Till a few decades ago ritual was being considered as a customary act which is often repeated in the same form for a religious purpose. The social scientists of today define ritual as a symbolic enactment of a myth. Each of the Indian rituals is steeped in metaphysical symbolism contained in the myth behind it. If the symbolism of the myth is rightly understood, the ritual will appear as a poetic enactment; not an empty-religious act. Again, myths also are now not considered as fantasies but stories or beliefs that attempt to express or explain a basic truth. Indian mythological literature is full of epic poems steeped in fascinating symbolism. Majority of legends prevalent in different parts of the country follow these epic poems and are highly symbolic in character. Many folk dances have been inspired by the mythology or legends. They are all basically not realistic. They are told by blending realism and poetic imagination to make the symbolism contained in them deeper and more intense. When these myths and legends are presented in stylized enactments through dance movements, they become as fascinating as aesthetic.
Literally Lai Haroba means 'festival of gods'. It is inspired by a local legend and the festival, through highly symbolic rituals and dances, create and demolish the cosmos. Several forms of dances are performed during the festival that lasts from ten to fifteen days. Lai Haroba of Manipur is conducted by a special kind of priestess called maibi and priest called maiba According to the legend, nine gods brought earth from heaven. Seven goddesses took the earth from the gods and threw it on the primordial ocean. On the first day of Lai Haroba these gods and goddesses are not only invoked but they take their symbolic birth from water. Two maibis wearing spotless white costume, along with villagers, go in a procession near a stream. Taking two new and empty earthen pots the maibis get into waist deep of water. Two leaves, symbolizing the male and female principles, are put in the water, one facing upwards and the other downward. It is imagined that the seed of creation is within the two leaves. The surface of the water of the stream is gently patted to make ripples which suggest the union of the male and female principles. Then the pairs of leaves are kept in each of the two earthen pitchers which are now filled with water. The maibis take the pitchers in procession to an improvised temple. The deities and the temple are made with wood, cane, bamboo, and such other materials which can be burnt to ashes, because at the end of the festival everything is set to fire signifying the dissolution of the cosmos. The earthen pitchers are placed near the improvised temple. Symbolically the creation begins and a human being is born. Through dance movements and processions the life cycle and growth of human beings, agricultural operations etc are depicted in a stylized manner. Music for the various rituals and dances is provided by a simple stringed instrument called pena which is peculiar to the region The festival concludes by burning the temple and everything used during the festival which, as said before, signifies the dissolution of the creation.
Another fascinating dance tradition of the South, especially of Tamil Nadu, is Karagam (pronounced as Kardgam). In this dance also a pitcher is used as a ritual object and the dance is accompanied by a procession. In fact, throughout India in many a ritual and folk dances pitcher is used. It is because in pauranic (old) literature, especially in Bhagavat Puran, the human body is likened to an earthen pitcher since both are fragile. The water with which the pitcher is filled symbolizes life. In many forms of pooja (worship) a mangal kalash (auspicious pitcher) is sanctified at the beginning of the worship. This ritual symbolizes the ritualisation of the body of the worshipper. In Karagam, the main dancer balances on his head a pitcher filled with uncooked rice and water. Here the rice symbolizes food that sustains life and therefore sacred. The pitcher is mounted by a conical bamboo frame decorated with flowers. The dance begins from a place in the village which is considered auspicious. A procession follows the dancers. They go to the temple of Mariamman, the goddess of health and rain. She is the protector from the dreaded small pox and cholera. It is traditionally performed in August. The dance has interesting elements of acrobatics. The orchestra that accompanies the dance is called Niyandi Melam. It consists of Thavil, the drum, Nadaswaram, reeled wind instrument, Muni, Udukkai, Pambai, various types of drums etc. Earlier only male dancers were performing this dance. Nowadays female dancers also participate.
Tendong-faat, a ritual dance of the Lepcha tribe of Sikkim, is an example of dances inspired by local legends. It is performed on the 15th day of the seventh month of Buddhist lunar calendar corresponding to August/ September. The dance is performed as a worship of the Tendong hill. The local legend associated with this annual dance performance runs as follows :
Long long ago the mighty Teesta and Rangeet rivers were in full spate. The water level rose to such a great height that even the hills were drowned. Men, women, children, and animals were swept away by the flood. The Lepchas of the Tendong hill then began praying the God. They were so sincere in their prayer that the God was pleased and appeared before them as a large Kohomfo bird and began sprinkling chhang, a kind of millet beer, on the rivers. It had a miraculous effect. The moment the chhang drops fell on the rivers the level of water started receding rapidly. Soon the flood was over and the people returned to their homes and the divine bird flew back to heaven. The Lepchas commemorate the event by worshipping, through dance the Tending hill which gave shelter to their forefathers at the time of great calamity.
Both men and women participate in the dancing and the musical accompaniment is provided by Palit (flute), Tembak (string instrument), Tindar (drum), and Romu (cymbal).
The Adi tribal community of Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh holds a festival to propitiate Mopin, the deity of prosperity. One of the important part of the festival is the sacrifice of a Mithun, a kind of animal peculiar to this region. The sacrifice is followed by a dance called Popir. The Mopin priest leads the dance and three or four dancers follow him. The Popir dancers use costumes made of bamboo earings and leaves, sprinkled with rice-powder. They also wear shawls and flower decorations
In the Union Territory of Mizoram the most popular dance is Cheraw. It is danced mainly by the girls of Mizo tribe. Although it is now performed at any rime, originally it was a ritual dance. It is inspired by a Mizo myth, according to which Pu Pawla is the custodian of paradise. When a child dies, the spirit proceed towards Pialral, the heavenly abode of the dead. The Cheraw dance is performed to propitiate the death of the child. The Mizos believe that if the dance is performed the spirit of the dead child will easily enter into the paradise without being harassed by Pu Pawla.
The Cheraw is a dance of skill involving quick reflexes with matching deftness of feet. Mizo girls wearing their traditional colorful skirts, matching blouses, and headgears decorated with beads and feathers dance Cheraw. Non-dancer boys or girls squat on the ground holding long bamboo poles. A pair of non-dancers holds a pair of bamboo poles and squat facing each other.
Usually three pairs of non-dancers hold horizontally three pairs of bamboo poles. Other three pairs hold the bamboo poles vertically. They hold the bamboos in such a way that when the poles are held apart square dancing spaces are created on the ground. In each square stands a dancer. She has to step out of the square when the poles are clapped. The poles are clapped rhythmically and the dancers alternately step in and out of the squares keeping to the clapping of the poles that provides the rhythm for the dance. A gong is sounded for change in the stepping pattern.
Tirayattam is a fascinating form of ritual dance of Kerala. According to local myths Bhagavati, the mother-goddess and Lord Shiva take various incarnations to terminate the demonic forces. The dancers impersonate the various incarnations of the god and goddess. When a dancer wears the complete highly stylized make-up and equally colorful costume, he is called by the generic name of kolam. Some of the Shaivite kolams are : Bhairavan, Ghantakaran, Kayatan, etc. Some of the Bhagavati kolams are : Bhadrakali, Bhairavi, Odakali, Rakteshvari, etc. Each important kolam is presented by in 3 stages of development. The childhood phase when presented by a kolam it is called Vellattam. The phase of old age is called Chantattam. The most important phase is the youth which is known as Tirayattam. Before the Tirayattam begins there is a musical prologue. The music of drums and cymbals which is played first is called Tayambaka. Next comes the Kuzhalpoot music of the reeled pipes after which the Tirayattam begins. It is a dance form which has powerful dramatic elements.
The Jhika-Dasain is a form of worship dance practiced by the Santal tribe to train young men of the community in the art of acquiring spiritual powers to dispel the influence of the evil spirits. The training lasts for several days but the occasion when the spiritual powers are attained is rejoiced with night long Lagren dance in which women also participate.
A few days before Dassera this dance is performed. It is prohibited to sing even any part of the songs accompanying the dance and to perform it after Dassera. There are five different kinds of dances which come under Jhika-Dasain. In every land the idiophone Jhika dominates, hence the name. The other musical instruments played with the dance are : Madar, a cylindrical drum, Nagade, a hemispherical single face drum, and Jhal, the cymbals. Musicians also wear straps of jingle bells as cross belt. The dance is performed before every house in the village and it is customary for the housewife to offer some grains to the dancers, which are finally sold for purchasing necessary materials for worshipping the goddess Manasa and the guru.
Ariba Pala is another unique form of dance prevalent in Manipur. Lai Haroba menioned above is quite ancient and reflects the Meitei culture that was much influenced by Tantrism. Ariba Pala evolved after Vaishnavism swayed the region around four centuries ago. Both vocal singing and the percussion music of the drum called Pung are the life and breath of Ariba Pala.
The group consists of 16 performers. They are divided into two subgroups. One is led by the main singer called Isei Hanba. The other is led by Dubar. The latter group answers the questions asked by the former group. There are two pung (drum) players whose role in the performance is quite important. The performance does not begin until the Mandava Mapu takes his specified seat. He is a very senior artist who has deep technical knowledge about Ariba Pala. He presides over the performance. As soon as he takes his seat the two drummers enter into the arena of performance. They play a few exquisite passages of percussion music. Then the two groups already seated inside the arena in a semi-circular manner, get up and the Isei Hanba begins the invocatory song. The performers imagine that they are in Nabadwip, the birth place of Shri Chaitanyadev, the great Vaishnava saint. It is his life that is depicted by the performers through superb singing, drumming, and dancing. The performance has very subdued elements of theatre and it is so controlled and well-knit that it can easily vie with any classical style.
Lankhon Phuza is another ritualistic dance performed by the Lalung tribe of the Nowgong district in Assam. 'Lankhon' means bamboo and Phuza means worship. The Lalung tribe worships bamboos for a bumper crop. In the flora of Assam, bamboo occupies a significant place. No wonder that for the Lalung tribe this tall and stout grass rising high into the sky is a symbol of divinity. This dance is performed well before the harvest around the month of November. In this dance twenty-one bamboo poles are beautifully decorated with a kind of straw. The dancers wearing their traditional dresses dance to the percussion music provided by cylindrical two face drums. The dancers rhythmically thrust the decorated bamboo poles up towards the sky. It appears as if they are transmitting their prayer for a bumper crop heavenward through the tall bamboo poles.
Every region of this country has scores of ritual dances. Only a few representative forms of ritual dances have been discussed to illustrate how myth, legend, and poetic symbolism inspire this kind of dances.