''Thiruvathirakali'' dance of Kerala and the concept of ''Arthanareeswara''

Surprisingly,  the famous  Thiruvathirakali group dance of Kerala that is famous  during the annual festival of  Thiruvathira, has a close association with the popular mythological concept of Ardhanarishvara of God Shiva, who represents both male and female attributes, upholding the inseparable bond between  male and female entities. If they do not function in union and deviate from the right path, the cosmos will face a chaotic situation. So is the life of a husband and wife whose marital harmony is immensely important.  

In the traditional and holy Malayalam month of  Dhanu (16th Dec.2020  to January 13, 2021) a few Hindu festivals are held in Kerala state  and  Thiruvathira assumes as much importance as other  festivals  like  Onam and Vishu and  for centuries.  

Arthanareeswara idol (God Shiva in male/female form)amazon.com

 Arthanāreeswarā stone sculpture  upload.wikimedia.org

Above image: A three-armed Arthanāreeswarā  (also spelled) Ardhanarishvara sculpture with only Nandi as a vahana, 11th century, Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple

Arthanāreeswarā temple Tiruchengode,en.wikipedia.org

Ardhanareeswara  temple interior  upload.wikimedia.org

Arthanāreeswarā temple Tiruchengode,en.wikipedia.org

Above images: Rare  Arthanareeswara ancient temple of Tiruchengode, TN. The Chola, Pandya and Nayak king made additions to the temple. The main shrine is for Lord Shiva known as Maathoru Paagar and the Ambal his consort is known Baagam piriyaalammai. The image of the main deity is 6 feet in height, the right half of the image as male and left half of the image as female. Hence the main deity is also known as Ardhanareeswarar. .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ardhanareeswarar_Temple,_Tiruchengode...........

Thiruvathirakali dance,Keralaeastcoastdaily.in

What is distinctive about this festival is unlike Tamil Nadu or elsewhere, in Kerala it is said to be the festival for women and the belief is  ''if unmarried women undertake  fasting on this day (abstaining from solid food, mostly rice based items) they will  soon get married to a good and compatible husband to take on the challenges of life with equal participation, particularly women will gain  positive attitude and stand by their husband in all phases of life''.   You may say Thiruvathira  festival is women-centric and women empowerment gets due importance.  Normally, fasting starts from  the preceding day (Makayiram nakshatra) and  ends on the following day.  For the newly married women,  the first Thiruvathira  called   poothiruvathira. is an unforgettable event just like Thalai Deepavali in Tamil Nadu. In connection with this festival, folk dances and folk music are arranged  across the state and women undertake 7- day  worship to enjoy  marital bliss  and  happiness. It is believed on  day of  Thiruvathira  ("star" of Lord Shiva) Lord Shiva,  after Parvati's  long penance,  took her as a saha-dharma chaarini - equal partner. 

Thiruvathirakali dance,Kerala, Alamy.com 

Every festival in Hinduism has a purpose or  a subtle message   to lead an upright life.  This festival is a tribute to Shiva and  Parvati who form an ''ideal couple''. They appear before the devotees as   (half male, half female form) in one-form,  the implication is women have equal rights like men.  Invariably, almost  at  all Shiva temple, there is a shrine dedicated to  God Ardhanarishvara, a composite form of Shiva and Parvati (the latter being known as Devi, Shakti and Uma). The union of God Shiva and Parvati  symbolizes the eternal bondage between a husband and a wife, promoting harmony in the family.

Arthanarisvara Thathuva in.pinterest.com

The popular annual  group dance Thiruvathirakali  (''Arthanarisvara Thathuvam'' as locally called in TN) is  a depiction of half-male and half-female,  human form  equally split down the middle. The right half is usually the male.  Shiva, with  his traditional attributes, is the  fusion of  masculine and feminine energies of the universe (Purusha and Prakriti). It illustrates how Shakti, the female principle of God, is inseparable from male principle Shiva, symbolizing Shiva's all pervasive  nature and the amity between male and female.  The right side of he body is often associated with masculine traits valor, etc.,  and brain  functioning such as logic, discretion, analytical thought and so on. The left side is related to the heart, therefore is also associated with typical feminine attributes  such as creativity, intuition and so on. 

