An encounter with a Theyyam is a spiritual experience that enriches and humbles.
It is night. In the dark, the hamlet is still, the cicadas subdued. In a spare shack off a clearing, the light of wick lamps flicker. The song begins, softly at first, then rising in volume. The voice fills the shack, then overflows into the village, coursing through the palms, mingling with the shaggy cashew apple trees in the laterite plateau. The village quivers to life, and small groups move slowly to form a circle around the shack. The singer is an old man, dark and wiry. His hands are calloused and rough, and his voice stringy. He sings in a tune very different from the familiar ditties of today, a song that is exalting and plaintive. The listeners are rapt. A whisper goes around, pushing and jostling, leaving the group in animated clusters. In the throaty drawl of the minstrel, the story of Kativannur Veeran unravels. “Chemmarathi, that lass of indescribable beauty, waited for her lover, Kativannur Veeran, the valorous fighter….” The minstrel sings about courageous deeds, of faithless lovers, of heartless villains. The village is transfixed, its soul on a long voyage to the past, in a communion that binds their legacy with their present.
The vellattom begins. He is dressed in white, a mundu on his waist, and a small headdress of palm fronds. To the low rumble of the drums, he acts out the story of the warrior, through a series of incantations, hand symbols and rhythmic steps. The expectant crowd is quiet. It is the annual expression of remembrance, and the singer and the actor are merely assisting them on a journey, prodding their memories into returning to their mooring millennia away.
This is Theyyam country. In Kannur district of Malabar, the northern region of Kerala, the village is preparing itself for the grand appearance of the Theyyam, the next day. The thottam pattu, the song of the Theyyam, and the vellattom, the stylised dance enactment, are but teasers to the main event, sidelights that hasten the anticipation of the arrival of the God.
For the Theyyams, simply put, are Gods incarnate. Not an impersonation of a deity onstage, or an oracle through whom the God speaks. To millions in Kerala, the Theyyams in their villages are the visible, tangible gods and goddesses, who appear but infrequently. From tribal spirits to ‘modern’ gods, the Theyyams represent myriad forms of divinity, and straddles the gamut of human belief.
The Theyyams are peculiar to Malabar, although some of the practices have links with ancient ritualistic performances in other regions in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Tucked away in the hamlets that dot the countryside, the Theyyam is relatively unknown to all but the earnest and informed visitor. Owing to the spiritual significance attached to the appearance of the Theyyam, there is a general disapproval of attempts to ‘showcase’ Theyyam as an art form, and performance outside the prescribed shrine or location is frowned upon.
A striking peculiarity of the Theyyam system is that there are no temples dedicated for year-round worship. In wooded groves scattered in the village, within nondescript wooden or thatched sheds, a solitary stone or a sword, remains as a symbolic presence of the divine, which does not insist on the elaborate rituals of a temple or the regular offerings of the devout. The exceptions are the deities at Parassinikadavu, who descend daily to bless the devotees and receive offerings.
In a family house, a fearless and dashing ancestor has transcended mortal death and risen to a Theyyam-there is no temple or pooja for him; on an appointed day, the Theyyam ‘performers’, whose hereditary right it is to ‘become’ the Theyyam, join the family congregation, and the Theyyam is rekindled. Worship of ancestral warriors and forefathers is again a feature peculiar to the region, with families proudly reliving the hoary days of grandeur and royalty, seeking the blessings of a man-god of their lineage.
There are Theyyams of animals and spirits, too. These clearly indicate the origins of this enthralling practice; the thottam songs, different and unique to each one, revealing the mythical beginnings. Kuttichathan and Bhairavan Theyyams, gorgeously attired and vigorous, have fascinating stories that speak of interplay of Aryan lore with indigenous and tribal beliefs. Theyyams of snake gods and other fearsome animals, though uncommon, are also glimpsed, particularly in the neighbouring hill region of Wayanad. But the mother goddess is the chief and most popular deity, worshipped in scores of forms and legends. Here, too, one can glean an attempt to ‘sanitise’, to veer the saga of a local divinity to the mainstream of ‘Hindu’ pantheon. So you have the ferocious thai paradevatha, with a headdress that rises to an amazing height of fifty feet or more, proclaimed as the incarnation of Kali, or the kundora chamundi, depicted with a mask that resembles the Tibetan face pieces, with a myth that combines the same Darika-Kali tale with local gods such as Sastha. The mother appears in glorious forms-the Muchilot Bhagavathi, who appears before her subjects once a decade or rarer, Thee Chamundi, an athletic and awe inspiring form who dances on a bed of glowing embers, Puthiya Bhagavathi, with an elaborate head piece and flaming torches encircling her torso.
It’s morning. The crowd swells. The cadence of the chenda begins. As the drumming reaches a crescendo, the Theyyam emerges, magnificent and majestic. The headdress and the ornaments, the intricate geometry in the curls and curves of the facial drawing, the blazing torches, the high- pitched scream-the God has indeed arrived, in all His glory. He takes a leisurely round of the shrine, amidst the crowd now thronging, closing in. He is escorted by a group of oracles, building themselves to a frenzy, and the drums with their feverish beat. The Theyyam commences to sway, and they make space for him. Accompanied by the pulsating beat, the Theyyam dances.
The protagonists in this enthralling ritual, the Theyyam performers, contrary to expectation, are non-entities for most of the year. They come from traditional families in the lower castes and tribes, and eke out a precarious living in the fringes of social life. Many such clans have given up their ancestral rights, and migrated to reach out to moderate, if less dramatic, lives. The Malayans and Peruvannans command awe and devotion in their other worldly forms; but probably labour on the edge of starvation the rest of the year. The Theyyam, in a sense, is also a statement. Even during the dark days of the most bizarre practices that characterised caste relations in Kerala, the outcaste who became the Theyyam gave benediction and blessing to the master of the village who stood before him with hands folded in supplication.
For the visitor, the Theyyam is a staggering experience. From the magic of its origins to the breathtaking attire, from the ritualistic practices to the electrifying dance, from the supplication of thousands to the sheer drama of incarnation, the Theyyam is a profoundly moving spiritual encounter, that enriches and humbles.