Theyyam – The Enigmatic Ritual Form of Kerala (Part 1)

The Malabar coasts in South India have drawn European traders and tourists since ancient times. While the quality of spices reverberated across the continents, many hallowed traditions and myths were overlooked. Kerala became ‘God’s own country’ thanks mostly to the climatic conditions, scenic spots and widely grown herbs. Tourists throng to the state from far and wide to be amazed by these splendid attractions.

The backwaters, seafood, spices, hill stations, festivals, et al attract a tourist to Kerala. Written in golden letters and globally advertised these reasons create a paradise for a traveller.

The rich traditions and culture of Kerala sprawl across centuries and continents. Most of them culminate in popular festivals and practices. Kathakali and Mohiniyattam have won the hearts of millions. Festivals like Onam and Thrissure Pooram attract international audience. These popular festivals and art forms have become synonyms to Kerala’s culture and tourism.

Then there are the less conspicuous yet more enchanting traditions and mythologies. Absence of established manuscripts and lack of publicity keep them in low profile.  To fathom the beauty and depth of these beliefs and traditions one has to delve deep into the soul of different cultures and tribes. Earthly elements congregate to create a metaphysical ambiance and you will remain transfixed when you witness it. One such anciently mythical and divinely flamboyant religious ritual form is Theyyam.

Back to Kannur days, but a completely different concept than what I had written about earlier. It is a humble attempt to explore and present Theyyam. A note of thanks to Gireesh Gopi and Libith Peruvannan and the FB page ‘Kavukalum Theyyamgalum’.

What is Theyyam?

Meaning God, Theyyam is God’s dance rich with piety, rituals, and folklores. Believed to have been originated more than 1500 years ago, it is rooted in ancient Dravidian culture. Native to the northern parts of Kerala, Theyyam is still a predominant practice of piety in those regions. Theyyam is a religiously ritual art and simultaneously a Godly dance form. Men (mostly) from specific cast groups of the region assume the form of God and become Theyyam. The tradition is handed down from generations after generations in those families. Even from a very young age grooming begins to be a Theyyam.

For an outsider it is difficult to comprehend the meaning and depth of Theyyam. Yet, the trance of Theyyam astounds you to the core. What a normal spectator perceives as a colorful art form, a believer embraces as tangible God in trance. 

The Performance

Come the end of rainy season in Kerala, crimson colors and sacred mood spread sporadically across northern Kerala. Small temples and sacred groves in the region turn into the sacrosanctam for Theyyam performances. Prominent families also host Theyyam performances at their yard.

The weeks before being a Theyyam, the performer undergoes tremendous changes. The sacrificial path of preparation goes through physical, mental and spiritual forbearance.

The ritual commences at the wee hours of the day during the season. With utmost purity and earnestness, the entire village becomes witness or be part of the occasion. Traditional instruments such as the Chenda, Elathalam, Kurumkuzal, and Veekkuchenda fill the atmosphere with seamless rhythmic ambiance. The worship forms are heavy with mindboggling colors, clamor and rituals which even involve blood sacrifices. Like sharp colors and furor, fire is an indispensable element during Theyyam. The performers tend to rest in fire and play with it.

An eerily strange dialect is used which is incomprehensible to common gathering during the performance.

A single performance can last from hours to days.

Forms of Theyyam

There are hundreds of different forms of Theyyam. Each form conveys distinct legend and is clad accordingly. The most common among them are the Pottan, Gulikan, Bhagavati, Kari Chamundi, and Raktha Chamundi.

When and Where

Usually the season commences during Oct-Nov every year. And it ends by April-May. This phase is non rainy season in Kerala. Theyyam performances can be seen all over the northern parts of Kerala. Different hubs in Kannur and Kasargod are popular for Theyyam. Places like Karivallor, Kurumathoor, Nileswaram, Ezhom, and Cherukunnu host hundreds of Theyyams.

Status Quo

It is believed that the diseases and evils of the rainy season are vanquished by the Theyyam Gods. For this reason the faithful and the ones who become Theyyam look forward to this period. The mortal beings become immortal force of Almighty during the Theyyam.

More than mere performance as might viewers think, it is a way of life, a God’s act, and a sacred path. It is part of a tradition rooted in the soul of a few tribes. From very young age, Theyyam way of life is incorporated in their blood. Although they may have different professions, the monetary and spiritual benefits of being Theyyam is the ultimatum for them. For them to think of a life outside of Theyyam is an impossible notion.

However, like never before Covid 19 disrupted the rhythm of Theyyam season. And with it the lives of everyone that revolves around it. Not being able to perform in a season means abrupt end to centuries’ old rituals. A lot is at stake for the families involved in these traditions and the sacred groves where it is performed. Even the beliefs and myths face the test of times now.

With restrictions in place, at most only 20 people can now gather for the ritual. Most of the time, a Theyyam team consists of around ten accomplices. Let alone the hundreds who throng to witness the event. Preparing the sacred ground and the performer is a long and tedious task. Social distancing and other safety measures have adversely affected the Theyyam season already. Hence, from last summer, piety and excitement are replaced by uncertainty and anxiety. Like everyone else in the Malabar region, I am also looking forward to the vibrant Theyyam season ahead.

Author

Deepu

A Travel enthusiast and Foodie, craving to explore the intricate beauty of nature and its gift of delectable treats. Pens down his thoughts and experiences to present a delightful journey for his readers

10 thoughts on “Theyyam – The Enigmatic Ritual Form of Kerala (Part 1)

  • November 15, 2020 at 9:15 am
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    Good informative ideas

    Reply
  • November 15, 2020 at 11:04 am
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    Excellent

    Reply
  • November 16, 2020 at 8:14 am
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    Very much informative.
    A must read for every Traveller to Kerala..
    Thanks for such a valuable information on one of the most popular festival in Kerala.
    Expecting more similar articles from you

    Reply
  • November 16, 2020 at 10:15 am
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    Informasi yang bagus…sunggu luar biasa 👍🏻👍🏻😍

    Reply
  • November 16, 2020 at 4:44 pm
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    amazing pictures. I knew about Theyyam but extremely less. We tend to live in pockets not knowing about the different cultures and celebrations we have all across the country. Thanks for this article.

    Reply
  • November 16, 2020 at 5:01 pm
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    Eksotik dan unik…sungguh luar biasa 😍👍🏻👍🏻

    Reply
  • November 16, 2020 at 6:36 pm
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    Luar biasa…benar-benar indah dan unik

    Reply
  • November 19, 2020 at 5:53 am
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    Such an interesting read! Theyaam festival is so colorful, vibrant and beautiful. Thanks for sharing about it with us ☺

    Reply
  • Pingback: The Enigmatic Theyyam Festival of Kerala (Part 2) | Kuntala's Travel Blog

  • November 20, 2020 at 10:03 am
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    Theyyam seems like a festival of celebrating colours and positivity in a very spiritual way.

    Reply

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