Exploring Yakshagana: Top 5 Hotspots To Experience The Art Form

From the history to the many types and places to witness it, find out all about the traditional theatre Yakshagana of Karnataka
A senior Yakshagana artist performs
A senior Yakshagana artist performsShutterstock

The coastal region of Karnataka is adorned with picturesque beaches and lush landscapes that exude tranquillity. Vibrant sunsets light up the sky, and a rich cultural heritage is deeply ingrained in this area along the Arabian Sea. Here, the traditional art form Yakshagana comes to life, adding vibrancy to the region's cultural legacy.

A Yakshagana dancer in Chowdiah Hall, Bengaluru
A Yakshagana dancer in Chowdiah Hall, Bengaluru Shutterstock

Yakshagana or Yakshaganam means song (gaana) of the Yakshas (celestial beings). This ancient and traditional folk theatre art originated in coastal Karnataka somewhere between the 11th and 16th centuries, is steeped in history and serves as a cultural jewel in the crown of Coastal Karnataka. Yakshagana is a soulful narration and an elaborate performance that brings life to stories from Hindu epics like "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata," some captivating accounts from the Puranas and sometimes the local folklores too.

Two actors dressed-up as Rama and Ravana the Hindu mythological characters
Two actors dressed-up as Rama and Ravana the Hindu mythological charactersShutterstock

The basic framework of Yakshagana is built upon raga, tala and prasanga, a collection of poems written to form a musical drama, and this art form is a concept of theatre in which dance, music, dialogue and décor coexist. Narahari Tirtha, Madvacharya's disciple, is widely believed to have introduced Yakshagana in Udupi. While this art form originated in small temple towns of coastal Karnataka, it further evolved with the influence of Sanskrit literature and drama. It was firmly established during the time of Parthi Subba, a Yakshagana poet.

Based on the geographical location, Yakshagana has two variations: Moodalapaya and Paduvalapaya. This theatre art is performed in Tulu and Kannada based on the locations. While Moodalapaya hasn't travelled much beyond villages, Paduvalapaya can be classified into two styles—Badagutittu and Thenkutittu—each played with its unique characteristics. While Badagutittu (Northern Coastal Karnataka) emphasises graceful movements and elaborate costumes, Thenkuthittu (Southern Coastal Karnataka) focuses on powerful and energetic performances.

One of the major elements of Yakshagana's performance is the background music, played by a group of musicians named the "Himmela" and a dance and dialogue group named "Mummela". They together create an epic cultural dance.

With all these components, what makes Yakshagana truly enchanting is its visual spectacle, its extempore speech and vivid narratives. The artists are vibrantly dressed in elaborate headgear that's unique to this art and quickly catches everyone's attention. With the glittering ornaments that steal the show during the night, vibrant costumes, rhythmic music and the intricate facial makeup that takes at least 2 hours, the artists transform into mythical characters, creating a visual feast.

As we prepare to explore the top 5 hotspots for indulging in the captivating world of Yakshagana, let us pause to immerse ourselves in the interesting tapestry of the Harake Melas. It's believed that the people (individuals, families or sometimes the entire village) of Coastal Karnataka keep a Mannat or Harake (Kannada word which means asking for a divine favour, a vow taken in the name of the God) to God and promise to say that once their wish is fulfilled, they will host a Yakshagana performance and that's how, famous temples like Kateel Durga Parameshwari Temple, Mandarthi Temple, Dharmasthala temple and more have their melas. These troupes tour around coastal Karnataka after the rainy season from October to May to fulfil people's Harakes and, hence, the name. Harake Melas don't do ticketed events; they only perform on request by devotees who have taken a vow. In contrast to the Harake Melas, hobby groups also attend commercial events.

Here's a look at the top 5 hotspots to experience Yakshagana.

Udupi Shri Krishna Mutt

Udupi Shri Krishna Mutt
Udupi Shri Krishna MuttShutterstock

Nestled in the heart of Udupi, this sacred site offers solace for the soul and serves as a vibrant stage for the mesmerising performances of Yakshagana. Take the blessings of Lord Krishna, enjoy the divine temple food cooked in bronze pots, and while you sniff the beautiful magic in the air, an enchanting Yakshagana performance unfolds in the mandap. Amidst the timeless architecture and serene surroundings, Yakshagana performers take their colourful costumes and expressive gestures to the stage and make every head turn towards them with the legends brought to life by these talented artists. Artists and students from Yakshagana Kendra, Udupi, and other troupes regularly perform this theatre art here.

Kateel Sri DurgaaParameshwari Temple

Kateelu is a temple town in Dakshina Kannada, and it houses one of the holiest temples, Sri DurgaaParameshwari temple. Situated on the banks of river Nandini, this temple exudes an undeniable power, and it's a sacred haven where spirituality intertwines with cultural splendour. The temple has 6 Harake Melas; one must wait at least six years to a decade to book a Yakshagana performance through the Kateel Melas. Devotees keep Harake to the Goddess, and once it gets fulfilled, they contribute a Yakshagana performance. So, when you visit this temple, you will surely experience the Yakshagana performance along with the benevolent gaze of Goddess Durga Parameshwari as some devotee or the other is hosting a show. The Kateel Melas strictly performs only stories from the Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and mostly Devi Mahatmae.

It is also believed that sometime around 1944, Kateel succumbed to heavy floods. In this unfortunate event, the temple faced unprecedented flooding, causing significant parts of the temple to submerge underwater. Despite this adversity, the sanctum of the Goddess remained untouched by the rising waters as a huge stone came in rolling, blocking the passage of water towards the sanctum. It's believed that two boxes were floating in the water positioned reverently in front of the deity, one of which had the Yakshagana Ganesha, costumes, and jewels. Hence, the devotees widely believe that the Goddess loves Yakshagana and feels her protective embrace over this cherished regional tradition. Henceforth, this tradition is religiously followed by the people of Kateelu.

Mandarthi Temple, Brahmavara

Mandarthi Sri DurgaParameshwari temple is another beautiful hotspot with a treasure trove of cultural delights. Mandarthi temple also runs its own Yakshagana melas, and 5 Harake melas are touring around to perform for the devotees who have taken a vow. The temple's tranquil ambience sets the stage for the fulfilment of devotees' wishes, and almost every day during the season, Yakshagana performances happen. Include the Mandarthi temple in your coastal Karnataka itinerary; the performances will surely transport you to a world of timeless wonder. People can mostly get to experience Devi Mahatmehere.


A view of Kundapura
A view of KundapuraShutterstock

Kundapura, a quaint seaside town named after the former monarch Kundavarma, is a gateway to stunning beaches and a bastion of cultural traditions. One could bask in the golden sands of the Maravanthe beach or take a quiet stroll over the iconic Kodi beach; these coastlines offer a tranquil escape from the bustle of everyday life. Beyond its natural splendour, Kundapura is also a place steeped in the rich heritage of Yakshagana. This art form holds a special place in the hearts of the people here, and the belief in the power of Yakshagana runs deep as it's not just a form of entertainment but a sacred tradition that connects communities. Almost every Saturday, there's a performance that happens here, mostly in an open ground called "Nehru Maidan". One could experience a performance here, or if you walk down the streets of this quaint town, you will feel the palpable reverence for Yakshagana reflected in the performances and the devout spectators who gather to witness this magic in some houses or temples.


A view of the temple at Dharmasthala
A view of the temple at DharmasthalaShutterstock

Nestled along the tranquil banks of the Netravati River, Dharmasthala stands as a beacon of spirituality and culture in the heart of Karnataka. This sacred town, steeped in centuries of tradition, is renowned for its revered Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala Manjunatha Swamy Temple, and the temple has its own Yakshagana troupe by the name Dharmasthala Mela. Amidst the serene Netravati River, the echoing chants, and the fragrant incense, one can immerse themselves in the grandeur and graceful Yakshagana performances. Experience prasangas like the Devi Mahatme, Sri Dharmasthala Kshetra Mahatme and stories from the Puranas. Apart from the temple, you could also catch a performance near people's houses as they fulfilled their vows. Make sure to add Dharmasthala to your itinerary to immerse yourself in this cultural extravaganza.

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