Theyyam Divine Speak

Theyyam is a fascinating centuries-old ritual performance held at shrines in north Kerala. Read more about this unique and colourful dance form.

In the heart of a swirling throng of devotees, two dazzlingly-attired theyyams, one seated on a sacred stool and the other standing, in the forecourt of the Parassinikadavu Muthappan temple, in Kannur, Kerala, serenely bless each seeker. Having received blessings, from the theyyams, whom they believe are manifestations of Sree Muthappan, the deity enshrined in the temple, the devotees move aside and to the side galleries. They take in the atmosphere,
charged with sanctity and energy, and await the ritualistic enactment of Thiruvappana and Vellattam, the two mythical characters of Sree Muthappan, manifested in the theyyams.

On an indication from a temple head priest, a group of musicians playing cymbals and traditional drums enter the forecourt. The devotees form a large circle and fill the galleries to see the enactment. To the beat of drums, the rituals begin: the theyyams bless the temple priests, the musicians take the drum beats to a crescendo, the standing theyyam take dancelike steps and recites verses as if in a trance.

The ritual enactment goes on for a length of time and then the ceremony comes to a close: the head priest removes the elaborate headgear and ceremoniously carries it within the sanctum. Devotees slowly step out to walk down the steps to the waters of the Valapattanam River by the temple, grateful for the blessings and an opportunity to experience the centuries-old ritual.

Theyyam Performance

AN ANCIENT RITUAL

The word theyyam is believed to derive from Deivam or God. The origin of theyyam – both the ritual and the performer are called theyyam – is traced to sacred dances performed in sacred groves, and before shrines in centuries past. These ritual dances were performed to honour and appease deities to seek their blessings for the peace and prosperity of the village, of families, for good health and more.

Legends state that millennia ago sage Parasurama, the legendary creator of Kerala, endorsed the festival of Kaliyattam for the worship of goddess Kali, which led to the emergence of theyyam. Over time, the belief grew, that by the rigorous physical, mental and spiritual practises, the performer is capable of becoming a recipient of the deity or figure he is worshipping during the ritual enactment. And during the ritual enactment, the deity enters the being of the performer and through him blesses devotees.

A SPECTRUM OF PERFORMANCES

“As the belief in theyyam grew in north Kerala, it became akin the duty of people to hold the ritual at temples at their homes, villages or towns. In this way, over 400 theyyams evolved in the region spanning a spectrum of deities, mythological characters, ancestors and heroes; each is a revered receptacle of the deity at whose shrine he is performing”, says Rajesh PR, a government certified guide, who has taken visitors to enthralling theyyams including all night theyyams in interior villages.

Theyyam facial and body painting

ELABORATE ADORNMENT AND MAKEUP

The adornment of a theyyam encompasses facial and body painting, elaborate attire and headdress, ornaments and flowers that create a fantastic persona. Interestingly, as each theyyam is a manifestation of a particular deity, the adornment of each theyyam is distinct; the effort of crafting the headdress, dress and mask (if worn) is one of devotion and can take days or weeks to complete.

Artisans take great care to prepare the attire, often of red fabric with eye-catching embellishments, keeping in mind the deity being invoked. The most striking aspect of the adornment is the headdress, crafted using natural materials such as grass, bamboo, wood, etc. For some theyyams, the headgear crafted is huge and of different forms creating a vivid, larger-than-life persona. For some theyyams, the headdress could be 50-60 feet high! And artists take care to paint the face in a deep red or mustard colour, bold facial features and thick lips and create facial appearances.

THE RITUAL ENACTMENT

In the initial part of the theyyam ritual, the performer invokes the deity, recites verses and worship with the accompaniment of musicians playing traditional instruments; this is typically done without makeup or attire, only wearing a small headdress. The theyyam then performs certain rituals and feats. He then retires to prepare for the ritual by having the makeup applied and donning the attire; the process can take hours.

The theyyam then enters the space in front of the shrine, is seated on the sacred stool and crowned with the headdress that identifies him with the deity. He then looks at himself in the mirror, sees the image of the deity and it loses himself to the deity. In this form, he blesses people and so it is that one waits for a darshan with the theyyam. Devotees present a variety of offerings to the theyyam. As they reverentially look up to the theyyam, they hear his soft chants and words of advice like a gently flowing stream.

  • Theyyams are performed annually from December to April at Karivalloor, Nileswaram, Kurumathoor, Cherukunnu, Ezhom and Kunnathoorpadi in north Malabar.
  • A five-day theyyam festival is being held at Kanathoor Nalvar Bhoothasthanam, Kanathoor, Kasaragod, between December 28, 2016 and January 1, 2017.
  • Almost every evening there is a theyyam at Kizhakke Kallarakandy Muthappan Madappura temple at Thalassery.
  • Apart from the daily theyyam, there is a special theyyam during Onam, at the Parassinikadavu Muthappan temple, in Kannur
  • Theyyam enactment depends on the Malayalam calendar. It may not be held on certain days. Kindly check dates and timing before planning your trip.

written by: Brinda Gill

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