Tholpavakooth Shadow Puppetry is a traditional artform of Kerala.

Shadow Puppetry in Kerala: The Traditional Art of Tholpavakoothu

Tholpavakoothu is a mesmerizing shadow puppetry art form that originates from the culturally rich state of Kerala in southern India. With its roots deeply intertwined with Kerala’s history and traditions, Tholpavakoothu has been captivating audiences for centuries. This ancient art form combines the enchanting interplay of light and shadow, intricate leather puppets, and traditional storytelling to create a unique and immersive theatrical experience.

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Leather puppets made by Tholpavakoothu artists of Kerala.
An artist demonstrating how puppets move in a Tholpavakoothu performance.
A demonstration of how the puppets are manipulated in a Tholpavakoothu performance by K Vishwanatha Pulavar.

What is Tholpavakoothu?

Tholpavakoothu is a traditional shadow puppetry art form that originated in the state of Kerala, India. “Thol” means leather, “pava” means doll, and “koothu” means play or performance. Tholpavakoothu involves the use of large, intricately designed leather puppets that cast shadows on a white cloth screen illuminated by oil lamps.

An artist making puppets for Tholpavakoothu using leather.
M Pushpalatha has a record for making over a thousand leather puppets.

The art form is usually performed in temple premises during temple festivals and religious ceremonies, particularly in the Palakkad and Thrissur districts of Kerala. Tholpavakoothu performances often depict episodes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as stories from other mythological sources.

A performance of tholpavakoothu showing a deer and a hunter.

History of Tholpavakoothu

The history of Tholpavakoothu can be traced back to ancient times, with its roots deeply embedded in the cultural and religious traditions of Kerala, India. While the exact origin of Tholpavakoothu remains uncertain, it is believed to have evolved from the ancient art of shadow puppetry that originated in Southeast Asia.

The ancient Tamil text Thirukkural, dating back to 300 CE, provides the earliest known mention of Pavaikoothu. The performance language seamlessly integrates Tamil, Sanskrit, and Malayalam words. Tholpavakoothu is dedicated to Bhadrakali in Kerala. Legend has it that Bhadrakali, engaged in battle with the demon Darika, requested a performance of Tholpavakoothu to witness Ravana’s defeat. Consequently, when performed in temples, an idol of the Goddess is usually placed on a pedestal, enhancing the aura of the sacred art form.

Tholpavakoothu found its unique expression and cultural integration in Kerala, particularly in the districts of Palakkad and Thrissur. The art form became closely associated with temple rituals, religious ceremonies, and annual festivals, where it played a significant role in invoking divine blessings and narrating mythological stories.

Puppets made by Tholpavakoothu artists of Kerala.

The narratives of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata form the cornerstone of Tholpavakoothu’s storytelling. These mythological tales provided a rich source of stories, characters, and moral teachings that were brought to life through the art of puppetry. Tholpavakoothu performances served as a means of preserving and passing on these ancient stories, allowing the audience to connect with their cultural and spiritual heritage.

Over time, Tholpavakoothu faced challenges and experienced a decline in popularity as modern forms of entertainment emerged. However, concerted efforts by artists, enthusiasts, and cultural organizations have contributed to its revival and preservation. Today, Tholpavakoothu continues to be performed in temple festivals, cultural events, and even international platforms, showcasing its enduring charm and cultural significance.

Tholpavakoothu Puppetry Tradition

At the heart of Tholpavakoothu performances lies the koothumadam, a separate 42-foot-long stage specially designed for the art form. Behind the screen, made of white cloth, the leather puppets come to life. Illumination is provided by 21 lamps, ingeniously crafted from coconut halves or earthen lamps, strategically positioned behind the puppets. As the light casts their shadows on the screen, a magical ambiance is created.

Accompanying the performance is the recitation of slokas, with performers memorizing over 3000 verses to bring the tales to life. Instruments such as the chenda, maddalam, ezhupara, ilathalam, conch, and cherukuzhal add rhythm and melody to the enchanting narrative.

A full Tholpavakoothu performance, showcasing all the episodes of the Kamba Ramayana, requires 21 days of continuous nine-hour performances, featuring a stunning array of 180 to 200 puppets. A dedicated team of around 40 artists brings this artistic spectacle to fruition. Traditionally, these performances begin at night and carry on until dawn, commencing with a kelikottu (prologue) and an invocation called kalarichinthu.

