Category Archives: L. Hindu Arts, Architecture and Culture

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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Jagannatha temple





Laksmanasena Kam






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Yamuna river

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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


Kalidasa was a brilliant Indian poet and playwright known for his sharp wit, rich humor and brilliant writing style. While little is known about where he was from, scholars believe that the exquisite detail he uses in describing the region of Ujjayini suggests that he was either born there or had spent much of his life there (Anderson, 10). Once again the details of when he lived are not known for sure either, which adds to the mystery surrounding this great figure, but his work is consonant with the geographic, historical and linguistic factors that support the Indian tradition that puts Kalidasa’s life sometime before, after or during the reign of Candragupta the 2nd, who ruled North India from about 375 C.E. to 415 C.E. (Smith, 15). [For more on the Candragupta the 2nd and the Gupta dynasty, see Majumdar (1971)]. His name, which translated means “Kali’s Slave” shows that he was a devout follower of Kali, who is a consort of Siva. His devotion to Siva is quite evident in his plays and poetry as he often brings in the natural world as an integral part and Siva is known through the 8 elements. Although little is known for certain about his life, a popular legend about how he came to possess his talents is still popular to this day. Briefly, the legend goes as follows: Kalidasa was a very good looking man and as such caught the eye of a princess who married him. After marrying him she realized he was ignorant and uneducated and was ashamed by that. Kalidasa was distraught by this and while contemplating committing suicide called upon his patron goddess Kali, who gave him the gift of extraordinary wit (Miller, 4).

Today 6 major works are attributed to Kalidasa because “The coherent language, poetic technique, style and sentiment the works express seem to suggest they are from a single mind” (Miller, 5) but many more short prose works exist that are likely to have been written by him. The 6 attributed to him are 3 plays; Malavikagnimitra (Mlavikā and Agnimitra), Abhijnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) and Vikramorvasiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), 2 epic poems Raghuvamsa (The Lineage of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumara), as well as one shorter poem Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger), which is not an epic but a description of the seasons through narration of the experience of two lovers (Smith, 15). Ornge

While some have suggested that Kalidasa’s works, like most Sanskrit drama, find their origins in the Vedas, it is also probable that the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata had their influences on the style and content of his works (Anderson, 12). In all of his dramas, and for that matter all Indian drama from the period, plot is not the central focus of the play but emphasis is put on flavor and emotion [for more on drama in India as a form of religious realization, see Wulff (1984)]. He conveys senitment not only through clever dialogue, of which there is an abundance, but also through stylized enactment involving dancing, body, hand and facial gestures, make-up and the introduction of natural props such as flowers (Anderson, 13). Throughout Kalidasa’s work, love and sensuality play a central role, and following suit all three of his plays involve a love story as its central theme. This being said, he also brings to the forefront other traits and ideas, espoused through his characters, such as honor, dharma and the virtuous ruler.

Out of all of Kalidasa’s works his most popular and arguably greatest play was Abhijnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) (Smith, 17), one that continues to be performed across India and the world to this day. The story centers on the young woman Shakuntala who is the daughter of a sage but is abandoned at birth and raised in the fashion of a humble life in a secluded hermitage. While the virtuous king, Dushyanta, who shows himself to be so many times throughout the play, is on a hunting trip he comes across the hermitage after following a deer injured by his arrow. There he sees Shakuntala attending to the injured deer, is amazed by her beauty and poise and falls in love. He then courts her in a way that is becoming of a virtuous king and they are married. Soon after the king is called away to the capital and gives her his signet ring as a sign of his love. He tells her that when it is shown in the court she will be able to take her place as queen. Shakuntala was also in love with Dushyanta and spent much of her time day dreaming about her new husband. Just as she was in one of these daydreams a powerful sage Durvasa came to the hermitage, and because she did not notice him and greet him properly he was enraged. He then cursed her so that whoever she was dreaming about would never recognize her, but at the begging of Shakuntala’s friends he lessened the curse so that when she showed a present given to her by the person they would remember.

After a while Shakuntala began to wonder why Dushyanta had not come for her and so she and a couple others headed out for the capital city. Along the way Shakuntala’s signet ring, given to her by the king, fell off while running her hands through the water. When she arrived at the court she was saddened and hurt that the king did not recognize her and went out into the forest with her son Bharat, who was also Dushyanta’s son. She spent many years there as Bharat grew very strong and bold.

Sometime later a fisherman found a ring inside the belly of a fish and realizing the royal seal took it to king Dushyanta. Immediately the king’s memories of his lovely wife Shakuntala came flooding back and he went out searching for her. During his search he came across a young boy who had forced open the mouth of a lion and was amazed by the child’s strength. Feeling somehow drawn to him Dushyanta asked the boy his name. He replied “Bharata, son of king Dushyanta”. The boy then took him to his mother and immediately Dushyanta recognized Shakuntala and the family was reunited (Miller, 85-176).

Although this is only a brief overview of Abhijnanasakuntalam, it should give the reader an idea of how Kalidasa’s works tend to play out. As important as the plot is to the story, just as important is the sentiment and underlying themes that are ever present. Throughout Kalidasa’s plays these themes tend to be parting and reconciliation, young love and maternal love, the king as a patron, the heroine and the king and the duties and pleasures of the warrior, among other things. In Abhijnanasakuntalam specifically, the tone of the play is set by the virtue and piety of Dushyanta while the underlying message is seen through Shakuntala, a woman who is purified by patience and fidelity and is ultimately rewarded with virtue and love (Anderson, 17).

Kalidasa’s works echo the sentiments of Indian society during his life, which were in all aspects religious. Never divorced from his plays are Hindu values, and they are readily apparent in everything he writes (Anderson, 9). Through his wit and humor as well as his genius he has been able to captivate the minds of readers and viewers for the past 1500 years, and his works, being some of the first to be translated from Sanskrit, have played an important part in western understanding of ancient Indian literature.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Anderson, G. L. (1966) The Genius of the Oriental Theater: The Complete Texts of Ten Great Plays from the Traditional Indian and Japanese Drama. New York: The New American Library.

Majumdar, R. C., Raychaudhuri H. C. and Datta Kaukinkar (1946) An Advanced History of India. London: Macmillan.

Miller, Barbara S. (1984) Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. New York: Columbia University Press.

Smith, David (2005) The Birth of Kumara by Kalidasa. New York: New York University Press.

Wulff, Donna M. (1984) Drama as a Mode of Religious Realization: The Vidagdhamadhava of Rupa Gosvami. Chico, California: Scholars Press.

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Chandragupta II

The Gupta Dynasty





Written by Mike Kopperud (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Tukaram or “Tuka” as he refers to himself in his poems, was a great Bhakti poet from the first half of the 17th century (Fraser & Marathe 1). Scholars have placed his date of birth to be around 1608 CE and his death or disappearance in 1649 CE (Abbott i). His home was in a village called Dehu, near the Indrayani river (Abbott i). In the modern world Dehu would be by the modern city of Pune in north-western India (Abbott vi). Tukaram was born into the Sudra caste and was of the “Kunbi” sub-caste, who were mainly as farm laborers (Dharwadker 92). Tukaram was fortunate however since his family was financially secure unlike many others of the Sudra class (Dharwadker 92). Despite his class Tukaram became a poet of legendary status.

Tukaram adopted a spiritual lifestyle in order to achieve moksa, which is freedom from rebirth and karma (Abbott vii). Scholars have said that he sought to achieve Videhi which is where the individual is completely consumed by a god, which includes their body along with all earthly desires (Abbott vii). Despite his fame Tukaram’s life is shrouded a great degree of uncertainty since all texts credited to him are devotional texts that were written nearly 125 years after his disappearance and are based from the texts of Manipati (Abbott I). It is unknown if the records of Tukaram’s life and deeds are historically accurate since much of the data we have is from devotional texts.

As a poet Tukaram composed a multitude of poetry. He composed them in a specific style known as abhangs, which is a type of poem that has a specific metric composition like the Shakespearian iambic pentameter; however, this form of poetry is usually in praise of a deity (Fraser & Marathe 1). He did not write exclusively religious poetry; for instance, The Rich Farmer or Dagadacya Deva deals with a wealthy farmer, who while affluent does not cultivate virtues such as piety, generosity or patience (Tukaram 94). Many of Tukaram’s poems are either social criticism that deal with living dharmically or are devotional in nature. The devotional poems are often from the perspective of a lower caste man like the author was, and usually plead with the gods in an up front manner that tries to make sense of life’s mysteries (Dharwadker 93).

Scholars have managed to determine that Tukaram composed 1300 abhangs of the nearly 4600 abhangs attributed to him (Dharkwadker 92). Many of the abhangs are believed to have been written by Tukaram’s brother or followers and attributed to him posthumously (Fraser & Marathe 4). The majority of the abhangs were originally composed in the Marathi language with a handful composed in Hindi (Dharkwadker 92). Scholars today have not been able to piece together any chronology for compositions of the poems (Fraser & Marathe 3). Throughout Tukaram’s abhangs, no spiritual ideal or tantra is touted as superior, although some scholars have drawn parallels between his proposed lifestyle and Buddhism (Fraser & Marathe 4). The majority of Tukaram’s poems end with a short aphorism in regards to the subject of the poem. The aphorism is either headed or closed with two words “Tuka says.” Despite the wide range of topical matter in his poetry, Tukaram is considered one of the greatest of his time and is regarded with respect by all different castes (Fraser & Marathe 3).

Tukaram’s early life was financially secure, however, the beginning of his life was filled with hardships. His older brother became a renouncer and left the family after his wife’s death (Dharwadker 92). Tukaram was forced to take over his older brother’s responsibilities (Dharwadker 92). At thirteen years old Tukaram was married to a girl named Rukmabai who had severe asthma and later took a second wife by the name of Jijabai (Dharwadker 92). Tukaram’s parents died when he was at the age of seventeen and he was forced to support his family (Dharwadker 92). A famine struck India from 1629-1631 and during this disaster his first wife Rukmabai and eldest son perished (Dharwadker 92).

All was not lost however since during the famine he became religiously awakened (Dharwadker 92). He became a devout follower of Vitthala of Pandharpur from the Vaisana pantheon [Vitthala was an avatar of Krsna] (Dharwadker 92). At this point he retired to a mountain known as Bhambanath and meditated. It was here that Krsna appeared before him in serpent form (Abbott 83). Some deemed Tukaram mad, and when he returned to his family his business fell apart (Abbott 94). According to devotional texts his wife who had become sick of living in poverty attempted to murder Tukaram, however, he cursed her with boils and she relented (Abbott 228).

