Kerala has a rich heritage of centuries-old temples, some being even more than 1000 years old. At least 14 of these temples have special dance theatres called Koothambalam. Built according to the guidelines mentioned in ancient treatise of Nāṭya Śāstra, Koothambalams stand testimony to our rich architectural heritage and spiritual wisdom. Ironically, although there still are craftsmen who have the skill to build it, the spiritual context of it lays forgotten.
Koothambalam at the Koodalmanikyam temple
Koothambalam comes from two Malayalam words, Kooth that means play or dance and Ambalam that means temple. The word Kooth inturn comes from the Sanskrit word, Kudda that means a play.
Inside these Koothambalams were performed, Koodiyatam, classical art forms that are even older than these Koothambalam structures.
“It was only in the 16th century did we have the money to build such magnificent structures. At this time, Kerala was well connected through trade with many parts of the world and its rulers were rich.”
“Namboodri Brahmins who had the scriptural knowledge under the patronage of these rich rulers guided thachans who had the knowledge of carpentry to build Koothambalam,” explained Gopika J, a conservation architect who did her research thesis on Koothambalams.
Thachans were the oral proponents of Thachu Shashtra or the ancient science of carpentry. Whereas the Nāṭya Śāstra is as an ancient encyclopedic treatise on arts.
Outer walls of the Koothambalam of Koodalmanikyam temple showing extremely developed skills of carpentry
Koothambalam were built because of the riches flowing inside Kerala through trade from around the world, the scriptural knowledge of the Namboodri Brahmins and the carpentry skills of the Thachans who probably were also influenced by knowledge and information flowing inside Kerala through trade routes.
While Koothambalam is a more recent phenomenon, Natya Sastra is very ancient. It’s said to be even more ancient than Ramayana and Mahabharata and has influenced classical dance, music and literary traditions across South Asia. The Natya Sastra has 37 chapters and according to Gopika, one of its chapters is devoted to Koothambalam called Natyagriha in Sanskrit.
“This chapter states that Natyagriha are 3 types – square, rectangular and triangular. But we don’t have any existing triangular structure,” she explained.
Natyasastra is also notable for its aesthetic “Rasa” theory, which asserts that entertainment is the desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal, and that the primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.
Inside the Koothambalam of Kerala Kalamandalam
Ornate wooden ceiling of the Koothambalamin Haripad
This is the Koothambalam at Haripad Sree Subrahmanya Swamy temple, Alappuzha. Incidentally, the Koothambalam and other ancient temples in Kerala began to use copper on their roofs after the Portuguese introduced the technique in the region. The Portuguese came to Kerala only in 14th century.
This indicates that though the principles of architecture remained rooted in ancient texts, the materials kept on being updated.
Inside the Koothambalam at Vaddakunathan temple in Thrissur
A small Koothambalam at a place called Thiruvarp in Kerala. It’s the smallest among the lot.
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