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The Young Goddess Who Dances through the Ordinariness of Life―A Study on the Tantric Traditions of Kerala

Department of Foreign Languages, Hainan University, Haikou 570208, China
Govt. HSS Pookkoottumpadam, Malappuram District, Pookottumpadam 679332, India
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2022, 13(7), 667;
Received: 26 March 2022 / Revised: 8 July 2022 / Accepted: 11 July 2022 / Published: 21 July 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Divine: She/Her/Hers—Global Goddess Traditions)


Drawing on both ethnographic and literary sources, this paper indicates that initiations into the mantra of Bālā are essential rites of passage for various Tantric communities. We focus on two previously unstudied texts: Bālāviṃśati stotra (“Twenty Verses on the Bālā Goddess”), a popular eulogy sung on festive occasions in Keralan temples, and Bālādīkṣāpaddhati (“A Treatise on Initiation into the Bālā Mantra”), a short treatise explaining the rules of initiation into the Bālā cult of Kerala. The article contextualizes the texts by providing commentaries of practitioners and interpretations of Keralan gurus who initiate their adepts into Śrīvidyā.

1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to highlight the importance of worship of the goddess Bālā Tripura Sundarī in modern Keralan culture. Drawing on both ethnographic and literary sources, the study indicates that initiations into the mantra of Bālā are essential rites of passage for various communities, including Brahmin and non-Brahmin families. We focus on two previously unstudied texts: Bālāviṃśati stotra (“Twenty Verses on the Bālā Goddess”), a popular eulogy sung on festive occasions in Keralan temples, and Bālādīkṣāpaddhati (“A Treatise on Initiation into the Bālā Mantra”), a short treatise explaining the rules of initiation into the Bālā cult of Kerala. The latter text was found in the manuscript collections of a Brahmin family from central Kerala1. The collections are being edited and digitalized by the present authors with the intent of preserving and making this body of valuable scholarly material widely available.
The Bālā goddess is one of the manifestations of Tripurā, the main deity of Śrīvidyā, a Hindu Tantric cult (Brooks 1992). As the name Tripurā indicates, she has three forms: Tripurā Bālā (The Young Maiden of Three Worlds), Tripurasundarī (The Beauty of Three Worlds), and Tripurabhairavī (The One who Terrifies the Three Worlds). Tripurā is a personification of Śakti, the all-encompassing power of the universe. She is venerated as a maternal figure, gracious and compassionate. The worship of the Tripurā goddess is rooted in the nondual philosophy of Kashmirian Śaivism and multiple references to this system can be found in the texts of Śrīvidyā. Flood (1996, p. 186) names the earliest sources of the tradition as Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava and Yoginīhṛdaya, which together form a compendium known as Vāmakeśvara Tantra. The first text is a ritual handbook dealing with external rites, while the latter can be called an exposé on esoteric interpretations of the Śrīvidyā main yantra—the iconic śrīcakra. White (1997, p. 176) argues also that Śrīvidyā originated in Kashmir in the 12th and 13th centuries and afterwards “migrated” into South India, where it has remained the mainstream form of Śākta Tantra.
Even though there are not many temples dedicated to Tripurā in Kerala, śrīcakra is secretly worshipped by various communities, and the Bālā goddess is often invoked with a popular hymn, Bālāviṃśati stotra, during temple festivals. This article interprets the stotra and shows its persistence in Keralan culture: it is ceremonially passed from one generation to another within certain Brahmin families, recited during secret ceremonies, and contemplated by Tantric practitioners during their solitary meditations. Conversely, the importance of Bālā mantra initiations is discussed here based on the authors’ anthropological fieldwork and their study on Bālādīkṣāpaddhati. Our paper contextualizes the text by providing commentaries of practitioners and interpretations of Keralan gurus who initiate their adepts with the Bālā mantra. We include notes from field research conducted by both authors2, on various occasions, in the Kozhikode (Calicut), Malappuram, and Kannur districts of Kerala, and provide insights from interviews with practitioners from these regions, particularly the Mūssats, Nambi Brahmins, Kaḷari Panikkars, and the Nāyars.3 The article also briefly addresses the problem of purity and power in the rituals of the Śākta communities, the worshippers of Bālā, and comments on the ceremonies performed in their sacred groves (kāvu), which required the cooperation of various Tantric communities and ritual experts initiated into Śrīvidyā.

2. Bālāviṃśati Stotra and Its Commentaries

Bālāviṃśati stotra, a hymn ascribed to Laghu Bhaṭṭāraka, praises the goddess Bālā Tripurā and the powers of her mantra. The text is a stotra: an ornately embellished, vibrant poetic commentary on beliefs and religious practices. The stotras constitute a diverse body of poetic texts composed in Sanskrit and the regional languages of South Asia, interspersed with other genres and literary forms of the region.4 Commenting on Kashmirian literary traditions, Stainton (2019, p. 95) adds that stotras became “intersections for the rich religious and literary developments” and participated in “dynamic dialogue with other texts” as well as religious traditions and audiences. Stainton’s remark is also true in the case of Bālāviṃśati stotra, a hymn alluding to ideas from Tantric and yogic textual traditions (see Appendix A and Appendix B).
In what follows, we attempt an interpretation of Bālāviṃśati stotra based on the Malayalam commentaries and oral reports of Keralan Tantrics. Sastri (1917) mentions that one of the oldest manuscripts of the Bālāviṃśati that he obtained from the Ettumanoor collection records the copying date of the work as Kollam year 861 (1685 C.E.). However, Sastri observes that the stotra has remained popular in Kerala since medieval times, having been recited at Śākta rites, critiqued by scholars, and chanted in temples. In this context, it is worth mentioning that in certain Brahmin families in the Kozhikode district, Bālāviṃśati is taught to young boys at the time of upanayana saṃskāra, a traditional rite of passage marked by the acceptance of the sacred thread. Moreover, the stotra is chanted in the temples of the region during the Navarātri festival, especially on its final day, which is called Vijayadaśamī.5 The stotra has 21 verses written in a Sanskrit metre, śārdūlavikṛīḍita. The metre consists of two-lined stanzas of 19 syllables (Vṛttaratnākara 2012), p. 119. Even today, the stotra is studied and recited in almost all Brahmin illams (houses) of Kerala, along with popular eulogies such as Devī māhātmya or Lalita Sahasra nāma stotra. Brahmins initiated in Śrīvidyā also learn how to meditate on the text to deepen their understanding of their religious tenets.
The author does not use the term Bālā in the text, and therefore the title “Bālāvimśati” could have been added by later commentators. Another title by which the text is known, Tripurāstotravimśati, can be translated as “Twenty Verses upon Goddess Tripurā”. It is also a title referenced by Keralan commentators Kaikkulangara and K Vasudevan Moos, while others like Kandiyur prefer to call it the stotra Bālāviṃśati (Namputiri 2016, p. 17). However, if this work is generally known by the name Bālāvimśati or Tripurāstotravimśati in Kerala, in other parts of India it has been called Laghustuti. For instance, Rāghavānanda, a disciple of Kṛṣṇānanda and the author of Paramārthasāra, calls it the stotra Laghustuti in his commentary. Conversely, a detailed commentary of a Parameśvara Ācārya, mentioned by Sastri in his edition of Bālāviṃśati, is known as Laghubrimhaṇī. Therefore, Sastri (Sastri 1917, preface) surmises that these two commentaries were probably composed by non-Keralan authors. On the other hand, many manuscripts of Bālāvimśati, which Ganapati Sastri mentions in his editio princeps, are in fact from Kerala and belong to these three local manuscript libraries:
  • Pantlialahi Raja.
  • Narayanan Moottatu, Ettumanoor.
  • Kilimanoor Palace.
In this study, we refer to the published editions of Bālāvimśati and the Keralan commentaries of the text.

3. Laghu Bhaṭṭāraka, the Author of Bālāvimśati and the Keralan Connection

Despite its popularity in Kerala, Bālāviṃśati stotra is often said to have been composed in Kashmir, where it was included in a collection known as Pañcastavī—a set of five eulogies: Laghustuti, Ghaṭastuti, Carcāstuti, Ambāstuti, and Sakalajananīstuti. These stotras are traditionally linked to spiritual practices (upāya) of Kashmiri Śaivism (Namputiri 2016, p. 7). The author of Bālāviṃśati stotra remains a mystery. Even if tradition calls him Laghu Bhaṭṭāraka, we do not know much about his life. Moreover, Bhaṭṭāraka is an honorific appellation often added to the names of Brahmins or kings. Therefore, even his name could be a pseudonym. The term bhaṭṭa was used as a generic name for Brahmin scholars from Kashmir. Similarly, the adjective laghu has several meanings in Sanskrit, including light, active, quick-witted, or light-hearted. Hence, it could be an epithet rather than the real name of the author, as suggested by Gopi (Gopi 1975).
According to the community legends, Bhaṭṭāraka is also a Keralan caste name to which the author belonged. According to Piṭārars’ stories, the community of Bhaṭṭārakas migrated into Kerala from Kashmir and established their temples there. They developed their own rituals and integrated Kashmiri Krama observances and Keralan religious beliefs (e.g., the worship of local Mother Goddesses). Legends say that they founded 13 temples in honour of the 13 Kālīs of the Krama tradition6. The temples, found in Central and Northern Kerala, remain important pilgrimage destinations for the modern Tantric adepts of Kerala (Figure 1). In time, the Bhaṭṭārakas were called Piṭārakas and today they are known as the Piṭārars. Thus, for instance, modern Piṭārars of the Mannampurattukāvu temple recognize Laghu Bhaṭṭāraka as the first spiritual teacher in their long tradition of gurus. Other clans and communities, such as the Mūssats of Kozhikode, who are related to the Piṭārars, also mention legends about a Kashmirian sage teaching doctrines to their ancestors, but these legends are regrettably vague.7 Perikamana (Namputiri 2016, p. 8), a Keralan commentator of Bālāviṃśati, argues against the legends connecting Laghu Bhaṭṭāraka with Kerala and refers to a lack of historical records. Similarly, the authorship of Pañcastavī is not firmly established. Lakṣmīdhara in his commentary on Saundarya Laharī, refers to the author of Pañcastavī simply as ācārya Kālidāsa, a master who was a follower of the goddess Kālī. Similarly, several manuscripts of Pañcastavī, from a collection in the Kashmir Government Manuscript Library, give the author’s name as Lāghava Ācārya. Other manuscripts and commentators ascribe the authorship of Pañcastavī to several different famous teachers and poets, including Ācārya Prithvīdhara (a disciple of Śaṃbhunātha, the guru of Abhinavagupta), Dharma Ācārya or Rāmacandra Ācārya (Gopi 1975, p. xvii).

4. Bālāviṃśati—Its Sanskrit and Malayalam Commentaries

A well-known Keralan commentary of Bālāviṃśati was written by Rāghavānanda and published by Ganapati Sastri in 1897. However, Sastri also refers to another voluminous commentary, Laghubṛmhaṇī, by a Parameśvarācārya (Sastri 1917, preface). Many Keralan commentaries on Bālāviṃśati can be found in an intertextual dialogue with their contemporary philosophical and Tantric scriptures. Kaikkulangar Rama, in his study of the Bālāviṃśati, refers to a Sanskrit commentary titled Sarvārthacintāmaṇi, and a Malayalam commentary written by K. Vasudevan Moos. Perikaman refers to two obscure commentaries: Kuḷacūḍāmaṇi by an unknown author and an untitled commentary by an anonymous Jaina scholar (Namputiri 2016, p. 8). Three other Keralan scholars have also written commentaries of Bālāviṃśati: Kandiyur Mahadeva Shasthrikal wrote Bhāṣābhāṣyaṃ, Kaikkulangara Ramavarier composed Rahasyakalpataru, and K. Vasudevan Moos wrote Bālapriyā, a simple but lucid commentary aimed at uninitiated scholars.
In the present study, we attempt to interpret the Bālāviṃśati stotra with the help of the Keralan commentaries and reread it in the context of modern Tantric practices. By doing so, we intend to show a multifarious image of the Kerala Tantra. We would like to indicate how the beliefs encoded in the traditional chants and tantric texts have been enlivened by modern practitioners in their observances.

5. Interpretations of Bālāviṃśati in the Context of the Śākta Tradition

5.1. Stanzas 1–10: Bālāviṃśati and a Process of Decoding Mantras

The first verse of Bālāviṃśati describes the goddess Bālā and elaborates on the three syllables that encapsulate her powers: aim kḷīṃ sauḥ. Bālā, the text teaches, appears to shine with various colours to empower the adept. Thus, the author observes, if an adept chants the Bālā mantra, the syllables travel within their subtle body, energizing it. This process of a spiritual charging of the body should be controlled through specific meditations. Hence, an adept is instructed to first move their awareness to the crown of the head (sahasrāra) and meditate on the goddess shining with cool, whitish rays like the rays of the moon. Afterwards, the adept should focus on the third eye (ājñā cakra) and contemplate the goddess shining with the brightness of “Indra’s bow”, that is, the rainbow. Finally, the adept should bring their awareness to their heart (anāhata cakra) and imagine the goddess emanating the rays of the Sun.8
The Keralan commentaries of Bālāviṃśati explain the importance of this visualization and ascribe the method of meditation to a specific tradition. Kaikkulangara Ramavarier (Namputiri 2016, p. 83) notes that the three points of meditation (sahasrāra, ājñā, and anāhata) are specifically used by, what he calls, the Avadhivādin tradition of Bālā worship. Ramavarier refers to an obscure text of an unknown author titled Śaivāgamarahasya, which divides the mode of worship of Bālā Tripura into two sub-traditions: Avadhivādin and Adhiṣṭhānavādin. While the Avadhivādin tradition insists that one should start the meditation by concentrating on the sahasrāra, the Adhiṣṭhānavādins first focus on their lower cakras: the goddess is first visualized in the mūlādhāra cakra then in the anāhata cakra and afterwards in the ājñā cakra). Hence, Kaikkulangara Ramavarier concludes that the author of the stotra, Laghubhattāraka, belonged to the Avadhivādin sect, like the Piṭārakas.
The value of the Bālā Tripurā mantra is further explained in the stotra: the second and third verses discuss the powers of its first syllable, aiṃ. The text teaches that the internal spiritual energy, kuṇḍalinī śakti, resides in the four-petalled lotus of the mūlādhāra cakra of the human body. Kuṇḍalinī is compared here to the tendril of a cucumber plant. The text explains that the syllable aiṃ may activate kuṇḍalinī. One should therefore chant aiṃ and visualize the internal spiritual energy as a viny tendril that grows with every repetition of the mantra. Similarly, the commentary of Shasthrigal says that the four petals of the mūlādhāra lotus hiding the kuṇḍalinī can be energized simply by chanting the diphthong “ai”, as in the syllable “aim” (Namputiri 2016, p. 26). According to the Sanskrit grammar rules, the “ai” sound is formed by a combination of two vowels: “a” and “e” (Aṣṭādhyāyī 6.1.88). Shasthrigal indicates that, according to Tantric belief, the vowel “a” stands for ādhāraśakti, the kuṇḍalinī “asleep” in mūlādhāra cakra. Thus, by chanting this phoneme in a prescribed manner, adepts can realize the power of kuṇḍalinī within their bodies. The commentator explains that the remaining component of aim is “e”, a vowel which, according to the grammatical rules of Sanskrit, is composed from “a” and “i” (ādguṇaḥ; Aṣṭādhyāyī 6.1.87). Moreover, the Sanskrit vowels can be long or short, and therefore “a” here stands for both “a” and “ā” and “i” represents “i” but also “ī”. Collectively, these four vowels are to be identified with the four petals of the lotus of the mūlādhāra cakra. Hence, the chanting of vowels supposedly resonates with the subtle energies of the cakra, represented as lotus petals.
In verse 3, the author proclaims that the Bālā mantra has enormous powers and, even if misarticulated, can bring about powerful effects. Thus, the stotra reveals, if one chants the syllable aiṃ without its final nasal sound (anusvara, ṃ), or if one chants only “ai”, they may still receive the blessing (Malayalam: anugrahaṃ) of Bālā. This statement is later supported by another claim that even if one mispronounced the syllable but chanted it with devotion, they would surely be granted all their wishes. The text implies the superiority of bhakti (devotion) over perfect pronunciation or mastery of the Tantric technicalities.9 Shasthrigal’s commentary (Namputiri 2016, p. 28) corroborates this claim with a myth from Devībhāgavata about Satyavrata—a foolish Brahmin who moved to a forest to do his penance. Once, when he was trying to meditate, he saw a hunter killing a wild boar. Terrified by the violent scene, he screamed “ai, ai!” and was instantly transformed into an eminent scholar.
The fourth verse of Bālāviṃśati details the powers of the second syllable (bīja) of the mantra, that is, kḷīṃ. The text explains that kḷīṃ, known by the name kāmarāja (the one that fulfils all desires), consists of three phonetic units: “k”, “l” and “īṃ”. Bālāviṃśati suggests that the sound “īm”, even without the “k” and “l”, is as powerful as the holy syllable Oṃ. Commenting on this statement, a Keralan scholar, P. A. Shankaran Nampoothiri (Nampoothiri 1991, p. 24), quotes a verse from Yajurveda that tells a story of Brahmins chanting the mantra “īm” on the day of a new moon. Nampoothiri concludes that the kḷīṃ mantra must therefore derive from the Vedic tradition. Finally, the fifth verse of Bālāviṃśati discusses the third syllable, sauḥ, which can be divided into two components: “s” and “auḥ”. In the Keralan commentaries, there is a poetic verse explaining that the “auḥ” phoneme should be imagined as a submarine fire which can evaporate the vast waters of human ignorance (Namputiri 2016, p. 112; Moos 1961, p. 14). Furthermore, Bālāviṃśati affirms that there are different methods of reciting the Bālā mantra and, since devotional piety is the key, they are all equal. Hence, the mantra can be recited with or without vowels, nasal sounds, or aspiration (visarga). Apparently, the mantra can also be chanted without consonants, with syllables joined together or separated, or even in reverse order. This ostensibly exaggerated claim is seemingly an attempt to praise the inherent powers of the mantra. This thesis is elaborated in the commentary of Rāghavānanda (Sastri 1917, p. 15), who adds that the mantra can be recited with or without giving due regard to ṛṣis (sages), chandas (metre), devatās (gods) and gurupāduka (the feet of gurus). This statement refers to a long-standing tradition according to which mantras have the above-mentioned three identifiers. The mantra is ascribed to a particular deity or spiritual being and has a distinguishable metre and a patron—a sage who received the mantra in meditation or by supernatural means (Hanneder 1997). These elements, according to the commentary, can again be omitted, and the traditional rules of recitation changed accordingly. A similar remark is found in a Śrīvidyā text, Varivasyārahasya, of Bhāskararāya. There, the author states that the names of sages, the metre, and the names of deities and other technicalities of recitation are indeed only the “external limbs” of the spiritual practice (Varivasyārahasya 2000, 2.160, p. 123). Rāghavānanda concludes that mantra can be recited by devotees regardless of their gender and caste (Sastri 1917, p. 15).
From the seventh verse onward, Bālāviṃśati deliberates on various visualizations of the goddess Bālā. The author mentions her many perfections and states that one cannot attain poethood without meditating on the goddess who shines like fresh camphor and jasmine flowers. Hence, if one intends to become a poet, they should meditate and visualize the goddess as gazing with her beautiful eyes that are like fully ripened lotus petals. The goddess holds in her left hand a sacred scripture (grantha) and shows abhaya-mudrā, a gesture of fearlessness. In one of her right hands, she holds a garland of crystals, and her other right hand shows varada-mudrā, a gesture of dispensing boons. Shasthrigal also warns that this visualization of the goddess is essential for those who attempt to chant her mantra (Namputiri 2016, pp. 16, 37).10 These verses on meditation segue into the next, which give other images of the goddess—the visual representations of the mantra’s syllables. Curiously, in the next stanzas (verses 8–10), the syllables of the mantra are given in reverse order. Thus, in the eighth verse, the text elaborates on the third syllable, that is, “sauḥ”, which is called śakti bīja, a power-seed syllable. Shastrigal (Namputiri 2016, p. 38) explains that the poetic stanzas of Bālāviṃśati are codified instructions for mantric chanting. The reverse order of the syllables refers to the popular practice in Kerala of chanting the mantra as a six-syllable formula, that is, consisting of three syllables in the normal order and three pronounced backwards. This practice is generally considered more auspicious as it removes possible faults and curses of the mantra (mantradoṣa). The method of visualization requires one to focus on the highest cakra. Therefore, according to the commentators, the author again confirms his adherence to the Avadhivādin tradition.
Bālāviṃśati also teaches another method of meditation on the goddess, a patron of the syllable kḷīṃ. The goddess invoked with this syllable should be imagined as residing in the adept’s mūlādhara cakra, the lowest energy centre. She should be holding an arrow and showing gestures of abhaya and varada. Her complexion is reddish-like vermilion, which radiates from her body and fills the sky around her (Namputiri 2016, p. 127). One can argue here that this picture is a symbolic representation of kuṇḍalinī. The vibrant red colour symbolizes the power of the kuṇḍalinī śakti, which stays curled in the lower cakra, but once awakened, flows upwards, piercing and activating other energy centres. The arrow of the goddess can therefore be interpreted as the symbol of the activation of kuṇḍalinī. Arguably, abhayamudrā may refer to the fearlessness of the adept, a prerequisite for a spiritual quest. The text also refers to the varada mudrā—the wish-fulfilling gesture—by stating that the mantra practice will grant all wishes and make a person attractive to the opposite sex. Finally, in the tenth verse, the text discusses the syllable aiṃ, known as the Vāgbhava or Sarasvatī syllable, the mantra of the power of speech. Meditating on this syllable, one should imagine the goddess as adorned with golden bangles, studs, shoulder bracelets, a waist chain, and a garland of lotus flowers. According to a commentary of Kaikkulangara Ramavarier, the goddess should be visualized as a beautiful woman sitting in the adept’s heart. She is holding a noose (pāśa) and a goad (aṅkuśa) and showing abhaya and varada gestures.11
The text further elaborates on meditative techniques and in verse 11 there is a visualization that should be correlated with the chanting of the “īṃ” part of the klīṃ syllable. The goddess, a patron of “īṃ”, holds a noose, a goad, flowers, and a sugar cane. She is sitting in a yogic posture (āsana) called Ārbhaṭikā, which is interpreted by Rāghavānanda as a sitting āsana, with one thigh placed over the other. The name of this āsana, is not found in known Haṭha yoga treatises, and curiously, its name is derived by the commentator from a Kanarese verb Ārbhaṭa, which means to cry aloud.12 Nevertheless, in Nāṭyaśāstra (1934, p. 87), there is also a reference to Ārabhaṭī vṛtṭi, a form of acting that is energetic and which includes presentations of tough, warrior-like characters. Hence, if we accept Ārbhaṭikā as a variant reading of Ārabhaṭī, the Ārbhaṭikā āsana may be interpreted as the seating posture of a warrior or a distinguished person. According to Keralan traditional explanations and customs, sitting with one thigh placed upon the other is a sign of superiority, which means that children and women are not allowed to sit in this pose in public. Thus, the goddess, by sitting in the Ārbhati āsana, boldly shows her prominent position. Moreover, the goddess is visualized as sitting upon the corpse (pretāsana) of Paramaśiva, who himself lies upon the serpent Vāsuki. This visualization is again reminiscent of popular adages about kuṇḍalinī śakti: the human body without this spiritual energy is believed to be dead (preta or śava).13

5.2. Stanzas 11–15: Bālāviṃśati and the Keralan Śākta Tradition of Vaḷayanāṭukāvu

The many visualizations and meditative couplets found in Bālāviṃśati are of vital importance to the religious life of Śākta communities in Kerala. For instance, the 11th verse of Bālāviṃśati is one of dhyāna ślokas (prayers of invocation) chanted to invoke the goddess in Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu, one of the Śākta temples located on the outskirts of Kozhikode city (Krishnanunni 2014, p. 13). The previously mentioned legends include:
Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu is in the list of 13 temples of the Bhaṭṭārakas.14 Since the 14th century C.E., the Vaḷayanāṭu temple and its surrounding groves (kāvu) were patronised by the royal dynasty of the Zamorins (Sāmūdiri).15 As per legend, a Zamorin king was instructed by a local goddess to build a temple at the place (nāṭu) where her anklet (vaḷa) had been found. The temple today is still an important centre for the descendants of the royal house of Kozhikode, Samuthiri Kovilakam, and a Śākta Brahmin family—the Mūssats.
The Mūssats, like the Piṭārars, introduce themselves as followers of the Kashmirian Krama system of Kālī, as well as adepts of Śrīvidyā. As mentioned in several studies on the Tantric traditions of Kerala, Śrīvidyā influenced many Śākta family traditions that flourished in Kerala and can be regarded as a linkage between them. The term Śākteya is frequently used in Malayalam as the name for local Śākta families, such as the Mūssats, and their rites, which include offerings of meat, fish, and alcohol (Karasinski 2020).16
The main authority of the Śākta temple worship is vested upon the senior member of the clan called Mūtta Piṭārar. It is said that Mūtta Piṭārar receives the highest initiation called adhidīkṣā, which is supposed to bestow upon him the secret teachings of Śrīvidyā. Other members of Śākta clans receive mantra-dīkṣā, that is, the mantra of Bālā Tripurā, which grants access to the inner circle of believers. Praising the importance of the mantra, some believers refer to the 15th verse of Bālā viṃśati which presents the Bālā Tripurā goddess as the mother of all sounds and mantras, and as the origin of the universe.17 As with sounds, all the beings, including great gods like Brahma or Viṣṇu, originate from her and dissolve in her at the end of time. She is, therefore, the beginning and the end of everything.
The Keralan goddess of Śākteya traditions has many manifestations. Hence, even though the priests of Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu praise her with Bālā Tripurā invocations, she is also venerated in the same community as a warrior in her solitary fight against a demon called Ruru. So-called Rurujitvidhāna, the worship of the goddess in her form of a warrior who vanquished the demon, is a distinctive feature of the temple ritualism. The warrior goddess is imagined wearing a garland made of the heads of demons; she holds in her hands a shield (kheḍa), a skull (kapāla), a snake (pannaga), a bell (mahāghaṇṭā), the head of the demon, a staff with a skull at the top (khaḍvāṅga), a trident (triśikhā), and a sword (khaḍga) (Sarma 2015, p. 556). The fierce goddess residing in the holy grove is also called Bhairavī and for some Śrīvidyā adepts, she is Tripurabhairavī, the frightening incarnation of the Tripurā goddess. For many local devotees who go each day to pray in Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu, she is simply “amma” (mother or goddess), a compassionate mother and protector of the land. The temple ritualism of the Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu also includes the rites of Tantra of Keralan Brahmins derived from the popular treatises: Tantrasamuccaya and Śeṣasamuccaya.18 The various layers of the ritual practice are visible in both public (temple) and private forms of worship in Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu. The private worship of the Śākta families and the secret rites performed in their temples are rooted in Krama and Śrīvidyā orthopraxy. One should remember that Krama and Tripurā cults have always been closely connected through their scriptural traditions.19 The connections between Krama and Śrīvidyā receive additional meaning in Kerala, where the Piṭārar and Mūssats20 combine mantras and ritualistic practices of both systems. The worship of sequences (krama) of the Kālīs was evident in the earliest strata of their ritualism, but the cult gradually changed its original character: complex rituals were simplified, and the adoration of navayoni cakra was introduced.21 Nevertheless, the Mūssat family refers to their tradition by several names, such as Raudra (the Fierce [tradition]), Kaula and Mahārtha (The Great Aim). We would suggest that the authority of the Mūssat family relies on three factors: (1) the importance of their Brahmin tradition; (2) the Kashmirian Śaiva roots; and (3) the knowledge of Śrīvidyā and expertise in mantras. Interestingly, the family also legitimizes its practices as well as its religious and social power through its possession of a considerable body of manuscripts pertaining to all the above-mentioned traditions. The priests of the family also point to Śeṣasamuccaya as another source of their Rurujitvidhāna. In this respect, Śeṣasamuccaya insists that the Rurujit goddess is in fact Kālī in her form of Bhadrakālī. Coincidently, a formula often used to invoke Bhadrakālī in Keralan Brahmanical traditions also consists of the Bālā mantra: aim kḷīṃ sauḥ hrīṃ bhadrakāḷyai namaḥ.

5.3. The Mūssats’ Tradition: Bālāviṃśati, Śrīcakra and Rites of Power

Moreover, certain aspects of Śrīvidyā iconography can be found in the Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu temple. In the sanctum sanctorum are granite representations of seven mother goddesses and an ancient śrīcakra (Jayashanker 2008, pp. 245–46). According to the priests, the śrīcakra of Vaḷayanāṭ kāvu was engraved by a Śaiva saint, Śivayogi Tayyāvūr Śivaśaṅkar. Tradition says that the act of consecrating the śrīcakra also marked a change in the ritualism of the Mūssat community. According to local legend, the ancestors of modern Mūssats lived in the Western Kozhikode known by the name Poḷanāṭu, which was ruled by the Porḷātiri dynasty.22 Traditionally, Mūssats, loyal to the Porḷātiri kings, served as the ūrāḷar (trustees and administrators)23 of the Taḷi Mahākṣetraṃ, one of the oldest Śiva temples of Kozhikode. When, in the 14th century C.E., a Zamorin king tried to conquer Poḷanāṭu, his army killed the Mūssats who resided in the temple.24 The massacre happened near the western gate of the temple, which in modern times remains closed in remembrance of those who were murdered. According to the tradition, a Śaiva priest Kokkunnattu Śivāṅṅal25 persuaded the Zamorins to repent for the bloodshed and the desecration of the Tali Temple. Hence, the Zamorins, after claiming the whole of Kozhikode, decided to organize a literary competition, the Rēvati paṭṭattānaṁ (Figure 2), which gathered scholars, literati, and poets from across Kerala and soon became a major annual event.26 Moreover, as another act of repentance, the Zamorins appointed the Mūssats as priestly assistants to the Tali Temple.27 Some devotees from Kozhikode argue that the consecration of śrīcakra in Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu temple, which happened afterwards, marked a change in the Mūssat tradition, which from that time onwards became more Śrīvidyā-oriented. Certain Śākta rites are performed in secrecy in the household of the Mūssat family and Mahārtha pūjā (a śākta rite with meat and alcohol offerings to the goddess Kālī) is conducted at midday in the inner precincts of the temple. However, at the time of the annual festival, the midday rites are conducted at the Mūssat household, and temple rituals are performed by the Nampūtiri Brahmins of Cennas illam who are also the main priests of the Tali Temple. Another symbolic act is performed during the festival: a sword (the legendary weapon dedicated to the goddess) is taken from the Tali Temple of Kozhikode and ceremonially transported to the Vaḷayanāṭu. Hence, one may suggest that there is a particular interplay between the rites performed by Nampūtiri Brahmins and Mūssats and perhaps a power play between the two Brahmin traditions.
The annual event includes rites of purification conducted by the Nampūtiris and “rites of power” (Śākta-Kaula offerings of meat and alcohol performed according to the Mūssats tradition). This is important, as Bālāviṃśati, in the 14th verse, discusses the different methods of worshipping the goddess employed by people of different castes. Bālāviṃśati says that Brahmins give milk, kings satiate the goddess with ghee, merchants offer honey, and others make an offering with liquor. The text assures the readers that whatever they pray for will be instantly granted. Rāghavānanda comments that Brahmins can use ghee if milk is unavailable, and honey if neither milk nor ghee can be found. Finally, liquor can be offered if none of the other substances are available.28 If liquor cannot be found, one can offer gandhodaka (perfumed water).
K Vasudevan Moos (Moos 1961) observes, in his commentary, that every person, regardless of caste or creed, is eligible to worship the goddess. Nevertheless, the modern Mūssats introduce themselves as Brahmins and defend the “impurity” of their ritual offerings (e.g., wine) by calling themselves Śākta Brahmins. Similarly, in his commentary on Bālāviṃśati, Moos (1961, p. 30) explains that people may use various tools and give different offerings, but they all will surely benefit from the worship of the Bālā goddess and from chanting her name. In the Keralan context, Moos’ statement has an additional undertone. In contemporary Kerala, Tantric paths are generally considered open to all.29 On the other hand, secret mantras and special rites of passage are traditionally performed only by members of a given family. Hence, for instance, while a potential adept (sādhaka) may choose a guru according to their preference, a member of a particular Tantric clan may be required to undergo Bālā initiation and perform rituals for her in a traditional manner (e.g., kaula), as a part of their family tradition.
The question of eligibility for Bālā worship is also raised in a protective chant, Bālā kavaca, found in a manuscript collection of Chattangottupuram Kaḷari Panikkars (Figure 3). According to the members of the family, the kavaca was formerly chanted by the ancestors of the clan. Their complex rituals, like the ceremonies of the Mūssats, have been simplified in modern times, and the chant is no longer used ritually. On the other hand, another clan of Panikkars, Areekkulangara Kaḷari Panikkars of Kozhikode, continues to perform Śākta rituals for the Bālā goddess in their family kaḷaris (traditional martial arts centers) and praise her with chants at their monthly ceremonies. Areekkulangara Kaḷari Panikkars recite Bālā kavaca as well as Bālāviṃśati and Devīmāhātmyam during their ceremonies. Bālā kavaca proclaimed that various castes and communities may benefit from worship of Bālā. The text implies that it is necessary for a Brahmin to chant the kavaca to gain all knowledge and protection. The Kṣatriyas30, if they repeat the kavaca, will receive many kingdoms, and the Vaiśya31 may multiply their goods and become prosperous. The text says that even Śūdras, the lowest of the four social classes of ancient India, would benefit greatly from chanting the kavaca. Bālā kavaca also explains that multiple recitations may bring even more prosperity. This is again confirmed in verses 12 and 13 of Bālāviṃśati. There, the text highlights the powers of the Bālā mantra by recalling a story of Śrīvatsa, a king who was born in poverty and, with the blessing of the goddess, became the ruler of the whole world. Thus, the text continues, all hardships that one may need to endure while serving the goddess in this life will lead to a better birth, and in their next incarnations, those diligent devotees will be born with auspicious signs on their hands. They become emperors of the world, praised by entourages of Vidyādharas. Rāghavānanda describes the Vidyādharas as those who possess knowledge of the Vedas. Hence, the commentator concludes, Bālāviṃśati implies that the followers of Bālā Tripuṛā will become powerful leaders, scholars, and masters of all branches of knowledge (Sastri 1917, p. 24). 32 The reference to the Vedas is also of importance here—many Tantric families in Kerala are in fact Brahmins (e.g., the Mūssats) educated in Sanskrit and Vedic literature. However, in their tradition, Tantric lore is seen as complementary (rather than as contradictory) to the Vedas.33

5.4. Stanzas 16–20: The Name Tripurā and Nāmapārāyaṇa Upāsana

The worship of Tripurasundarī has been described as tripartite, that is, centred on pūjā (ritual), mantra (chanting), and cakra (meditation on the sacred diagram). These three types of worship correspond to the three forms of the goddess, which are her physical form (sthūlarūpa) represented in anthropomorphic images, her subtle (sūkṣma) or mantra form, and her transcendent, supreme (parā) form (Lidke 2017, p. 15). In a similar fashion, in the 16th verse of Bālāviṃśati stotra, the author provides an etymology of the word Tripurā. The text refers to threefold divisions and triads of Indian philosophy and mythology. Thus, she embodies and gives her name to three worlds, three lines of sacred gāyatrī chant, sacred thread, and even the three Vedas. According to the commentary of Rāghavānanda (Sastri 1917, p. 34), the triple entities and principles found in the world create the aparā (inferior) form of the goddess. She transcends all of those in her supreme form (para) that encompasses everything.34 Similarly, Shasthrigal (Namputiri 2016, p. 54) states that it is not only the name of the goddess that refers to the three worlds, but anything that can be divided into three is her abode (trīṇi purāṇi yasyāḥ sā).
However, Bālāviṃśati stotra indicates that the goddess manifests herself in various forms and under many names. The 17th verse states that to obtain the best results, one should choose a name depending on the situation or place of worship. Hence, the text prescribes people to worship her as Lakṣmī in the royal house but to invoke her as Jayā in times of war. She should be called Kṣemaṃkarī by a wanderer following lonely tracks but addressed as Śabarī when attacked by wild beasts or serpents. A hiker in the mountains should call her Durgā and pray to her in her form of Bhairavī when accosted by ghosts and demons.35 If in danger amidst water, one should call her Tārā. Nevertheless, when unsure, one should simply call her Tripurā.36 This verse again reminds us of one of the complexities of Tantric worship that we could observe in the Vaḷayanāṭu Temple. There, the goddess was invoked with Bālāviṃśati stotra and mantras of Śrīvidyā and Krama but imagined in her various guises, for instance, as the solitary heroine fighting with demons. Shasthrigal confirms these statements in his commentary and adds that when Tripurā is imagined as a 9-year-old girl, she is Bālā; in the form of a 15-year-old girl, she is Śrīvidyā; and when she is visualized as a 16-year-old girl, she is Ṣoḍaśī or Mahāṣoḍaśī (Namputiri 2016, p. 57). It is worth noting that a synonym of Bālā, Kumārī, is found in verse 18, and in fact, the word Bālā is never stated in the text except in the title. Moreover, the 18th verse gives other names of the goddess. However, according to the commentators, they refer to various mantric syllables used in the Tantric practice. Consequently, the 19th verse explains the principles of mantroddhāra (creation of mantras) and states that there are 20,000 combinations of vowels and consonants that form the various names of Tripurā.
The two Keralan commentators, Kaikkulangara Ramavarier and K. Vasudevan Moos, elaborate on the rules of these phonetic transformations. They observe that 16 vowels (svara) of the Sanskrit alphabet can be combined with 35 consonants (vyañjana), creating a total of 560 combinations. These 560 combinations can, in turn, be joined with consonants to create 19,600 new mantras.37 Finally, by adding vowels to the 19,600 phonetic combinations, one can create 20,160 names of the goddess. Concluding this elaborate derivation, the commentators agree that the title of the stotra is an apt one because an initiated practitioner may derive 20,000 names of the goddess from the 20 verses of the text. The process of derivation, the construction of the mantras, and the subsequent chanting of them in a prescribed manner is considered a spiritual practice (upāsana) known as nāmapārāyaṇa upāsana (Namputiri 2016).
The last verse of Bālā viṃśati proclaims that an initiated devotee and a scholar of mantras should deconstruct the first verse of the stotra and derive the Bālā mantra from it. In the Tantric tradition, the mantra cannot be studied from a text but should be given by a guru. Therefore, those who have already realized the potency of the mantra will benefit from chanting the stotra, finding the many names of the goddess and her multiple powers within each of the Bālā viṃśati’s verses. The final verse of the stotra also contains the author’s apology for possible mistakes and omissions that might be found in the poem. The author hopes that these errors may be forgiven as the text is filled with his devotion and therefore communicates spiritual matters that are more important than linguistic accuracy. This statement is analyzed by Rāghavānanda who indicates its “lightness” (laghutva) in contrast with the serious theme of the stotra. Consequently, Rāghavānanda calls the author Laghubhaṭṭāraka and points to the quality of the text itself, which employs various rasas (sentiments) and alaṃkāras (poetic ornaments) combined in a superb and flawless manner.

6. Bālādīkṣāpaddhati and the Transmission of the Bālā Mantra

6.1. Bālāviṃśati stotra and Bālādīkṣāpaddhati—Mapping Śrīvidyā onto the Keralan Cultural Landscape

The reading of Bālāviṃśati through the above-mentioned Sanskrit and Malayalam commentaries shows how the Bālā mantra and her cult were encoded in the local cultural matrix. In the second part of our paper, we would like to focus on the transmission of the mantra as an act of perpetuating the tradition and an act of empowerment. The two texts discussed here seem complementary: while the Bālādīkṣāpaddhati instructs how to impart the mantra, the Bālāviṃśati explains the purpose of its chanting and decodes its deeper layers of meaning.
Berliner and Sarró (2007, p. 10) indicate two modes of religious transmission: a transmission of religious practice through a frequently repeated, standardized form that relies on explicit verbal knowledge stored in semantic memory (sermon type), and the imagistic mode that includes initiations and involves highly emotional arousal that activates episodic or flashbulb memories. In the context of Tantric rites, dīkṣā, a ritual of initiation, is an example of the second mode, and, according to belief, it enables an adept to participate in ritual acts of a tradition and helps them to attain liberation. The theme dīkṣā is not new to the academic study of Tantric traditions. Tantric traditions have always promised liberation from the suffering of life through rites of initiation by a guru, a liberated master. According to Tantric traditions, mantras are not to be chanted without initiation, and the practice of mantra after initiation leads an adept towards union with the divine and, in some cases, induces states of ecstatic or religious bliss (Urban 1997, p. 11). In the act of transmitting the mantra from guru to adept, the mantra is given together with a mantra-vīrya, the energy (śakti) of the enlightened consciousness of the teacher (Müller-Ortega 1989, p. 83). In many traditions of Śākta Tantra, adepts are empowered with goddesses’ mantras, and a process of initiation (dīkṣā) involves a Śaktipāta, the awakening of śakti within practitioners’ bodies (Caldwell 2001).
The initiations involve a drastic reconfiguration of one’s life aims, forsaking previous identities and gaining a new status within a religious community. In some cases, a dīkṣā requires an adept to leave the ordinary lifestyle or even “travel” to other spiritual worlds, receive blessing from the guardians of the tradition, and prove their worth by surviving trails. Tantric gurus often indicate the secretive nature of Śākta Tantric initiatory rituals that are conducted within the hermetic circles called “families” (kula). Indeed, in Kerala, a Tantric community is often either a particular clan or family-like group, with a guru being a spiritual parent and senior adepts playing the roles of elder siblings and helpers. Tantric groups, like many secret societies, forged their identities based on the concept of secret revelation that is available only to the members of the tradition who are on a quest towards spiritual upliftment. The initiations mark the adepts’ path towards liberation in life (jivanmukti) or for supernatural powers (Wallis 2008).
Initiations play a crucial role in the Tantric traditions of Kerala but are rarely discussed in the textual sources. Sarma observes that while some early Tantric ritual manuals of Kerala (e.g., Prayogamañjarī)38 explain the rules of initiation, later ones either omit the subject of dīkṣā or discuss it briefly, giving it less importance than the previous texts (Karasinski 2020). In time39, the complex rites of initiation were replaced in the texts with a simple transmission of the mantra (mantra-dīkṣā) or consecrations (abhiṣeka). This is especially true in the case of Tantrasamuccaya and other ritual manuals that deal with temple rituals and are designed for priests officiating in the temples (Sarma 2010). In contemporary times, the living Śākta traditions of Kerala initiations are vital—they allow an adept to enter a community of practitioners and to assume a new identity and spiritual guidance. The rules of these initiations are also found in a few obscure Tantric texts that belong to certain Brahmin families or Śākta communities. In the case of dīkṣā of the Bālā mantra, the first initiation of the Śrīvidyā tradition, its procedure differs from one guru-lineage to another. In this study, we present a succinct manual Bālādīkṣāpaddhati and compare the methods of initiation found therein with those revealed by modern gurus of Kerala.

