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Theyyam: A divine dance
Monday, April 1st, 2013

By Sudha Mathew

Theyyam in Kannur: the backstory

Being from Kottayam with no family in North Kerala, I hadn’t even heard of Theyyam till I saw an eye-catching photo of a man in vivid red face paint and a tall headdress. After some research, I learnt that this ancient form of ritual worship still flourished in the North Malabar region of Kerala. I was fascinated that such an exotic ritual existed in my own state. Ever since, I nurtured the hope of seeing Theyyam in an authentic milieu. A hectic travel schedule for seek&hide saw my Theyyam dream keep getting postponed. Finally, a couple of years after I saw that photo, I travelled to Kannur last month. The trip was planned in less than 24 hours from departure and is a story in itself.

Theyyam in Kannur

What is Theyyam?

According to historians, elements of Theyyam (from the Sanskrit word for God “Deivam”) date back to the Neolithic period and were co-opted into Hinduism later. There are over 400 deities in the Theyyam pantheon, a mix of ancestors, local heroes, animal spirits and Hindu Gods. To be a Theyyam is not just about the bright face paint and the elaborate costume. The person who performs Theyyam believes that the spirit of the God or Goddess that he is enacting comes into him and he actually becomes the deity. Therefore it is the deity who advises about problems and helps in keeping away disease or enemies. This is the core belief behind the Theyyam ritual. A unique aspect of Theyyam is that the performers are exclusively from castes at the bottom of Kerala’s complicated caste system. While performing Theyyam, members of “untouchable” communities are treated with reverence by higher castes.


The setting

On our way from the railway station to the beach house that we had booked, the auto-rickshaw driver mentioned that theyyam is best seen in the wee hours of the morning. Nivedh, the owner of the beach house said the same too. But I was far too tired to contemplate waking up at 4 am after a sleepless bus journey. So my husband and I decided to see theyyam in the daytime. We could see a crowd from half a kilometer ahead of Kottakali Kavu, the temple where theyyam was scheduled to happen that day. We managed to inch our way inside the temple compound. I was amazed by the large but orderly rows of people standing in the covered areas. The sun was blazing down and there was no sign of the Theyyams but everyone looked supremely patient except us. After about half an hour of waiting, the drummers came in playing the chenda, a traditional percussion instrument. All of a sudden the atmosphere changed. The beat was infectious and a group of boys spontaneously started dancing while chanting “Govinda, Govinda”.

Theyyam in Kannur - Drummers
Drummers in front of the temple

Finally…Theyyam

After some more waiting, we finally saw one Theyyam enter. He was magnificent. His face was painted in orange with detailed patterns and small curved silver rods emerging from either side of his mouth. He wore an ornate headdress that started at his shoulders and rose about three feet from his head. There were two painted coconut shells on his chest placed like breasts. Later I realized that he must have symbolized a female spirit. Midway from the chest, he wore a fluffed out grass skirt on a wooden frame. He was very fierce looking and acted like it too. He danced wherever he felt, mock-charged at the crowd and occasionally blessed people with a pinch of turmeric from a container at his chest. There was another Theyyam sitting down. He had an intricate silver mask instead of face paint. People were whispering in his ear and asking for help with their problems. Take a look at the elaborate details in the outstanding photos of Theyyam taken by Theodore Kaye.

Theyyam in Kannur - silver mask
Theyyam with a silver mask

With different activities in all directions and the blazing heat, it takes time to adjust to the noise and get a clear sense of what’s happening around you. Apart from the spectacular theyyam perfomers, I found the drummers to be highly skilled and committed to their task. Clearly it takes a tremendous amount of stamina to play the chenda in the heat for hours at a stretch. They didn’t stop except for brief water breaks and that too in turns so that the beat didn’t stop. The colour, the beat, the devotion of the crowd all combined to make it such a heady experience that we decided to go back for the early morning one.

Theyyam in Kannur - dancing to the chenda

And Theyyam again!

I usually find it hard to wake up early but I was so excited that I woke up even before the alarm rang at 4.30 am. We reached Kottakali Kavu, the temple in Kannur faster at night because the town was empty. To my amazement there were as many people at the temple as there were that morning including small children. Didn’t anyone ever go home during the ulsavam? The theyyam performance had started about thirty minutes before we reached. This meant that the person behind the mask had started his preparation at least 4-5 hours before.

The Theyyam that we saw in the early morning was literally on fire. His headdress was about 15 feet high. There were small lamp-like receptacles in a vertical row on both sides of the headdress. These were filled with oil and lit up. His body was covered with grass fronds. To his waist was attached a wooden frame with long sticks radiating outward like a circle. The ends of these sticks were covered with cloth soaked in oil and were lit up too. It was the most dramatic spectacle I have ever seen. The Theyyam performed multiple circumambulations of the temple surrounded by a small group of devotees who carried oil and water to alternatively reduce and increase the flames. Every time the theyyam passed by me, I felt an intense wave of heat. It does require an extraordinary ability to be a Theyyam.

After about an hour or so the Theyyam stood on a wooden stool facing the idol inside the temple and spoke to it in a deep guttural voice. Despite knowing Malayalam, I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. At the end, he jumped up and down on the stool and shook off the flaming cloths from the sticks. After the performance, he patiently listened to devotees’ problems and gave them advice.

Video of Theyyam in Kannur

I could give more detailed descriptions of the costumes and the performance but nothing can come close to seeing it in real life. However here is a Theyyam video that I took in Kannur.  I hope that helps you get a sense of the awe-inspiring ritual. Above all, I hope that you get a chance to watch Theyyam in North Kerala. There’s really nothing like it in the whole world.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38ItQi6MZlU

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Have you seen any ritual worship like Theyyam on your travels? I’d love to hear about it.

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Cheers

Sudha


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Posted by Sudha at 9:52 am
8 comments
    Comments ( 8 8)
  • Suzy

    April 8, 2013

    I have definitely never heard of Theyyam. I love how ornate the costume is. It is really a piece of art.

  • sudha

    April 8, 2013

    Yes, it is Suzy. And it really blows you away when you see in real life.

  • Anoop

    May 6, 2013

    My mind was actually blown away by ‘chenda’. So surreal. Divine. :)

  • sudha

    May 7, 2013

    I totally agree with you, Anoop. The chenda music was outsanding.

  • Anoop

    May 7, 2013

    So where is your next pits-stop in Kerala. I have heard Vagamon is a beautiful place, apparently called as ‘Scotland of Asia’.

  • sudha

    May 7, 2013

    I have so many places in Kerala that I want to visit – Bekal, Varkala, Gavi, Athirapally but Kannur was the oldest and biggest on my wish list so I am happy I’ve done that. I’ve heard Vagamon is lovely too Will add to my list. Thanks, Anoop.

  • Anoop

    May 7, 2013

    Went to bekal, too good. Athiraplly waterfall is perfect, you’ll love the scenic beauty on your way to that place. Gavi and vagamon will try to visit on my next trip. Wish i lived nearby Kerala :(

    You have a perfect trip Sudha and i am looking forward to read your blog soon. Keep posting. Cheers.

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About me

The wise man travels to discover himself - JR Lowell

 

My name is Sudha Mathew. I'm an ex-banker who quit the rat race after a decade to follow my passion for travel and to combine it with my experience in understanding client requirements and exceeding their expectations.

 

While our content is mostly about the holiday experience, the accommodation and services, there's so much more to a journey. I have discovered a whole new me through travel. So I've reserved this corner of the website to share the unexpected aspects of travel. This space is also to hear from you about your journeys and discoveries. Bon Voyage!

 
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