How A Kerala Festival Uses Explicit & Profane Ballads To Surrender To The Divine

Women celebrating the Kodungallur Bharani festival.
Kerala's Kodungallur Bharani festival is where women can express themselves freely along with the men in public.L: Kerala Tourism R: Ravikanth Kurma

The first time I heard the Kodungalloor Bharani song in all its glory, it was from a friend and I was shaken to my core. As a Malayali who grew up near Kodungallur - the locale where this festival is celebrated, I wasn’t unaware of the festival nor the concept of ‘Bharani Paattu’. In fact, the act of swearing a lot is often referred to as "someone singing Bharani Paatu". I had even heard the familiar tune of ‘thanaro thannaro’ that is typical to these songs, but never really knew why it evoked reactions.

But years later, when I did hear the song, I finally had context to the word and its iconic tune. It is an intangible cultural practice with a long history that people didn't know enough about. But it also made me aware of my inherent bias. I had heard ‘of Kodungalloor Bharani’ songs being uncouth and thought it might be something akin to the explicit songs from the West that wouldn’t faze me. But my inability to listen to these profane songs in my native language without blushing was something that made me rethink what it even means to think of something as being ‘proper’ or acceptable. 

In seeking to learn more about the song and the festival, I was bowled over by the history and motivation behind it. A passionate offering to invoke the spirit and blessings of the goddess Sree Kurumba Bhagavathy of the Kodungallur Temple, Bharani Paatu is sung during the festival that happens during the Malayalam month of Meenam (April-May) to commemorate her victory of the demon Darika. There is a long-standing cultural legacy to these songs as part of the Kodungalloor Bharani festival.

The intense, passionate expression of love for the goddess through profane songs is a way to break free of societal propriety; to express devotion and surrender to the goddess truly. While there are many elements to the festival, the Bharani Paattu is an integral part of the Kaavu Theendal ritual where the devotees enter a frenzied state that is said to be induced by the goddess herself. There are also Velichapaadu or Oracles, all clad in red who lead the rituals and a public procession towards the temple every year. These oracles, with their foreheads anointed with sandalwood and turmeric, are even seen bleeding themselves in the throes of passion towards the goddess.

Women celebrating the Kodungallur Bharani festival.
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The public singing of these songs during the procession has become a matter of concern in modern times. As with most things, the primary concern is how it might affect the young ones who hear these songs. But when I dug further, I learnt about how the attempt to ‘sanitise the profane’ might essentially be an attempt to fit into modern notions of ‘proper behaviour’ and is rooted in a colonial and oppressive mindset, as mentioned in an interesting read I found about the tradition. The fact that this unbound expression of devotion transcends social barriers might in fact be the concerning factor. The communal singing and the space to express freely through these songs, irrespective of age, gender and class,  and to enter such a state of frenzy in a public space, is a unifying factor that has kept the festival going, despite morality concerns. 

Women celebrating the Kodungallur Bharani festival.
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Over the years, I’ve found some sense of joy in introducing people to the festival. This is a festival where the goddess herself is a wild woman and the songs are a way to gratify her spirit. It is perhaps one of the few festivals in Kerala where women express themselves so freely along with the men in public. While some people continue to call for ways to limit or control the festival - specifically the public singing of the Bharani Paattu, Kodungallur as a place has always been one of communal harmony. So despite the attempts, the devotees continue to sing uninhibited and fervently, year after year during the month of Meenam, gratifying the goddess through their unbound expression to seek her blessings and protection.