Tuesday 12 August 2014

Snapshots From Along a River: The Snake Worshippers

The picture is slowly taking shape: two massive entwined serpents which cover the courtyard.  The little girl beside me looks out from heavily kohl-rimmed eyes, entranced by the strange colourfully swirling shapes emerging upon her courtyard. 
Bent over in concentration, a woman and three men are drawing on the floor.  Beside them are bowls of coloured powder: black, white, green and red made from ground up charcoal, rice powder, leaves and turmeric.   The picture is known as a Kalamezhuth and is drawn in praise of the serpent gods.
The Pulluva community are traditional snake-worshippers.  There is none of our western perception of snake charmers here.  No cobras hiding in baskets in Indiana Jones’ style dramas.  This ceremony is performed to bring health and well-being to a household and the only snake included is the one being drawn on the ground.

An oil lamp is lit.  The Pulluva sit to one side of the drawing and pick up their instruments.  The youngest boy stands to one side carrying a lit flame.  The music is eerie and haunting and slow and seems to exist without needing a steady beat to make it flow.  It’s like an orchestra unleashed from a conductor, a jangling jam-session with no rhythm. 

The music becomes wilder and the young boy with the fire begins a willowy sinuous dance, running the licking flames over his body.  We all hold our breath as he moves panther-like around the drawing with hypnotic eyes.  Slapping the flame continuously over himself like a man possessed.  The air is brushed with the smell of his singed skin as he leaps and dances in front of us wielding the flame. 
And suddenly it is all over.  The music croaks and groans to an unexpected end.  The boy stands still.  The woman puts down her instrument and picks up a broom of twigs.  She bends down before the drawing and sweeps it into a Jackson Pollock swirl of colour.  The intoxicating atmosphere is broken.  The little girl next to me giggles.  The fire-wielding boy puts his t-shirt back on and chats happily to one of the family.  I sit there startled and wonder if that all just actually happened or if I just made it all up.

Note: A blast from the past. This article was written in 2009 by Jessica Lee after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder.

No comments: