A Nondescript Village in Tamilnadu, India Stages 100 Dramas Every Year!


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The Valayankulam village located 22 km from Madurai City in Tamilnadu, India has a population of 5705 comprising 1514 families as per the Population Census of 2011.

Map showing Valayankulam

This village has a low literacy rate – 69.57% compared to 80.09% of Tamil Nadu. The Male literacy stands at 77.96% while the female literacy rate was 61.23%.

As per the constitution of India and Panchayati Raaj Act, an elected Sarpanch (Head of Village) administers the Valayankulam village.

Valaiyaangulam Subburaj Theatre (Photo: Dhanasekaran Muthu/ssl.panoramio.com)

Valaiyaangulam Subburaj Theatre (Photo: Dhanasekaran Muthu/ssl.panoramio.com)

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The cynosure in most village festivals in Tamilnadu would be entertainment items such as the theru koothu, karakaattam, dancing, singing, drama or a pattimandram (debating platforms), etc. But, what many, even in Tamilnadu, do not know is the fact that this nondescript village enacts 100 dramas every year  to please the village deity – “Thaanaai mulaitha Thanilinga Perumal” (தானாய் முளைத்த தனிலிங்கப் பெருமாள்) meaning “self-sprouted Thanilinga Perumal”.  So much so, the villagers do not fancy cinema theatres.

Even in this modern scientific era, women barred from entering the Thanilinga Perumal temple, pray to the deity standing outside the temple.

On the stage erected in front of the temple, the villagers allow only performance of dramas. They consider the stage sanctified and none can approach it wearing any kind of footwear.

According to a former village headman, the deity Thanilinga Perumal loves staged dramas; hence his devotees perform dramas 100 days per year to please him.

Devotees entreat the deity to fulfil their request and in return pledge to stage a drama of their liking when the deity answers their prayers.

A drama performed at Valayankulam Thanilinga Perumal temple stage. (Source: Facebook/Art and Cultural Rights of Folk Artists)
A drama performed at Valayankulam Thanilinga Perumal temple stage. (Source: Facebook/Art and Cultural Rights of Folk Artists)

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This tradition of staging dramas in this particular village dates back to the days of Thirumalai Nayakkar who ruled Madurai from 1623 to 1659 when a severe drought brought famine to Valayankulam and other surrounding villages. Since the people believed the deity Thanilinga Perumal loved staged drama, they pledged to perform a drama if he  answered their prayer for rain. Miraculously, it rained and the village had a bountiful harvest. As obligated, the villagers staged a drama the following year to thank their village deity. From then on to date, the village has been performing dramas to please their deity.

Around this time, when king Thirumalai Nayakkar visited the Thanilinga Perumal temple, the villagers entertained him by performing a drama from Mahabharata titled “Abhimanyu Sundari” – the story of Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna and Subhadra, and his first wife Sundari. The king relished the play and praised the actors who took part in it, and those actors adopted the phrase ‘Thirumalai mechinaar‘ (திருமலை மெச்சினார்) meaning ‘Praised by Thirumala’ as their family name.

Consequently, the first play performed during the drama festival would always invariably be Abhimanyu Sundari performed exclusively by members of the Thirumalai mechinaar families

A drama peformed acon stage at Valayankulam (Source: dhinasari.com)
A drama performed on stage at Valayankulam Village (Source: dhinasari.com)

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Every year the drama festival begins on Maha Sivarathri or ‘Great Night of Shiva’,  a Hindu festival celebrated annually in reverence to mark the marriage of Lord Shiva and goddess Parvati – the convergence of Shiva and Shakti. From that day onwards the villagers enact a drama daily for 100 days without any interruption.

Drama "Valli Thirumanam, " performed at Valayankulam Thanilinga Perumal temple..(Source: Facebook/Art and Cultural Rights of Folk Artists)
Drama “Valli Thirumanam, ” performed at Valayankulam Thanilinga Perumal temple..(Source: Facebook/Art and Cultural Rights of Folk Artists)

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The villagers believe that if anyone prays to their deity and pledges to stage a drama, the deity would hearken to their prayers. The villagers of Valayankulam boast that barren couples who pray for issues would come to the temple the following year with their offsprings and offer their thanks by sponsoring a drama.

A drama performed on stage at Valayankulam (Source: dhinasari.com) - 2
A drama peformed on stage at Valayankulam Village ( Source: dhinasari.com)

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Flaming Torches brought by the villagers from the village square to the stage.
Flaming Torches brought by the villagers from the village square to the stage.

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In the past, when there was no electricity, the villagers lit the stage using flaming torches. Hence even now, to uphold the tradition, the villagers carry flaming torches from the village square to the stage with pomp and ceremony before the day’s play begins. When the torch bearers reach the stage, the pujari or archaka (priest) performs special ceremonies in the temple.

Audience watching a drama peformed on stage at Valayankulam (Source: dhinasari.com)
Audience watching a drama performed on stage at Valayankulam (Source: dhinasari.com)

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View of the stage from the sanctum sanctorum of Thaanaai mulaitha Thanilinga Perumal (தானாய் முளைத்த தனிலிங்கப் பெருமாள்)
View of the stage from the sanctum sanctorum of Thaanaai mulaitha Thanilinga Perumal (தானாய் முளைத்த தனிலிங்கப் பெருமாள்)

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After paying the due respects to the seniors of the village, the play will begin at 10:00 pm and will proceed till 5:00 am the following day. The pujari keeps the door of the sanctum sanctorum open during this time for the deity to view the play.

The drama festivities will culminate on Chithra Fullmoon Day followed by a banquet for people belonging to all castes.

The minimum cost of staging a play by mediocre actors would amount to  ₹25,000 and might go up to ₹60,000 to ₹1,00,000 if performed by cinema actors. Almost all Tamil drama actors and artisans connected with the dramatic art have performed or taken part on the stage at Valayankulam before the deity Thanilinga Perumal.

Staging a play at Valayankulam whenever one likes is not easy as anyone might think. Devotees who have pledged to sponsor a play have to pay ₹100 and wait in a long queue for at least a year to stage it on a stipulated date.

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Note: I gleaned most of the above details from the article published in dhinasari.com written in Tamil titled, “வருடத்தில் 100 நாட்கள் நாடகம் நடைபெறும் கிராமம்” (“A village where dramas are performed 100 days per year”) by Mr. S.P. Senthilkumar, a reputed Tamil journalist from Madurai, Tamilnadu, India.

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