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 🙂

 

 

Not all travel is for fun – NZ army vets return to Malaya for unveiling

While in Kuching a month ago, immediately after the Rainforest World Music Festival, I unexpectedly met Dato Lim Kian Hock. He told me about a group of past New Zealand military personnel who were going to Sarawak for the commemoration, and unveiling, of a plaque honouring their help to Malaya at the end of August.  As my ex-husband (now deceased) was posted in Malaya (as it was then called) during that time, I was interested in what was happening.

He (Dato Lim Kian Hock) is the chair of Sarawak Tourism Federation Heritage Development Committee will be also sharing his wealth of knowledge on World War II and local war-related sites to ‘What About Kuching (WAK) 2017’ this October.

In an email sent to me and the New Zealand participants, he said “We feel blessed to share your happy moments in this historical commemoration and the successful unveiling of your MNZVA commemorative Plaque, your first memorial in the world, consecrated here in Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo on 29th August 2017. The morning shower has even failed to dampen your “combatant” spirit of gallantry” proudly displayed by your colourful parade led by Kaumatua in the Māori tradition. I feel so touched by your singing in Māori verses too and your explanation that the rain drops are the showers of blessing.

Above all, we shared your pride of the hour, when His Excellency the High Commissioner of New Zealand to Malaysia Dr. John Subritzky, officially announced the NZ decision to repatriate the remains of your NZ fallen heroes back home to NZ at Kuching, City of Unity in Borneo. A greater “spiritual rewards” to all your Kiwi veterans especially you all during the Confrontation period. You and your team has thus created a lifelong historical pride to your New Zealand Battalion. We wholeheartedly congratulate you and share this proud accomplishment of yours with all friends in the world.”

Twenty-Seven New Zealand veterans returned to remember their time in the Malaya and to see the commemorative plaque being unveiled at the Heroes Memorial Park. See this YouTube video of edited highlights https://youtu.be/4reMe8FYUHo 

The New Zealand High Commissioner to Malaysia Dr John Subritzky also attended and said it was easy for those not directly involved with the Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation to forget how difficult and challenging those campaigns were.

He continued, “I want to acknowledge the sacrifices that were made during those conflicts. The veterans who are here today are living embodiment of one of the crucial foundations of this special relationship between New Zealand with Malaysia and Sarawak.”

As well as the Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF) Heritage Development Committee chairman Datu Lim Kian Hock, others present included the NZMVA president David Fenton and members of the Malaysian Infantry Veterans Division and the Malaysian First Infantry Division.  Many thanks to Bill Russell, VP of the MVA, for the use of his photos in this slideshow.

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Turtles Galore … my bucket-list item achieved in Sarawak, Malaysia!

Sarawak’s first marine national park, Talang-Satang was established with the primary aim of conserving Sarawak’s marine turtle population. The park includes the coastline and sea around four islands in southwest Sarawak: this area has 95% of all turtle landings in Sarawak.  I’m thrilled to stay overnight on two of them. One turtle arrived on the first island, ten on this one,  Talang-Talang.

I arrive on Talang Talang - photo by Gustino
I arrive on Talang Talang – photo by Gustino Basuan Sarawak Tourism Board

Marine turtles are amongst the world’s longest-lived creatures, but only about one in one thousand eggs grow to maturity about 30 to 50 years old!

Ten turtles arrive overnight and I watch as they laboriously dig the holes for the nest, lay about 80 eggs, cover them up and go back to sea. We then see the forestry staff carefully dig them up, record the details,  and rebury them safe from predators.

I hope some of the sixty hatched eggs (that had been buried safely about 45 days earlier)  that I was privilege to count into the release bucket, are among those very low odds and return to this island to complete the process.

My photos tell the story. (There are no overnight photos for 2 reasons – one, I wanted to just enjoy the experience and two, it’s hard to photograph at night with no flash allowed!)

 

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A turtle may lay 10,000 eggs in her lifetime, but once they reach the sea, as few as 10 hatchlings will survive to reach maturity. Some don’t even get to the sea … ghost crabs and birds are always waiting for a meal to appear.

The Sarawak Forestry has conservation programmes at which volunteers can help (holidays with a purpose) : the eggs are either removed from nests and placed in guarded hatcheries, or left in place and guarded round the clock by Sarawak Forestry wardens. After 40 to 60 days incubation, young hatchlings are released at night to reduce losses from predators.

Please note: The Sarawak Sea Turtle Volunteer Programme is not suitable for everyone. Accommodation facilities are basic and everyone is expected to help with cooking and cleaning-up. Volunteers join a team of dedicated conservation experts whose mission is to monitor every turtle landing on the island and so help to preserve Sarawak’s natural heritage. Volunteers can expect a rewarding ‘Back to Nature’ experience but should bear in mind that the programme is not a beach holiday.

More Info http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-np-satang.html 

And here is a not very good video of ‘our turtle’ being released 

 

Reef-balls similar to this protect the sea from nets and dredging. Great!
Reef-balls similar to this protect the sea from nets and dredging. Great!