Polluted by a purifying text: The order of signs in a pre-modern literary Malayalam world

  • Elena Mucciarelli University of Groningen


Considered lost until the latter part of the twentieth century, the Tiruniḻalmāla, “The garland of sacred shadows,” has been defined as a “ritual text” and as an account of rituals performed in the Āṟanmuḷa temple of central Kerala. Yet the manuscripts that came to light were preserved in the northern part of Kerala. On the one hand “The garland of sacred shadows” raises fundamental questions about its composition and transmission, and more fundamentally about the relation between textuality and performativity. On the other hand, it invites a reflection on the interpretative and epistemic approaches that scholars adopt towards forms of text which include an oral and visual dimension at their core. In fact, this poetic work that has been dated to the 13th/14th centuries intersects with two ritual and performative practices from contemporary Kerala. The first is the Uccabali-Teyyam, a particular form of Teyyam or possession worship performed by low-caste communities in parts of costal Karnataka and northern Kerala, and the second is the deliverance ritual called Kanneruppāṭu.

This article aims to analyse how the rituals are presented and reproduced within the Tiruniḻalmāla in dialogue with the contemporary rituals. By highlighting how the text’s author refers to a religious and social 0world altogether different from his own, I argue that the Tiruniḻalmāla as a whole might have been conceived as the poetic re-creation of a ritual. In this sense, the text can be understood as a linguistic endeavor to conjure up something that resembles a ritual while openly stating, by its own textual nature, its disconnection from the reality it is supposed to depict.

In other words, I take the performative nature of this text to be understood in terms of reproduction and simulation. If the “Garland of Sacred Shadows” was conceived for the high caste communities, then its intended audience was allegedly meant to keep a distance from the same practices that represent the core of the text. In this sense, the text, which has at its core the purification of the main deity of Āṟanmuḷa, might act, by way of inversion, as a source of pollution for its audience.


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Author Biography

Elena Mucciarelli, University of Groningen

Elena Mucciarelli is Gonda Lecturer and Assistant Professor of Hinduism in the Sanskrit Tradition at the University of Groningen.

In her research, she focuses on the cultural history of South India using a holistic approach that brings together visual materials and textual sources in different languages combining philology, anthropology, and media studies. Her scholarly interests encompass the study of performative and ritual traditions of South India. Currently she is studying the conceptualization of magic in South India through the analysis of possession rites, healing practices and the medieval compendia of songs and incantations.

She can be reached at: e.mucciarelli@rug.nl