socio religious ceremony performed in Kerala since very remote times. As the word Kaliyattom denotes, this is a sacred dance performance for Kali. Kaliyattom is sometimes called Theyyattom because every thera or village was duly bound to perform it. These names show that Kaliyattoms were special festivals of religious and social importance.

In ancient times every village of Kerala has its own common shrine called Kavu and it was imperative to have Kaliyattom performed in front of it. As the word Kali has also the meaning of "Safety" in Malayalam, Kaliyattom may have the significance of a sacred dance for social or family safety.

The Dravidians were worshippers of the ferocious goddess called Kottavai. To propitiate this goddess a peculiar dance was performed. It would not be mere conjecture to say that the old Kottavai dance performance was the actual foundation on which Kaliyattom took roots later on. As Kerala was primarily a land of people with Sakthi (Bhagavathi) worshippers, the Kaliyattom became very much a part and parcel of the social structure.

Kali worship made its stronghold especially in the northern parts of Kerala, known as the Kolathirinad, the ancient kingdom of Kolathiri (Chirakkal Raja). Therefore it was Kolathunad (North Malabar) that Kaliyattom flourished more than in any other part of Kerala, In this way, a wide range of Kaliyattom nurtured and developed. With the passage of time along with different aspects of Kali, various other Kolams of heroes and heroines were defined and special Kolams were attributed to them. Thus we find Sankaracharya as Pottan Daivam, Thacholi Othenan as Ponniatu Pataveeran, Katangot Makka as Makkapottu and the great commander of the Kolathiri militia as Vayanattukulavan.

In short, in Kaliyattom, permanent forms and special attributes are given to Kolams and divine as well as hero worship is substantially and methodically carried out.

Each manifestation in a Kaliyattom is known as Kolam. Kolam actually means "shape" or form God, goddess, hero or heroine have their own peculiar and specific forms, and each form has its own particular representative aspect. To bring out that aspect each Kolam has special features in face painting which is a work of difficult craftsmanship and is a unique piece of art. Some Kolams take eight to ten hours time to paint the face according to strict rules of tradition. In the same way the crowns, head dress, breast plates, arm ornaments, bangles, garland and above all the woollen or cotton garments are all so elaborately furnished and variously shaped that the figure of a Kolam is something to see and wonder. It is said that the vivid and masterly ornamental dressing of Kathakali has originated from this.


Kurathi are a set of gypsies who go about from place to place telling fortunes. In this dance called Kurathiyattom, two Kurathis first enter dancing, in the guise of characters representing the wives of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Then they stage a controversy through songs over the exploits of their respective husbands. The favourable point in one's favour becomes the butt of ridicule at the other's hands and while one praises profusely the other condemns sarcastically.

Thumpi Thullal

This is a dance in which only women participate. It is usually performed in connection with the Onam festival. All the girls are dressed in immaculate Onakkodi dress and ist round in a circle. At the centre of the circle sits the performer.


This is women's dance prevalent in Kerala. The dancers move in a circle and the hand gestures signify reaping and harvesting. One of the women leads the singing with a favourite song while the rest take up the refrain. Each performer renders a new line in turn and the dancing stops when all get tired.

Kaduva Kali

This dance, also known as Pulikali, is performed during the Moharam season. Dancers realistically made up as tigers with appropriate costumes go about from house to house, dancing vigorously to the loud beating of instruments like Udukku, Thakal, etc.

Kanniyar Kali

One of the centuries old, but well-known folk dance of Kerala, Kanniyarkali (also known as Desathukali) is a fast moving, militant dance from attuned to rhythmic devotional folk songs and asuravadyas. It is said to be a ritual offering in honour of the deity Bhagavathy.

Pakkanar Attom

This art form is performed to drive out evil spirits from hons. It is believed that Pakkanar and his wife visit the hayses. They dance in tune with the beat of different drums. Usually this art form is performed during Onam festival.


This is in vogue in Thiruvananthapuram District, performed mostly in Devi temples. A performer, wearing a crown, similar to the used by the 'Ottanthulal artist, and three other characters, with three different facial make-ups, dance rhythmically to the background of percussion instruments. The songs are in praise of Durga, 'Padapattu', and 'Kalaripattu' and songs in praise of deities. It is usual to have partitioners of red silk at the performing arena.


Thirayattom is performed as part of festive celebrations in Kavus in Central Malabar. The word thira means lustre and the Thirayattom dance is said to cast radiance by virtue of his gorgeous array, made all the more dazzling by the blaze of torches, made of clusters of dried coconut fronds.


Oppana is an exquistic folk art form performed traditionally among the muslim community in Kerala. The song and dance programme is performed by females to entertain the bride and by males to entertain the bridegroom.

Margam Kali

Margam Kali is an art from popular among the Syrian Christian community of the erstwhile Travancore. This consists of group dances and martial arts like parichamuttu kali. The theme of the songs revolves round the life of St. Thomas.

Aadi Vedan

Aadivedan is an ancient folk art prevalent in certain areas of Kannur district. Aadi and Vedan represent Parvathy and siva. All the characters who enact these two roles normally belong to two different communities. It is performed during day time.

Arjuna Nritham

Arujunanritham is a popular dance form in Alleppy and Kottayam districts. This is performed by one or two persons at night and the lighting is done by the traditional lamp called 'Nilavilakku'. Arjunan was proficient in dance among the Pandavas and he is supposed to have danced and sung praising Bhadrakali. Since the lower part of the garments of the dance is made of peacock feathers, the dance is also known as "Mayilpeeli Thookkam".


Kummattikali is a mask dance popular South Malabar. The dancers wear brightly painted wooden masks. During Onam season groups of dancers donning masks and adorning themselves with leaves and grass go from house to house. The rhythm is provided by vibrating the string of a bow-like instrument called onavillu.


This art forms is performed in Kannur District. The leader along with the troupe go to each house, play on Chenda and begins to sing. Two characters with face masks made out of the stalk of coconut fronds and with yellow tassels of Kuruthola sing the refrain. Along with this they go through an enactment of comical gestures. There comedy characters are known as Paniyans. Another character the representation of bull, worn round his waist, dances in peculiar style.

Garudan Thookam

This dance form is presented in some temples where the installed deity is Badrakali. Two or three dancers in the garb of Gardua, dance of the rhythm of percussion instruments. In imitation of Garuda (the bird king) the dangers preen the feathers with their breaks, carry snakes in the beak, dance with wings spread in circles, in an ecstasy of joy.


After commencing the performance, in a vacant lot, the performers go from house to house and perform this.The costume of Chozhi consists of dried plantain leaves, tied all over the body. And two horns would be sticking out from the forehead. Kalan and Chitragupta wear black clothes and masks of terrifying aspect with fangs bared.

Thalamkali (Thalikakkali)

This is an art form where physical culture amount much. It is prevalent culture amount much. It is prevalent in Malappuram district. It is said that this used to be popular as a performance during the celebrations of Thalikettu ( a ritual in which the young girls who attain puberty go through a mock marriage)The performers stand in a circle and sing to a rhythm. After that they carry plates in both palms and go through intricate twisting and turning.

Thidambu Nritham

This is prevalent in Kannur District and in some parts of Kozhikode District, in North Kerala. Namboodiris conduct the dance. Marars play on percussion instruments. One namboodiri to bear the Thidambu, seven players on percussion instruments, two persons to carry lamps, in all ten persons are needed to present this. The dance is performed with the decorated effigy of the Devi carried on the head. Foot work is most important and this is executed to the rhythm of the drums.


This is a ritualistic art, performed by the Pulaya and Kurava communities. Theyyannam is found in Mavelikara, Pandalam and some places in Alappuzha District.When man turned to cultivation, his liking and respect for this began to increase. Though he cultivates different crops, he has a partiality for paddy cultivation. This is the theme of Theyyannam.

Thekkanum Thekkathiyum

Popular in Palakkad and Malappuram Districts. This is handled by the Panars. Their daily profession is the making of palm leaf umbrellas.Two characters (one male and one female) and two percussion instrumentalists form a troupe. The characters sing, exchange dialogues and perform stylish movements, through well defined steps.


This is known as Pavakoothu and Nizhalkoothu. Prevalent in Palakkad and Ponnani Taluks. This is handled, traditionally, Pulavanmars. The pavakal, or puppets are made of deer skin, to represent characters in the Ramayana epic. The puppets are arranged behind a long curtain.


Popular in Thiruvananthapuram and Chirayinkizhu taluks and in Kilimanoor, Pazhayakunnummal and Thattathumala regions.Form among the eight performers, two each, twin around each other like serpents and rising up, battle it out with sticks. The techniques are repeated several times. Sandalwood paste on the forehead, a red towel round the head, red silk around the waist and bells round the ankles. These form the costume. This is a combination of snake worship and Kalaripayttu.

Malayan Kettu

This art form is in vogue all over Kannur District. This is fully ritualistic in scope.This is usually performed for the sake of those women who have miscarriages and who are advised by the astrologers to have this ritual.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala