Late nights and early mornings from the month of November to June are usually dramatic in Malabar, northern Kerala. That is the time when Theyyam, the manifestation of God dances for the devotees and bless them with prosperity. Due to the intricate rituals, colourful costumes and complex performance it draws a lot of attention, especially the photographers. The photographers in action usually ends up with conflicts and fights with the program committee after the Theyyam, for disturbing the performance. Because Theyyam is not just a ritual or dance performance, it is literally believed to be the manifestation of God, for the people of Malabar.
The exact origin of this ritual is unknown. But historical evidences shows that it’s at least 1500 years old. Around 400 different forms of Theyyam are performed currently associated with temples, shrines, sacred groves and families. The annually conducted Theyyam are known as Kaliyattam, whereas the ones which are performed after a certain intervals are known as Perumkaliyattam. The Perumkaliyattam which are performed after an interval of 7 or 12 or 24 or more years are considered imported and draws great attention. Due to the rituals and blood offerings in certain Theyyam, this performances are not considered Tantric form of worship and are not performed inside the Temple premises and not found in the main stream Hinduism. Out of the 400 Theyyam, most of them are predominantly Shivate, in nature, worshiping or related to the Hindu God Shiva.
The origin of Theyyam also suggests the influence of Buddhism and Jainism which were the common religion of the Malabar and Kerala coast 1500 years ago. There are some similarities between Theyyam and the masked ritual performances in Buddhism. Since there are numerous different Theyyam, the only possible origin is by incorporating new ideas through out the centuries there by addressing the needs of the present. Apart from the primary Gods of Hinduism like Shiva and Vishnu, Goddess, war heroes, rulers etc were also made into Theyyam.
A simple example to show that new Theyyam was introduced according to the need of the time is the Theyyam called Vasurimala. This particular Theyyam is performed for the blessings of the Goddess against Vasuri or Smallpox. For centuries smallpox was an epidemic that broke out in different parts of the world. Smallpox broke out in Malabar region too, few times in the past, as it was a prominent trade port of the past. Also there are few Muslim/Mappila Theyyam like Bappiriyan, Poker, Mukti, Aali etc.
Historical references shows that Theyyam was also an instrument of worship for the untouchables and low castes of the past, who were denied entry to the Temples. Devotees who attend the Theyyam after the performance, seek blessings. The Theyyam assures them with blessings and prosperity, and swear to protect them from all disasters.
Theyyam are performed in the Malabar region, north of Barathapuzha in Kerala. It includes the districts of Calicut, Kannur, Kasargod and Wayanad, of which the most number of Theyyam are performed in Kannur and kasaragod districts. The south Karnataka districtof Coorg, which is the border to Malabar also have few places where Theyyam is performed.
The major venues of Theyyam are temple grounds, usually the performance is conducted as part of the annual festival of the temple. Shrines, sacred groves are also venues of many Theyyam. It is also performed in family courtyards or close to a patron’s place of residence. Certain Theyyam are performed in paddy fields after the harvest.
The costumes of each and every Theyyam is different. There are few Theyyam with very simple makeup and no elaborate costumes which can be completed in less than an hour duration. Where as there are Theyyam with intricate facial designs where the artist has to lay down on the floor for almost 12 hours while the designer carefully paints his body.
Theyyam uses different ornaments, like bangles, pendants, necklace, crowns, head gears, earrings etc. Armour plates, shields, swords and other weapons, poles, wands etc are also used. They wear cotton cloths usually in red colour decorated with white and golden paintings or metal pieces to produce maximum contrast.
The face paintings consists mainly of red backgrounds, with white, black and golden colours. Manayola, Chayillyam and Kari are used to produce the colours earlier. New synthetic colours made their way into this also. The head gear are made of tender coconut leaves and palm tree materials. The simple structure these days are made of metallic welded frames for the ease of construction and reusability.
With all these costumes, body paints, ornaments and weapons Theyyam slowly transforms into the supernatural during the performance.
The performance begins with Vellattam where the performer starts to describe the origin and history of that particular Theyyam . The ritual song which is called as Thottam is sung during this time with drummers in the background. The performer do this without much makeup and costumes. After the vellattam he then goes back to put on the gears and makeup only to return for the performance.
The usual performance starts slow with a medium paced drumming which then transforms into a trance like experience with pacing drum beats. While the pace increases the performer shifts the performance into vibrant acts with jumps, running through the crowd, ritualistic movements, continuous spins etc. which are jaw dropping moments of the performance. Sometimes the performer becomes violent during the trance.
After this performance, once the rituals are done, it is time for the blessings. The participants seek the blessings from the Theyyam. Often the patrons are greeted by the Theyyam first. The patrons usually commission a Theyyam for certain blessings, and the Theyyam assures it after the performance. Anyone who attended the performance can seek the blessings of the Theyyam and no signs of discrimination is shown there.