After Tukaram’s awakening he began to gather a great number of followers during the next 15 years (Dharwadker 93). Tukaram’s initial fame among the people was due to the skill of how he presented his bhajana and katha works (Fraser & Marathe 1). A bhajana is a hymn in praise of deity while a katha is a sermon regarding the contents of a sacred work that has hymns inserted into it (Fraser & Marathe). Despite his vast popularity, Tukaram’s criticism of Hindu rituals and social mores are cited for the causing outrage among the Ksatriya and Brahman castes (Dharwadker 93). Devotional texts, by contrast, note that his miracles were actually the cause of the unrest among the upper castes (Fraser & Marathe).

His main antagonists were Ramesvar Bhatt, a Brahmin priest, and Mumbaji Gosavi (Fraser & Marathe 1). Ramesvar Bhatt ordered Tukaram’s exile and had all his books thrown into a river. In the devotional texts one of the first miracles to occur after his awakening was the books’ miraculous recovery nearly thirteen days after their disposal into the river (Abbott 213). Tukaram then returned from exile and Ramesvar stopped antagonizing him after this miracle occurred (Fraser & Marathe). Devotional texts cannot agree on whether Tukaram simply forgave Ramesvar for his actions (Fraser & Marathe) or cursed Ramesvar to have a tainted body that would always burn like it was on fire, a curse which took some time to recover from (Abbott 211). However, there is further disagreement on the reason for the curse, some devotional texts claim that the curse was actually placed on Ramesvar for an unrelated fouling of a ceremonial pool (Abbott 209). His other antagonist Mumbaji Gosavi assaulted him physically (Dhawadker 92). Tukaram eventually overcame these enemies and gained enough renown that a king named Shivaji invited him to reside in his palace in Raigad. However Tukaram refused the generous offer and simply advised him on how to run his kingdom better (Fraser & Marathe 2).

Tukaram’s numerous miracles have been recorded in devotional texts about his life. The main text in regards to Tukaram’s deeds is Mahipati’s Bhaktalilamrita in chapters 25-40. While Tukaram may seem larger than life to us, one must keep in mind that many of his miracles are no different from those performed by the figures of Christianity and Islam; Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad. According to the devotional text Bhaktalilamrita, there were numerous miracles that Tukaram performed during his life and some of the more notable ones had considerable effects on those around him. One of Tukaram’s first minor miracles was taming a fierce dog that had killed a few local men. After taming the dog it became loyal to him (Abbott 243). Another minor miracle was creating oil for a Brahmin couple that he was visiting and whose lamp oil had run out (Abbott 265). Tukaram created an Abhang that could cure demonic possession and used it to cast out a demon from a possessed person (Abbott 248). Tukaram changed a well of brackish water in fresh water for a village (Abbott 263). Tukaram also apparently could raise the dead (Abbott 266) and turn iron into gold (Abbott 265).

Devotional texts also record numerous instances when Tukaram had divine properties and was protected on numerous occasions by the gods. For instance when Tukaram was being attacked by samnyasins who were insulting his poetry, they stopped when he transformed into a deific (Abbott 271). The gods also intervened at numerous points in his life aside from saving his texts. For instance, when king Shivaji returned to visit him a second time, an army of Muslim soldiers attacked his village in search of the king; a deity then descended and took the form of king Shivaji and led the soldiers away, allowing the king to escape (Abbott 280).

Tukaram’s death is even more enigmatic than his life. Tukaram’s disappearance is often debated over since it is reputed by devotional texts that he ascended into the sky riding on the celestial avatar of Visnu, “Garuda” (Dharwadker 93). Other devotional texts claim he disappeared in a flying chariot made of light that showered flower petals on those below (Abbott xi). During his ascension he was reputably watched over by Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Abbott 315). Historically, however, it is not known what actually happened to him. However, there was a note found in a Dehu manuscript that said “’Tukoba started on a pilgrimage’ and wasn’t seen again” (Fraser & Marathe 2). This note of disappearance has been interpreted by some authors that Tukaram had been assassinated by a Brahman whom he had continuously upset throughout his life (P 2113). Regardless of his actual fate Tukaram ceased to write in 1649 CE. A final unusual detail is that unlike most other Bhakti poets Tukaram did not leave behind any monuments that are a tradition of the Marathi people (Dharwadker 93). Tukaram was a great man who has left us a legacy of wonderful poetry.

One cannot hope to understand a poet without reading some of his poetry and as such it would be prudent to include two samples of Tukaram’s poetry. Therefore included here is two poems of the multitudes composed by Tukaram. The first poem is the aforementioned The Rich Farmer or Dagadacya Deva which deals with social mores (Dvarwadker 95). The second piece of poetry included is devotional, as it deals with a person wondering why the god can be so cruel even though they have devoted their lives to worshiping them.

The Rich Farmer (Dagadacya Deva)

He has vowed undying devotional

to a god of stone,

But he won’t let his wife go

listen to a holy recitation.

He built a crematorium

with his hoarded wealth,

but he thinks it wrong to grow

holy basil at his door.

Thieves plunder his home

and bring him much grief,

but he won’t give a coin

to a poor brahman.

He treats his son-in-law

like a guest of honor,

but he turns his back upon

his real guests.

Tuka says, curse him,

may he burn

he’s only a burden

and drains the earth.

(Dvarwadker 95).

Abhang 23

Why do you not pity me

Though you are seated in my heart?

O Narayana, cruel and merciless,

I have cried on thee unheard till my voice is lost.

Why has my spirit found no repose?

The stirrings of sense never pause.

Tuka says, O why are you angry?

