The photogenic appeal of Theyyam was our key motivation to be there in Kerala. That striking orange body color! Unique face painting! Those huge crowns, extremely gorgeous attires and jewelries! But what we experienced was much beyond these visual features. It is a story of faith, fitness and festivity.
Theyyam is actually a dance worship of Kerala. Here people dress and wear makeup like Gods & Goddesses and perform ritualistic dances portraying myths concerning those particular deities. Folk music and percussion are played all along with their dance. Here the devotees consider the performers as living deities and hence seek blessings from them after each dance ritual. Theyyam is performed by males (except the female-led Devakoothu Theyyam) and the dancers usually belong to lower cast.
Theyyam usually takes place in the temples of Kannur & Kasargod districts of Kerala. It is mostly like an open air theater, performed in front of the village shrine. Spectators gather around the dancers and drummers during the ritual.
This dance worship takes place at least once a year in almost each and every temple of Kannur & Kasargod districts. It lasts for 1-3 days. Each temple has its own date(s) of Theyyam, which is pre-fixed according to the lunar calendar. Usually October to May is the Theyyam season of Kerala, though maximum Theyyam worships are scheduled in between January and March. One can check the Theyyam Calendar of Kerala tourism to get the details.
Apart from that annual event, Theyyam of a very short duration is performed daily (twice a day – early morning and early evening) in Parassinikadavu Sree Muthuppan Temple of Kannur. Once, another daily Theyyam used to take place in Neeliyar Kottam temple during afternoon, but now-a-days they perform only twice a week (not sure which days).
How many types?
There are about 456 types of Theyyam! And all of them differ from each other not only by the acts they display, but also by their body gestures, eye movements, facial expressions, costumes, head-gears, jewelries, face paintings and many more. For every God or Goddess, few specific types of Theyyam have been designated. In all temples, there are one or two central deities, along with few secondary deities. During the annual Theyyam of any temple, the performers dress like the central and secondary deities of that particular temple and play the concerned Theyyams. You can check the details in Theyyam calendar.
During the ceremony, the Theyyam of different deities are played one after another, with intervals; and this order is usually set by their significance and hierarchy in the shrine. Anyhow, all types of Theyyams have two parts. The first part is called Vellattam or Thottam. Unlike the gorgeous second part, during Thottam the performers do not wear much decorative costumes and no face painting is usually done. Only a red piece of cloth is wrapped around waist and another smaller piece is tied on head, instead of huge head-gears.
Experiencing Annual Theyyam
Thanks to Prince, the owner of White Shell Beach Resort of Kannur and his staff Surindar! They saved our transportation cost. Initially we made our plan according to the Theyyam calendar of Kerala Tourism. We found that during our stay in Kannur, there would be a three days’ Theyyam in a temple which is 15 kms away from our accommodation. When we asked Prince about how to go there, Surindar informed that another Theyyam ceremony would be going to take place on the same dates in a nearby village. It is not more than 2kms from here. You can walk! – said Prince. That’s great! We changed our plan. And learned that all Theyyams are not mentioned in Theyyam calendar! Locals are always best resource for travel information.
Day 1 – Stage Rehearsal
It was Melatu Mandappan Temple. We could easily manage to get the temple as we followed the village alleys decorated with lights. Theyyam worship usually starts after sunset. On first day we went there around 7.30 pm. The open courtyard around the shrine was kept vacant for the upcoming performance. On one side, community meal was getting prepared. During this annual event, villagers eat together. All of them were in festive mood. All the chairs, kept for spectators were occupied. Tomorrow you will not even find a place to stand. – said a local guy. He also added – The first day is like stage rehearsal. The actual ceremony will begin from tomorrow evening, will continue overnight and finish around next midday.
On another side of the temple complex there was a makeshift dressing room. We found the next performer wearing his costume & jewelries. It was a long procedure.He was representing Gulikan aka Yama, the God of death. There are different types of Gulikan Theyyam. That time he was going to perform a type with a special bottom-wear that resembled to what a Kathakali dancer puts on.
We didn’t know the story behind the act he played that night. His movement was fast. He was continuously making angry and heroic gestures.Since, the grand ceremony would be followed on next 2 days; on first day we spent just couple of hours in the temple complex and planned to stay overnight on following day.
Day 2 & 3 – The Ceremony
As I said earlier, in every temple of Kannur district there is a central deity along with few secondary ones. Miniature statues of these deities are kept on the door-head of each temple. Here, in this Melatu Mandappan Temple, Mandappan is the central God. Secondary deities are Gurukkal, Gulikan, Kuttichatan and Bhagavathy. Theyyams of all these five deities would be going on, though Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam, which depicts the story of Mandappan is the most outstanding one.
