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Kerala, My land is a woman

My land is a woman.

She gets up at four in the morning every day, washes her long hair of ancestry in the Periyar, her rough hands that smell of mud and revolution raking through the little knots of Inquilab as the deep blue water passes through it.

She pins up three bunches of fresh മുല്ലപ്പൂ (jasmines) on her hair, down the valley of her neck lies the Western Ghats, the scent of Jasmines and freshly ground coffee from Idukki the entire world sips on lingers on them.

Tonight she is excited. It is the night of the full moon, the night where she fasts for her beloved ones and dance for their prosperity. Tonight she wears her favourite traditional saree of whites and golds and is getting ready for a night of തിരുവാതിര കളി.

തിരുവാതിര കളി / Thiruvathira

In Kerala, Thiruvathira is an important traditional festival along with the other popular festivals, Onam and Vishu. This has been celebrated by the Brahmin communities like Nambuthiri and Pisharody and Kshatriya, Nair communities of Kerala from days of yore, the traditional folk songs running across the under tongues of every child even today. What once started ages back as a religious culture, now binds millions of Keralites together to dance, reminisce, and laugh.

When a loved one leaves you, it’s not them but a part of you too that goes along with them.”

Kerala, a widow, or a fatherless little girl, tremors on days when the rage and cries get too loud. She takes off her glimmering smile and jewels, and don herself in the fiercest of looks. Kohl and spirits rimming her eyes, red and black painted across the face, eardrums pried open to the sounds of ancient instruments of Chenda, Ilathalam, Veekan Chenda, Ilathalam, Kuzhal.

An ancient folk tribal ritual that surpasses even centuries, Kerala is a madwoman who witnesses through her eyes the drifting spirit of her loved ones.

തെയ്യം/ Theyyam

Theyyam is a famous ritual art form that originated in North Kerala which brings to life the great stories of our State. It encompasses dance, mime, and music. It exalts the beliefs of the ancient tribals who gave a lot of importance to the worship of heroes and the spirits of their ancestors.

Primarily originated from the northern districts of Kerala like Kasargod, Kannur; it is performed as a theatre play in open groves or caves called കാവ്, with accompanying തോറ്റം പാട്ട്/ Theyyam folk music.

Theyyam Festival

The Malayalam month Kanni is over and the land is stepping into Thulam with its touch of cold and mist. Come Thulam and Kolathunadu is abuzz with Theyyams. Malabar, steeped in rituals and folklore, is home to Theyyam or Kaliyattam. Time stands still. The air is heavy with devotion and piety and the land rings with the cheer of shared joy and camaraderie. No one is defined by caste, class or religion. It is a seamless integration of centuries old traditions by people of all realms. Performed as a theatre play in open groves or caves called കാവ്, with accompanying തോറ്റം പാട്ട്/ Theyyam folk music.

My land, she’s a woman who does not shy behind the curtains to show her emotions. Even when women and men were restricted from expressing their feelings, my mother let open her hair, raise her ample mounds of flesh, and howl to the mountains her agony, fear, rage, desire, love.

കൂടിയാട്ടം/ കഥകളി/Kudiyattam

Koodiyattam is a traditional performing art form in the state of Kerala, India. It is a combination of ancient Sanskrit theatre with elements of Koothu, an ancient performing art from the Sangam era.

It tells a story of my land’s birth, the way she fought valiantly to reach where she is now. It is the sounds. The blaring of the chenda and madhalam and a lot more instruments that will resonate in your ears and reflect in your heart after witnessing Kudiyattam.

She is a goddess that runs her tongue along the fields of grains and love. But she taught me not only to love but to preserve the love too. To fight against your inner instinct, to fight against a predator, she taught me self-defence has no age or gender. Kerala. She is a warrior that wears white dhoti around her legs and adorns power on her neck like a garland, the flowers on it as sharp as a knife.


Kalaripayattu is one of the most famous martial arts across the world that originated from the land of Kerala. It is believed to be the oldest surviving martial art in India, with a history spanning over 3,000 years.

Kalaripayattu is mentioned in the Vadakkan Pattukal, a collection of ballads written about the Chekavar of the Malabar region of Kerala. In the Vadakkan Pattukal, t is stated that the cardinal principle of Kalaripayattu was that knowledge of the art is used to further worthy causes, and not for the advancement of one’s own selfish interests.

The clamour of swords against shields, and steel against steel, the searing tales of blood and fire, it resides in a dimly burning corner of every Keralite’s heart.

So, today when I write about my mother, I cannot envision her in one single attire. She is the demure bride that sits amidst the roars of the famous Kolkali across the northern regions, under a veil of Surma and happiness. She is the Durga with her tongue splashing out to quench the thirst of the blood of a billion demons. She is the warrior my mother taught me to learn after.

But today when I write of her, I cannot stop without this one last lore. A folklore every little girl knows and is grateful for. History turned its back on Nangeli when jotting down in the books. No evidence, no texts or scriptures have been written down, and yet every bit of mud smells of Nangeli and her blood. The brave woman who cut off her breasts.


In the early years of the 19th century, the pravathiyar (village officer) of Travancore came to Nangeli’s home to survey her breasts and collect the breast tax, as was the system then. Nangeli revolted against the harassment, chopping off her breasts and presenting them to him in a plantain leaf. She died soon from loss of blood and her husband Chirukandan, seeing her mutilated body was overcome by grief and jumped into her funeral pyre – in what was supposedly the first male sati. The couple was childless.

Following the death of Nangeli, a series of people’s movements apparently set off and similar folk-lores have been noted. The breast tax system was supposedly annulled in Travancore, soon afterwards and the place she lived had come to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning land of the breasted woman) located in Cherthala ,Kerala.

As I come to an end writing of my land, my ink does not dry. It never will, because you see, that is Kerala. The land of rivers that will always flow back, the land of pen and literature that will never stop existing, but instead they just stay silently behind the curtains of colonialism. Brushed off behind the veil, Kerala is a small little girl that has mud that smell of blood in her left hand and infinite unread stories clenched tightly in her right. History forgets most parts of her, but the backwaters and the green plantains and guttered roads surrounded by paddy fields on either side, they will never forget her.

My land, Kerala, God’s Own Country, tonight she hugs you for listening to what she has been saving up for centuries. Tonight she is a happy woman, with big jimmiki in her ears and the brightest of smiles adorning her face, she invites you to the land of backwaters and heritage and a still burning spirit.

Vishwa Asokan

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