We know not, O Panduranga,

Whether our guilt to be over or not.

(Fraser & Marathe 13).

Work Cited

Primary Sources

Tukaram (1909) Poems of Tukarama (5th ed.) (J. N. Fraser & K. B. Marathe, Trans.). (1909). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Manipati (1930) Bhaktalilamrita. Trans. Justin E. Abbott. (2nd ed.) Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1-315.

Secondary Sources

Dharwadker, Vinay (1995) “Poems of Tukaram.” Religions of India in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University, 92-103.

Abbott, J. E. (1930). Life of Tukaram (2nd ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. (i-xi)

Journal Articles

P, G. D. (2002) “What is a Name After All?” Economic and Political Weekly, 37(22), 2113- 2114.

Abbott, J. E. (1922) The Maratha Poet Saint Dasopant Digambar. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 42, 251-279.

Helpful Websites

Future Topics


Sri Chaitanya


Sri Ramakrishna



Written by Garret Ford (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Kalarippayattu is the term given to the oldest martial arts form founded in the state of Kerala in India’s southwest. The word, Kalarippayattu, broken down means: kalari or “place of training” and payattu, “exercise”. Kalarippayattu only began to be considered a martial art in 20th century during the revival of the sport (Green 2001a). Kalarippayattu, historically, is said to date back to the 11th century during a prolonged period of turmoil in the kingdom of Cera. During this time groups of Brahmins trained themselves and others in art of warfare and supported the war with the Colas. After the fall of the Cera kingdom, and the region of Kerala was divided, a group of Brahmins continued to practice their military art. The cattar or yatra, the sub-caste of brahmins also called “half –brahmins” for their devotion to the practice of arms combat, proceeded to teach, train, fight and dominate in the martial arts for centuries. Keralopathi, the legendary Kerala Brahmin chronicle tells of how the brahmakshatra, (the land where Brahmins take on Ksatriya roles) was given by Parasurama, and given instruction that the ardhabrahmana (half-brahmins) should fulfill military roles such as guards or soldiers (Mills 23-24). Parasurama, a warrior sage, is said to be the founder of Kerala and the first in the lineage of teaching families. Along with the yatras, other caste groups were trained in the art of Kalarippayattu. The Nayars were both soldiers and personal physical therapists to high-ranking officials such as district rulers or the local raja. The ideals of Kalarippayattu are also said to date back to the time of the Vedas. The concept of vital points (marman) can be traced back to the Rg Veda, in the story where the god Indra slays the demon Vrtra by attacking his vital spot with his vajra (thunderbolt) (Green 2001a).

During British rule Kalarippayattu experienced a decline because of an increase in military technologies such as firearms. It survived through the teachings of a few masters throughout the region, especially in the northern area. In 1920 Kalarippayattu started to revive with a sudden interest in the local art forms. Then in 1958, a few years after Kerala became a state government, the Kerala Kalarippayat Association was formed making Kalarippayattu an official sport. However, Kalarippayattu was still an unknown sport for most of the next few decades. Over the years that Kalarippayattu has been in practice, many forms and styles of it have emerged such as Arappukai, Pillartanni, Vatten, etc. However, many styles were lost, especially in the 19th century where there was a drive to strip power away from the Nayars and centralize power using European institutional models. Nowadays, there are three styles recognized by the Kerala Kalarippayat Association: Northern, Central and Southern, all named for their geographical region (Green 2001a).

Practitioners of Kalarippayattu focus on strict training methods and meditative practices to link the body and mind together. The basis of Kalarippayattu is the knowledge of the three “bodies of practice”: The first is the fluid body of humors and saps attained by rigorous seasonal training. The second is knowledge of the body, composed of bone, muscle, and vital spots. The third is the manifestation of the interior body through yogic practices to awaken the inner “serpent power (kundalini sakti) (Green 2001a). The learning of these practices are essential in creating the ideal state where “The body becomes all eyes”, which is a state of heightened awareness of all your surroundings and being able to act on impulse and instinct, much like an animal (McDonald 1570-1571).

Training in the art of Kalarippayattu is done in a kalari, which traditionally would be a pit dug in the ground, however, modern practitioners go to gyms (McDonald1569). The kalari itself is seen as a temple, with varying number of deities that are worshipped daily during the training season (Green 2001a). Training is traditionally started at age 7 and is for boys and girls. The training season is carried out during the cool monsoon season (June – August) (Zarrilli 25). Clothing prescribed is usually a loin cloth for males and loose fitting clothes for women. Entering the kalari is much like entering a Hindu temple: enter with your right foot first, and touch your forehead and chest with your right hand. The student crosses the kalari and pays respect and performs puja (worship) to the guardian deity of the kalari. Practice usually begins by oiling the body (McDonald 1570) and then start going through body exercise sequences (meippayattu) which link yoga asana-like poses, steps, kicks, jumps and turns and hand-arm coordination’s performed in increasing speed and difficulty. The poses are designed after dynamic animals such as the horse, peacock, serpent and so on (Green 2001b). When students are ready physically, spiritually and ethically, they are allowed to move onto weapons training. It starts with wooden weapons such as the long staff, and then is moved on to combat weapons like swords, and spears. Ideally, if practitioners are ready, the weapon should become an extension of their body-mind. Armed combat, much like un-armed combat is designed to attack and defend the body’s vital spots (Green 2001a). During the training period, special dietary, behavioral and observances are taken on that resemble one of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga. These may include never sleeping during the day and not staying awake at night, no sexual intercourse during training, to never misuse what is learned, and to be a good person (Zarrilli 25).

