Traditional Art Forms Of Kerala

Artists performing Kerala's oldest traditional martial art form Kalaripayattu on a beach in Kerala, India

A Complete Guide About The Traditional Art Forms Of Kerala

The beautiful land of coconuts, Kerala always offers delightful scenic views and exceptional experience for everyone. Despite the devastating flood that hit the land in 2018, the state had recorded a 6% increase in both footfalls and revenue in the tourism sector. While 15.76 million tourists visited Kerala in 2017, the state witnessed over 16.7 million tourists in 2018 which shows how beloved Kerala is for the foreign tourists and their enthusiasm to explore the beauty, culture and tradition of Kerala. Interestingly, the number of tourists who visited Kerala almost touched half the state‚Äôs total population. Here, one can hang out with nature and get lost in the midst of breathtaking snow-capped mountains, spellbinding beaches, tranquil backwaters, beautiful valleys, splendiferous forests, magnificent monuments and picturesque villages. That is why Kerala makes for a fabulous destination to explore and experience. 

For tourists who look for something different in this incredible land can explore the Art Forms of Kerala which are unique and praiseworthy. Kerala has a wealth of cultural traditions and an array of traditional art forms than any other state that attracts people from all over the world, offering a feast of art, dance and music for tourists and art lovers.

Kerala art forms are something special that helps you to understand the vibrant cultural heritage of the state on a deeper level. Tourists appreciate the high spirit of these art forms as well as the remarkable hard work and dedication of the performers that have inspired many of them to visit Kerala and learn its traditional art forms.

To take a sneak peek into the Traditional Art Forms of Kerala, Read below:


Kathakali is the most vibrant classical art form that originated from Kerala’s shore over 400 years ago. It is one of the greatly admired icons of Kerala. Elaborate makeup, colorful costumes and masks along with the fusion of dance, music and act, distinguish it from other art forms of Kerala.

Kathakali perfomance in a stage

Kathakali blends the aspects of ballet, opera, masque and pantomime to enacts stories and events from Indian epics and Puranas. The action, emotions and concept of the play are conveyed through gestures and precise facial expressions that are universally understandable which is its highlight.

Where To Witness: 

  • Kerala Kalamandalam, Thrissur.
  • Kerala Kathakali Centre, Kochi.
  • Kerala Folklore Museum, Kochi.
  • Ernakulam Kathakali Club, Ernakulam.
  • Kadathanadan Kalari Centre & Navarasa Kathakali, Thekkady, Periyar.

What You Will Experience:

From a calm start to a miscellaneous end along with an emotional and vibrant exchange of mudras and dance moves, Kathakali performance is indeed an exhilarating experience. The play is accompanied by music known as Manipravalam and the traditional instruments like chenda, maddalam and edakka. And the whole performance will leave you to be spellbound.


Popularly known as the ‘Mother of All Martial Arts‘, Kalaripayattu is centuries-old martial art form originated in Kerala. It is also considered as the oldest martial art still in existence.

Artists performing Kerala's oldest traditional martial art form Kalaripayattu on a beach in Kerala, India

Kalaripayattu involves extremely vigorous techniques of defense and attack which includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods. Many traditional art forms like Kathakali, Theyyam, Koodiyattam, etc. are indebted to Kalaripayattu for body movements and choreographical patterns.

Where To Witness:

  • Kadathanadan Kalari Centre & Navarasa Kathakali, Thekkady, Periyar.
  • Punarjani Traditional Village, Munnar.
  • Kalari Kshethra, Munnar.
  • Kerala Kathakali Centre, Kochi.
  • Greenix Village, Fort Kochi.

What You Will Experience:

Kalarippayattu is a stunning martial art form worth-witnessing, especially the stunts with the weapons and the jump through fire rings is sure to take your breath away. The way the performers handle the swords and other weapons is remarkable and appreciable. Apart from entertainment, it teaches self-defense practices in a very efficient manner. 


Recognized by UNESCO as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity‘, Koodiyattam is the oldest existing theatre art form in the world which is assumed to have a long history of 2000 years.

Koodiyattam or Kutiyattam folk art performed with traditional face painting in temples of Kerala, India.

As it literally means ‘dancing together‘, Koodiyattam is performed by a group of people where the main actor is the Chakyar and the female role is performed by Nangiars while the Vidushaka plays the role of a comic character. It is a dramatic presentation in Sanskrit and its theme is based on Hindu mythology. Koodiyattam is traditionally performed as an offering in Koothambalam, a traditional theatre built within the temple premises.

