Śākta Mudrās

Project description

This project mainly focuses on the performative function of hands called mudrās, as they occur across the continuum of Kerala Śākta tantrism. Śāktism denotes a network of goddess traditions encompassing fierce (Kālīkula) and mild (Śrīkula) forms of goddess worship and is often considered as one of the major branches of Hinduism. On a broader level this project seeks to explore the ways in which body-symbolism (particularly hand gestures) have emerged in Śākta traditions and how this practice has become ‘performative’ by applying a semiotic approach.  

Beyond general observations, this study will address and identify principles that have governed mudrā practice in Śākta traditions, its interpretations, training and performance. More importantly, the present study is committed primarily to the task of analysing and describing the relationship between ritual words – mantra and performative hand gestures – mudrā. The doyen of tantric studies, André Padoux has pointed out the desirability of a semiological study to find out the relation between mantra and mudrā in tantra and identified this as a desideratum in Tantric Studies (Robert A. Yelle: Semiotics of Religion (Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 90). This study shall be the first to investigate the connection between mantra and mudrā by studying a variety of philosophical (mantroddhāra), critical (mantravichara) and practical (nyāsa and mudrā) concepts in tantra. Thus, this exposition will bring to light epistemological, ontological and semiological intertwinings in tantra, aiming to establish mudrā as an effective tool in the production and reception of meaning. By first grounding this study into two main Śākta traditions – Śrīkula and Kālīkula rituals of Kerala – this research will clarify and re-validate canonical boundaries of mudrā practice in South Indian Śākta traditions. 

Foundational to this study is the critical analysis of tantric texts emerged in Kerala in both Sanskrit and vernacular (Malayalam). One of the ancient Sanskrit texts, Śeasamuccaya is still a significant source of knowledge in understanding the multiple and complex performative layers of Kerala Śākta tantrism. This work particularly was developed and deployed to contour a coherent system of Śākta cult and even have dedicated chapters on discreet rituals of Kālīkula, such as Rurujith vidhāna. A very careful sifting of this text along with other vernacular texts and manuscripts in Malayalam will be conducted to explore implicit philosophies, explicit structure, methodology and techniques of rituals. 

Moreover, a more nuanced understanding of the concepts and commentaries in these texts, that concern mudrā practice, will be gained by observing ritual practices within lineages of different tantric practitioners. Using lived experiences of tantric practitioners and their embodied techniques, this method will augment the understanding gained through textual study. Consequently, this study will map out a new avenue of research where it will explore presentation of Śākta rituals in ancient Kerala tantric texts and how these are interpreted through practice within lineages of tantric practitioners in Kerala. This will in turn trace the putative continuity of performative hand gestural practice in the Śākta tradition. As such, this project will try to find connection or even isomorphism between the visual, oral and textual aspects of Kerala Sāktism.

The anthropological observations conducted during this research, will be documented in the form of visual footages. This project will film a wide range of ritual preparations and performances and the output will be fully edited and narrated documentary film/s which will be accessible to both academic and a wider non-academic audience. This methodology of using visual media for the presentation of data and research findings, is mainly adopted in this project for the preservation, interpretation and representation of tantric heritage in Kerala. 

Research questions

These research questions lead this research and are significant in two ways. Firstly, these questions will posit a major intervention into the current discourse of Śākta tantric studies and initiate perspectival shifts in interpreting and understanding ritualistic gestures. Secondly, they attempt to measure the contemporaneity of an old treatise and determine its usefulness to a scholar and practitioner of current times, especially within the shifting paradigms of the religious ritual performance. This project addresses the following questions.

  • What is ritual performativity?
  • How do we understand the performativity of Śākta rituals through the range of mudrās used and its theoretical concepts followed by tantric practitioners in Kerala? 
  • What is the performance modality of mudrās in rituals? 
  • Is the notion of performativity through mudrās used as representation or as a code in rituals? 
  • What is the relationship between mudrās and mantrās? 
  • How does the text Śeasamuccaya inform and explain structural principles and functional modalities of mudrā practice in Śākta rituals of Kerala, and to what extent are these instructions relevant to the current tantric practitioners and scholars? 

Project outputs

The overarching ambition of this project is to fill four major gaps in the current discourse of tantric studies, where this study

  1. Will conduct a substantial research on performative mudrā practice in Śākta rituals of South India, which is currently an under researched area of study. 
  2. Will pick up from André Padoux and will explore and find connections between mantras and mudrās; aiming to bridge a long-identified gap in tantric studies. 
  3. Will conduct a close study of the theoretical concepts and practice of Śākta rituals especially mudrā practice in the text Śeasamuccaya
  4. Will document ritual practices visually (as documentary films) to forge integral understanding and further research on Sākta rituals of Kerala. Documenting ritual practices visually will provide records usable for the construction of history and knowledge, as well as the revitalization of practices. 

The present research goes some way to filling these gaps identified and addresses questions of fundamental concern to Indology, South Asian Studies, and the study of religions, describing what mudrās are, showing how they are used in a ritual context, and presenting what the tantric traditions themselves regard mudrās to be. On a broader level this research will be able to throw a new light on Kerala Śākta tantrism, it’s background and the emergence of ritual performance in Kerala. Therefore, the outcomes will be:

  1. Research articles.  
  2. A conference to be delivered in two phases (Phase 1 in Oxford and Phase 2 in Kerala). 
  3. An extensive catalogue of mudrās with pictures and reference to primary source. 
  4. Documentary film/s or footages which will have documented ritual practices and will act as a visual aid for the research findings and fieldworks conducted. 
Project leader

Dr Janaki Nair


Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen
Prof. Chris Dorsett