The period from January to May, along with the occasion of poorams, marks the peak season for Tholpavakoothu performances. The duration of the performances varies, ranging from 7 to 71 days, depending on the temple’s traditional practices. Even today, over a hundred temples across Kerala proudly present Tholpavakoothu to eager audiences.

The art of Tholpavakoothu has been traditionally passed down from one generation to the next through a guru-shishya (teacher-student) lineage. Young apprentices undergo rigorous training, learning the techniques, movements, songs, and intricacies of puppet manipulation from their masters. This time-honored tradition ensures the preservation of the art form’s authenticity and excellence, safeguarding its legacy for future generations.

A behind the stage scene of creating a tholpavakoothu performance.
A behind the scene view of M Pushpalatha, a tholpavakoothu artist, manipulating the puppets in front of oil lamps

The Craftsmanship of Tholpavakoothu Puppets

Tholpavakoothu puppets, once made from deerskin, now predominantly employ cattle leather as their material. Adorned with vegetable dyes known for their longevity, these puppets are true works of art. Some can reach heights of up to four feet, capturing the attention of the audience. Skillfully controlled by puppeteers using two sticks, one in each hand, the puppets come alive, their movements expressing the essence of the stories told through Tholpavakoothu.

Puppeteers: Masters of Their Craft

The lead puppeteer, honored with the title “pulavar,” represents the pinnacle of expertise in Tholpavakoothu. These puppeteers undergo rigorous training in puppetry while acquiring deep knowledge of Malayalam, Tamil, and Sanskrit.

Mastery of Tholpavakoothu demands an understanding of the Kamba Ramayana, along with comprehensive knowledge of Vedas, Puranas, Ayurveda, and classical music. However, due to the extensive years of study required, some puppeteers choose to forgo classical music. It takes a minimum of 6 to 10 years of intensive training to fully master this art form.

Crisis Faced by Tholpavakoothu Tradition Today

Amidst the fast-paced changes of the modern world, traditional art forms like Tholpavakoothu encounter numerous challenges. Here are the crisis faced by Tholpavakoothu, shedding light on the factors that endanger its existence and the urgent need for preservation.

Declining Interest and Audience Engagement

One of the major challenges confronting Tholpavakoothu is the declining interest and limited engagement from contemporary audiences. The allure of modern entertainment and digital media has shifted the attention of younger generations away from traditional art forms. This lack of interest poses a threat to Tholpavakoothu’s continuation as an appreciated and practiced art form.

Diminishing Traditional Knowledge and Skills

Tholpavakoothu relies on the transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to another. However, the scarcity of young practitioners willing to learn and carry forward this traditional art form has resulted in a gradual decline in the number of skilled artisans and puppeteers. The loss of expertise poses a significant challenge to the sustained practice and growth of Tholpavakoothu.

Limited Resources and Infrastructure

A lack of resources and infrastructure has hampered the preservation and promotion of Tholpavakoothu. Insufficient funding, inadequate training facilities, and a dearth of performance venues restrict the opportunities for artists to practice and showcase their talent. The absence of robust support systems impedes the development and continuation of Tholpavakoothu as a thriving art form.

Cultural Shifts and Changing Values

Societal and cultural shifts have also contributed to the crisis faced by Tholpavakoothu. With the rapid spread of globalization and the influence of popular culture, the traditional art forms that are deeply rooted in local customs and values often struggle to find relevance in contemporary society. The challenge lies in adapting Tholpavakoothu to address the evolving interests and values of the audience while preserving its core essence.

A bus stop named after a late Tholpavakoothu artist.
A bus stop named after a late Tholpavakoothu artist.

Limited Awareness and Exposure

The lack of awareness and exposure to Tholpavakoothu among both national and international audiences exacerbates the crisis. Many people, even within India, remain unaware of the art form’s existence, significance, and beauty. Increasing awareness through educational programs, cultural exchanges, and digital platforms can help generate interest, attract new audiences, and foster appreciation for Tholpavakoothu.

Reviving and Reimagining Tholpavakoothu

To overcome the crisis, concerted efforts are needed to revive and reimagine Tholpavakoothu. This includes promoting Tholpavakoothu through collaborations with cultural organizations, integrating it into educational curricula, organizing workshops and performances, and leveraging digital media for wider outreach. Exploring innovative ways to make Tholpavakoothu more accessible and engaging to contemporary audiences while preserving its traditional elements is crucial.