 Where To Witness:

  • Koodal Manickyam Temple, Irinjalakkuda, Thrissur.
  • Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur.

What You Will Experience:

Watching Koodiyattam is equally enriching and entertaining. The make-up and costumes of the Koodiyattam performers are not so elaborate but the special make-up, costume, and small head-gears of the Vidushaka set him apart from other characters that clearly display his clownish appearance. While the main characters render the theme through Sanskrit slokas, hand gestures and facial expressions, the Vidushaka remains the only character speaking in the Malayalam language. Vidushaka is the most interesting character in the act who enacts his role with the privilege to criticize anyone without fear. He is very humorous and recites to mock when the hero sings something in praise of his love.


Dating back to at least 1,500 years, Theyyam is the most unique dance form of Kerala. Moreover, it is a sacred ritual art form which is performed to worship the Hindu Goddess “Kali”.

A Theyyam artist performing during the festival at Arathil Bhagavathi Temple in Kannur,

Considered as the Dance of Gods, Theyyam is usually performed by men before the village shrine, groves, and compounds of ancestral houses as ancestor-worship with elaborate rites and rituals. It showcases a rare combination of dance, music and mime which reflects the ancient tribal culture of Kerala.

(Click here…) to know about the Theyyam Festival in Kerala

Where to witness:

  • Parassini Kadavu Sri Muthappan Temple, Kannur.
  • Muchilot Bhagavathi Temples, Kannur.
  • Sree Mavilaakkavu at Mavilayi, Kannur.
  • Mallom Kollom Temple at Vellikundh, Kasaragod district.
  • Kakkarakavu Bhagavathy Temple Aaroodasthanam, Kannur.
  • Sree Alakkandy Muduppali Bhagavathy Temple, Kannur.
  • Pulimuthappan Kavu, Kannur.
  • Aanacheri Kottam Sree Perumpuzha Achan Deivam Temple, Kannur.
  • Thalikkaran Tharavadu Kizhakkeveedu, Kannur.
  • Sree Chaamakkavu Bhagavathy Temple, Kannur.
  • Payyanur Karim Chamundi Temple, Kannur.
  • Aadoor Sree Panachikkavu Temple, Kannur.
  • KaruvalliKavu, Kannur.

What You Will Experience:

Theyyam is the most spectacular and mythical ritual art form you will ever witness in Kerala but not for the faint-hearted. The main highlight of Theyyam is its vibrant costumes and elaborate makeup. The spirit of the deity is conceptually transferred to the artist as soon as he is costumed as Theyyam and is considered as divine and he runs all around the shine and its courtyard, dancing, blessing, healing as well as answering questions about the troubles of the devotees. As a symbol of blessing, the Theyyam throws rice and turmeric powder on the audience which is said to have some curative powers.


Blending the graceful elegance of Bharatanatyam of Tamil Nadu with the spark and liveliness of Kathakali, Mohiniyattam is one of the most charming classical dance forms of Kerala. It is usually performed by women as a solo dance and has its roots in history and Hindu mythology.

Mohiniattam artist performs in Kerala

Mohini is a mythical enchantress avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, who is said to have appeared to seduce Asuras (demons) when the Ocean of Milk was churned. And this enchanting dance form is said to have first started by the temple dancers during the reign of Chera dynasty. 

Where to witness:

  • Kerala Kalamandalam, Thrissur.

What You Will Experience:

Mohiniattam is a visual treat for the audience. It is typically a semi-classical dance form which enacts a play through dance and is accompanied by music in the Carnatic style which is extremely lyrical. The dancer dressed elegantly in pure white or ivory dress with golden borders performing graceful dance steps using swaying movements, delicate footsteps, and impressive expressions make for a delighting sight to watch.


Characterized with humour and wit, Thullal is the most popular classical solo dance form of Kerala which is nicknamed as ‘poor man’s Kathakali’. It is marked for the simplicity of the presentation and its frank. This sarcastic art form was introduced by the renowned poet Kunjan Nambiar in the 18th century. It is often performed in temple premises during temple festivals.

ottamthullal one of the traditional artforms of Kerala

The theme of this dance-drama is based on Hindu mythology. The Thullal dancer interprets the verses through expressive gestures and facial expressions who is supported by a singer who repeats the verses, accompanied by an orchestra of maddalam and cymbals. Ottan Thullal, Seethankan Thullal and Parayan Thullal are the three types of Thullal. 

Where to witness:

  • Kerala Kalamandalam, Thrissur.

What You Will Experience:

Thullal makes for an enjoyable show with wit and humour. Though its costume and makeup look similar to that of Kathakali, Thullal is entirely different from it. Another interesting thing is that the Thullal dancer himself plays the role of both the storyteller and the performer and the way he manages both the role is quite fascinating. And the entire performance provides for thought and entertainment for the audience.


Padayani is one of the traditional folk dance and a ritualistic art form of Kerala. It is often performed in the Bhagavathi Temples in honour of Goddess Bhadrakali during the time of festivals. This ritualistic dance tells the story of Goddess Kali’s victory celebration after annihilating the demon, Darika.

Padayani artists perform at the annual Padayani festival at Kadammanitta temple,Kerala, India.

The masque made by drawing images on the leaves of the arecanut palm called Kolams are the main highlight of Padayani and they represent spiritual forces or divine characters. The Padayani performers wear the Kolam and perform the ritual dance in devotion.

Where To Witness:

  • Neelamperoor Palli Bhagavathi Temple, Alleppey.
  • Kadammanitta Bhagavathi Temple, Pathanamthitta.
  • Valamchuzhy Bhagavathy Temple, Pathanamthitta.
  • Sree Mahabhadrakali Temple, Kottangal, Pathanamthitta.
  • Sree Bhagavathikunnu Devi Temple, Elanthoor, Pathanamthitta.

What Will You Experience:

Padayani is a feast for the eyes and ears with the display of a variety of Kolams and the beat of drums and cymbals. It creates a religious vibe and excitement all-around, offering an unforgettable experience.


Pulikali is an iconic street art form of Kerala. It is annually held with regards to the Onam celebrations, which is the harvest festival of Kerala.

A Pulikali performer performing at a procession in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Trained artists and performers disguised themselves as tigers take part in Pulikali, wearing a head mask, paint their bodies with stripes of yellow, red and black, ties jingling bells around their waist and dance wildly to the beat of instruments like Udukku and Thakil and mimic hunting moves. It is one of the renowned art forms of Kerala admired all across the world.

Where To Witness:

  • Swaraj Round, Thrissur.
  • Thiruvananthapuram Onam Procession

What Will You Experience:

Pulikali is a delightful art form to watch. It is so vibrant that it offers great thrill and excitement to everyone who gathered around to see it. The rhythmic beat of the drums and graceful dance steps of the tigers, jiggling their bellies to the drum beats are just fantastic and the vibrancy you feel there cannot be described in words.


Thiruvathirakali, also known as Kaikottikali is an extremely graceful group dance form of Kerala performed exclusively by women. It is marked by simple lyrical steps, gentle swaying movements and rhythmic clapping of hands.

Group of Women performing the Thiruvathirakali dance in front a home during the occasion of Onam festival

Women who perform Thiruvathirakali are dressed in traditional Kasavu saree, wear traditional gold ornaments and jasmine flowers in their hair. It is often performed as a ritual around a lit Nilavilaku and to ensure a happy and everlasting marital bliss.

Where to witness:

Thiruvathira can be witnessed in various parts of the state during the Onam festival.

What Will You Experience:

It is true bliss to watch women dressed in traditional Kerala attire dancing in a circular pattern with graceful movements around the Nilavilaku to the tune of the Thiruvathira song. Thiruvathirakali is so simple that even a person who has no idea about it can learn it easily.


Traditionally been performed only by the members of the Chakyar community, the Chakyar Koothu is one of the oldest classical theatre art forms of Kerala. It is often performed in the Koothambalam of the temple.

Artist performing Chakyar Koothu in a stage.

Chakyar Koothu is a solo dance done in the accompaniment of percussion instruments like mizhavu and elathalam (cymbals). The theme is based on Hindu mythology which is beautifully portrayed with dance movements, facial expressions, signs and symbols.

Where to witness:

  • Vadakkumnatha Temple, Thrissur.
  • Sri Krishna Swamy Temple, Ambalappuzha, Alleppey.
  • Kumaranalloor Temple, Kottayam.
  • Koodal Manickyam Temple, Irinjalakkuda.

What Will You Experience:

Chakyar Koothu is known for the presence of humour elements which drew the attention of the audience. The performer who is known as Chakyar satirizes the manners and customs of the time through his unique narration of stories from the epics which is really interesting.

Art forms of Kerala are a tribute to its rich and vibrant tradition and exploring them is like a journey back to the tradition. 

Come, explore and experience the traditional art forms of Kerala on your visit to Kerala.

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