Theyyam honours the mother goddess in Kerala, India

What is Theyyam I was asked when I posted a video of dancers on Facebook recently, and why is it at night time?  At its most basic, it is a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess and is a mixture of dance, mime, and music.  Let me set the scene – but first a wee taste of Theyyam.

Kerala is a small state on India’s south-west coast – locals call it ‘God’s Own Country’.  Considered clean and green by many Indians, it’s one of the wealthiest states and is always at the top of statistics for high literacy and life expectations.  It has a good healthcare system and low child mortality.  However, it also seems to have high suicide rates according to local papers. About 56% are Hindu, 26% Muslim, and 18% Christian. Malayalam is the official language and it uses a script of voluptuous letters – round curves and looping twirls which match the landscape. Fittingly, the word Malayalam itself means “hill region.”

The name Kerala is apparently derived from kera, the local Malayalam word for coconut, and mythology has it that Kerala was created when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his battle axe into the sea, resulting in this conflicted countryside, neither all water nor all land and backwater’ cruising is top of the must-dos in this state.

This month-long trip (Dec/January) was my 2nd visit to the state and was there for a month rather than the few days last time.

Staying with Rosie and Hazir at the Kannur Beach House, I was looking forward to hearing local knowledge about Theyyam. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples here are not open to non-Hindu. However, many of the places with Theyyam are open and sure enough, Rosie finds one for the half a dozen people staying with her over Christmas and arranges transport for 3 AM the next morning. (Note, although Kerala tourism website sometimes lists Theyyam times and dates, they often change and local advice is best. Also note this tradition only happens off the beaten track in northern Kerala, especially around Kannur, from November to April.)

Our anticipation is high as we walk with our drivers up to their Tuk-tuks and some 30 minutes later we arrive.

The temple complex is already full of local villagers most of who have been here all night helping or watching the preparations.

Drawing on ancient pre-Hinduism mythology the ‘actors’ don heavy costumes and their make-up – quite similar to Kathakali which is seen all over Kerala – can take hours to prepare.

These characters, whose main aim is to become at one with the deity he represents, are interesting, an extended family of Dalits (previously known as the untouchables) and who in this setting are highly revered.  They are accompanied by drum and trumpet music which appears to help put the actors into a trance as they become one of the gods in this theatre-like religious celebration.

The drummers are beating an almost frenzied sounding rhythm and I feel the anticipation rising, not only in me but the whole crowd.  Men, with lit palm fronds, flick embers in the air and unexpectedly the god arrives and an air of magic emanates from a circle of people in front of a small temple.  According to Wikipedia, there are more than 400 different types of Theyyam.

The god, now standing on a small round stool, spins and stomps his feet – the bells and bracelets around his ankles add to the noise. he leaps off the stool to continue spinning, around and around and also around the circle we audience have formed. We all step back when he seems too close, ready to spin into us, then moving forward again as he spins off, away from our section and I wish I knew what the story was that he is telling.

This dance, with its various characters, continued for some hours when suddenly a man in a crisp white lungi urgently swishes me, and others, away from a fire of ambers. I didn’t move quite fast enough, and when one of the gods starts kicking at the embers, some small ones landed on me – easily removed by ruffling my hair although the smell of scorched hair remained until I had a shower.

The main god is now sitting on a stool and young boys are cooling him by fanning towels around him.

Shortly afterwards, it was all over, for now, and many people went forward to get a blessing from the god. Others had breakfast or bought odds and ends from the stalls that had been set up while we were watching. I give a small donation – for the actors or temple I’m not sure – and return to the Beach House which is on the mostly deserted Thottada Beach.

Of course, when all this is over, this Dalit family will return to their homes – mere mortals again. These dances are handed down through family lines and often the boys start training at a very young age.

Sometimes you can witness this event in the daytime, but I believe the fire is only at night – a dramatic addition that added to the atmosphere for me.

Note: I’m sorry the handheld videos are not of a high standard – I was, as always, too busy watching and enjoying to concentrate on technology 🙂



Best homestay in Northern Kerala – Kannur Beach House

The Kannur Beach House is a genuine homestay and owners Rosi and Nazir are your perfect homestay hosts: eating with their guests, at the communal long table, every morning and evening and willingly share their knowledge about local traditions, Malabari cuisine,  and places to visit when they’re asked. As another guest said to me, ‘this is a little slice of heaven.’ I agree. 

This has been a family home for about hundred years and around 2000 they built a replica building, alongside the original, to use for guests.

This is a must book beforehand stay as they have 6 rooms and many guests  – who often have stayed with them before, and many like me, stay for a week or more – so, for much of the time they are full, which is of course a great endorsement. I will willingly return here to do all the things I missed out on – I was there for a week’s R&R over the Christmas period, so was happy to just, successfully, chill.

My balcony

On the Malabar Coast in Kerala, and overlooking a brackish lagoon and Thalassery beach, this beach-house was perhaps the first in the region.

Kerala is a colourful mosaic of green hills, coconut groves, rainforests,  , backwaters, and beaches. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples are not open to non-Hindu.