On 2nd night we arrived at the temple complex around 9 pm. The rituals had already been started. The temple was packed with devotees. Let our photographs portray what we have experienced that night.
A Photo Story
He is Gurukkal. When we arrived at the temple complex, first part of Gurukkal Theyyam had just been over. After every Theyyam performance devotees pay tribute to the concerning living ‘God’ by offering money and seek blessings from him. We found people interacting with the man representing Gurukkal. I don’t know Malayali language, but it seemed like they were sharing their problems with him and thereafter getting convinced by the solutions came from ‘divine’ mouth.
This is Thottam or first part of Kuttichatan Theyyam. During Thottam the performer usually wears less decorative dress and face painting is not done.
He is representing Gulikan aka Yama. On previous day, we had already seen this Theyyam; though done by a different performer. While performers representing the other deities were leaving the place after their dances and blessing sessions, Gulikan was present for most of the time. Here, he seemed the most popular God; always found surrounded by numbers of devotees. Even some people were offering aarti to him. Jovial conversations were going on between men & ‘God’. Everyone looked pleased by his words. The way he was talking, laughing and making comforting gestures like holding hand, hugging, keeping hand on head or shoulder was convincingly ‘Divine’. What a confident pretension!
Now, time for Thottam(first part) of Kathivanoor Veeran! It was really a show-stopper! The artist did extremely fast movements with weapons. In this performance, the artist needs to be an expert in Kalaripayattu, marshal dance of Kerala.
All artificial lights were put off. The man was jumping over fire repeatedly. Dancing with sharp weapons and playing with fire at such ease! Movements were so rapid; I could not blink my eyes.
This was the most popular show of the night. It seemed that the entire village gathered there to witness that action-packed dance. The Theyyam lasted for long and that highly energetic artist did not stop for a while!
His final fire activity was beating the fire with sharp metallic strips. What a scaring act!! It brought me goose-bumps.
As soon as the Thottam (first part) finished, another performer had entered by spreading fire around. That was Gurukkal Theyyam again, dressed in different attire and body painting. The man started dancing and romping all over with the rapid beats of drums.
We found body-twisting as a unique gesture of Gurukkal Theyyam.
Meanwhile, the performer presenting Bhagavathy Theyyam had been entered and started performing some rituals. Since, he would perform Thottam, was dressed simple.
We had got to witness only this Bhagavathy Theyyam Thottam, not the later one with much gorgeous attire and make up. It was scheduled next mid-day and we had flight to catch.
It was time for the entry of Kalassam, a sacred vessel filled with ‘Todi’, a local alcoholic drink as an offering to God; along with a stand covered by garlands. These sacred objects were initially kept in a place which was just 5 minutes’ walk from the temple and later taken to the temple. Behind the Kalassam, a group of people, all wearing black shirts accompanied by Singari Melam (traditional orchestra) and fire crackers came inside the temple complex.
Singari Melam continued. This is an integral part of many festivals of Kerala. What a mind-blowing performance! It was hard not to dance with their rhythm. And what I felt most fascinating was all of them were enjoying their performance wholeheartedly. They were dancing, laughing, jumping, making fun, but never had missed a single beat. It was around 1.30 am. We had started feeling sleepy and they came. Their cheerfulness and energy had recharged all of us.
Gulikan came back; but in a new form. His previous orange-colored body was then repainted into white and instead of gorgeous costume & jewelries; he was wearing just a grass-made bottom-wear. He was also playing with fire. Most of the Theyyams performed at night usually include fire-activities.
A priest was trying to please Gulikan by offering aarti, though was getting refused & chased by Gulikan all along.
There are varied types of Gulikan Theyyam, but this is the most popular one. The performer wore a mask, put an extremely long headgear on and was dancing with such an ease!
And then, with all these attachments he started walking on stilt, maintaining perfect balance.
Next performance was Kuttichatan Theyyam. Here silver coverings with small holes were placed on the eyes of the performer. This Theyyam was finished in short time, as it was already 5.30 am, the auspicious time for Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam.
Here the man behind the fire was representing Kathivanoor Veeran aka Mandappan, the central deity of this temple. Mandappan was initially a warrior, who later got divine status and started being worshiped as Kathivanoor Veeran. How he transformed into God is a popular myth in the folklore of this region.
This cell prepared by banana stems and sticks lit with fire is an integral part of Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam. It represents Chemmarathi, the wife of Mandappan. The artist was constantly going around the cell with acrobatic movements. It seemed from his expression and body language that he was playing a romantic act with his wife.
Veeran means hero. Girls of this region worship him to have a healthy and brave husband, a hero like him. Kathivanoor Veeran is one of the popular and skillful Theyyams. It is performed in very few temples. We were lucky to witness it.