Ardhanarishvara  concept represents the perfect synthesis of male and female forms, embodying  the Prakriti and the Purusha, the feminine and masculine energies of the cosmos. It highlights   how Shakti, the sacred feminine form, is inseparable from Shiva, the  principle male  God. This form also symbolizes the all-pervasive, all-enduring nature of Lord Shiva. and also  the optimal balance of the male and female energies in this world suggesting their co-existence and inseparability.  Complimentary to each other, they  must work together in unison  to maintain equilibrium. It shows the unity in the opposites of Purusha and Prakriti. The former  is the passive force of the universe, while the latter is the active, dynamic force. Both these forces must embrace and fuse with each other to generate and sustain the universe.

The universal fact is both Shiva and Shakti, irrespective of their opposing forces, are one and the same and cannot be regarded as two individual entities. Therefore they are inseparable and interdependent. The  popular annual  group dance Thiruvathirakali is closely associated  with the concept Arthanareewara.

Invoking  the blessings of  God Shiva, the dance is performed by women accompanied by Thiruvathira paattu It is a vibrant and an inspiring dance accompanied by  songs  that tell the story of  how Parvati was in deep love with God Shiva and her loneliness  being away from him. The celebrations begin on the full moon day, the birth star of Lord Shiva who  married Goddess Parvati on this auspicious day and this festivity begins on a happy note,  highlighting  harmonious marital life  that will promote family welfare, prosperity and progress.  This folk dance showcases the pangs of emotion of married women toward their husbands and the  young spinsters'  aspiration for comfortable male company. 

Attired in native whitish Kerala saris with mundu and neriyathu  women in synchronized groups of eight or ten dance  dance rhythmically in unison in a circle perpetually moving gracefully around a lighted brass  wicknilavilakku simultaneously  singing and  clapping , bringing forth the lasya and the amorous charm and elegance of the feminine attributes. It is an invocation to god  to bless the family with peace, tranquility marital harmony. Thiruvathirakali, a ritualistic dance performed by women, is one of the most ancient dance forms in Kerala, says Guru Nirmala Paniker

The day of Thiruvathira (as per the Malayalam calendar) was one of the rare occasions that allowed women to socialize and celebrate without being restricted by social taboos. Women were allowed to go out at midnight to village ponds for a bath and other rituals associated with the festival. Since these women were supposed to stay awake at night as part of the ritual, the group dance was naturally the easiest form of entertainment to keep themselves engaged.

In the past, centuries ago  during the festival  women used to perform this dance, which is illustrative of women's equal rights,  in the privacy of their  homes and later they were allowed to perform outside the home.  Across Kerala, over a period of time, as the dance became popular each region gradually added new style or distinctive feature to the   the performance to make it more graceful and fascinating.  On most occasions at many places Thiruvathirakali is held in an open-air setting or under a specially designed shed. practitioners like Padmashri Leela Omchery, a great composer of this art form breathes new energy and keeps this ancient dance alive. In the past several years  Thiruvathirakali has presented with unique styles and versions that have won the appreciation of the people. 

 Though Kerala is not a matriarchal society  some communities there  did have a matrilineal system in the past, meaning the daughter would inherit the property from mother. Woman empowerment is quite visible across India.   It is worth mentioning that for a long time, women enjoy equal status in many areas though there are complains here and there.  In the past, centuries ago  during the festival  women used to perform this dance, which is illustrative of women's equal rights,  in the privacy of their  homes and later they were allowed to perform outside the home.    

Kaikottikkali spreads the message of everlasting bondage between men and women in this transient world to take the stressed marital life forward without tripping. It is Kerala's own version of Karva Chauth that falls in October),  one of the most popular Indian festivals mostly being observed in the north  It is a celebration of love, marriage and the long-lasting bond shared between a husband and wife. The folk-lore has it that Thiruvathira Kali is in memory of Lord Siva taking Parvathi as his wife.