Watch this space for more stories about the Kannur Beach house, food, and of course, only in this area, Theyyam, a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess, and which is a mixture of dance, mime, and music.

See an earlier post of photos of some of the birds I saw from the grounds of this delightful homestay.

Vibrant Gujarat, where life is a celebration

Palace and golf course
Palace and golf course

Laden with history and tradition, birthplace of religions, covered with ancient monuments and temples – which are often set in breathtaking scenery – full of pageantry, privilege and poverty, India is crammed with contrasts. Along with the droughts and floods, crowded cities and peaceful villages, fabulous festivals and varied food of India, in Gujarat I dance during Navratri (the longest dance festival in the world) and I’m shown a palace with its own golf course.

Golf is one of India’s best-kept secrets and this beautiful course is at the historic Lakshmi Vilas Palace Estate in Vadodara. In 1930 His Highness Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad developed this private course for his European guests, and sixty-five years later his grandson re-developed it and named it the Gaekwad Baroda Golf Club: using the British name for the ancient capital city, Baroda, a name that still lingers.

Set in the grounds of this magnificent royal residence we are told peacocks are often seen strutting around as if they owned it. Our guide also tells us the membership at this club is so full and desirable that a member had remarked to him, “If you believe in rebirth, you need to sign up for membership now then come and claim it in two more lifetimes.”

The lush green fairways set against the palace backdrop create a mini oasis away from the noise of the city. Golf continues to be a rich mans sport in India, with, only 200,000 players and about 250 golf courses in a country of over a billion,. The number of women golfers is probably no more than a few thousand. Most clubs are privately owned or membership-based and the sport is all the rage: Indian parents, like others around the world, hope to have given birth to a future Tiger Woods.

Gujarat is the birthplace of Mahatma Ghandi
Gujarat is the birthplace of Mahatma Ghandi

Built, by Maharaja Sayajirao in 1890, in a mixture of several different styles (Mogul, Rajasthan and western) it is still the residence of the royal family and has a remarkable collection of old armoury and sculptures in bronze, marble & terracotta. I’m also told a British architect was hired to design the palace, but there were errors in the structure and he suicided soon after it was finished.

It took an Italian master craftsman nearly a year to complete the mosaic tile floor in the ballroom – where club members are admitted to attend concerts put on by the maharaja.

I was with a group from India, a few from Europe and an American of Indian descent, and we have been given confusing messages about taking photos. I get a shock when a man shouts at us to stop taking photos in the ornate Darbar Hall. Too late. I already have some of the cattle heads mounted on the wall and of the stained glass windows through which a little light seeps through.

great murals on palace walls
great murals on palace walls

Earlier, standing on the edge of the greens we had been told more of the story of this dynasty. “In those days, under British rule, on the death of a maharaja, lands became the property of the British if there was no male heir. With no children, the Maharaja’s wife begged him to adopt a son and eventually he began searching for a suitable boy.

“Hearing this people began arriving at the palace to plead for their child to be adopted but no-one was suitable. One day a merchant took his three sons to meet the maharaja. The middle child stepped forward and said, ‘I’ve come here to become a Maharaja.’ Liking his attitude the maharaja and maharani adopted him.

“The young boy had never attended school and he soon had tutors in English, German, French, Sanskrit and Gujarat.”

From such humble beginnings, today almost everything in Baroda is called after him – the palace, the railway station, the museum, the university and the courts of law. He was also the first to send his daughters to school and even imposed fines on families who did not send their children to school.

The palace grounds also houses The Maharaja Fatesingh Museum, a building that was constructed as a school for the Maharaja’s children (with a miniature railway to take them there) and where a large number of works of art belonging to the Royal family are on display.

Also within the 700 acres estate there is a riding track, clay and grass tennis courts, cricket ground – home of the famed Baroda Cricket Club – and indoor courts for badminton and tennis, as well as the 12-hole golf course.

ready for navratri
ready for navratri

So, if you are fortunate to obtain an invitation to play here, be careful during the monsoon season, as along with the torrential rains, you could catch a glimpse of a cobra or other wildlife. Last night while dancing I saw no snakes at the Navratri celebrations.

This annual festival is devoted to the Mother Goddess – Maa Amba – goddess of Shakti or power. This festival is essentially religious and is celebrated with devotion in various temples dedicated to her, however for many thousands the nine nights of dancing take centre stage.

Garba and dandia-ras, Gujarat’s popular folk-dance, are performed each night in public squares, open grounds and streets. I too joined the festivities. Women wearing colourful, embroidered and mirrored outfits called Chania Choli surround me – all enjoying the all-night dancing and last night I am taught some of the more simple steps as we circle around earthen lamps which house the image or spirit of the mother goddess. From dancing to golf, Gujarat has it all: as their tourism department says: Vibrant Gujarat, where life is a celebration.

For more information

Heather Hapeta is a New Zealand travel writer and author of Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. (ISBN 978-0-473-11675-0)

%d bloggers like this: