Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Unusual occupations - The Pulluvan

Legend has it that Kerala – the southern state of India was carved out when Parasurama the sage warrior stood at Gokarnam and threw in an axe into Kanyakumari  which is the southern most tip of India. The place where the axe landed was Kerala. It was 160 katam (an old measure) of land lying between Gokarnam and Kanyakumari. Parashurama then fought back the advancing seas to save the lands of Konkan and Kerala.

The aim of his birth in that avatar was to deliver the world from the arrogant oppression of the ruling caste, the Kshatriyas, the warriors. He killed all the male Kshatriyas on earth and filled five lakes with their blood. After destroying the Kshatriya kings, he approached an assembly of learned men to find a way of penitence for his sins. He was advised that, to save his soul from damnation, he must hand over the lands he had conquered to the Brahmins. He did as they advised and sat in meditation at Gokarnam, in present day Karnataka. 

The land that Parasurama gave the Brahmins was saline and filled with poisonous snakes thus making it inhabitable for them to live. For the human beings to build their dwellings, they would need to disturb the habitat of the snakes without killing them. Every time a piece of land was cleared for a dwelling or for farming the serpents living in that land were invoked though the Pulluvars. Legend says that Parasurama who brought forth the land of Kerala from the seas, has given the Pulluvars the right to live by worshipping the serpent gods that are protectors of the land.

The Pulluvars - Messengers to the Snake Gods

At the corner of the temple area is a large and ancient Banyan underneath which are the idols of the various snake gods sculpted in stone and adorned with turmeric, vermilion and fresh  flower garlands seated on a solitary bench in a corner of the Banyan tree is a hunched old man  holding a one stringed musical instrument.

A woman walks upto him and tells him a name and a nakshatram ( lunar star sign) and folds her hands in front of the idols of snake god.

Ramadasan – the Pulluvan breaks into a song with his one stringed musical instrument as his accompaniment.  The song bears the mention of the name and star sign that the woman had mentioned. The woman in the meanwhile is bowing down in front of the snake idols to seek their blessings. She is  possibly praying for a curse to be lifted or for the good health of her family.   It is a ritual that repeats throughout the day with various devotees whose name and nakshatram along with the message is conveyed to the snake gods.

The Pulluvan is the messenger to the snake gods. Through his music he conveys the prayers of the devotee to the snake gods that have lived in that land. The Pulluvars are a caste in kerala that  is closely connected to the ritual of serpent worship.  The ritual of Serpent worship is an exclusive right of the Pulluvan caste and no other. Thus the occupation  is passed on from one generation to another. They consider the snake gods as their presiding deity ( kula deivam) of their clan and perform certain sacrifices and sing songs.

Known as 'Pulluvan Paattu', this is performed in the houses of the pulluvar caste . Upon invitation they also perform the song and dance ritual at the houses of higher castes,  in addition to serpent alcoves in most temples.

They would perform the ritual to invoke the snakes that would be forced out of their natural habitat to make way for a human dwelling. It was thus that a Sarpakavu ( a shrine for the serpents) would be built before the house is even built.  We note that most ancestral homes built in Kerala would have a Sarpakavu or a shrine where a lamp is lit every evening and a pooja ritual is performed to the snake gods who lived there.
The curse of a snake is believed to be responsible for many forms of human suffering that could be transferred to future generations. It is believed that a snake if killed, would curse the person and generations of his family would suffer as a consequence.  Particularly ill health, marriage proposals not coming through or childlessness are associated with the curse of the snakes that were unintentionally or intentionally killed in the past. It is known as ‘sarpa dosha’ or the curse of the snakes .

Sarpa kavu in a traditional kerala Backyard
Sarpakavu – shrine situated in dense groves specially meant for snakes - has been, for ages, an integral part of most ancestral homes of Kerala. In general Hinduism reveres snakes and  it is customary to set apart some land, not too far from the house, exclusively for snakes.  It was forbidden to kill the snakes or to destroy the flora of the groves. This meant that the land would gradually become a mini jungle. The gigantic trees and thickly grown shrubs and vines that harboured various species of poisonous as well as  harmless snakes give these groves a rustic appearance.

A Pulluvan through his music and rituals possesses the power to appeal to the snake gods and mitigate the curse.  Pulluvan pattu, the song of the snake messenger is an enchanting, mersmerising music sung with a one string instrument called the Naga Veena

Pullavan pattu evokes nostalgic memories perpetuating an eco-myth. Apart from the songs, the ritual dances  associated with Sarpam Thullal, the Pulluvan women hand over  from one generation to another the art of Kalamezthu, the art of drawing a ritualistic rangoli using herbal colors or snakes, down the line.
This is an occupation that is transferred from one generation to another. 
Although there still are many households that perform the annual snake worship. The occupation does not have too many competitors as all Pulluvans are a closed community and possibly related to each other.  If anything, they are a dwindling lot as an occupation, because not many from their families do take up the occupation that can only be passed from one generation to another. Some Ancestral homes commission the Pulluvars to perform, ‘Sarpam Thullal’ on religious occasions . This is when the members of the Pulluvar community are called upon. 

We also spot a woman – pulluvatti singing to the snake gods in yet another temple in Allapuzha, Kerala.  Evidently Unlike many other occupations, it  is not forbidden for women to take up the occupation from their ancestors. There are many who perform alongside their menfolk in Pulluvan pattu rituals . 

However these rituals do require women to be ‘pure’ which implies that women in their reproductive  age i.e who would menstruate  every month would be prohibited to take up the profession until they have reached menopause. Young girls who have not yet attained puberty are trained in Pulluvan pattu and also participate in rituals later on unless they are menstruating during the ritual. In that case they would stay out of the ritual.  
This is an occupation that is transferred from one generation to another. 

Ramadasan’s son Raghu plays the Pulluvan pattu at Mannarshala, a temple exclusively devoted to the snake gods.  Surrounded amidst dense vegetation of trees that could be more than a hundred years old or  more, nesting varieties of snakes that can hardly be spotted by the devotees who throng to worship their idols, of which again there are thousands. Mannarshala particularly attracts childless couples from all over to pray to the snake god to ward off their curse through the rituals.

As we trail the day in the life of the Pulluvan at the temple many devotees keep an offering of a few coins or ten rupees  as they ask him to pass their prayers to the snake gods on their behalf or on behalf of their loved ones.

Ramadasan’s other son is employed in Muscat as a construction worker and is unlikely to take up the occupation that his father and brother are into.

Ramadasan believes that if the next generation gets educated (which means in his notion passing the secondary school examination) they would not need to play the Naga Veena and follow this occupation..  He believes his other son had to take up this occupation because he did not bother to study well in school.  

He, a Pulluvan himself is not overtly worried about the occupation dying a natural death over the course of the next few generations. However he is happy to pose for a photograph and a video believing it will fetch his otherwise unexciting existence his share of fifteen minutes of fame.  


  1. I love your theme for the A to Z Challenge. Thanks for teaching us about unusual occupations :-). My A to Z is not that sophisticated I have to admit :-) https://justfoolingaroundwithbee.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/blogging-from-a-z-bee-version-q-wie-quoll/

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