6.2. Bālādīkṣāpaddhati: The Rules of Initiation

The text of Bālādīkṣāpaddhati was found in the collection of P. Gopalakrishna Nambi from Chalappuram. The manuscript itself is a transcript copied by Ramachandra Sharma, a Brahmin who resided in the so-called Cākyār maṭham (literally: a property of the Cākyārs), a religious centre built by the authorities of the Tali Temple of Kozhikode. The Tali Temple has remained an important spiritual centre of Kozhikode and has organized various artistic festivals and literary traditions.40 The Cākyār maṭham (was used by the Cākyārs, a caste of storytellers and bards who were often invited to temple festivals to recite the ancient legends.41 After the time of prosperity, the Cākyārs’ property was bought by Tamil Brahmins, who turned it into a library and a study. One of them, Ramachandra Sharma, resided in the maṭham in the 1920s and devoted his time to transcribing palm-leaf manuscripts related to rituals, poetry, and Tantric studies.
In the 1970s, after the death of Ramachandra Sharma, his successors donated his rare collection of transcripts to their neighbour P. Gopalakrishna Nambi, an academician and a Sanskrit scholar well versed in Tantra and astrology. In his transcript of Bālādīkṣāpaddhati, Ramachandra Sharma indicated that the original manuscript contained more than one text: it opens with Bālādīkṣāpaddhati and continues with Sanskrit commentary on the mantras of various Hindu goddesses (Vāgvādinī, Rājamātaṅgī, Bahalā and Vārāhī). It includes a short Sanskrit chant, Svayamvarakavaca (a chant for the protection of marriage), and a long treatise on Mantraśāstra (magical incantations) written in the Malayalam language.
The Bālādīkṣāpaddhati prescribes an initiation into the ritual system of the Bālā goddess for deserving adepts (adhikārins). Having selected an adept for initiation, the guru should go to a temple or sacred ground and make offerings to the goddess in Bālā cakra. The cakra, drawn on the ground, should have a central point (bindu) surrounded by a triangle, a six-angled figure, a circle, and a square. Inside the diagram, a guru should cast a handful of paddy rice and, above it, place a decorated vessel that must also be perfumed, filled with water, and enveloped with a newly prepared piece of cloth. The guru should place a leaf of the mango or coconut tree, a holy image, and gems into a jar decorated with flowers. The text cautions that the guru should perform the ritual only on an auspicious day and gives astrological requirements for the day of initiation.
The next step prescribed by the text is the kalaśapūjā or “honouring of the vessel”. The guru should make a vow to perform the kalaśapūjā by saying: “I will perform a rite of the vessel for the Bālā goddess as stated in the manual of Bālā, the highest goddess”.42 The guru must then make another vow to honour the vessel and a conch used in the ritual. After giving offerings of perfumes, flowers, and unhusked rice (akṣata), the guru visualizes Bālā sitting in the lotus of their heart. Next, by performing prāṇāyāma (breathing in through the right nostril), the guru imagines the goddess in the vessel, visualizing therein her limbs (aṅgas), weapons, and her divine entourage. Then, the guru chants the main mantra of Bālā composed of six syllables,43 and by doing so, invokes the goddess into the vessel. The mantra is also mentioned in the text as pure wisdom (Śuddha-vidyā), as she represents pure consciousness. The invoked goddess is then treated like a guest, and the guru addresses her with the following words that correspond to polite requests given to a special visitor:
Avahitā bhava—please come here
Saṃsthāpitā bhava—please be seated
Sanniruddhā bhava—please come and listen (literally: allow me to command you)
Summukhī bhava—grace me with your look (literally: please face me)
Suprasannā bhava—be serene
Varadā bhava—grant my wishes
The guru summons the deity through a combination of mantras, visualizations, and specific mudrās, ritual gestures. Once the deity is visualized as appearing and taking her seat at the designated spot, the guru invites her to stay and listen to the prayers. He then performs a prāṇa pratiṣṭhā, a rite of consecration in which the vital force (prāṇa) of the deity is invoked into the said vessel. This ritual is done with the following mantra: “Let the prāṇa of Bālā descend into this vessel and stay pleasantly and long”.44 One should then, according to the text, honour the seat with 16 services (upacāras). The upacāras differ from tradition to tradition but usually include: invocation (āvāhana), the offering of a seat (āsana); water for washing the feet (pādya); the offering of water admixed with several ingredients (like sandalwood paste or raw rice grains: akṣata) to honour the guest (arghya); water for sipping (ācamanīya); sweet light food (madhuparka), usually a mixture of honey and clarified butter; bath (snāna); clothes (vastra); ornaments (bhūṣaṇa); perfumes or fragrances (gandha or candana); flowers (puṣpa); incense (dhūpa); light (dīpa); food (naivedya); sometimes water is given again to rinse the mouth and hands (punar acamana); finally, prostrations (praṇāma) or circumambulations (pradakṣiṇā) are performed. Sometimes, the ritual includes offering flowers and mantras (mantrapuṣpāñjali) or betel leaves and betel nuts (tāmbūla) before the formal act of farewell (visarjana) (Bühnemann 1988, pp. 102–3).
As observed by Bühnemann (1988, p. 137), the offering of āsana-pādya-arghya-ācamanīya can be traced back to an old Indian custom of honouring distinguished guests (arghya) by giving them a place to sit, water to wash their feet and hands, and water to drink. These 16 services are inscribed in a paradigm of invocation or welcoming of the divine guest and the act of farewell. Afterwards, the guru should honour the elements (tattva) of the universe and chant the main mantra of the goddess again. Next, the 16 services should be repeated, and this part of the ritual should be concluded with a water satiation (tarpaṇa). The satiation is followed by flower offerings carried out 108 times. After this, the guru is instructed to perform a homa, a fire offering for the goddess Bālā. The text reminds us that the guru should have prepared a Bālā yantra (a mystical diagram) on the right-hand side of the fire pit, and above this, they should place a decorated vessel for the adept who is to be initiated. Then, the guru takes a vow to perform a fire offering and sanctify the vessel and conch.
Tantric homa rituals are usually performed to purify and protect a person (or a place) from various dangers and negative influences. The ritual space itself should also be designated and protected. Hence, the text instructs the guru to decorate the fire altar with flowers and incenses and worship the eight guardians of directions (aṣṭa-dik-pāla) in the following manner:45
indrāya namaḥ (east)
agnaye namaḥ (southeast)
yamāya namaḥ (south)
nirṛtaye namaḥ (southwest)
varuṇāya namaḥ (west)
vāyave namaḥ (northwest)
somāya namaḥ (north)
īśānāya namaḥ (northeast)
Having worshipped these guardians, the guru should meditate on the goddess Bālā and visualize her in the sacred fire pit. He then worships the pedestal (pīṭhapūjā), places the vessel upon it, and uses the Bālā mantra again to invoke the goddess therein.
Then, the guru is supposed to perform various forms of nyāsas—the imposition of mantras on their body. The text mentions ṛṣi-nyāsa (the imposition of names of sages);46 kara-nyāsa (the empowerment of hands with mantras); and sixfold nyāsa (the imposition of mantras on six limbs of the body). In kara-nyāsa, the guru recites mantras ascribed to their fingers; they recite a mantra and move the thumb from the base to the tip of the finger. In the case of the thumb, the nyāsa is done with the index finger, which should press the thumb from base to the tip. The kara-nyāsa is concluded with one hand swiping across the other. In aṅga-nyāsa, the six limbs are touched with various combinations of right-hand fingers. The act of the sixfold aṅga-nyāsa can be interpreted as a practice of moving awareness to various points of the body and enclosing one body within a sacred space. With various mudrās, the Tantric guru touches their heart, head, tuft of their hair, the three eyes (with three fingers), crosses their hands on their chest, and ends the nyāsa by uttering the astra (weapon) mantra for protection. The last act is often performed with a gesture imitating shooting an arrow and biding the direction (Bühnemann 1988, pp. 122–23). By imposing the mantras, the body of an adept is purified, empowered, and finally divinized. Afterwards, the guru should prepare vessels with melted butter and milk and place a tuft of grass near them. The guru is instructed to chant the mantra of the goddess twice and set the grass on fire. Afterwards, the goddess is invoked into the fire and presented with the offerings again. The text teaches that the fire should be fed with wood: either Bastard Teak (palāśa), aegle marmelos (bilva), sindura (vermilion), guḷūcī or durva. The guru adds two ladles of ghee to the fire and performs fire oblations 28 times with the mantra: aim klīṃ sauḥ bālāparameśvari svāhā. The procedure is then repeated 28 times with milk. Finally, the guru should make offerings with a drop of water from the vessel into a water pitcher and into the fire. All this should be done with the main mantra of Bālā. Afterwards, the guru makes offerings of pūrṇa pātra hūti, a burnt offering at the close of sacrifices. The text says that the pūrṇāhūti is the last of the offerings. Interestingly, the term uttamam used in this statement can mean the last but also the best. The text explains that with this offering they acquire everything they need. The pūrṇāhūti is done with a single drop of clarified butter offered into the fire. Thus, the fire ritual is concluded. When the pūrṇāhūti is completed, the dīpārādhana, the waving of a lamp, should be performed. After this, in a process of visarjana (bidding farewell), the deity leaves all the places in which she was previously invoked, that is, the vessel, fire, and the worshipper’s heart. In the end, the sanctified food is collected, and an adept awaiting initiation is called. The guru should sprinkle the adept with water from the conch, saying:
ātmatattvaṃ śodhayāmi—“I purify the principle of Self (ātma).”
vidyātattvaṃ śodhayāmi—“I purify the principle of Wisdom (vidyā).”
In this way, the guru purifies the elements or principles (tattvas) of the adept’s body. According to Paraśurāmakalpasūtra (6.18), there are three main principles: ātmatattvaṃ, vidyātattvaṃ and śivatattvaṃ. In fact, ātmatatvaṃ is again subdivided into 24 elements from kṣiti to prakṛti and vidyātattvaṃ is divided into 7 from puruṣa to māyā. All these elements are supposed to be purified with the sanctified water of the conch. Afterwards, the guru makes an offering with pañcagavya, the “five products of cow”,47 saying:
yat-tvag-asth-igataṃ pāpaṃ
dehe tiṣṭhati mām-eka[m]
prāśanaṃ pañcagavyasya
dahatv-agnir ivêndhanaṃ
“By taking of the five products of the cow, the sin that has entered into the skin and bones shall be burned, like fuel on a fire”.
Next, the guru should cleanse the body of the adept with the holy ash and invoke the Bālā goddess into the body of the adept by performing the mātṛka-nyāsa, the casting down of Sanskrit syllables of the goddess’ mantra. In fact, the goddess in the Śrīvidyā tradition is often called Mātṛkadevi (Vāmakeśvarīmata 2005, verse 1.11) and praised as Parā Vāc, the Supreme Speech. Then, the guru gives five offerings again to honour the goddess. This is the time when the adept awaiting initiation is requested to stand near the guru facing east in the place where the water consecration (abhiṣeka) should be performed. The guru needs to stand in front of the adept, showing the light of the lamp (nirañjana). While doing so, the guru chants a mantra that says:
antas-tejo bahis-tejaḥ
sambāhyâbhantaraṃ jyotir
dīpôyaṃ pratigṛhyatāṃ
“The inner light and the external light are one that shines bright,
with inner and outer flash, I accept this lamp”.48
In this context, the kula may also mean “family”, as the ritual virtually introduces a new adept into the Tantric community. According to Bālādīkṣāpaddhati, after nirañjana, the guru should perform an abhiṣeka, that is, pour the water from the vessel onto the head of the adept while chanting a mantra. Interestingly, the mantra used here is derived not from Tantric but from the Vedic tradition (Taittirīya-Brāhmaṇa):
devasya tvā savituḥ prasave aśvinor bāhubhyāṃ pūṣṇo hastābhyāṃ aśvinor bheṣajena tejase brahma—varcasenâ nandādyen â bhiṣiñcāmi||
“On the impulse of god Savitṛ, with the arms of the two Aśvins, with the hands of Pūsan, with the healing power of the Aśvins, with the power of the sacred knowledge and so forth, for the illuminating light, I besprinkle [you]”
After the abhiṣeka, the guru should again show the light of the lamp (nirañjana) and again make an offering with five products of the cow. Then, after the abhiṣeka, the adept should change into new clothes. Besmeared with ashes, with their tattvas purified with the water, the adept appears again in front of the guru with a thread-bangle (pratisarā) in their right hand. At this time, the guru should recite a bṛhatsāma mantra:
bṛhat-sāma kṣatra-bhṛt vṛddha-vṛṣṇiyaṃ|
tṛṣṭubh-aujaḥ śubhitaṃ ugra-vīraṃ||
indra-stomena pañca-daśena madhyam|idaṃ vātena sagareṇa rakṣa||
“Bṛhat is a sacred verse (sāman), a supporter of the dominion, of great strength, [it has] power adorned with the triṣṭubh [meter] and [a retinue of] powerful men. O Indra, with the fifteenfold stoma, with the wind and air protect this [that is] in the middle”.
Chanting that mantra, the guru should tie the thread around adept’s left hand. After this, the guru should whisper the Bālā mantra into the right ear of the adept. The text instructs the performer of the rite to honor the tradition from gurus to pīṭhas and offer food to the goddess.
After communicating the mantra to the adept, the guru should perform the dīpārādhana: the worship of the goddess by waving a lamp. The guru then honors the vessels used in the ritual for the last time and recites a Śāntistava, a hymn of peace. The ritual of initiation is concluded with the sanctified food being distributed among the community. The text says that it is customary for an adept to give gurudakṣiṇā (gifts or tokens of gratitude) to the guru. In modern Kerala, adepts who request the tuition of a Tantric guru usually offer him or her a cloth (dhoti) along with the guru’s fee placed on a leaf. This gurudakṣiṇā is, in most cases, a voluntary fee.49 The money is put on a leaf with a coin on top, and then the leaf is placed on a folded loincloth. A disciple would kneel before the guru to give the gurudakṣiṇā and receive the mantra (Karasinski 2020).

6.3. The Vessel on Guru’s Head: Bālādīkṣāpaddhati in the Context of Living Traditions

According to Van Gennep’s classic theory, the rituals facilitate an individual’s passage from one social grouping to another. They “dramatize that transformation by holding the person in a suspended ‘betwixt and between’ state for a period of time, and then reincorporate him or her into a new identity and status within another social grouping” (Van Gennep 1960, p. 25). Van Gennep proposes a threefold pattern of the rites. The first phase is called “separation” and usually involves series on minor acts of purification and symbolic “losing of identity”. The separation phase may include bathing or a change of clothes. The second stage is the transition—a person undergoing the ritual is symbolically kept outside the lay conventions or sociocultural laws. In this phase norms and ordinary routines are neglected and new rules introduced. The third and final stage involves welcoming the adept into a new community or status (i.e., a new birth of the new self). In this state, a person may receive a new name, symbolic marks, or insignia. The phase is usually concluded with a communal meal and integration with other members who have already passed the ritual.
The initiation described in Bālādīkṣāpaddhati is an example of Van Gennep’s three-stage patterned rite. The acts of purification performed with ablutions, prayers, and nyāsas prepare the adept for a new role: becoming a member of a Tantric community. The stage of transition in the case of the Tantric dīkṣā is marked by the learning of new rules of purity and ritualistic routines. The adept’s new identity is finally created by the guru, who often gives the adept a new name and with it, their new status.
In the first statement, the Bālādīkṣāpaddhati insists on choosing a dedicated adept who deserves initiation. This aspect is mentioned in almost all the Tantric texts dealing with initiations and, in many cases, the scriptures prescribe tests and tasks to verify the adept’s aptitude. Thus, for instance, Mātṛsadbhāva (pp. 33–34) enumerates the qualities of an adept (e.g., bravery, wisdom, persistence in their spiritual quest, etc.) and insists on their dedication not only to the study of Tantra but, more importantly, to their guru.50
A Tantric Śākta guru in the Vadakara region51 described a very similar process of initiation performed in his tradition. According to the guru, in the Vadakara Tantric Community, the Bālā mantra is given as the first mantra for a worthy adept. This embodied transmission of sacred knowledge (vidyā) is therefore performed within strict social and religious norms that dictate who can be taught and entrusted with mantras. The guru refused to call his tradition Śrīvidyā, instead used the word Śākta to indicate the importance of the traditional Keralan mode of worship of Śrīvidyā deities. Similarly, he talked about “giving the Bālā mantra”, not the dīkṣā of the Bālā mantra. “The dīkṣā comes later,” he said, explaining that this term was reserved, in his tradition, for the full initiation (pūrṇa dīkṣā). This full initiation happens, he went on to clarify, after a long period of spiritual practice whereby an adept proves to be worthy of a higher, more esoteric mantra of Śrīvidyā, that is, the Pañcadaśī or Ṣoḍaśi. In what follows, we share observations and field notes from an initiation ceremony conducted by the same guru near Vadakara.

6.4. Bālādīkṣā in Vadakara—Notes from a Field Research of Maciej Karasinski (March 2012)

Vadakara is a coastal town in the Kozhikode district, famous for its Hindu temples and martial arts centres, kaḷari. The initiation ceremony took place at the guru’s own house, a small but graceful Keralan manor with a garden of lush bushes buzzing with cicadas. To get there, one was supposed to traverse a long, palm-fringed road from a dusty bus station. The adepts to be initiated were asked to arrive in the afternoon and bring two pieces of loin cloth (dhoti) with them. One piece was given to the guru at the time of initiation and the other should be worn by the adept after the initiation. At the time of the Bālā mantra initiation, adepts were asked to sit outside the guru’s house on the steps leading to the main entrance. There, abhiṣeka, the ritual sprinkling of adepts with holy water, was performed. Once the adepts were ready, the guru, wearing an expensive-looking loin cloth and a sacred thread (Malayalam pūṇūl) across his bare chest, stepped out of the manor holding a garlanded jar. The sanctified water that was poured on the heads of the newly initiated adepts from the jar had been mixed with wine as a symbol of the fierce (raudra) Śākta path. The adepts were afterwards informed by their preceptor that their sins had been removed with this abhiṣeka from a vessel that the guru had “held on his head during his meditation”.52
Next, the adepts were invited to the guru’s home, where they changed into new clothes and were individually taught the new mantra (as described in Bālādīkṣāpaddhati) and, subsequently, their spiritual routine. One by one, each adept was invited to sit in the room alone with his guru, who would pray and whisper the mantra into their right ear. In the room where the rite took place, the adepts could recognize the ritual paraphernalia mentioned in the Bālādīkṣāpaddhati: the firepit, the vessels, and yantras. After the “giving of mantra,” the guru gave the adepts an opportunity to choose their new name. However, it was an unspoken rule of the community for an adept to refuse and instead ask the guru to choose their new name. After this, all initiated members were welcomed by the senior students who, up to this time, remained in other parts of the house.
After the initiates had integrated with the senior students, the whole community attended a śrīcakra ritual performed by the guru. The disciples were asked to sit on the floor in front of a powder drawn śrīcakra. Before the commencement of the ritual, the guru introduced the lineage of masters to which he belonged and talked about his teacher, who had initiated him into the secrets of Tantra years ago. The names of the masters, he explained, were to be chanted before every mantra practice: “They have a power to bless you; without their blessings your chanting may not bring any results”. The guru, sitting cross-legged near the adepts, warned everyone that the names should not be revealed to the uninitiated. As his students sitting in front of him nodded, they promised to obey the instructions, the guru placed a small śrīcakra meru (a śrīcakra in its three-dimensional form) in the middle of a decorated ritual space. “This one”—he pointed to the śrīcakra and inched it towards the centre of the yantra drawn on the floor—“is a special one, I have received it from my beloved guru.”53
Afterwards, in the late evening, the śrīcakra ritual began and lasted until late. All through the night, long litanies of divine names were recited by the guru and his disciples. With each divine name being chanted, flower petals were thrown on the śrīcakra, the mandalic body of the goddess. The śrīcakra lay shining among the floral garlands and filigrees of Gaṇapati. The mantras, according to the Tantric philosophy, are gods’ sonic forms, and by repeating them one may feel a divine presence. Sitting there with all the devotees, chanting, and listening to the chants, I felt as if, with each incantation, the material world around us was ceasing to exist and the tiny śrīcakra was the only reality. It reminded me of the words of Clooney (2010, p. 91), who once observed that goddess hymns are indeed “acts of living speech, generative of worship”.
The ritual was a visionary journey through the enclosures of śrīcakra into its central point, where the followers were supposed to meditate on the goddess Tripurā. At one point, a few pages dropped from the guru’s spiral notebook that he kept open on his lap throughout the ritual. “There are some secrets here”—he gathered the scattered pages in a hurry—“and I shall recite them silently as you have all only just been initiated into the Bālā mantra”. He continued, murmuring the litanies and asked the attendees to silently chant the “om” mantra. Once the ritual was over, the victuals (fish, fried chicken, wine, and parched beans) were sanctified and distributed among the devotees. Then, the adepts cleaned the ritual place, swept the colorful maṇḍalas away, and got ready to call it a day. Once the guru had disappeared into the rooms upstairs, the students almost instantaneously fell asleep. Some of them, like me, lay down on the hard floor of the hall; our backpacks became pillows. Others retreated to the veranda, where they slept covered with their loincloths. Still others huddled up to the stove in the kitchen and fell asleep with their heads on each other’s shoulders.
Bālādīkṣāpaddhati seems to suggest that the ritual should take only one day, but, in fact, in most cases in Kerala, the initiation involves night observances and morning rites. On the morning of the second day, the newly initiated adepts woke up early and washed their bodies in cold water from the well in the garden. Later, after a simple breakfast, everyone was taught a prayer for the Bālā goddess to be recited before the mantra:
raktâmbarāṃ candrakalâvataṃsāṃ samudyad-āditya-nibhāṃ tri-netrāmi|
vidyâkṣa-mālâbhayadāna-hastāṃ dhyāyāmi bālām aruṇâṃbuja-sthām||
“I meditate on goddess Bālā sitting on a crimson lotus, who has three eyes, is clad in red, effulgent as the rising sun, with a crescent moon on her forehead, who is holding a book and a rosary, showing the gestures of protection and blessings”.54
With the morning practice done, the day after the initiation is the start of a new life for the Tantric adepts in Kerala. The newly initiated adepts converse with senior adepts, who give them advice on spiritual exercises and share their own experience. As the new members of the community leave their guru’s house, they make a promise to meet again and perform rites together soon. The senior adepts would, often in an emotional, older-brother kind of talk, tell the new adepts that the three syllables of the Bālā mantra would fulfill whatever wish they had. One of the advanced adepts of the Vadakara Tantric Community explained the meaning of the mantra in the following way, counting the mantric syllables on his fingers: “Aim gives you the eloquence, kḷīṃ the power to overcome obstacles and sauḥ prosperity, all these [syllables] together make you more attractive”. This popular interpretation again refers to what we previously said about the message of Bālāviṃśati and its commentaries. Moreover, as with the commentators of Bālāviṃśati, the contemporary practitioners point to the efficacy of the mantra that has many versions and can be pronounced in various ways.
Tantric adepts in Kerala commonly believe that a follower of Śrīvidyā may experience misfortunes soon after initiation. These hardships of the spiritual practice are thought to cleanse sins and ultimately lead to spiritual purity. An initiated adept is therefore asked to chant mantras every day for a prolonged period and face all adversities with unshaken faith. Sometimes, a guru may ask an adept to additionally recite Lalitāsahasranāma and Bālāviṃśati, which are supposed to deepen their understanding of mantras and tradition. Moreover, Bālāviṃśati is believed to instill various images of the goddess in the mind of an adept who, after longer practice, starts to consider her a close spiritual companion rather than a deity watching them from afar.55
In this context, the goddess is idealized as transcendent yet approachable. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the goddess in the Bālādīkṣāpaddhati and Bālāviṃśati is invoked, inter alia, as Mātaṅginī, the divine artist and a friendly, spirited dancer. Her nature represents the dynamism of life and a world that is in a constant dance-like flux. She is therefore a “divine playmate” who accompanies the adept in their ups and downs of life. One of the Śrīvidyā adepts in Kozhikode admitted that he had a vision of Bālā in her form of Mātaṅgini during his Śrīvidyā ritual. One afternoon he was performing the śrīcakra ritual alone in his old house situated in the vicinity of Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu. Suddenly, he fell into a meditative state and lost all sense of time. The humid, ocean-flavoured air was seeping through half-opened windows. Outside, lime-green fields bordered by swaying palms and ornate temples paled in the midday sun. He remembered, remotely, the sweet smell of incense and the ghee-lamps flickering in the silence of the lazy afternoon. When he woke up, he saw a girl, approximately 13 years of age, sitting in front of him. The girl, dressed in a bright sari, was smiling cheerfully at him through the long, interlocked fingers of her henna-coloured hands. He immediately said his prayers and asked the girl who she was. “Don’t you know?” she giggled. “I live here”. He then slowly stood up, presented the child with sweets, and observed as she ate and then danced around the room. The man closed his eyes and uttered mantras to calm himself down. When he reopened his eyes, there was nobody in the room, but the ghee-lamps were still burning brightly. “I asked around and we found out that it was a daughter of our new neighbours. But for me it was a sign from the goddess, that’s how She appears in the ordinariness of our life,” he concluded his story.
One might say that the young appearance and playful nature of the goddess Bālā represents the characteristics of a new adept: they are generally enthusiastic, inexperienced, and eager to follow the spiritual teachings of Śāktism. The Bālā mantra is therefore a symbol of new spiritual quests, a rebirth of an adept in a new community of believers. The potency of the mantra is recognized not only by Śrīvidyā adepts but by all the Tantric traditions in Kerala. The Tantric dīkṣā has a similar function to saṃskāras, the rites of passage in the Hindu way of life. In fact, in some Brahmin families in Kerala apart from the usual set of saṃskāras, young boys undergo so-called Śākta saṃskāras, additional initiations that give them Tantric mantras such as the Bālā mantra. In many households where śrīcakra is worshipped, the family members are initiated into the Bālā mantra, as it enables them to perform the navāvaraṇa pūjā—a ritual of nine enclosures of śrīcakra. Similarly, it is required for priests of those temples in which śrīcakras are installed. In fact, śrīcakras are found in various family temples in Kerala that do not strictly belong to the Śākta, Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava tradition, but form complex systems where various deities are invoked and honored.56

6.5. Kaḷaris, the Bālā Goddess and Warriors’ Traditions

The Bālā goddess also plays an important role in other family traditions, for instance in the Meppāṭ Nāyar sampradāya (tradition) of Kannur district. According to the devotees, the Meppāṭ is one of the oldest Kaula Tantra sampradāya of the so-called Māntrika Nāyars. The word Nāyar is traditionally linked to the Sanskrit term nāyaka (army leader), as many Nāyars, such as Kaḷari Panikkars and Kaḷari Kurupps, were traditionally martial artists and warriors (Bayly 1984).57 In fact, the Nāyars and Kaḷari Panikkars, in time, developed their own rituals and established temples in which they officiated and worshipped fierce goddesses. While many Panikkar families are also known as traditional astrologers, some Nāyars are adepts of mantravāda, an indigenous tradition of magic. Their temples gained religious prestige by being recognized by royal courts and soon evolved into local centres of culture.
As already mentioned, the Meppāṭs are also called Māntrika Nāyars. According to Gurukkal Nadanta Anandanatha Nair58, the current guru of the Meppāṭ, the term “Māntrika” has been traditionally added to the names of clans known for the expertise in Tantra and can protect people against curses and black magicians.59
Nadanta’s family temple is popularly called Meppāṭ Kaḷari. The name kaḷari, a term used to designate a local martial arts school of kaḷarippayaṯṯu, suggests that the temple is a place of worship for warrior gods and goddesses. According to Devarajan Nambi, a member of the Vāḷ Nambi Brahmin community and a relative of P. Gopalakrishna Nambi, kaḷaris have been traditionally attached to the family households of Yogi gurukkals, Nāyars, Kaḷari Panikkars of North Kerala, Kaḷari Kurupps of Central Kerala, and Ezhuttu Asans of South Kerala. Devarajan Nambi also claims that his family (Cheruvottu Vāḷ Nambi) is the only modern-day Brahmin clan that owns a kaḷari. Similarly, Thurston (1909, p. 225), in his classic study on castes and tribes of Kerala, ranks Nambi Brahmins (also called Nambiyassans and Nambiyars) above Nayārs but below Nampūtiris and observes that some of them were “known to have kept gymnasia[kaḷari] and military training schools”. Thurston (1909, p. 311) suggests also that the Vāḷ Nambis are related to the Mūssats, but contemporary members of the families disagree with this statement. Even though the Mūssats do not have a martial arts tradition of their own, like Vāḷ Nambis, they still worship demon-slaying goddesses. Similarly, the term “Vāḷ” in Vāḷ Nambi means sword and refers to the martial art tradition of the clan as well as the symbol of the warrior goddess worship in the Śākta temples.60
Many rituals in kaḷaris of Nāyars, Panikkars, and Vāḷ Nambis focus on the pūttaṟa, a seven-stepped structure that can be called a form of altar of the tradition (Figure 4).61 In many kaḷaris, pūttaṟa is considered as a seat of the goddess and her dynamic power (Śakti) that resonates with the adepts’ internal energy (kuṇḍalinī śakti). The goddess, in her terrifying form, is invoked into the pūttaṟa where she remains united with Śiva. Their union is symbolically shown in pūttaṟa design: a conical, serpent-like pyramid with a Śiva liṅga on top. The symbolism can be read through Tantric philosophy: pūttaṟa reminds the adepts of the goal of spiritual practice, that is, recognition of the ultimate reality as Śiva-Śakti. (Karasinski 2021). In the Śākta-Tantra communities, as explained by Devarajan Nambi, the pūttaṟa represents śrīcakra in its meru form, and therefore the practitioners who worship it are required to undergo the initiation of the Bālā mantra. The pūttaṟa’s apex (kumbha) is considered as the bindu, the central point of śrīcakra, and the remaining six steps are the upper six cakras of the meru. Hence, the daily rituals in modern kaḷaris (either martial arts centres or temples that grew out of the worship of fierce female deities) of many Śākta-Tantra families are also performed by members who were initiated into the Bālā mantra, the basic mantra of Śrīvidyā that gives one access to śrīcakra rituals. Similarly, the Meppāṭ kaḷari temple houses gods and goddesses of several traditions, including Caṇḍikā and Tripurāsundarī. All these deities are visualized on the bindu, the central point of śrīcakra. This worship of the deities united within the sphere of śrīcakra symbolically shows Śrīvidyā as a tradition that unites Tantric cults in Kerala.

6.6. Initiation into Bālā Sādhanā in the Meppāṭ Nāyar Clan

According to Gurukkal Nadanta, the most important act of initiation in his tradition is the Śaktipāta, a transfer of spiritual power from a guru to a disciple, concluded with Śākta abhiṣeka, an unction performed in a similar manner to that described in the Bālādīkṣāpaddhati. Here, the initiation can also be given to disciples who are not relatives of the guru. In the Meppāṭ tradition, once an adept is initiated through Śākta abhiṣeka, they become “Śākta Aham,”62 that is, they become aware of the ultimate identity of their soul with the goddess.63 Only then can they start the proper Bālā sādhanā (spiritual practice) and be initiated with the Bālā mantra. At this stage, Nadanta calls the ghāṭā śuddhi, a “purification of the vessel of soma.” Here, the vessel stands for the human body, and soma is another name for amṛta, the nectar of immortality.64 The purification process may differ from person to person, and therefore a guru needs to evaluate the initiated candidates. In fact, the adepts who stay at their guru’s house after the initiation are often observed by their preceptor in the morning. Nadanta admitted: “you initiate them, and then let them sleep. The dream they have the night after the initiation will tell you if they can continue the practice or need additional help”.65 The help can be provided, for instance, in the form of purificatory rites, astrological remedies, or additional penance. Interestingly, Nadanta also claims that Bālāviṃśati stotra was used in the spiritual practices of Nāyars before it became popular among other communities of Kerala. Even though there is no historical evidence to confirm this claim, it shows the importance of the stotra for practitioners of various castes (e.g., Brahmins and Nāyars) and the century-old polemics and rivalries between them.
According to Nadanta, the Bālā sādhanā opens new spiritual dimensions for Tantric adepts and prepares them for Śrīvidyā initiation performed with a secret mantra of 15 syllables. From this point onwards, a Tantric disciple is on the path towards unity with the goddess. The advanced practitioner is afterwards given a 16-syllable mantra that is supposed to cause a “glow of soma” in their body. The next stages of spiritual progress are marked with subsequent initiations that bestow one with spiritual knowledge of the Śrīvidyā Kaula path. Hence, it can be said that the Bālā goddess welcomes one to the tradition and guides adepts in their spiritual quest. It can therefore be said that the threefold goddess, Tripurā, is worshipped at various stages of the adepts’ spiritual quest. Bālā Tripura is the spiritual guide of the neophytes. and Tripurasundarī is the goddess of the initiated. Tripurabhairavī can be seen as another emanation of the warrior mother goddess of the Keralan holy groves (kāvu). 66

7. Concluding Remarks

The term Kerala Tantra designates a complex amalgamation of tradition but also implies a wide disparity and variability in ritualistic practices and beliefs. In this article, we have tried to draw attention to the complexity and modalities of the Bālā mantra encoding in the cultural matrix of Kerala. We have attempted to indicate the dynamics of textual transmission of the texts related to the Bālā goddess and the significance of this goddess in modern Kerala. The Bālā goddess of Kerala is not always the young benign deity of Śrīvidyā; she appears at times as a local mother goddess or a warrior demon-slaying deity of Vaḷayanāṭu kāvu.67
Even though Bālādīkṣāpaddhati was found in the library of a Brahmin family, the methods of initiation given in the text are followed by other Tantric communities of contemporary Kerala. Similarly, Bālāviṃśati not only functions as a hymn to be chanted during public religious observances and celebrations, but it is also considered a learning tool for the initiated. By its legendary authorship, the text is anchored in both the teachings of Kashmirian mystics and the religious traditions of Kerala. In the words of Mundoli (2010), Keralan legends tend to be “a society’s soliloquies; they are self-directed articulations of its identity, its character, and its desires. Lacking specific authorships or stable texts, these public discourses express the wider changing substance of a society’s mind. They are, in effect, signposts to how a society experiences its own reality”. Hence, our analysis has tried to show that the legends concerning Kashmirian masters are evident in the contemporary landscapes of Kerala through Bālā-related rites and chants of various Tantric communities. Further research into these chants may reveal various ways in which local narratives have been engaged to encode religious identities.
Bālāviṃśati shows the importance of the Bālā mantra for the spiritual adepts of Kerala. Brahmins, Panikkars, Nayārs, Śāktas, Śaivas, and other Tantric adepts consider initiation into this mystical formula as an important step in their spiritual quest and a condition sine qua non for participation in the secret rituals of their communities. It is interesting that some Tantric gurus follow Śrīvidyā and initiate disciples into the Bālā mantra but call themselves Śāktas to indicate the Keralan version of the tradition. As we have noted in this article, the three syllables ascribed to the goddess Bālā are used in combination with other mantras and even formulas of invocation to the goddess Kālī. Therefore, it can be suggested that through the three-syllable mantra, Bālā became integrated with other deities and impacted various ritualistic and religious traditions of Kerala. In this article we have indicated the importance of Śrīvidyā among Tantric communities and its secret gnosis, the central teaching of Śākta Tantras of Kerala. The initiation into the Bālā mantra is widely considered as a sign of spiritual maturity in a Tantric adept. The cult of the Bālā goddess connects castes and creeds, as can be seen in the cases of the Nayārs, Panikkars, Vāḷ Nambis, and Mūssats. We suggest that the traditional institution of kaḷari could be a nexus between the religiosity of the above-mentioned castes. Hence, we would like to suggest that further studies on these communities may reveal how the Śrīvidyā doctrines have infiltrated various creeds in Kerala. Unlike the most popular and authoritative Tantric treatises of Kerala (e.g., Tantrasamuccaya, Prayogamañjarī, or Śeṣasamuccaya), ritual manuals (paddhatis)68 such as Bālādīkṣāpaddhati, prescribe the rites and observances that have been followed in a particular family or clan. If studied in the context of the living traditions, these texts may shed new light on Keralan religious culture and its constant, gradual transformation. Thus, in the present study, we hope to open a broader discussion regarding Keralan Hinduism and Tantra.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S. methodology, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S.; formal analysis M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S.; investigation, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S.; M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S., M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S. data curation, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S.; writing—original draft preparation, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S. writing—review and editing, M.K.-S.; visualization, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S. project administration, M.K.-S. and G.S.K.S.; funding acquisition, M.K.-S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


The research (APC) received funding from Hainan University, research fund RZ2100001144.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


We would like to express our gratitude to Gurukkal Nadanta Anandanatha Nair, Devarajan Nambi, and many Tantric practitioners from Kozhikode, Vadakara, and Kannur who helped with this research and shared with us their insightful remarks about Tantric traditions and rituals. We thank Sudheesh Panikkar for discussing with us his family tradition and showing us his collection of palm leaf manuscripts, and Nishanth V. Kunnu for kindly allowing us to use a photograph (Figure 4) of his kaḷari. We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors of this special issuefor their valuable comments and suggestions which helped us to improve the quality of this contribution.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Appendix A. Bālāviṃśati (“The Twenty Verses on the Bālā Goddess”)—A Transcript and English Translation

  • Verse 1
  • aindrasyeva śarāsanasya dadhatī madhyelalāṭaṃ prabhāṃ
  • śauklīṃ kāntim anuṣṇagoriva śirasyātanvatī sarvataḥ
  • eṣā ̍sau tripurā hṛdi dyutirivoṣṇāṃśoḥ sadāhaḥ sthitā
  • chidyān naḥ sahasā padais tribhir aghaṃ jyotirmayī vāṅmayī
She who holds the splendour of Indra’s bow on her forehead, pure, bright like cool rays of the moon wandering everywhere on (the devotee’s) head, Tripurā stays in (our) hearts like warm rays of Sun at the daytime. Let the goddess of light, the goddess of speech, cut off our sins with the powerful three syllables.
  • Verse 2
  • yā mātrā trapusīlatātanulasattandūsthitispardhinī
  • vāgbīje prathame sthitā tava sadā tām manmahe te vayaṃ
  • śaktiḥ kuṇḍalinī viśvajananavyāpārabadhodyamā
  • jñātvethaṃ na punaḥ spṛśanti jananī garbherbhakatvaṃ narāḥ
We believe that the mora in the first syllable [of your mantra] is like the tendril of a cucumber and the śakti kuṇḍalinī that is always engaged in creating the universe. The people who know this will never again experience the childhood inside a mother’s womb.
  • Verse 3
  • dṛṣtvā saṃbhramakāri vastu sahasā ai ai iti vyāhṛtaṃ
  • yenākūtavaśādapīha varade binduṃ vināpyakṣaraṃ
  • tasyāpi dhruvameva devi tarasā jāte tavānugrahe
  • vācas sūkti sudhāra sadravamuco niryānti vaktrodarāt
O Boon-giving Goddess, if, having seen a terrifying sight, one utters in a hurry the sound “ai ai” even without “m” that makes it your mantra, thereupon immediately, because of your grace, charming, tender verses will come forth from their mouth.
  • Verse 4
  • yannitye tava kāmarājamaparaṃ mantrākṣaraṃ niṣkalaṃ
  • tat sārasvatam ity avaiti viralam kaścit budhaṣcet bhuvi
  • ākhyānaṃ pratiparva satyatapaso yatkīrttayanto dvijāḥ
  • prāraṃbhe praṇavāspadapraṇayinīm nītvoccaranti sphuṭaṃ
O Eternal Goddess, the second syllable (klīṃ) of your mantra is known as the Kāmarāja (Lord of Desire). If someone, which is rare, understands that [the mantra] is ascribed [also] to the Goddess Sarasvatī they become enlightened. [Hence] the Brahmins who recite the story of sage Satyatapa at every change of the moon, in place of OM are evidently reciting “īṃ”
  • Verse 5
  • yatsadyo vacasāṃ pravṛttkaraṇe dṛṣṭa prabhāvaṃ budhaiḥ
  • tārtīyaṃ tadahaṃ namāmi manasā tavbījaminduprabhaṃ
  • astvaurvo ̍pi sarasvatīmanugato jāṭyāmbuvicchittaye
  • gauḥ śabdo giri vartate suniyataṃ yogaṃ vinā siddhidaḥ
The holy words revealed by the sages manifest everything instantly. Hence, [let us] pay obeisance to your third syllable that has the sight of the Moon. [Also] The word “gauḥ” (cow) that comes from the Goddess Sarasvatī even if uttered without “ga” destroys the waters of imprudence.
  • Verse 6
  • ekaikaṃ tava devi bījamanaghaṃ savyañjanāvyañjanaṃ
  • kūṭasthaṃ yadi vā pṛthak kramagataṃ yadvā sthitaṃ vyutkramāt
  • yaṃ yaṃ kāmamapekṣya yena vidhinā kenāpi vā cintitaṃ
  • japtaṃ vā saphalīkaroti tarasā taṃ taṃ samastaṃ nṛṇāṃ
O Goddess, if your flawless syllables, one by one, with consonants (aiṃ, klīṃ, sauḥ) or without consonants in the same order (ai, ī, au) or in the reverse order (au, ī, ai), or along with the “H” (Haiṃ Hkḷīṃ Hsauḥ) are chanted or meditated upon, all human wishes will be fulfilled.
  • Verse 7
  • vāme pustakadhāriṇīmabhayadāṃ sākṣasrajaṃ dakṣiṇe
  • bhaktebhyo varadānapeśalakarāṃ karpūrakundojjvalāṃ
  • ujjṛmbhāmbujapatrakāntinayanasnigdhaprabhā ̍ lokinīṃ
  • ye tvāmba na śīlayanti manasa teṣāṃ kavitvaṃ kutaḥ
O Mother, how can anyone become a poet who fails to meditate on You? You are the one who shines like camphor and jasmine flowers, who gazes with beautiful eyes just like fully ripened lotus petals, who holds in her left hands a grantha (book) and makes a gesture of abhaya (fearlessness), and who with her two right hands holds a crystal garland and makes a gesture of varadā (granting wishes).
  • Verse 8
  • ye tvām pāṇdurapuṇdarīkapaṭalaspaṣtābhirāmaprabhāṃ
  • siñcantīmamṛtadraviriva śirodhyāyanti mūrdhni sthitāṃ
  • aśrāntaṃ vikacasphuṭākṣarapadā niryānti vaktrodarāt
  • teṣāṃ bhārati bhāratī surasarit kallolalolormivat
O Bhāratī, if someone sees You [in meditation] seated upon [their] head, graceful like bunches of white lotus flowers and sprinkling [their] head with the nectar of immortality, clear and sharp words will emerge from their mouth like the waves of the river Ganga.
  • Verse 9
  • ye sindūraparāgapuñjapihitāṃ tvattejasādyāmimāṃ
  • urvīñcāpi vilīnayāvakarasaprastāramagnāmiva
  • paśyanti kṣaṇamapyananyamanasasteṣāmanamgajvara-
  • kḷāntātrastakuraṃgaśābakadṛśā vaśyāḥ bhavanti striyaḥ
Whoever, controlling their senses, sees [in meditation] the sky as if fully covered with the redness of sindūra powder, your colour, and sees the earth as if immersed in the water mixed with red dye, will attract ladies exhausted with the fire of cupid’s arrows, their eyes like those of a frightened doe.
  • Verse 10
  • cañcat kāñcana kuṇḍalāṃgadadharāṃ ābadhakāñcīsrajaṃ
  • ye tvam cetasi tatgatekṣaṇamapi dhyāyanti kṛtvā sthitaṃ
  • teṣāṃ veśmasu vibhramādaharahaḥ sphārībhavantyaściraṃ
  • mādyatkuñjarakarṇatāḷataraḷa sthairyaṃ bhajante śriyaḥ
Those who meditate upon You, even for a short time, wearing golden earrings and shoulder bangles, and clad in a kāñcī (girdle), [will witness] a growth of the wealth, for a long time, day by day; [Their riches will multiply] with every movement of the ears of their elephants.
  • Verse 11
  • ārbhaṭyā śaśikhaṇḍamaṇḍitajaṭa jūtanṛmuṇḍasrajāṃ
  • bandhūka prasavāruṇāmbaradharāṃ pretāsanādhyāsanīṃ
  • tvāṃ dhyāyanti caturbhujāṃ triṇayanāṃ āpīnatuṃgastanīṃ
  • madhye nimnavalitrayāṇgitatanuṃ tvadrūpasamvittaye
One should meditate on the goddess whose hair is adorned with the crescent moon and jasmine flower garlands. She is wearing a dress of the colour of hibiscus and sits in a yogic posture known as the Posture of the Dead (pretāsana). She has four hands, three eyes, firm breasts, and, in the middle [of her body], three low abdominal lines.
  • Verse 12
  • jātopyalpaparicchade kṣitibhujāṃ sāmānyamātre kule
  • niśśeṣāvanicakravartipadavīṃ labdhvā pratāponnataḥ
  • yadvidyādharavṛndavanditapadaśrīvatsarājobhavad-
  • devittvaccaraṇāmbujapraṇatijaḥ soyaṃ prasādodayaḥ
Śrīvatsa, who was born into a poor family, and later became the ruler of all kingdoms, reached the heights [of society] and his feet were praised by retinues of Vidyādharas. O Goddess, this happened due to your grace when he bowed before your feet.
  • Verse 13
  • caṇḍitvaccaranāmbujārccanakṛte vilvīdaḷolluṇḍhana-
  • truṭyatkaṇṭakakoṭibhiḥ paricayaṃ yeṣāṃ na jagmuḥ karāḥ
  • te daṇḍāṃkuśacakracāpakuliśaśrīvatsamatsyāṅkitai-
  • rjāyante pṛthivībhujaḥ kathamivāṃbhojaprabhaiḥ pāṇibhiḥ
O Caṇḍī, those who hurt their hands with thousands of thorns when collecting vilva leaves to worship your feet, in their next life are born with auspicious marks on their hands like a daṇḍa (stick), an aṅkuśa (elephant goad), a cakra (wheel), a bow or a śrīvatsa. They will become kings with beautiful lotus-like hands.
  • Verse 14
  • viprāḥ kṣoṇibhujo viśastaditare kṣīrājyamadhvāsavai-
  • stvām devi tripure parāparamayiṃ saṃtarpya pūjāvidhau
  • yām yām prārthayate manssthiratayā yeṣānta ete dhruvaṃ
  • tāṃ tāṃ siddhimavāpnuvanti tarasā vighnairavighnīkṛtaḥ
O Tripurā, Brahmins, kings, merchants, and others satiate you with milk, ghee, honey, and liquor respectively, and whatever they pray for with their mind focused [on you], will materialize instantly and [all] obstacles shall be removed [from their path].
  • Verse 15
  • śabdānāṃ janani tvamatra bhuvane vāgvādinītyuccyase
  • tvattaḥ keśavavāsavaprabhṛtayopyāvirbhavanti dhruvaṃ
  • līyante khalu yatra kalpavirame brahmādayastepyamī
  • sā tvaṃ kācidacintyarūpagahanā śaktiḥ parā gīyase
You are called Vāgvādinī, the mother of sounds of this world. From you, Lord Brahma, Lord Viṣṇu and others originate. In the end of each epoch, all of them will vanish within you. [ Hence], You are praised as Parā Śakti, the Highest Force; your real self is impossible to perceive.
  • Verse 16
  • devānāṃ tritayaṃ trayī hutabhujāṃ śaktitrayaṃ trisvara-
  • trailokyaṃ tripadi tripuṣkaramatho tribraḥmavarṇāstrayaḥ
  • yat kiñcijjagati tridhā niyamitaṃ vastu trivargātmakaṃ
  • tat sarvaṃ tripureti nāma bhagavatyanveti te tattvataḥ
Divine triads, three sacred fires, three forces, three notes of Vedic music, three worlds, three-lined gāyatrī mantra, three-lined sacred thread, the three Vedas, three castes, and all things in the world that are grouped in triads, all of these are regarded as Tripurā, as they resemble the goddess.
  • Verse 17
  • lakṣmīṃ rājakule jayāṃ raṇamukhe kṣemamkarīm adhvani
  • kravyādadvipasarpabhāji śabarīm kāntāradurge girau
  • bhūtapretapiśācajambhakabhaye smṛtvā mahābhairaviṃ
  • vyāmohe tripurāṃ taranti vipadastārāñca toyaplave
People remove their obstacles by contemplating Lakṣmī in the royal house, Jayā in the warfront, Kṣemamkarī on the path, Śabarī once approached by beasts, tuskers, and serpents, Durgā in the mountains, Bhairavī when afraid of ghosts (bhūta), hungry ghosts (preta), flesh-eating ghouls (piśāca), and the demons causing diseases (jambhaka). [People should meditate] on Tripurā if confused and Tārā amidst waters during a flood.
  • Verse 18
  • māyā kuṇḍalinī kriyā madhumatī kāḷi kalā mālinī
  • mātaṃgī vijayā jayā bhagavatī devī śivā śāmbhavī
  • ṣaktiḥ śankaravallabhā trināyanā vāgvādinī bhairavī
  • hrīmkarī tripurā parāparamayī mātā kumarītyasī
O goddess, You are Māyā, Kuṇḍalinī, Kriyā, Madhumatī, Kāḷī, Kalā, Mālinī, Mātaṃgī, Vijayā, Jayā, Bhagavatī, Devī, Śivā, Śāmbhavī, Śakti, the favourite of Lord Śiva, the Three-eyed One, Vāgvādinī, Bhairavī, Hrīmkarī Tripurā. [You are] The one who has the nature of the highest and the lowest, the Mother and The Young Maiden.
  • Verse 19
  • ā ī pallavitaiḥ parasparayutaiḥ dvidvikramādakṣaraiḥ
  • kādyaiḥ kṣāntagataiḥ svarādibhiratha kṣāntaiśca taissasvaraiḥ
  • nāmāni tripure bhavanti khalu yānyatyantaguhyāni te
  • tebhyo bhairavapatni viṃśatisahasrebhyaḥ parebhyo namaḥ
O the wife of Bhairava, the vowels starting with “Ā”, “Ī”, and those sounds formed with their mutual combinations, consonants from “Ka” to “Kṣa” and combined with all vowels, the sounds starting from vowels and ending with “Kṣa”, all these are the secret names of Tripurā. I bow before all these 20,000 names.
  • Verse 20
  • bodhavyā nipuṇaṃ budhaisstutiriyaṃ kṛtvā manastatgataṃ
  • bhāratyastripuretyananyamanaso yatrādyavṛtte sphuṭam
  • ekadvitripadakrameṇa kathitastatpādasaṃkhyakṣaraiḥ
  • mantrodhāravidhirviśeṣasahitaḥ satsampradāyānvitaḥ
Let the wise men know that this eulogy is for the goddess Bhāratī, who is known as Tripurā. The method of construction of her mantra, which is thoroughly traditional, is clearly given [here], for the devotees who have keen minds, [one can find the components of the mantra] in the first, second, and the third letters of the first, second, and the third lines of the first verse of this work.
  • Verse 21
  • sāvadyaṃ niravadyamastu yadi vā kim vānayā cintayā
  • nūnaṃ stotramidaṃ paḍhiṣyati jano yasyāsti bhaktistvayi
  • sañcintyāpi laghutvamātmani dṛḍha sañcāyamānaṃ haṭhāt
  • tvadbhaktyā mukharīkṛtena racitaṃ yasmānmayāpi dhruvaṃ
What is the point of deliberating whether these eulogies are erroneous or correct? Whoever has devotion for You will surely study this work. I can think about my own [initial] humbleness that I conquered and due to my devotion for you I became a man of many words.

Appendix B. Bālākavacam (“The Armour of Bālā”)

  • aiṃkārāsanagamitā nalaśikhāṃ
  • sau klīṃ kalāṃ bidratīṃ
  • sauvarṇāṃbaradhāriṇīṃ triṇayanāṃ
  • gautāhivās ojjvalāṃ
  • vande pustakapāśamaṃkuśadharāṃ ṣaṭbāhutoścakratāṃ
  • tāṃ bālāṃ tripurāṃ śivena sahitāṃ
  • ṣaṭ cakrasañcāriṇīṃ
I worship Bālā Tripurā who is accompanied by Śiva and lives in six cakras [of the human body].
I praise her who has six hands and holds a sacred book (pustaka), a loop (pāśa), and a goad (aṅkuśa). She is resplendent, three-eyed, clad in gold, embodies the sounds “sau” and “klīṃ”, and emanates the “aiṃ” sound.
  • śiro me pātu kāmākṣī
  • lalāṭe durga eva ca
  • bhruvau śrībhadrakāḷī ca
  • cakṣurmmaddhye śa69 śāṃkarī
  • Let Kāmākṣī protect my head
  • On [my] forehead Durgā
  • On the eyebrows Śrībhadrakāḷī
  • Between the eyes Śāṃkarī
  • vārāhī nāsikāṃ pātu
  • jihvāṃ pātu sarasvatī
  • daṃṣtrau tu asitāṃ pātu
  • adharoṣṭhau harapriye
  • Let Vārāhī protect my nostrils
  • Sarasvatī my tongue
  • My teeth and lips, Harapriyā, the Beloved of Śiva
  • dantapaṃktiṃ nārasiṃhī
  • jihvāgre tu hi caṇḍike
  • kapolau kauśike rakṣet
  • karṇayoḥ kamalālaye
  • Let Nārasiṃhī protect a row of my teeth
  • Caṇḍikā the tip of my tongue
  • My cheeks—Kauśikī
  • My ears—Kamalā
  • kaṇṭhaṃ pātu mahālakṣ[m]ī
  • stanayugme ca pārvatī
  • bhujau pātu mahākāḷī
  • stanamaddhya ca pārvatī
  • Let Mahalaksmī protect my throat
  • My pair of breasts—Pārvatī
  • My arms—Mahākāḷī
  • Between my breasts—Pārvatī
  • kakṣadvator bhagavatī
  • pārśvaṃ me pātu mātṛkā
  • kukṣīr bhagavatī caiva
  • nābhīṃ me pātu maṃgaḷāṃ
  • Let Bhagavatī protect my armpits
  • Mātṛkā—my ribs
  • My abdomen—Bhagavatī
  • My navel—Maṃgaḷā
  • maddhyaṃ me pātu indrāṇī
  • nitaṃbe śarvarakṣakī
  • ūrū me pātu mitrāṇī
  • nitaṃbe tripure saha
  • Let Indrāṇī protect my waist
  • On one of my hips Śarvarakṣakī
  • Let Mitrāṇī protect my thigh
  • With Tripurā on my (other) hip
  • jaṃghayośca mahāśakti
  • jānumaddhye tu śāṃbhavī
  • gulphadvayośca mātaṃgī
  • pādau me pātu yakṣiṇī
  • On my shanks Mahāśakti
  • On my knees Śāṃbhavī
  • On my ankles Mātaṃgī
  • (and) let Yakṣiṇī guard my feet
  • pādāṃgulī bhavānī me
  • nakhaṃ rakṣatu pārvatī
  • pūrvaka70 pātu indrāṇī
  • dakṣiṇe rakṣaya rakṣaṇī
  • Bhavanī (guard) my toes
  • Let Pārvatī protect my nails
  • In the east let Indrāṇī stay on guard
  • From south let Rakṣaṇī protect me
  • paścime pātu paurāṇī
  • uttare pātu komalī
  • ūrtthā71 rakṣatu sumukhī
  • pātāḷe72 bhoginī sutā
  • In the west let Paurāṇī protect me
  • In the north—Komalī
  • Let Sumukhī, the One with the Beautiful Face, protect me from above
  • In the lower regions—Bhoginī
  • sarvāṃga73 sarvasantuṣṭā
  • sarvarakṣāṃśca śāmbhavī
  • jñānavṛddhimahotsāhā
  • saṃgrāme vijayī bhave
  • In all body parts—Sarvasantuṣṭā, The One Pleased with Everything,
  • Sarvarakṣā, The One who Protects All, and Śāmbhavī
  • Jñānavṛddhī, The One who Causes the Growth of Knowledge
  • And Mahotsāhā, the Goddess of Great Power
  • In a battle let there be [with me] Vijayī, The Victorious One
  • araṇye parvate durge
  • coravyāghrādisaṃkaṭe
  • ghanadāvānalākrānte
  • mahāsāgaramaddhyage
  • Parvatī and Durgā—
  • In a forest full of thieves, tigers and other [dangers], dense, raged with wildfires
  • [and] in the middle of a great ocean
  • sandhyor bhagavatī rakṣet
  • divārātrau ca rakṣa māṃ
  • sarvavidyākarī caiva
  • sarvasaubhāgyavartthnaṃ74
  • At junctures let Bhagavatī protect me
  • Also, at night and during the day
  • Together with Sarvavidyākarī, The One Who Gives All Knowledge,
  • The one who increases all types of prosperity
  • āyuṣyaṃ puṣṭidā caiva
  • apamṛtyuvināśanaṃ
  • putrārtthī labhate putrāṇ
  • dhanārtthī labhate dhanam
  • She is the giver of health and wealth
  • Protects against premature death
  • Who wants a son receives sons
  • Who wants wealth receives wealth
  • kanyārtthī labhate kanyāṃ
  • mokṣārtthī labhate gatiṃ
  • sarvavedādhikāraśca
  • vipro yaḥ kavacaṃ vadet
  • The one who prays for a daughter receives a daughter
  • The one who wants liberation attains her goal
  • A Brahmin, an expert in all Vedas, should recite this protective chant (kavaca)
  • kṣatrāḥ paṭhanti kavacaṃ
  • bahurājyaṃ labhanti te
  • vaiśyo yaḥ kavacaṃ japtvā
  • dhanadhānyasamṛddhimān
  • śūdrāṇāṃ labhate caiva
  • If a Kṣatriya recites this protective chant, they will receive many kingdoms
  • Having chanted this kavaca, a Vaiśya will multiply their money and grain
  • Śūdras also receive all prosperity
  • sarvasaubhāgyavardhanaṃ
  • ekavāraṃ paṭhedyastu
  • nityā śucikarā nṛṇāṃ
  • dvivārañca paṭhennityaṃ
  • kavitvaṃ jñānasiddhidaṃ
  • trivārañca paṭhennityaṃ
  • aṣṭaṭaiśvaryañca jāyate
  • If recited once, [it] forever makes people radiant with purity
  • If one chants [the kavaca] twice
  • It gives knowledge and poetic talent
  • If one regularly chants it thrice [one] receives eightfold blessings
  • duṣṭamṛtyupraśamanaṃ
  • duṣṭagrahavināśanaṃ
  • brahmarākṣasa vetāḷa
  • śakunīśākinī tathā
  • It protects against sinful death and vanquishes evil spirits like
  • Brahmarākṣasa, Vetāḷa, Śakunī, or Śākinī
  • hākinnyāścaiva kākinnyaḥ
  • sarvabhītivināśanaṃ
  • rājavaśyā prajāvaśyā
  • nārīvaśyā mahītale
  • [It also protects against] Hakinis and Kakinis
  • It removes all dangers
  • It enslaves kings, people (subjects of the kings), and women on [the whole] Earth
  • sarvavṛścikabādhāśca
  • sarvopadravanāśanaṃ
  • mṛgabādhāvināśaśca
  • sarvaśatrur vinaśyati
  • It frees one from the hindrances of scorpions
  • Heals all injuries
  • Removes all problems caused by animals
  • And destroys all enemies
  • yaḥ idaṃ kavacaṃ nityaṃ
  • śucirbhūtvā mahātmanaḥ
  • devyāstu sannidhau ścai75 va
  • dakṣinnāmūrttisannidhau
  • ekānte niyame ramye
  • nadītīre śucau stale76
  • sarvaśāpaviśuddhātmā
  • brahmalokā sa gacchatiiti bālākavacaṃ samāstaṃ
Whoever [chants] this eternal chant—armour (kavaca) gets purification from the great souls
  • In the presence of the goddess and Dakṣinnāmūrti
  • In a pleasant, secluded, and secret place, on the bank of a river, in a pure place
  • He who has purified himself [and chanted this kavaca] goes to the Heaven of Brahma (Brahmaloka)
  • here ends Bālākavaca

Appendix C. “Bālāmantra”

(An invocation from a palm-leaf manuscript “Bālāmantra”, Folkland International Centre for Folklore and Culture Elambachi (PO), Trikaripur, Kasargod District 671311).
  • laḷitātanayāṃ devīṃ
  • bālārkakiraṇapradāṃ
  • caturhastāṃ triṇayanāṃ
  • pītavastrāṃ śucismitāṃ
  • sarvālaṃkāraśobhādyāṃ
  • sarvadevaissmāvartāṃ
  • sarvasiddhimayīṃ gaurīṃ
  • sarvamantrādhidevatāṃ
  • sarvajñānaprabhāṃ nityāṃ
  • sarvaiśvaryaphalapradāṃ
  • sarvaśṛṃgāraveṣāḍyāṃ
  • sarvalokanivāsinīṃ
  • sāmrājyadāyinīṃ satyāpriyāṃ
  • cinmātravigrahāṃ
  • saccidānandarūpāḍhyāṃ
  • sadāśivasutāṃ parām
  • sarvadevaissukhārāddhyāṃ
  • sarvalokasvarūpiṇīṃ
  • sarvavyādhipraśamanīṃ
  • sarvamṛtyunivāriṇiṃ
  • sarvaśatruharāṃ vande
  • sarvāpattirvimocanīṃ
  • sākṣātbrahmamayīṃ bālāṃ
  • kanyāmāvāhayāmyahaṃ
  • Goddess who is a daughter of Lalitā
  • who shines with rays of the rising sun
  • who has four arms, three eyes
  • is dressed in yellow and smiles sweetly
  • who is adorned with all kinds of jewellery, surrounded by all deities,
  • the brilliant one who embodies all siddhis (accomplishments),
  • the one who presides over all mantras
  • The eternal one who shines with all the knowledge
  • who gives all fruits of blessings
  • who embodies all love
  • who lives in all worlds
  • The one who gives universal sovereignty
  • Who is the pure thought
  • Who takes the form of truth, consciousness and bliss
  • The great daughter of Śiva
  • The one who is worshipped by all gods
  • Who embodies all worlds
  • Who cures all the diseases
  • Who protects against death
  • I praise her, the one who defeats all enemies
  • Who saves from all misfortunes
  • The one who is really the Brahman
  • I summon here [Bālā], the young goddess