Stories beyond Photographs
Theyyam is not a touristy show; people there may not be used to with outsiders. How will they react? What if they refuse us or do not allow photography? We over-thought before the event. But in reality none of them had showed anger or annoyance. Nobody was skeptical about our presence; rather was very happy and proud. Theyyam is their cultural identity. They were ready to showcase it to the outsiders. Very few of them could speak English. But in spite of their broken English, they had tried their best to make us understand about the rituals going on. We met some super-smart kids, who were our best guides.
We did not expect that people would be so welcoming! Whenever we made eye-contact with someone, most of the time were received a warm smile. Even sometimes people offered us their seats so that we could get better positions for photography. The locals invited us to join their community dinner; several times asked verbally or using sign language whether we have taken food or not. The people of a neighboring house gladly let us use their toilet.
Theyyam was not just a formal religious ritual; rather a grand celebration with the wholehearted participation of the locals. They looked proud and respectful towards their tradition. What I liked most that there was no unnecessary show off of dress, jewelry & make up. Very few of them were taking selfies; and none of them ever found posing with any performer representing a deity.
Experiencing Daily Theyyam
It was still dark. The beats of Chenda drum (folk instrument of Kerala) were getting heard from far as we were heading towards Parassinikadavu Sree Muthuppan Temple to catch the early morning Theyyam worship. This temple is just 20 kms away from Kannur town and located on the bank of river Valapattanam. It is a renowned pilgrimage of Kannur district.
We have arrived there 15 minutes prior to 6 am, but numbers of devotees were already there. Two performers were getting ready in front of the shrine. They dressed completely different. Now, who is representing Sree Muthuppan, the central deity of this temple?
Both of them – said an English-speaking local. Actually Muthuppan is a combination of two Gods – Thiruvappan (Vishnu) & Vellatom (Shiva). The man indicated the performer with bigger crown as Vishnu and the other one as Shiva. Every morning both of them dance together, while during evening Theyyam only Vellatom aka Shiva performs.
The performances lasted for 15 minutes only. The dancing deities encircled the shrine several times, made some heroic gestures and facial expressions. Over all the performance was not much impressive compare to what we experienced on annual Theyyam. Anyhow, since it was our first exposure to Theyyam, whatever we got to see was exciting for us.
After the performance, the devotees formed a queue, came one by one to the living deities, gave money as offering, interacted with them and received blessings. Just like other Theyyams, here also the performers were assuming divinity and devotees had complete belief and faith in them.
Dogs were roaming inside the temple all along. People let them to do so, since dog is considered here as pet animal of Sree Muthuppan. On the temple gate, we found bronze statues of dogs. When Prasadam is ready, dogs are served at first.
After the first round of Theyyam, we were served Prasadam on a room beside the temple. Meanwhile the second round of Theyyam had started.
We entered the temple again and found that they were just repeating what we had seen before. It was 7 am. More devotees had joined. The temple was packed inside. Though photography was prohibited inside, but they let us click outside. Before leaving the temple complex, we had managed to take a photograph of dancing Thiruvappan from outside.
How to plan?
- Check Theyyam calendar of Kerala Tourism and find your favorable dates and venue of Theyyam.
- Which Theyyams are going to be performed in which temple is clearly stated in Theyyam Calendar. Out of more than 400 Theyyams the popular ones are Vishnumurthi, Chamundi, Kathivanoor Veeran, Gulikan, Sree Muthappan, Bhagavathy, Agni Kandakarnan etc. You may plan your dates according to the Theyyams of your choice.
- All Theyyam ceremonies are not mentioned in the Theyyam calendar. If you have local contacts, you may find out more annual Theyyam dates nearby your favorable location.
- In Theyyam calendar, contact numbers of concerned temple authorities are mentioned. Whenever you choose a ceremony, recheck the dates over phone; as dates may differ from the calendar. And also get informed about the timings.
- Arrange your accommodation and transportation (if needed) according to the location of the temple you have chosen to see Theyyam.
- January to March is the best time for finding Theyyam dates. Anyhow, if you can’t manage your visit accordingly, any day you can experience early morning or early evening Theyyam in Parasinikadavu Sree Muthappan Temple, though for very short duration.
- Annual Theyyam worship continues overnight. Especially the fire activities are performed at late night. Therefore get ready to spend a sleepless night in a village temple.
- Be humble to locals and respectful to their culture.
- Ask permission before taking photograph of dressing room.
- Never ask any performer to pose for you. Remember that here they are considered as deities. Click candid from a respectful distance.
- Photography is prohibited inside Parassinikadavu Temple.
- Do not wear any revealing dress.
Temple dances are far more authentic than a formal stage show. An excellent opportunity for people-watching! If you like to get another such story, click here: Basantarasa of Manipur
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat