2 am is not exactly a time when people are expected to stay awake let alone dance or perform a divine ritual. But then Theyyam is unlike any dance or worship ritual ever experienced. It is the dance of the Gods themselves when they come calling on the people.
A disambiguation of the Sanskrit word Daivam meaning God, Theyyam is a form of ritual dance of North Kerala also known as the Malabar and its surrounding areas. The exact origin of Theyyam is not known but is said to be roughly two millennia old. The ancient Tamil Sangam literature (BC 500- CE 500) has mention of Theyyam performances. It is considered to have been evolved from the way people expressed their emotions towards mother goddesses, village deities, forest spirits and forces of nature.
The seats of deities and bhutas (spirits) are known as sanas or sthanas with similar architectural appearance. Such shrines of smaller deities are known as Mundya. Theyyam is also performed in the sacred groves where tribals worship reptiles (Nagaraja and Nagakanya), wild animals such as tigers, agricultural fertility Gods, Tiger Gods (Pulidhaivangal), various trees such as frangipani, tamarind, jackfruit which are earmarked as the dwelling places of various spirits. These places later came to be known as ‘Kavu’s- which are preserved till date with a variety of flora and fauna thriving with a number of small shrines in the centre. It can also be performed in other places like ‘Tharavadu’ (Ancestral homes), mandapam (open empty thatched shed), Kannirashi of the houses, ilam (homes of Namboothiri Brahmins), pathi, kottam, mannam, madam, palliyara, kotta, mana etc. Sometimes, Theyyam is even performed in agricultural fields, beneath trees and in even temporary thatched cottages known as ‘Arai’. However, in most of these shrines, there is no daily worship performed as such no idol is present inside, instead sword, spears, crown or ceremonial wooden stools are kept as symbols of the deity.
A kaavu or a sacred grove with a shrine
Here I am at the Mathikkavu Bhagwati Temple in Kuyyali village near Thalassery in Kannur district to watch the Puthiya Bhagavati Theyyam. The excitement was soon to turn into a least expected scare!
Feeling lucky that I saw the theyyakaran right from when his face was being painted. After a while, four torches made of dried coconut husk were tied on his waist in front. Then Vattamudi (the round headgear) was placed on his head which already had smaller torches tied on it. Ninappasha (a red coloured gum) was smeared on his entire torso and puffed rice was stuck all over it.
All the ingredients used in Theyyam face painting are completely natural – Manayola (Arsenic bisulphate) and turmeric for yellow colour, Chaayilyam (Mercury sulphate) and Kumkum i.e. vermilion for red/ saffron colour, Arimaavu (rice paste) for white color, Neelam for Blue colour, Neelam mixed with Manayola to obtain Green colour and Kohl for black colour. These colours are then mixed with either water or suspended in oil and applied on the performer’s face with the sharpened mid rib of a coconut leaf that acts like a brush.
There are two ways in which this face painting is done – one is brushing the paint on the face known as Manayola Ootti ezuthu (used in Theyyams of shorter duration) and second is filling facial pores known as Manayola narukki ezuthu (for Theyyam performances that last from three to six hours). Not just different designs, there are different names for each of the face painting patterns as well. Though not all Theyyams use facial paintings, some Theyyams alternatively use bronze masks or masks prepared by painting on sheaths of Areca nut trees (part of the tree where the leaves come out of the stem) or even wooden planks. While Gulikan and Pottan Daivam Theyyams use these masks invariably, it’s not uncommon for Theyyams such as, Vishnumoorthi, Karinchaamundi etc to use such masks instead of face painting. Body painting is not just limited to the face but is also done on the exposed parts of the torso of Theyyakarans
After an hour, the performance begins with lighting all the torches. As the pace quickens, the music of the drums and hand held cymbals build up a deafening frenzy. It is overwhelming and scary to see someone dance with his entire body surrounded by fire torches just inches away from the body with the flames doing a different dance fanned by the wind. A chicken is sacrificed to quench the thirst of the Goddess. The theyyakaran keeps circumambulating the symbolic homa placed in the middle with the headless chicken hanging out from her mouth. This sight can send a shiver down any spine!
Story goes that Lord Shiva was affected by small pox when he embraced his daughter Cheerumba (the Goddess of fatal diseases). Fearing that the other Gods shouldn’t catch the infection, Shiva sent her away to earth. To cure Shiva of his smallpox, priests conducted a homa (sacred ritual fire) from which Puthiya Bhagavathi was born. On embracing her, Shiva’s small pox got cured instantly. Meanwhile, the outcast Cheerumba infected people with small pox. Seeing this, Lord Shiva asks Bhagawathi along with her six brothers to go and cure people. However, all of her brothers are killed by an evil demon Karthaveeryasuram. Enraged, Puthiya Bhagavathi kills the demon, burns him to ashes and smears it on her forehead. In her anger she kills whoever comes in her way.
This performance lasts for about 40 minutes after which the gathered devotees line up with hope of getting their wishes fulfilled and take blessings from Puthiya Bhagavathi. After the performance, a theyyakaran again becomes just another person in the milling crowd. But his job is far from easy.
A theyyakaran aka Kolakkaran follows strict rules in his lifestyle to purify his body and soul to be able to become the ‘vehicle’ of the Gods. Few months before the performances, Theyyakarans lead a secluded life akin to that of a yogi. On the Theyyam day and for days before, he takes simple vegetarian meals to keep his body steady for performing the sacred dances. Mostly, the theyyakarans keep away from any sexual activities during these days. Some may even have to master the martial art form of Kalaripayattu especially if they are to play hero-deities like Kathivanur Veeran and Poomaruthan whose theyyam include fight sequences with weapons such as swords, spears or sticks.
Puliyoor Kali Theyyam
Some theyyam performances can even last upto 24 hours during which the performer is not able to take food or water, putting a strain on his body. He works continuously day and night for weeks leading to a lot of physical stress. No wonder, Hypertension is a common ailment among Theyyam performers.
Despite the obvious stress and strain it is still an honour to perform Theyyam for one is becoming a vehicle for the God himself. It is also a reserved right of certain communities as only those who were once considered lower castes could perform Theyyam. One dancer can represent more than one deity but the rights of the same are strictly regulated and divided between caste and communities. Even within a particular caste, certain families have special rights over some theyyams. Hence, not every performer can perform any Theyyam even if he belongs to a particular caste that performs that Theyyam. These rights pass from mother’s family to her son, and after getting married, he also acquires the rights to perform Theyyams belonging to his wife’s family.
Kerala earlier was divided into 12 provinces known as Swaroopams for governance such as Venaad, Oodanaad, Thekumkur, Erambu, Kolathunad etc. Out of these, Theyyam was performed in Kolathunad region of Kerala which constitutes of entire modern day Kannur and Kasaragod districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad District, Vatakara and Koyilandy taluks of Kozhikode district along with parts of South Canara and Coorg regions of Karnataka where Theyyam is known as Bhuta Kola. These Swaroopams were further sub divided into Upa-Swaroopams for Theyyam performances. The rulers of these city states carefully divided the rights to perform theyyam as per the geography and certain socio- political characteristics. Accordingly, only the Dalit castes of Vannaan, Malayan, Paanar, Velan, Maavilan, Koppaalar, Kalanadi and Pulaya communities hold the right to perform Theyyams.
Although only certain communities perform everyone in the village becomes a part of the Theyyam in one way or the other. The timber work required to prepare artifacts is done by carpenter community, the weapons are made by blacksmith community, Nairs- the warrior caste assumes the position of trustees while Brahmins play the role of brahmakalashattam i.e. head priest in Kaliyattams (annual Theyyam performances).
In the days of yore when caste system was entrenched deep in the mindsets of people, theyyam was a redemptive experience for the lower castes. For a few hours all the higher caste people would prostrate before them and touch their feet seeking blessings.
Even when Arabs arrived in Kerala in 7th century it became a custom among the Hindus of Malabar to celebrate the Mappila heroes through the rituals of Theyyam so as to provide salvation to troubled souls in case of unnatural deaths and any injustice done to them while they were alive. Mappila Theyyams, since many centuries have become a symbol of the inclusivity and interfaith acceptance in Malabar. It is interesting to note that, although the performers in this Theyyam are Hindus, often they visit a mosque before the performance and namaz is done in the temple premises where the performance takes place.
From folklore to puranic stories to integrating stories from another faith, Theyyam has come a long way adapting to the changing values of the society but retaining its rustic appeal and magnetic charm. Even a lifetime is not enough to experience Theyyam in its entirety as it has 400 to 450 varieties and some of them are performed only once in 6 years but it is still a once in a lifetime experience that will both scare you and delight you at the same time.
You can watch clippings of a few varieties of Theyyam in the video given below:
Coming out of the temple complex surrounded by shallow pools amidst the striking scenery of Malabar hinterland, I wondered why this colourful pageantry remains shrouded in mystery despite it being one of the oldest folk rituals still around. The answer lies in the religious fervor of the land. A land where Theyyam is not a dance. A land where they believe the Gods themselves descend to dance and bless the people and no one wants to commercialise their God. At least no one in Malabar does.
The Theyyam Road –
When: Theyyams are performed from the Malayalam month of Thulam (corresponding to the months of October-November) till the month of Edavam (corresponding to May-June). As the dates for Theyyam performances are fixed as per the position of zodiac, it is difficult to ascertain exact dates in western calender, as the dates change ever year. Best season to visit Kannur is however the months of December and January as it gets unbearably hot from end of Feb till May, and watching Theyyams in open grounds in scorching Sun would be a difficult task!
Where: Although, Theyyam takes place throughout Malabar, it is convenient to make Kannur or Kasaragod as your base cities as they are the most convenient places to travel around. The best guides for the daily performances are the colourful Theyyam posters put up throughout Kannur and Kasargod towns. All you need is to be able to read Malayalam or a friend who can translate it for you! But if none of this works for you the head straight to Shri Muthappan temple in Parisinnikadavu in Kannur where Muthappan theyyam takes place every morning at 6 am without fail. This is the only theyyam that is perfomed all year round and even outside Kerala at times.
Author – Onkar Tendulkar
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org