Kerala's Koothambalam (temple theater) preserves and showcases ancient performing arts

Koodalmanikyam Temple, Thrissur
The God' Own Country - Kerala is home to a variety of art forms, dances and music, quite native to this place The various dance forms of Kerala, mostly with a Hindu mythological theme  drawn from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, have been around for centuries and during festival times, they are being staged and watched by the people.  Kerala has temples of great antiquity and some of them  are more than 1000 years old and they  provide space for staging such art forms.  Among them 14 prominent temples  have an ample floor space  for the performers as well as  for the audience with a roof over it on the temple premises. These  exciting temple dance theaters / halls close to the divinity are unique to Kerala ' culture  and are an integral part of the community that lives close to the temple. They enhance and retain  the cultural matrix of this state. Such temple theaters called  Koothambalams are hollowed spaces for performing art forms and  they bear testimony to the artistic excellence of Kerala's temple architecture and design that offer a nice ambiance  and  space for the preservation and  growth of Kerala's native art forms that are older than the Koothambalam itself.  Koodiyatam,  Kathakali. Mohiniyottam  are some of the classical art forms staged in the temple theater. Kodiyatam is one of the world's oldest theater forms recognized by UNESCO as among the  "oral and intangible heritage of humanity''. It is precursor  to many of Kerala's performing arts.
Koothambalam or Kuttampalam  implies simply a  temple theater (Natyagraha) - closed hall  with a raised platform for staging Koothu, Nangiar koothu and Koodiyattam. In Malayalam Kooth (Tamil word Koothu) means  play or dance and Ambalam means temple. Since divinity is attached to such a temple theater, it is pertinent that the specific guide lines given in the ancient Treatise  of  Nātyasāstra of Bharata Muni must be followed to the letter and spirit. In the Koothambalam no other part is as sacred and divine as the center stage is. Hence Natyamandapam  is often equated with Srikovil or Garbagraha or sanctum. During performance, the hall and the stage are beautifully decorated providing a sanctified atmosphere. The stage within the hall is considered to be as sacred as the temple sanctum which lies within the cloister of the Temple; more precisely within the pancaprakaras of the temple. The plan, elevation, shape  and structure of Koothambalam  follow  certain  architectural norms typical to the tradition of  Kerala and the vastu rules  as  specified in thantra samuccayam and silparatnam, the authentic texts on temple vastu. As per Shastra, it is located   between the prakaras of bahyahara and maryada.  Invariably many of the Koothabalams have 100-odd `karanas' (dance postures) engraved on the Koothambalam pillars.
Koothambalam Vadakkumnathan temple
 In Natya Sasatra, among 37 chapters one chapter is devoted to temple theater - Natyagraha. It mentions three types of playhouse devised by the wise Viśvakarmā [the heavenly architect] in the treatise on his art (śāstra). They are oblong (vikṛṣṭa) square (caturaśra) and triangular (tryasra). We seldom see  any existing triangular structure. The concept of Koothambalam has been around for a long time - for centuries, but only in the 16th century it had begun to gain popularity for a few good reasons and indirectly it created an awareness among the like-minded people to preserve the state's  native  art forms and dances, besides, the people get to know our ancient Hinduism - related legends and their moral implication on our society. Availability of money among rulers across Kerala because of  improved trade connections with overseas countries, better knowledge of carpentry by the local carpenters -Thachans  as a result of inter action with carpenters from other countries or places. The temple priests Namboodri Brahmins, who were patronized by the rich rulers had good scriptural knowledge of Natya Sastra. With invaluable support from the rich rulers, they encouraged the construction of Koothambalam within the temple precincts close to the shrine to stage dances on festive days. Amazing skill and workmanship of local carpenters came quite handy and they could build an artistic, awe-inspiring temple theater as specified by the Namboodris. The carpenters are so skilled that they came up with a selective and specific wood design and incorporated it in the ceiling right above the  stage for acoustics. Any whisper will be heard across the hall. 
Kerala Kalamandalam, Thrissur, Flicker

 Kothambalam  also provides a link between artists  and the audience who can appreciate the nuances of the  age-old art and dance forms that  need to be preserved for the posterity. This, consequently helps the Kerala's ancient traditional dances thrive, besides it encourages the skilled masters  who could keep the koothu alive by imparting training to people interested in these ancient dance forms. Needless to say Koothambalams represent a unique element in the cultural and temple heritage of Kerala and its  uninterrupted legacy  is passing  down from generations to generations. They preserve, showcase and transmit the state's classical tradition. In some places the students, under the guidance of a teacher, practise the traditional dance, including Mohiniyottam in the temple theater itself. 
Kerala's native dance Kathakali, Kerala Taxis
Native tio Kerala. Mohiniyattam  Kerala Tourism
Native to Kerala, Koodiyatoom. Outlook India
These art forms evolved through Gurukula, an ancient system of education and training that existed centuries ago. Kathakali and Kodiyattam  artistes learn the old classical forms  the hard way by sharing the ecstasy and rigors of the `gurukula' tradition  of art education. A visit to such a training center like Kalamandalam is an esoteric journey deep into age old  artistic heritage of Kerala.

That Natyasastra is also notable for its aesthetic elements is true. These performing art forms not only involve physical movements - foot, hand, face, etc., but also an understanding of spiritual well being and mental agility - the ability to mentally transform oneself into that character portrayed by the artist. It requires lots of practice - Sadhana and patience. Spiritually, it will transport the performer into the audience and make them spell-binding. The performer, through his skill and histrionic will make the audience stop other thoughts going on in their mind  and experience his character in a parallel reality. The reality is this temple theater is a confluence of divine thoughts where  the performers and audience experience ecstasy in the realm of godliness. This is the divine space where the God and Goddess dance in tune, hence the debut performers first try their skill before a select audience and dedicate it to the almighty.