Along with physical exercise, meditation and massage are important aspects of Kalarippayattu training. Meditation is a way to increase concentration, and through different methods one can attain a higher form of one-point concentration. One method is to repeat particular mantras. Past masters of Kalarippayattu possessed mantra “tool boxes”, with mantras each having its own purpose such as one to worship a specific deity or another that has healing properties used during treatment of wounds. Before exercises begin, students are to massage oil on themselves and during training, full body massages are given by the master’s feet as he holds onto ropes suspended from the ceiling. These massages are done so that it will stimulate a person’s wind humor and create more flexibility and fluidity in the body (Green 2001a).

Although Kalarippayattu is a martial art, it has many other applications other than self defense. Constant discipline calms the three humors in the body: wind, phlegm, and fire. Knowledge of these humors is important to a practitioner of Kalarippayattu because when you know about the body it is easier to train and to treat injuries (Zarrilli 36). The concept of vital spots is important to both self-defense and medicine. In the 2nd century when Susruta wrote the classic Sanskrit medical text, 107 vital spots had been discovered to aid surgical intervention. With the knowledge of the vital spots, a master could injure or kill someone in a “counter application” of the previous use by striking a vital spot, or avoid them during therapeutic massages. Kalarippayattu, although a martial art, is also an important cultural aspect of Kerala and is on constant display in duels, displays of talent, or cultural applications such as dance and dance-dramas. So diverse is its use, that it is even used in a Christian dance-drama form, Cavittu Natakam displaying the Christian heroes St. George and Charlemagne (Green 2001a).

Martial arts, whether it is in Japan or India, are based on its key principles and devotional attitudes. Kalarippayattu is the unique martial art of the Kerala area and has been developing for thousands of years. Its ideals of exercise and meditation have been used in many other ways and in many other areas from medicine to warfare and even drama. The diverse use of Kalarippayattu is a testament to this dynamic and powerful martial art and to the culture that developed it.


McDonald, Ian. (2003) Hindu Nationalism, Cultural Spaces, and Bodily Practices in India. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 46, No. 11: 1563-1576

Mills, James H. (2005) Subaltern Sports: Politics in South Asia. London: Anthern Press. Pg 23- 24.

Green, Thomas A. (2001a) In Martial Arts of the World: Kalarippayattu. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Green, Thomas A. (2001b) In Martial Arts of the World: India. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1994) Kalarippayattu: A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and _ Ayurvedic Paradigms. Journal of Asian Martial Arts 3, 3: 10-50

Related Topics:


Sanga Tamil

Dhanur Veda

Asana Yoga











Recommended Websites:

Article written by: Anthony Erickson (March 16, 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Devadasi

Devadasi means god servant or slave. They are sometimes seen as the godking’s wives, or simply married to their temple, but since the Christian influence has come into South- East Asia, they have been also called prostitutes and have lost most of their high social ranking. The Devadasi are mostly young girls, given to the temple by their parents. There they are taught sacred dances and ceremonies pertaining to the God of the temple. At many of the temples they would perform these cultural acts naked or wearing very little (Sirhandi 44). This is one of the reasons the cult was seen as improper by other cultures. More recently there have been legal ramifications from the treatment of the Devadasi. This introduction into the Devadasi will attempt to explain the complex world in which the Devadasi play a pivotal role.

One of the greatest advantages of the Devadasis was that they could never be widowed (Orchard 2380). This allowed them a higher status than most other women, as being widowed can lead to losing everything. This may be one of the reasons that the Devadasi were seen as ranking higher than most other women in social status. They were sometimes seen as the development of the female Brahmin. Since women were no longer allowed to be priests, it can be said that the Devadasi took over the women’s portion of the ritual performances.

The Devadasi tradition can be traced back to the first century BCE (Jeffery 185). Although that date is unclear and some sources dispute that the tradition began between the third and sixth century CE (Orchard 5). At first Devadasis were simply seen as the wives of the god, or married to the temple. They performed sacred dances, sang and played instruments as a part of their relationship with the temple and its rituals. By the Chola Period, 850-1300 CE, (Orchard 6) they had become far more popular and were gaining much attention by their rituals. At this point many believe that their role as sexual beings became exploited. As wives of the temple they would be expected to perform sexual acts either for the temple to prosper or as part of their lives in the temple. In many cases, despite being married to the god of the temple, the women were still able to have children (Ashton, 798). The pressure for families to keep the temple prosperous may have led to increased pressure on sexual intercourse.

There is now a major problem with the Devadasis and their lives. From all the sources it is very hard to distinguish whether they were empowered wives of the god or victims of prostitution. Some sources say that they were simply dancers and entertainers and were not forced to have sexual intercourse with anyone that they do not approve of. Other sources say that they were sold by their families at very young ages and forced to perform sexual acts on anyone that will bring money to the corrupt Brahmans. Since Christianity came to India, the Devadasis have been under scrutiny. In times of British rule the Devadasis lost their social status.

