The temple beats and the Pallavur trinity

I spent most of my childhood vacations near the temples of Pallavur, the bigger one being the Thrippallavurappan temple, with Lord Siva as the main deity and I have been lucky to see & listen to the great Pallavur trinity comprising the brothers, Appu, Kunjukuttan & Manian. I introduced them in my previous blog Talking Drums. Many of my compatriots wanted me to include & introduce some of their works to readers. Let me try.

The Pallavur temple - There is a legend that the 20' (~1.5 times the height of an elephant) high granite wall around the temple was raised in a night by Siva’s Bhootaganams. As the sun rose, an old lady saw them building the wall and suddenly the Bhootaganams left, thus leaving a small portion of the wall still unfinished. Also, there is a story of Tippu Sultan attacking the temple where he used an elephant to take out the Pratishta, but in vain. Even now, it is said that you can see the Pratishta slightly tilted as a result of the push by the elephant. The presiding deity of the village temple is Lord Shiva. Legend has it that the Prathishta of the lingam was by the Kara Asura (Thataka's brother) who was carrying three lingams with him-one held between his teeth and the other two in his hands. Stopping for a drink, he laid down the lingas. He could not wrest one of the lingams from its resting place after quenching his thirst and this place got hallowed by the name Thrupallavoor. The other two lingams were sanctified at nearby Thrupalloor and Ayloore (Some others say that the temple was built by Pallava kings). The noteworthy feature is the high stone temple compound wall built with huge and neatly cut blocks of granite (6’x2’x2’) as mentioned above. These stones are laid one on top of another without any sealing in between (in the photo you will notice cement sealants which are modern additions to the exterior). They have been standing like that for centuries just on gravity, protecting the temple.

Now to the temple drums…..

It is believed that the first drum was invented several millennia ago. It was a fascination with sound that led to this discovery. Man realized that when hide was stretched over a hollow and struck, it made a booming sound. The Chenda was born in Kerala, and thence, continued a long tradition of drumming the praises of God. It started as a temple ritual, and has since assumed a high degree of sophistication and virtuosity. Marar’s are the traditional drummers of Kerala and a caste by themselves..


As the name implies, this comprises five instruments, namely the drums of Timila, Maddalam and Edakka supported by the Kombu (horn) and Ilathalam (large cymbals). It is typically performed in temples after the Deeparadhana and has evolved into a complex art form today. In the usual routine, the cymbals maintain the beat or rhythmic pattern and the Kombu a C shaped horn kind of prolongs the drum percussion. It took Rolph Killius to explain this in a mathematical fashion. The structure of the performance is a pyramid rhythmic structure, with an ever increasing tempo and a proportionally decreasing number of beats in cycles. The orchestra normally starts with the blowing of the Shanku or Conch (Shell) three times symbolizing OM. The first stage starts with a 1792- beat cycle in a very slow tempo. The following stages have 896, 448, 224, 112, 56, 28, 14, 7 and finally 3 1/2- beat cycles. Each beat cycle has a fixed basic structure, which is made audible by the ilatalam and remaining drum players who are not at that moment in charge of a solo improvisatory part. The main part of each phase is composed; in addition the maddalam, timila and edakka drum players improvise in turn.
After the conclusion of the panchavadyam, the timila etachil (individual timila display), a kind of competition between the timila players starts. For this purpose the timila and ilatalam artists group themselves in a circle and play in chempata cycles (8 or 4 beat) in an increasing tempo.

The late panchavadyam artist Pallavur Maniyan Marar compared the melam and panchavadyam structure with the pyramid-shaped entrance towers (gopuram) of the Dravidian temples, both representing the long way from the lower human sphere towards divine heights. Although there are few Dravidian temples in Kerala, the comparison is convincing. After concluding a panchari melam performance, musicians and devotees enter the inner part of the temple complex to pay respect to the reciting deity. Similar to the symbolic meaning of the huge gothic spires, the kshetram artist creates a sonic atmosphere expressing the connection between human and spiritual spheres, the former indicated by the slow and measured rhythm, and the latter shown by the loud and extremely fast beat supported by all instruments


Tayambaka is a solo chenda performance, supported by other itantala (treble) and valanthala (bass) chenda and ilatalam cymbals. Apart from playing improvisational and compositional elements the solo artist leads the other players, who have to support him in every respect. The constant changing speed makes this task very difficult for the accompanists. Pathikal, the slow and difficult first phase, is performed in chempata (8-beat) talam in a very slow tempo. In the second phase the artist has to select one of three kooru, these are panchari (6-beat), chempata (5-beat), or atanta (7-beat) as detailed in chart-001. The other phases, itavattam, itanila, and irukita, are based on eka talam (1-beat) performed in steadily increasing speed

Kerala is a land of percussion marvels. Among the myriad percussion ensembles it has produced, Panchavadyam has a unique appeal. Strangely, Panchavadyam has always prospered under `trios.' Achutha Marar, Parameswara Marar and Peethambara Marar of Annamanada; Appu Marar, Maniyan Marar and Kunjukuttan Marar of Pallavur and Kuttappa Marar, Narayanan Marar and Chandrasekhara Marar of Kuzhur. What makes a Marar endearing to his colleagues and fans is his behavior as a pramani (helmsman) of the melam. Timila is supreme in Panchavadyam. The ‘marar’ community have a hereditary (kulathozhil) profession which is the performance of percussion ensemble at temples.

Sopana Sangeetham is a very ancient form of temple music in Kerala. The word Sopana means a flight of steps leading up to the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. Devotional recitals rendered on these steps came to be known as Sopana sangeetham. Besides, the musical notes (ragas) too have an ascending (aarohana) and descending (avarohana) nature. Even though over fifty types of musical instruments can accompany Sopana sangeetham, Edakka is most commonly used.

The Pallavur trinity

Sadly, in a span of 18 months between June 2001 and Dec 2002, the three Pallavur stalwarts of Panchavadyam, Spoana Sangeethama and Thayambaka left us.

Appu Marar

He was the eldest brother of the Pallavoor trinity, all of whom were experts in percussion. Appu Marar had headed the Panchavadyam of the Paramekkavu Devaswom of the famous Thrissur Pooram for the last few decades (1960-2002). Appu Marar won a number of awards including the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Award in 1983, the Guruvayurappan Puraskaram in 1995 and the Manaveeyam Award in 2002. Cheerful in countenance and always seen wearing a long gold chain, Appu Marar was the best recognized of the three. Not only did he become an expert in his chosen trade, he trained his two younger brothers Manian and Kunjukuttan, to create that awesome trinity we all remember.

The painful childhood with an absentee father and limited traditional schooling moored in him, an unflinching faith towards Lord Shiva who he believes was his first guru, other than the short stints he had with Konthaswamy and Nanu Marar. After his arengettam at Pallavur at the age of 8, he went on to learn the Chenda, Edekka and Timila at Tiruvilwamala under Kondaswami and Nanu Marar. At 17 became a regular drummer and performed at Pallavur and various temples in Kerala. Much traveled, he has performed abroad, including countries like Russia. He left us in Dec 2002, not many months after his younger brothers passed away.

People were spellbound when he played ‘techi mandaram tulasi’ a movie song on the Edakka. He was equally at ease with Sopana sangeetham. Not only at temples, but at the Trichur pooram where thousands stood, watched & listened, the brothers reigned supreme as long as they were alive. While Appu did a double thayambaka with Tritala Keshavan, Manian did his double with Kunjukuttan!! It was only after Keshavan passed away that Appu continued double Thayambaka with his younger brother Kunjukuttan. His last wish was to do a triple Thayambaka with Mattannur Sankaran Kutty and Kalloor Ramankutty, alas that never materialized!! (Source:

When his brothers left him, he said poignantly that luminaries always had a short life span…. But sometimes, it is sad to hear things like this - When veteran percussion artist Appu Marar passed away in 2002, there was not a single album or recording of his performance even with Doordarshan or AIR, except for a live video recording of one of his performances, says Ramachandran who made a short film on him.

Kunjukuttan Marar

The youngest of the brothers, Kunjukuttan looked the most cheerful, always. He too had that ever ready smile and when you saw him, a shorter person with a small paunch, on which the Chenda rested, and you looked on with some amusement, till he started. Then his mastery of the instrument held you spellbound…. Kunjukuttan also made his entry at the age of eight and was trained by his brother Appu marar. An expert in the Thimila, Marar took over the mantle of `pramanam' of the famous `Madathil varavu' Panchavadyam of the Thiruvambady Temple 2002's Thrissur Pooram after the death of his elder brother, Pallavur Manian Marar, in June 2001. He had by then won many accolades from critics for his stirring performances. He was also a regular participant at the Nenmara-Vallangi Vela in Palakkad district. He left us at age 59, on Aug 24th 2002. Listen to him performing the Ashtapadi.

Manian Marar

Maniyande vadyam mani nadam (Manian’s drumming is like a lilting bell symphony) – said his brother Appu when asked about his younger brother. Manian mesmerized the thousands watching the Trissur Pooram while leading the Tiruvambady desam side for many years of his four decades of drumming life. If I recall right, he was the tallest and the thinner of the lot. I remember that he looked more serious than all the others. He was also an expert in the Thimila. A percussion aficionado remembers Manain Marar in this linked article. Manian Marar left us on June 20th, 2001. Manian Marar is popularly referred to as the Kulapathi of Panchavadyam.

Watch & listen to the trinity

A full Panchavadyam audio performance involving all three is available at this link.

Much of the text are contributions by others as I have always been a listener only and enjoyed the melam. I never understood the complexities and mathematics of it. Recently in June 2008, I met Pallavur Sreedharan, another popular drummer of today. In fact when I saw him with my brother and was told that he is from the famous family, I asked him if he knew Pallavur Sreedharan. Coyly he said, it is me, but brother, how on earth could you have known about me in USA? He did not even know that if you type Pallavur marar, his name is the first hit that comes up on Google and that his drumming is part of a popular CD...
Pics from the web - thanks to the uploaders...


maxdavinci said…
fantastic research maddy, I loved the first part about the temple stories...

There is something about the panchavadyam that draws you towards it. All other temple musicians will not have so many people crowding around them.
Pradeep said…
I am listening to the Panchavadyam as I write the comment. Lots of details in this post.
Happy Kitten said…
Dint know that the drums were born in Kerala.. no wonder they sound so good... must be the many years of practice behind it..

and those artistes with in- born talents are so humble!
Wonderful research.
One q-Why is Chenda an asura vadyam in spite of all temple connections?
Maddy said…
Nikhil - An interesting question. Actually the Chenda is both a deva and an asura vadyam. Here are the detail, quoted from a British council study.

The Marar musicians regard all kshetram instruments, except the kuzhal oboe, as tala vadyam (rhythm instruments). Generally they classify musical instruments according to their function in the kshetram ritual, thus dividing them into devavadyam and asuravadyam. In the Rigveda the term deva is used for the higher gods and asuras for the lower respectively. In the kshetram temple the main god or goddess is seated in the srikovil and the asuras are grouped in various shrines in the surrounding temple precinct. Following this distinction the drums timila, edaykka, valantala (the bass side of the chenda), and maram, the conch shankh, and the small chengila gong are devavadyam, which are played beside the srikovil entrance. The drums itantala (the treble side of the chenda), both forms of maddalam, the cymbals ilatalam, and the wind instruments kombu and kuzhal are asuravadyam.
Maddy said…

the hyperlink did not appear...
Thanks for the info.
Jillum pada pada....this was the refrain we were taught by my grandfather to reproduce the sound of the Trichur Pooram drumbeats.
Great post with lots of info, I love the temple legends.
Indrani said…
I enjoyed reading this post Maddy, I was not aware of such fine details.
Anonymous said…
The Tripallavoor Siva temple is more than 2000 years old. The presiding diety faces west which is very rare.

The diety turned out to be a 'ugra roopa' (fierce diety). To pacify this fierce diety, a water tank was built opposite to the temple so that the diety's first glance falls on the water.

( Source : Temples of Palakkad district - By S Jayashanker - Publised by the Census department, Special Studies section, Government of India). The source of information can be assumed to be an authentic one.
Anonymous said…
But remember that in Vedic civilisation every vastu was facing East -
Hi every one - Namaskaram !
My name is Bruno I'm from Québec-Canada.
I am studying drums of Kerala. I also use it to compose for danse and theater.
My next trip in kérala will be about Panjshavadhiam...
Hai.. Me also from Pallavur.. Long time back, you left pallavur???
Maddy said…
thanks bruno - hope you have a good visit and enjoy the panchavadyam.

Thanks HK - my maternal tharavad is in pallavur - i go every year.
Tessa said…
I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

krishna S said…
Excellent post on sopana sangeetham. the post proved to be a highly informative one regarding sopana sangeetham and ashtapathi
Gopi Panicker said…
Nice description of the Thrippallavurappan temple.However, the Khara legend which you have mentioned is associated with the Vaikom, Kaduthurthy and Ettumanoor temples in the book 'Temples and legends of Kerala' by K. Vaidyanathan (Bhavan's publications). In fact, the name Kaduthurthy is to indicate that the sivalinga was placed by the teeth (Kadichu-bitten,eruthy -placed; Kadichu eruthy - Kaduthuruthy)
harimohan said…
have missed some gems of yours lucky i went into pallavur link today this was xlnt as i love our temple instruments
Maddy said…
thanks hari..
thanks gopi...
thanks krishna & tessa...
Maddy said…
thanks hari..
thanks gopi...
thanks krishna & tessa...
Pn Udayakumar said…
Vishnu K Nair said…
sir i am vishnu student of pallavur sreedharan son of pallavur maniyan marar.i am very proud now because now i am also a part of ahuge generation
Maddy said…
thanks vishnu..
can you give me sreedharan's number, i need to call him about sopana sangeetham
Maddy said…
thanks uday
i am from ullattil house..

Popular Posts

Head facing north

Tipu, Unniyarcha and Wodeyar – truth or fiction?

The Monsoons of Kerala

Kuriyedathu Thathriyude SmartaVicharam

The Kohinoor Diamond