Theyyam , an expression of immortal souls by mortals | Kerala Blog Express

31st March 2014


Never been scared so much the way i was watching the Theyyam , which was organised specially for us by the Vythiri Village , where our blogger group was staying. Our Guide Manoj had given us some idea about Theyyam but that idea was not enough to visualize the whole concept behind Theyyam.

Theyyam or Theyyatom is one of the oldest indigenous and mystic ritual art form of North Kerala particularly now found in the traditional Kolathunadu of the present Kannur and Kasargod District. As a living cult with century old traditions, rituals and customs, it embraces almost all castes and classes of Hindu religion. Its root can be traced back to 1500 years ago, and still preserve its Tribal and Dravidian features although the art form has evolved over centuries to form what can be called an amalgam of religious and spiritual traditions. More than 450 theyyam forms depicting various deities exist in this cult that has become the cultural symbol of North Kerala.

Generally performed in night time, i was ready to click some shots of this ages back art still surviving in Malabar region of Kerala. Before the performance starts,we were invited to see the make up process of the artist,going to take an hour or so in the make up only.

One artist was doing the makeup… other had fallen asleep

As soon as i reached there the make up had been started and i could see one person lying on the floor,his head in the lap of another artist who was doing make up of by a thin brush using organic paints all prepared from rice grinded so thinly , even different colours are prepared using flowers added into that rice paste.

Later on while clicking this shot when i reached very near to both of them i could hear the artist snoring , he had fallen asleep and was taking a power nap before going for energetic performance.

After an hour he was ready , body painted like i had seen in tribal dances.

But still he was not done , some more add on’s were waiting for him. His face , was yet to be covered by decorated warrior like helmets.

Now he is all set , just to set fire on him and on the floor

Bamboo stick crossing him from all angles were inserted into his dress , made of palm tree leaves. On the end points of the bamboo sticks cloth was tied soaked into some sort of flammable oil helping cloth to catch fire.

By this time i was talking to the main artist who had done the makeup of this actor. For him calling this guy as an actor is not appropriate , He said ” He is not an actor , he is a Deity or if say too specific he is Vishnu who will hear your all sorrows and problems and would come up with the solutions after Theyyam has ended “. Thanks to the General Manager of Vythiri Village who acted as interpreter for me in this whole conversation.

I still had some time before Theyyam starts , and had many questions as well so i kept on talking to the GM of the Hotel. He told me that ” The word theyyam derives from the word “Deivam”, the Sanskrit word for ‘God’. Some believes that theyyam is a rare survival of some pre-Aryan and non-Brahminical Dravidian religious system that was later absorbed in to Hinduism’s capacious embrace ” , by his words only i could make up that its the same ” Sharman ” thing which was more prevalent in Indian Society some 1000 yrs back , Sharmans were called to provide the cure to a sufferer , who was supposed to be caught by a Demon or a witch , this is what the people believed.

Stage was set , Theyyam artist was ready to perform

He was all lit up , cloth attached to the bamboo sticks had caught fire. Like i was told , Theyyam is part of culture of Malabar region of Kerala and it starts in the Harvest season starting from October and ending in June. It is this time when Theyyam is performed in this region to seek blessings of the god or you can say one Mortal acts as the conveyer of Immortal souls and feed his information to the normal mortals who are unable to make contact with the immortals.

These swirling motions were scary

He was shouting and saying some words in Malayalam , which hard to be interpreted by the GM as well , but i am sure it was some sort of prayer only. For me i was more concerned of him not getting all roasted in this attire of him made of palm leaves , but thank god they were fresh palm leaves and wouldn’t catch fire.

I asked GM , is there no rules that Theyyam should be performed in temples only. He said ” Theyyam is not temple oriented but it is performed in “Sthanas” ( Kavu, Kottam ) and “Tharavadu”. Kavu, Thanam, (Sthanam), Mundya, Ara, Palliyara, Kottam are different devine places in which Theyyam are performed.. More over it is generally performed in open paddy fields, in the courtyards of Tharavadu (ancestral houses) and sacred groves.

One artist was taking control of Fire , beating the cloth and removing the burnt part

Being a photographer i was loving the clicks which i were getting. This guy, one of the team member of Theyyam artist was all the time going round and round hitting the bamboo stick from his small bamboo piece , acting as fire extinguisher up to some extent only , not allowing to become uncontrolable.

On the other end , a sociologist from inside of me was getting alive , i was digging more deeper to understand the whole process. Till now i had reached to some conclusion but they were still not concrete enough to jot down the final verdict. Again i came with the question to GM of Hotel Vythiri Village , From were does this all started ?

He answered ” Kerala history describes that God Parasu Rama sanctioned the festival like Kaliyattam to the people of Kerala. Kaliyattam means Theyyattam or Daivattam, which lasts for 3 to 11 days. He assigned the responsibility of Theyyam dance to the indigenous communities like Panan, Velan, Vannan and Malayan. The dance performed by these communities are essentially with regard to the established deities such as Bhagavthi, and Vishnu “.

If we go deeper into the holy books we would find that Parasu Rama was one of the incarnation of lord Vishnu , an angry form of him and it his bow only which was broken by another incarnation of Lord Vishnu ” Shri Rama”. It is said , Lord Parasu Rama was the saviour of humanity and was sent on earth as incarnation of Lord Vishnu just to fight the Demons and Devils residing in the mortal form on earth.

Something more interesting which i came to know ” That Theyyam is performed mainly by lower caste people and it is higher caste people like Brahmins come in front of these and bow down to seek their blessings, even in some Theyyam as there are somewhere around 500 types of Theyyam and in some of them Hindu people perform disguising them as Muslim souls wearing long beard and green colour is more prominent in them as a symbol of Muslim culture”. Most of the time it is performed by Male only except one special type ” Devakkooth Theyyam ” in Thekkumbad which is the only theyyam deity performed by a lady.

Finally Theyyam was over and i was with some very good clicks of Theyyam , enveloped in fire , the shots which i like the most where fire is involved in them. But would accept the conclusion is yet to come what exactly Theyyam is , and why it is like this. Some questions still lingering in mind ” Why they choose male only except in one case out of 500 styles ? , Why lower caste only performs ? Is it something related with the economical background of the strata ? and many more “. I think for this i have to go back again to Kerala to see Theyyam in Malabar region.

Thanks to Vythiri Village who had organised this performance for Kerala Blog Express participants , surely going to stay again there and explore that region to have more insight of the area and the relation of Theyyam and its presence only in Malabar regions only , though the Harvest season when it is done , is the Harvest season for Whole Kerala.


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