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 🙂