Way Forward for Tholpavakoothu

As we navigate the modern era, it is crucial to chart a way forward for Tholpavakoothu that balances innovation with the preservation of its rich cultural heritage. In this blog, we explore the path ahead for Tholpavakoothu and discuss strategies to ensure its continued relevance and growth.

A tholpavu puppet of actor Mohanlal created by Tholpavakoothu artists.
A leather puppet of the Malayalam superstar, Mohanlal, crafted by the Tholpavakoothu artists.

Embracing Technological Advancements

To rejuvenate Tholpavakoothu, embracing technology can provide new avenues for innovation. Incorporating multimedia elements, such as projections, lighting effects, and digital storytelling, can enhance the visual experience and captivate contemporary audiences. Leveraging digital platforms and social media can help increase awareness, engage younger generations, and create a wider reach for Tholpavakoothu.

Tholpavakoothu School of shadow puppetry by K Viswanatha Pulavar.
Tholpavakoothu School of shadow puppetry by K Viswanatha Pulavar.

Collaboration with Contemporary Artists

Collaboration between Tholpavakoothu artists and contemporary artists from various disciplines can infuse fresh perspectives into the art form. Collaborations can lead to unique performances that blend Tholpavakoothu with dance, music, theater, or visual arts. This cross-pollination of ideas and talents can generate renewed interest and attract diverse audiences to experience Tholpavakoothu in a new light.

Education and Cultural Exchange

Integrating Tholpavakoothu into educational curricula can help nurture a new generation of artists and enthusiasts. Schools and colleges can offer workshops, courses, and cultural exchange programs that expose students to the art form’s history, techniques, and significance. Educational institutions can play a pivotal role in ensuring the continuity of Tholpavakoothu by fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation among young learners.

Cultivating Local and International Support

Creating a network of support is vital for the future of Tholpavakoothu. Collaborating with government agencies, cultural organizations, tourism bodies, and local communities can secure funding, infrastructure, and platforms for performances and exhibitions. Initiating dialogues with international organizations and promoting Tholpavakoothu as a cultural tourism attraction can garner global recognition and support.

Documentation and Archiving

Preserving Tholpavakoothu’s heritage requires comprehensive documentation and archiving of its history, techniques, and stories. Collecting and digitizing scripts, music, and puppet designs, as well as recording performances, can create an accessible repository for future generations. These archives can serve as valuable resources for researchers, students, and artists interested in studying and perpetuating Tholpavakoothu.

Community Engagement and Outreach

Engaging the local community and fostering a sense of ownership and pride is crucial for the sustainability of Tholpavakoothu. Organizing regular performances, festivals, and workshops in collaboration with local communities can reignite interest and build a strong support base. Additionally, creating awareness through exhibitions, cultural events, and public demonstrations can introduce Tholpavakoothu to a wider audience.


To adapt to the changing audience mindset, the duration of Tholpavakoothu performances has been shortened. Puppeteers have begun exploring contemporary and secular themes, attempting to resonate with younger audiences. Recent years have witnessed the inclusion of themes like ragging, communal harmony, and stories from India’s freedom struggle. Performances are no longer confined solely to temples; they have found a place in secular venues such as colleges and even the International Film Festival of Kerala.

A tholpavakoothu artist and a leather puppet with me, Ashley.
Meeting M Pushpalatha, a Tholpavakoothu artist.


Tholpavakoothu, with its exquisite craftsmanship, mesmerizing performances, and rich cultural heritage, stands as a testament to the artistic traditions of Kerala. It reminds us of the power of storytelling, the importance of preserving our cultural roots, and the enduring beauty of ancient art forms. As Tholpavakoothu continues to thrive and evolve, let us celebrate and cherish this captivating dance of shadows that captivates hearts and minds, and connects us to our shared human history.

While Tholpavakoothu faced challenges and a decline in popularity at one point, dedicated efforts by artists, enthusiasts, and organizations have revitalized this ancient art form. Today, Tholpavakoothu performances continue to enchant audiences, both within Kerala and beyond. Festivals, cultural events, and even international platforms have become stages for showcasing this vibrant tradition, ensuring its longevity and wider recognition.

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