In 1947 an act was passed for the protection of the Devadasis (Hubel 15). This act had become a very controversial and heated topic. Many felt it was necessary while others believed it infringed on their religious rights. According to Teresa Hubel, “the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional temple female dancers of South India (Hubel 15).” This topic is still controversial and has only passed in South India, although that is where most of the remaining Devadasi are. According to some of the sources this law has significantly reduced the amount of Devadasi that are used in the temples and their rituals. However one ethnographic study by Treena Orchard, notes that “between 1,000 and 10,000 girls are introduced into the Devadasi each year (Orchard 6).” It is difficult to tell what the proper figures are from most of the sources available. Either way, the law has had a significant effect on the treatment toward the Devadasi, now they are portrayed as prostitutes that are being protected. The ethnographic studies done on the Devadasi mostly depict them as sex-trade workers, but most studies ignore the fascinating history behind their rituals and traditions.

The Devadasi is a complex ritual and tradition. It has been a struggle for those still remaining in the ritual dancing to avoid being subject to calls of prostitution and becoming part of the corrupt nature of some of the temples. For most of those who have studied the Devadasi it was difficult to get anyone attached to the temples to openly discuss their roles (Ashton, 797). They are afraid of being viewed negatively as prostitutes, and the stigma that goes with their position within the temple rituals. Dancers are still used in many ceremonies and are called Devadasi but it is difficult to say what their positions are beyond entertaining at certain ceremonies. The ancient tradition of being married to a god and serving him for ones entire life is no longer found. The Devadasi way has changed along with the colonization and foreign influence in India.

The Devadasi are in a very difficult position in the caste system. They were once in a Brahman sub-caste but now they have been pushed out by outside cultures. They are seen as entertainers to gods and past kings, but modern-day prostitutes. Their position is very hard to place in Hindu society; it is unfortunate that their rituals seem so poorly understood by the sources.


Aston, Martha Bush (1987) Review of: Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri, by Frederique Apffel-Marglin. American Ethnologist, Volume 14; 4, 797-798 Malden:Blackwell Publishing

Hubel, Teresa (1994) Devadasi Defiance and the Man-Eater of Malgudi. Journal of Commonwealth Liturature, Volume 29; 15, 15-28 London, Canada.

Jeffery, Roger (1990) Review of: Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India, By Saskia C. Kersenboom-Story. The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 49; 1, 184-185ABI/INFORM Global.

Orchard, Treena Rae (2007) Girl, Woman, Lover, Mother: Towards a new understanding of child prostitution among young Devadasis in rural Karnataka, India. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 64, Issue 12, 2379-2390 Vancouver.

Orchard, Treena Rae (2007) In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships for Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India. Sexuality and Culture, Volume 11; 1, 3-27.

Sirhandi, Marcella C. (1999) Manipulating Cultural Idioms: In Contemporary Indian Art. Art Journal, Volume 58; 3, 40-47.

Related Readings

Apffel-Marglin, Frederique (1985) Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Priyadarshini, Vijaisri (2004) Recasting the Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India. Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.

Related Topics


Bombay Devadasi Protection Act







Related Websites

Written by Courtney Rode (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Fire in Hinduism

Fire plays an important role in various aspects of the Hindu Tradition. It is both the creator and destroyed of life, and those that follow the Hindu tradition recognize this fact through several of their rituals and practices. Fire plays a role in cremations, the worship of important deities through sacrifices and offerings and in daily Hindu routines.

It is apparent that in the Rg Veda and in later Vedic writings that interest moved more towards the fire sacrifice and Agni, and away from the other gods. Worship of these other gods was mostly through fire rituals. Any offerings that were to be given to the gods were placed in the fire and Agni would transport them to the other gods (Hopkins 14). These rituals were possible for Hindu’s of any social standing due to their ability to create fire (Hopkins 13). The importance of fire is evident in how offerings were actually conveyed to the gods, for without fire, it would be nearly impossible.

Agni is mentioned more times in the Vedic hymns that any other deity. Although Agni is not the creator god of the culture, he is still hugely popular and significant to Hindu’s. His importance lies in that he represents fire, something of great human value (Bowes 109). The importance of Agni comes through his association with fire, assisting in how vital his role is for worship. Agni plays a vital role in connecting Hindu’s to their deities by conveying offerings. He also assists in helping Hindu’s that had passed away into the afterlife. Because of this, Agni could be seen as assisting Hindu’s in physical matters by providing head and light, but also by supplying them with emotional and spiritual connections. Because he is considered the god of fire, it could also be assumed that he has control over Hindu’s life cycles. Fire supplies life, cooking food, supplying heat and giving off life. Fire is also seen as the end of a Hindu’s life as they are consumed by flames in a funeral pyre, sending them on to the afterlife. Because Agni supplies the fire in both cases, the life cycle of Hindu’s could be controlled by him.

Fire can be both the sign of life or death. Fire can be associated with the creation of the Cosmic Order, or Rta, and of Truth (Sitya). According to the Rg Vedic hymns, this creation was brought around by heat, or from tapas. The ripening or cooking of food could be seen as providing life to Hindu’s (Hopkins 26). Fire is one of the most traditional forms of gaining heat which is one of the reasons that Hindu’s started to worship it and respect the powers it grants. Through fire, life can be sustained as it helps cook food, provide light and offer protection. It provides Hindus with a defensive tool to scare off predators. It could supply light and heat to help Hindus survive. Fire can also help feed the people by providing heat to cook food and provide suitable drinking water. All of these reasons are vital to sustaining life, and the Hindu tradition recognizes that fire gives them advantage, so they worship fire accordingly.

Fire in the Hindu Tradition (A priest at a temple in Banaras presides over offerings into the fire, which plays a central role in many Hindu worship rites)
Fire in the Hindu Tradition (A priest at a temple in Banaras presides over offerings into the fire, which plays a central role in many Hindu worship rites)

It is Agni the Fire god that presides over the great events that happen in an individual’s life, and will accept their body when they die through the fire of a funeral pyre (Vir Singh 41). The cycle of death also goes out through the fire as the body is cremated. While the fire consumes the body, Agni takes the body parts and transfers them to a heavenly plane where another body is created (Wilkins 403). The wood faggots that are used on the funeral pyre need to be chosen carefully so they are acceptable to the cremation ceremony. It would be best if the wood was sacred and brought from a priest’s residence. Wood should be avoided if it is brought from another pyre, or wood that had belonged to an outcaste or anyone that was unclean (Wilkins 387). This demonstrates how the rite of cremation and the burning of the body were to be respected and the ceremony was to be respected, but also how the fire that accepted the body was ritually pure. This is evidence that fire plays an important part for the final stage of a Hindus life cycle, and is used as a method to move onto the next stage in the afterlife.

The use of fire can also take minor parts in rituals or celebrations, but it is still vastly significant. At the Holi festival, a bonfire is lit towards the end and games are played. This is to symbolize the young Krsna (Monier-Williams 150). This use of fire is a way of connecting to the gods through a festival, and having them observe the proceedings. Some of the rituals that are used with fire are the burning of the camphor, to show that the ego should melt along with the camphor and the soul should become one with the supreme (Vir Singh 13). In Bhakti Yoga, one of the five offerings that can be made to the deities is dipa, or a flame offering. Just the application of fire to bring about a spiritual connection shows how important fire is to the Hindu people. Fire took place in wedding rituals between Hindus as well. They can only be accepted as a true married couple if they complete one of the rituals of saptapadi (seven steps) around a fire (Bharati 185). Perhaps one of the reasons for this action is a connection to the gods, as evidence that they have witnessed the wedding. It is because of rituals like this that we can assume that fire not only plays parts in religious aspects, but also in daily aspects as well. The importance of fire does not need to be the key focus of any of the celebrations, but its inclusion in several ceremonies even in minor roles shows how it is still an important aspect.

All of these are examples of how fire plays an important part in Hindu practices. It is a symbol and a connection to the gods. Agni plays a special role in the connection through the fire and many Hindus feel it necessary to worship him more than the others. Fire can play a difference between life and death. It grants life through supporting the people with food and protection. But it can also mean death and destruction. Fire is used in several rituals, and it does not really depend on the rituals importance.

References and other Recommended Readings

Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971) The Hindu Religious Tradition. North Scituate: Duxbury Press.

Bowes, Pratima. (1977) The Hindu Religious Tradition: A Philosophical Approach. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Vir Singh, Dharam. (2003) Hinduism: An Introduction. New Delhi, Rupa & Co.

Wilkins, W.J. (1900) Modern Hinduism : An Account of the Religion and Life of the Hindu’s in Northern India. Dehli: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Monier-Williams, Monier. ( 2003) Hinduism and its Sources: Vedic Literature – Tradition and Social and Religious Laws. New Dehli: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Bharati, Dayanand. (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Bharati Dayanand.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Rg Veda
-Hindu Afterlife
-Bhakti Yoga

Related websites to the topic

Written by Jeff Rasmussen (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Food in the Hindu Tradition

“In Vedic texts, the sacrifice plays the pivotal role in [the] perpetual redistribution of food. The sacrifice was the dining hall of the gods; humans fed the divinities in the expectation that the sated diners would, in turn, feed the universe” (Smith 180). Hindus perform sacrifices for many different reasons and most, if not all, involve an offering of food (Yajna) to a selected deity. It is important to note that one must be in a state of purity in order to offer food to the gods. According to the Havik Brahmin’s three states of pollution, a Havik male must be in the Madi, or purist state in order to worship and feed a god. A Havik female, even when in Madi, is still not pure enough to feed a deity. However, a woman must be in her highest state of Madi to feed a Havik man his dinner. The Hindus see eating as a form of pollution (Rodrigues 68). However, food is still very important within the Hindu culture. It is not only a source of nourishment that sustains life, but it is “synonymous with life and all its goals” (Ravindra 1)

During many stages in a Hindu’s life, food plays a role. For example; in the Investiture with the Sacred Thread (Upanayana) ritual, the boy is “fed by [his mother] like a small child…this is expected to be the final time he will receive food into his mouth from her hands…The boy also begs for his first meal” (Rodrigues 79). Marriage, being one of the most important rites of passage, is celebrated with a huge feast. When the married couple has their first child, Brahmins are invited into the home and offered food in celebration. According to the Laws of Manu, Brahmins are quite restricted in who they can accept food from.

A Brahmin should never eat (the food) of those who are drunk, angry, or ill, nor (food) in which hair or bugs have fallen, or which has been intentionally touched by the foot; nor (food) which has been looked at by an abortionist, or touched by a menstruating woman, or pecked at by a bird, or touched by a dog; nor food sniffed by a cow, nor, most especially, food publicly advertised… nor (food) which someone has sneezed on; nor the food of a slanderer, a liar, or the seller of rituals, nor the food of a tumbler or a weaver, nor the food of an ingrate; nor that of a blacksmith, a member of the Hunter caste (Doniger 1)

Although there are many more restrictions, it is easy to see how eating food can be an ordinary, yet complex task when there are so many limitations to consider. If a Brahmin were to eat any foods treated in such a fashion as described above, that Brahmin would plummet into a high state of pollution. Non-Brahmin Hindus also take heed when eating and accepting food from others for the same reasons. It may seem that some of these dietary boundaries are purely common sense, such as not eating food that has hair or bugs in it. Other boundaries however, appear fairly extreme and would take a great effort to ensure these rules are followed if one wishes to remain pure.