As noted by Sudyka (2018, p. 73) “During the British domination in the region lasting 150 years, Kerala consisted of three parts: Malabar, i.e., northern part of Kerala, which was a part of Madras Presidency, and the native states of Travancore (Mal. tiruvitāṅkōṭṭu, tiruvāṅkōṭṭu, tiruvitāṅkūṟ) and Cochin (Mal. kocci). In 1956 they were joined and formed a state known as Kerala (Mal. kēraḷa)”.
The present paper is the result of a joint work shared by both authors. All translations from Sanskrit and Malayalam are from the authors’ unless explicitly stated otherwise.
Non-directive, unstructured interviews and conversations were recorded in fieldwork notes. The notes and information from research conducted in Kerala during the years 2010–2013 are supplemented with recent (2021) interviews and fieldwork from the Kozhikode and Malappuram areas.
Buchta (2016, p. 357) adds that the stotra poems are “both expressions of devotion and works of literature” that need more scholarly attention. The poems have been neglected not only by recent scholarship but also by Sanskrit theorists like Mammaṭa (11th century), who described them as “ineffective for evoking rasa [the aesthetic experience]”.
The main theme of the Navarātri (“The Nine Nights”) festival is the triumph of the goddess over demons who represent the evil forces of the world. See, for instance, Hüsken (2018).
In the traditions of Kashmirian Śaivism, we find a concept of a sequence (krama) of twelve and thirteen Kālīs. See (Wenta 2021) for a detailed study on the origins of the twelve Kālīs and the doctrine of the thirteen Kālīs according to Mahānayaprakāśa of Trivandrum.
Such legends are popular among various other communities in Kerala. For instance, representatives of a modern Panikker family of Idakkad stress the importance of Bālā worship in their tradition by reiterating the legend of Laghu Bhaṭṭāraka, the great master of Kashmirian lore who brought the tradition to Kerala.
Similar descriptions can be found, for instance, in a popular chant, Laḷitā Sahasranāma (v. 120): “When residing in the head she is having the brightness of the Moon, when in the forehead she is like a rainbow and when in the heart she is like the Sun”.
According to Bhāskararāya (1690–1785), a Tantric philosopher, writer, and commentator, widely considered an authority of Śrīvidyā, there are two types of bhakti: secondary and primary. The secondary type includes the worship and adoration of the embodied Brahman, practices that can be combined wherever possible, while the primary type is a particular kind of love that arises from it. The former (i.e., secondary bhakti) also has several stages that allow one to achieve an intimate state with Tripurasundarī through ritualistic practices and consequently develop the primary bhakti, i.e., love for her (Venkatkrishnan 2015, p. 230).
That depiction of the goddess is also found in other Śākta texts such as a popular poem ascribed to Śaṅkarācārya, Saundaryalaharī (1937, verse 15).
Kaikkulangara Ramavarier (Namputiri 2016, p. 130) suggests Śaivāgamarahasya as a possible source of this meditative verse (dhyāna śloka).
The Malayalam verbal root Ārappu has a similar meaning, that is, to scream or shout loudly.
We can add here that goddess Lalitā has been described as sitting on five pretas (pañca-pretāsana), the corpses of Brahma, Viṣṇu, Rudra, Īśvara and Sadāśiva—five deities being the seat of the supreme goddess (Sanderson 2012–2014, p. 44).
Traditionally, 13 temples are accepted as the Śākta centeres of Kerala: Māṭāyikkāvu (Kannur), Mannampuṟattukāvu (Kannur), Piṣārikkāvu (Koyilandi), Śrī Vaḷayanāṭukāvu (Kozhikode), Koṭikkunnu (Malappuram), Māmānikkunnu (Irikkoor), Śrī Śrī Kurumba Bhagavati kāvu (Kodungallur), Panayanārkkāvu (Mannar, Thiruvalla), Muttūṟṟukāvu (Thiruvalla), Tirumāndhāṅkunnu (Malappuram), Kaḷiyāṃvaḷḷi (Kozhikode), Tiruvañcerikkāvu (Kannur), and Kaḷarivātukkal. See Ajithan (2018).
The temple itself has a peculiar structure. The śrīkovil (sanctum) houses the image of the main goddess (called Rurujit or Camuṇḍā). The image faces north, and śrīkovil itself is a rectangular construction whose roof is covered with copper sheets. The temple has a granite adhiṣṭhāna (basis). The namaskāra maṇḍapa (a ritual pavillion on a raised platform) has four pillars and is located near the eastern entrance. The temple has been reconstructed several times and the main dīpastambhana was reinstalled in 1940. The cuṟṟampalaṁ (the inner courtyard) has entrances from all sides. In the eastern part of the complex is a shrine of Kṣetrapāla, The Lord of the [holy] Place. Images of Gaṇapati and Śiva are installed in the north-eastern quarter (Śiva and Gaṇapati face east and south, respectively). There is a stage in the western part for performances of the traditional theatrical artform known as cākyār kūttu. A large sacrificial stone (valliya ballipīṭha) is located in front of the main entrance on the northern side. The complex is surrounded by a laterite compound wall in the shape of an elephant’s hide.
The so-called kaula rites with offerings of meat and alcohol are performed in several temples of the sākta denomination by different communities of Brahmins and Nāyars. See also Freeman (1994).
The Sanskrit word Mātṛka means both a sound and mother. Moos (1961, p. 32) also notes that the description of the goddess in her form of Mātṛka is similar to the one found in Aruṇopaniṣat.
The tradition of the Nampūtiris is called Vaidika-Tantra, and it is a fusion of Vedic orthopraxy and elements of the Tantric way of worship. Tantrasamuccaya consists of 12 chapters dealing with temple rituals such as the installation or consecration of images. It was composed by Nārāyaṇa Nampūtiri (born in 1426 C.E.), a Brahmin from a well-respected Cennas family. The text gives importance to the worship of seven main deities: Viṣṇu, Śiva, Śaṅkarnārāyaṇa, Durgā, Subrahmaṇya, Gaṇapati and Śāstā. Therefore, it is clear that the text is a comprehensive manual that deals with ritual practices of both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava currents. Śeṣasamuccaya (15th century C.E.) was composed by Śankara, the son of Nārāyaṇa the author of Tantrasamuccaya. Ten chapters (paṭala) of Śeṣasamuccaya explain the mode of worship (pūjāviddhi) of various deities not included in Tantrasamuccaya. It is often referred to as a more Śākta-oriented supplement to Tantrasamuccaya. However, many stanzas of the Śeṣasamuccaya are quoted directly from Tantrasamuccaya (Sarma 2009, p. 336).
Rastogi (1996, p. 28) observes that Krama can be seen as “a transitionary link between the Kula, a Śaiva system, and the Tripurā, a Śākta system.”
Priests who perform the daily rites in Vaḷayanāṭu, the Mūssats, come mostly from a Vaṭṭoḷi clan. The main priest of the temple is the senior member of Kāṭṭumāṭaṁ clan, and he performs three ceremonies per year.
The name Tripurā refers to the triadic nature of the most important yantra of Śrīvidyā, that is, śrīcakra. The śrīcakra is called the “maṇḍalic form of the goddess Tripurasundarī” and is composed of a central triangle with a dot (bindu), surrounded by sequences of triangles encircled by concentric rows of lotus petals, wheels of yoginis, and outer squares with openings on each side. However, in the case of Bālā worship, the focus is on the nine inner triangles—the navayoni. The navayoni also appear in non-Śrīvidyā Tantric texts composed in Kerala, for instance, Śeṣasamuccaya (Śeṣasamuccaya 1951, verses 7.66, 7.70).
According to A. Sreedhara Menon (2007, p. 152), following the demise of King Rama Varma Kulasekhara (1089–1102), Kozhikode and its surroundings was subjected by Porḷātiri, after which it became a part of Poḷanāṭu. On the struggles between the Zamorins of Kozhikode, the Porḷātiri and the Kurumbiatiri, see Chakravarti (2018).
ūrāḷars were also call ūrs or ūrārs. (Devadevan 2020, p. 143).
There are several versions of the legend. According to Krishna Ayyar (1976, p. 257), the event happened in the 13th century C.E. and the Brahmins were punished by the Zamorin for “smuggling an enemy prince into the palace”.
Some scholars like Vaṭakkumkūr Rājarājavarma (1938, pp. 2–34), the author of Keraḷīya Samskṛta Sāhitya Caritraṃ, suggest that Rāghavānanda, the commentator of Bālāvimśati and Kokkunnattu Śivāṅṅal are in fact the same person. Kokkunnattu Śivāṅṅal of Taḷipparampu in Kannur, is said to have been a yogi who ultimately left society to live alone in a forest. Hence, he was called Atyāśrami (the one who has transcended the four stages of life) and Koṭuṃkāṭukotiyan (the one who likes to live in the forest). Other scholars like Ulloor S. Paramesvarayyar and Pareekshith Ramavarma Thampuran suggest that Atyāśrami lived in Cerumukku illam of Ponnani Taluk in central Kerala (Vasudevan 2022, pp. 26–35).
Narayanan (2006, p. 188) observes that under the rule of the Zamorins, Kozhikode (Calicut) became an international trade centre that “exposed the West Coast society to the latest trends in world economy and society. An intelligent religious policy, with an open secular attitude towards all races, creeds and languages made Calicut the abode of a cosmopolitan culture”.
Haridas (1998, p. 403) gives an alternative version of the story and states that after the conquest of Poḷanāṭu, a group of men were brought from Parappunadu by the Zamorin to work in Kozhikode. They were instructed by the king’s minister to kill the Brahmins in the Tali Temple.
Here, Rāghavānanda notes the difference in rituals performed by the adepts of Vāmamārga and those who belong to Dakṣinamārga: the former consume the liquor used in rituals, while the latter only admire its aroma in the middle of the ritual (ghrāṇabhakṣaṇa) (Sastri 1917, p. 16).
There is a visible proliferation of schools and private educational centres teaching Tantra and Śrīvidyā in Kerala. For instance, Roopesh (2021) gives an example of Ganesa Sadhana Kendram in Kozhikode district, where a training in Śrīvidyā is given to all interested individuals.
The second highest of the four social classes of ancient India, traditionally the military or ruling class.
The third highest of the four social classes, traditionally associated with trade and agriculture.
White (1997) discusses Vidyādharas together with siddhas and Van Buitenen (1958) mentions them in the context of heroes and says that a Vidyādharas is “a benevolent, artistic and amorous spirit, but also a boon companion of demons and goblins and a bogy of which small children are frightened”. Bühnemann (2000, p. 134) quotes a visualization of Bālā Tripurā goddess from Mantramahodadhi that should be used in rites performed for attaining knowledge. For this purpose, Bālā Tripurā should be visualized as residing in the upper-most cakra, showing a gesture of granting wishes, holding a nectar vessel and holy scripture; she also makes a gesture of protection and sheds the nectar.
Dirks (2001, p. 13) notes that social identity in South India was determined by various factors, including affiliation to groups such as “temple communities, territorial groups, lineage segments, family units, royal retinues, warrior subcastes, “little” kingdoms, occupational reference groups, agricultural or trading associations, devotionally conceived networks and sectarian communities”. Dirks considers the above “units of identification” to be more significant than any “caste” grouping”. Similarly, Mūssats are recognised by other communities as lower-class Brahmins, but they also constitute their identity on other levels: by carrying on the tradition of Śākta-krama, knowledge of the Sanskrit language, and mastery of temple rituals and magic (mantravāda).
Similarly, according to Vāmakeśvarīmata (2005, p. 100), the goddess of Śrīvidyā is the highest śakti (paramā) but she manifests herself in subtle (sūkṣma) and gross (sthūla) forms.
The reference to Bhairava’s form is interesting as Tripurā is generally invoked in Tantric texts in her three aspects: Tripurā Bālā, Tripurā Sundarī, and Tripura Bhairavī (Kinsley 1997, pp. 43, 117). However, Kinsley adds that Tripurasundarī is said to have other forms: Kālī, Kumārī, Caṇḍikā, Bhārati and Gaurī.
Moreover, the divine triad of goddesses of Kashmirian Saivism (Trika) is often presented as incarnations of Kāmeśvarī, Vajreśvarī and Bhagamālinī of Śrīvidyā (Timalsina 2008, p. 218).
Similarly, Bālā Kavaca states:
“Parvatī and Durgā
In a forest full of thieves, tigers and other (dangers)
dense, raged with wildfires
(and) in the middle of a great ocean”.
Rāghavānanda (Sastri 1917, pp. 39–40) and Shasthrigal (Namputiri 2016, p. 62) also mention what they call the pārāyaṇa system, another system of derivation in which “a” is prefixed and “i” is suffixed to those 20,000 names.
Prayogamañjarī (10th or 11th century C.E.) a Tantric work of Ravi is also known as Śaivāgamasiddhāntasāra (Sarma 2009, p. 321).
In this context, Ajithan (2011) talks about “pre- and post-Tantrasamuccaya” periods indicating that initiations are not dealt with in the Kerala tantras that were written after the Tantrasamuccaya.
Shulman (2012, p. 152) adds that the Zamorin’s kingdom was “the first modern state on the Kerala coast and the arena for the first strong articulations of a distinctive, self- conscious Malayalam cultural identity. Powerful thematic continuities bind together the Nāyaka states of the south and east and the emergent state system of Malabar, with its innovative poets and scholars”.
Goren Arzony (2019, p. 309) describes the Cākyārs as a community “deeply affiliated with the Brahmin temple … who to this day are associated with the temple performance of Kūṭiyāṭṭam and Cākyār Kūttu”.
“Bālāparameśvarī paddhatiprakāraṇe bālāṃ kalaśapūjāṃ kariṣye”.
The basic Bālā mantra is composed of three syllables but it is often chanted in anuloma-pratiloma sequence (i.e., in regular and reverse order) to remove the mantra doṣa (defect). However, Devīrahasya (2010), verses 13–14 refers to the mantra as one that has no impurities and can be used without restrictions.
Bālādevatāprāṇāṃ asmin kalaśe āgatya sukhaṃ ciraṃ tiṣṭhantu svāhā.
Bühnemann (1988, p. 208) observes that in Smarta tradition, the order of the guardians of the directions (lokapāla/dikpāla) is always fixed as being anti-clockwise, starting from the east.
Hanneder (1997) observes that the ṛṣinyāsa (the act of placing the names of sages on one’s body) has Vedic origins and presents this example as in his argument for the vedāntization of Śrīvidyā.
Pañcagavya, the five products of a cow, consists of cow’s milk, curd, clarified butter, urine, and dung. It is believed to have purifying qualities and is therefore used in various rituals of atonement and rites of purification in various Hindu and Buddhist traditions (Korom 2000, p. 193).
A similar mantra for nirañjana is prescribed in Rāmeśvara’s commentary on Paraśurāma Kalpasūtra (Paraśurāmakalpasūtra 1950, p. 558), where the light is called kuladīpā, the lamp of the kula tradition.
Groesbeck (2018) indicates that the “intimacy inherent in patterns of remuneration” in the case of the guru-dakṣiṇā in Kerala is opposed to institutional fees. Guru-dakṣiṇā, according to Groesbeck, is a symbol of submission and devotion to one’s guru and can be contrasted with a concept of a lesson learned for a fixed fee.
In his study on transmission of traditional knowledge in Kerala, Gerety (2018, p. 7) observes: “The total obedience of the student to his teacher, as well as the intensity of the affective bond that takes shape between them over years of study, is encoded in the Sanskrit word guru. Literally, guru means ‘heavy,’ and its applied meaning of’ teacher’ retains a weighty resonance”.
The guru and his disciples would like to remain anonymous, and therefore in this article we refer to them as “the Vadakara Tantric Community”.
This element of the ritual therefore differs from what we could read in Bālādīkṣāpaddhati, where neither the wine nor the guru’s placing of vessel on their head was mentioned.
Interestingly, on another occasion, the same guru explained that his ancestors had been Tantric practitioners, but that their tradition was long forgotten. Intrigued by the idea of the ancient Tantric lore of Kerala, the guru started to search for a spiritual teacher and finally found a local Śrīvidyā master. Hence, in this case, there is a tendency within certain communities to supplement local Tantric ritualism with Śrīvidyā orthopraxy.
A slightly different invocation is found in a kavaca, a protective chant recited to invoke goddesses to gather around the adept and protect him or her. The recitation is accompanied by gestures of “consolidating and safeguarding the area surrounding the adept” (Gupta 2000, p. 486) and, optionally, a warding-off gesture that is aimed at banishing evil forces. The invocation is found in the kavaca of the Pannikar family of Chathangottupuram. The goddess of Chathangottupuram is also worshipped in Tirumandhankunnu Bhagavatī Temple, one of the prominent Śākta centres in central Kerala. Here, the goddess who embodies the three syllables of her mantra (aim, klīṃ, sauḥ), is three-eyed, eternally garbed in a golden robe. She has six hands and dwells in the six cakras of the human body. In her hands she is holding a book (pustaka), a noose (pāśa), and a goad (aṃkuśa). She is praised here as Bālā Tripurā and, interestingly, worshipped together with Śiva. This reminds one of a taboo popular in some Brahmin families of Kozhikode, related to the chanting of the Bālā mantra. As per these local beliefs, the Bālā Tripurā mantra should be chanted together with the pañcākṣara mantra of Śiva. In this mode of chanting, both mantras are combined, and their syllables are intermixed in a prescribed manner. Other clans in Kerala also refer to the formula composed of these two as the Śiva-Śakti mantra. As per a popular belief, the mantras of Śrīvidyā were cursed by ancient sages, and an adept should first chant curse-removing mantras (Śāpavimocana). Nevertheless, in contemporary traditions this is hardly ever practised. In most cases, the guru is believed to be the one who purifies the mantra before giving it to an adept or asks the adept to chant a Bālāviṃśati to receive additional blessings.
In a Tantric manuscript from Kasargode (Northern Kerala) is a detailed invocation praising various manifestations of the Bālā goddess, for instance as a daughter of Lalitā (see Appendix C).
See Lidke (2017) for a similar observation on the importance and omnipresence of śrīcakras in the Tantric traditions of Nepal.
However, the Nāyar caste was subdivided into many low- and high-ranking communities with various traditional occupations. See Fuller (1976, pp. 38–43).
Gurukkal Nadanta Anandanatha Nair, June 2020, personal communication.
According to Gurukkal Nadanta, the following Nāyar traditions were known as the Māntrikas: Meppāṭ Saṃpradāya, Kīppāṭ Saṃpradāya, Naṭuvattaccan Saṃpradāya, Tuḷuvattacan Saṃpradāya, Ciṯṯoṭattiṭaṃ Saṃpradāya, Kokkāṭ Nāyanār Saṃpradāya, and Parippinkaṭav Saṃpradāya.
The Vāḷ Nambis were traditionally the trustees of the sword of the royal family of Kozhikode; at the time of king’s demise, they would take his sword and ceremonially give it to the successor.
In kaḷaris is another “altar” (guru-pīṭha) where the whole lineage of teachers of the tradition is collectively venerated (Karasinski 2021).
“Śākta Aham” is a term used by Nadanta to indicate a particular stage of the Meppāṭ spiritual practice.
One may find similar expressions in many Tantric scriptures. For instance in Paramārthasāra (kārikā 47–50) aham (“I” or “myself”) “signifies the ‘god’ who is the ‘I’ of all living beings” (Bansat-Boudon and Tripathi 2014, p. 212).
The term ghāṭā Śuddhi is also found in modern yogic schools, where it refers to the yogic methods of purification of the body (Alter 2004, p. 162).
The practice described here can be called a form of dream incubation. The dream incubation rites exist in and are valued by many cultures around the world. Those practices require an adept to sleep in a sacred place in anticipation of a god-given dream. See, for instance, Morinis (1982) on dream incubation in the Hindu traditions of Bengal.
Timalsina (2015, p. 98) observes that the “blending” of deities is a characteristic of what he calls Tantric visual culture. Thus, Tripurabhairavī is a “blended form of Tripurā- and Bhairavı”.
There are very few temples in Kerala officially dedicated to Bālā goddess. There are plans to erect a new temple, in the shape of śrīcakra mahameru, in Perumpuzha, Kollam by 2024 (IndusScrolls 2021).
On the characteristics of Hindu paddhatis, see also Michaels (2016, p. 112).
Possibly “ca”.
Suggested reading: “pūrvake”.
Suggested reading: “ūrdhva”.
pātāḷe: substitution of the alveolar l with the retroflex ḷ in intervocalic position, possible influence of Malayalam language.
Suggested reading:”sarvāṃge”.
Suggested reading: “varddhanam” instead of “vartthnaṃ”.
Possibly “cai”.
Possibly: “sthale”.


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Figure 1. Kaḷarivātukkal, a Śākta temple of the Piṭārars. Photo by Maciej Karasinski-Sroka.
Figure 1. Kaḷarivātukkal, a Śākta temple of the Piṭārars. Photo by Maciej Karasinski-Sroka.
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Figure 2. A Vedic scholar receives an award from the Zamorin of Calicut at the Rēvati paṭṭattānaṁ (2020). Photo by G. Sudev Sharman.
Figure 2. A Vedic scholar receives an award from the Zamorin of Calicut at the Rēvati paṭṭattānaṁ (2020). Photo by G. Sudev Sharman.
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Figure 3. A traditional kaḷari of the Panikkars. Photo by G. Sudev Sharman.
Figure 3. A traditional kaḷari of the Panikkars. Photo by G. Sudev Sharman.
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Figure 4. pūttaṟa in a Nāyar kaḷari. Photo by Nishanth V. Kunnu.
Figure 4. pūttaṟa in a Nāyar kaḷari. Photo by Nishanth V. Kunnu.
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Karasinski-Sroka, M.; Sharman, G.S.K. The Young Goddess Who Dances through the Ordinariness of Life―A Study on the Tantric Traditions of Kerala. Religions 2022, 13, 667.

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Karasinski-Sroka M, Sharman GSK. The Young Goddess Who Dances through the Ordinariness of Life―A Study on the Tantric Traditions of Kerala. Religions. 2022; 13(7):667.

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Karasinski-Sroka, Maciej, and G. Sudev Krishna Sharman. 2022. "The Young Goddess Who Dances through the Ordinariness of Life―A Study on the Tantric Traditions of Kerala" Religions 13, no. 7: 667.

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