There are three categories of food that can cause anything from health and happiness to disease and sorrow. These categories; Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic are synonymous with the three Gunas (the primary qualities of nature). The Gunas are believed to exist in all human beings and are a part of Prakrti (that which keeps one from realizing absolute reality by binding one to material objects and emotions). The first and purist is Sattvic food. In this category food can be anything such as nuts, fruits, or vegetables. These foods increase one’s health, duration of life, strength, and happiness. It is believed that “when food is offered to one’s personal deity before eating, the deity would neutralize harmful energies contained in the food” (Jayaram a1). Thus the food becomes pure (Sattvic) and so does the eater of the food. The second is known as Rajasic (hot) food which can be bitter, salty, meat, garlic, onions or any hot, spicy foods (Saksena 1). It is said this food and/or Guna creates a person who is unhappy, sorrowful and diseased (Jayaram b1). The third and darkest or most intoxicating Guna is called Tamasic. Food under this category would be fermented, or considered untouchable. It would include such foods as meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Eating Tamasic food would make a person dull, sleepy or reckless (Jayaram b 1) Meat is especially important in the Hindu culture. Not for consumption but rather to avoid eating.

It is not the case that Hindus are all vegetarians, but due in part to Karma (action), Hindus refrain from killing, harming and eating any animal unless for ritual purposes or other extreme cases. According to the Laws of Manu, “times when one is in extremis [one] can eat any food whatsoever–even meat from a cow or a dog, or food bought by killing your son” (Doniger 1). Karma plays a large role in this belief of keeping animals off the Hindu’s dietary menu. Karma comes from doing, and what you do will affect you in this life and in the next life. Eating, killing or harming an animal is bad Karma and ultimately those that kill and eat animals will have to experience the same amount of suffering due to the effects of Karma. Food is considered to be one of the five “sheaths” that clothes the soul (the other four are breath, mental, intelligence, and bliss), thus “food directly matters to the formation of a Hindu’s inner being and its becoming from one birth to the next” (Ravindra 5) “Eating meat impacts the development of the five sheaths and delays spiritual development” (Jayaram a1)

Spiritual development is life’s purpose for most Hindus. The highest goal in life is to obtain Moksa, or freedom from worldly existence and Karma. Moksa is contrasted with Bhukti which is defined as the enjoyment of worldly pleasures (Rodrigues 52). Food is a worldly pleasure. Many people find satisfaction in food because of its taste, smell and its ability to eradicate the feeling of hunger. “With food, the [Hindu] regulates his mental states and aesthetic feelings and secures spiritual gains” (Ravindra 9). However, Hinduism offers another religious thought known as fasting. It is believed that fasting will bring you closer to Moksa. Fasting is going for long periods of time without food or with limited amounts of food. Depending on the type of fasting and for what occasion, the time period can vary from a few days to many years. The few Hindus who enter into the fourth life stage (Samnyasin) dedicate their time trying to achieve the goal of Moksa. There are variations of the ideal path, but fasting or restraining from any worldly pleasures is one way in which a Samnyasin attempts to reach the goal of Moksa. “Starvation [becomes] and [remains] a religious goal, even while eating extremely well [remains] a worldly goal” (Doniger 1).

A platter of jalebis and puris (deep fried sweets and bread) at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Rajasthan
A platter of jalebis and puris (deep fried sweets and bread) at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Rajasthan

Food is most definitely a complex aspect of Hinduism. With all the different types of food that the world has to offer, Hindus are particular in choosing the food they eat and are also cautious about the source from which the food comes. Worship is taken to a higher level when food is involved. Hindus carry the belief that feeding the gods will keep the cycle of food distribution in motion. Through Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic food categories, Hindus are able to decipher which foods they shall eat in order to gain or avoid certain actions or emotions. In terms of actions, or Karma, Hindus are quite firm when it comes to avoiding the consumption of animals. “Do not kill an animal, for it might be your grandmother, or your grandchild, or you” (Doniger 1). Food is self evident, it is part of Brahman (Ravindra 5) Brahman is equated with Atman (true inner most self) and thus when you eat food, according to Hindus; you are eating yourself because food and you are one in the same. They are both part of Brahman which is the innermost essence of the created universe, the universe itself (Rodrigues 36). Hindu’s hold a deep knowledge and appreciation for food. “Food reflects survival on one hand and spiritual liberation in the other” (Ravindra 5).


Doniger, Wendy (1999) “Eating Karma in Classical South Asian Texts.” Social Research 66.1:151. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Lethbridge. 28 Feb. 2008

Jayaram a (2000-2007) Concepts of Hinduism-Annam, Food. Hindu Website

Jayaram b (2000-2007) Gunas, The Qualities of Nature. Hindu Website

Ravindra S. Khare (1992) The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues P. Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York and London: Routledge.

Saksena, Dev (2005) Hindu Foods. Cambridge University Hindu Cultural Society

Smith, Brian K (1990) “Eaters, food and social hierarchy in ancient India: a dietary guide to a revolution of values.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58 no.2 Sum, p. 177-205

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Written by Tiana Mutter-Veitch (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.