It is 3AM in the morning when my alarm goes off chiming the very familiar wake up music on a February morning in 2020.
I crawl out of the bed and blink my eyes trying to take in the new surroundings. Here I was, in a hotel room in Payyannur, a remote yet calm suburban little town in one of the Northern Malabar districts of Kerala. What lured me here is the ancient dance form of Theyyam that a friend spoke of so much in detail that it became a wish to make it a point to watch during my visit to India early this year.
I felt the cold floor tile in the room and remembered the bumpy overnight bus ride from Bangalore to Kannur with a reckless over speeding driver who ensured no one could catch an ounce of sleep. As an involuntary act, I picked up the phone, answered several messages and then briefly scanned through the news updates of the first and fresh cases of corona in India. Until a month ago, these were stories from another part of the world, in China. Now Kerala was reporting the first cases and there was at least one confirmed corona positive case in Payyannoor. Little did we know back then how infectious this was, or that our lives were about to change for a long unforeseeable amount of time.
At the time, the world was simpler in the pre-pandemic days and I was here for a specific reason. This year, The Sri Muchilottu Bhagavati temple of Karammel in Payyanoor was celebrating “The Maha Perumkaliyattam” after 14 years. And it would be another 14 years before it would repeat in the same place again.
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What is Theyyam
The art forms of Kerala revolve around telling tales of historical importance and Theyyam is no different. The origin of Theyyam dates back to 1500 years ago and owes its roots to Kaliyattam, an art form performed by the indigenous tribes of Kerala. What was originally the dance of the Velan community has shaped over the course of centuries into the form of Theyyam as we see it today.
Using dance, mime and music the performers take the audience through an extravaganza of colors, rituals and celebrations. There are about 400 different forms of Theyyam in practice today. While it is typical to see several art forms of Theyyam in a single festival, there is usually one main deity that the festival would be dedicated to. The final Theyyam makes its appearance on the last day of the celebration in much elaborate, intricate ornaments and face painting. The most prominent among these are Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaven, Gulikan and Pottan.
Theyyam is undeniably one of the most awaited celebrations of Northern Malabar. It brings together a region of people to celebrate its flamboyance, art and tradition. With days that stretches into nights filled with the music and art forms associated with it, Theyyam grows into more than just a religious festival and evolves into a traditional art that finds its well deserved place even in this modern world.
Theyyam in North Malabar – The Experience
Karamel Muchilottu Bhagavathy Temple is one among the popular “Muchilottu Bhagavathy” temples in Kannur. The temple was celebrating “The Perum Kaliyatta Mahotsavam” and the festival was to witness the theyyam performances of Muchilottu Bhagavathy, Kannamkattu Bhagavathi, Puliyoor Kali, Puliyoor Kannan, Vishnumoorthy, Moovalamkuzhi Chamundi, Narambil Bhagavathy, and Gulikan. The Muchilot Bhagavathy is the chief goddess of Vaniya community.
The main attraction of this one week festival is the Theyyam – a popular dance form of worship. Decorated with heavy face-painting, headgear and loud costumes, the dancers are considered as embodiment of the different deities they represent. The artist who represents the deity undergoes rigorous prayers, fasting and observing penance for days leading up to the festival. The dance is performed through the day and after sun down sometimes leading all through the night in the light of fire torches while the men dressed in the form of the deity sway and dance to the accompaniment of drums, folk musical instruments and ritual songs. A powerful blend of bright colors and elaborate make-up along with rhythmic energetic steps that flow in sync with the beating of drums guarantees an overwhelmingly ,memorable spectacle to the onlookers.
This Theyyam festival was no different. Over a span of 5 days, this little town bore witness to several Gods descend down into the little “kaavu” or the temple where devotees waited day and night for blessings from the different deities they represented. If they swayed to the beating of the drums in the day time, after sundown they set the rhythm of the night when they danced endlessly in the flickering shadows of the lit torchlight. Day or night, dawn or dusk, there was no shortage for the number of devotees from near and far who made their way into the temple premises and waited performance after performance.
We took a peek into the chambers (called as aniyara) made of thatched coconut leaves where the performers lay down patiently while the face painting artists worked their magic with colors on their face. Such intricate was each design, every line, for they signified a different God, a different dance. With a stroke of a few lines on the face this way or that the next deity could become powerful and fiery faced or a gentle one. All through it, the performers lay motionless, patient, sometimes for hours, some of them even catching up on some sleep while the artists continued working their way to finish their masterpiece.
The art of face painting, called as “Mukhamezhuthu” is handed down through generations and requires a ton of patience to use the sharpened midrib of coconut leaves(called as eerkil) to paint those various designs on the face of performers. The colors are mostly prepared from natural dyes, however with the passage of time, some of these are now being replaced by synthetic colors. Red, orange and black are the most predominant colors of face painting lending a fiery look to the face of theyyam deities.
Most evidently by the time most artists are dressed into their flamboyant costumes, the colorful ornaments, and finally adorned with the crown or the “thirumudi” and are summoned to the temple podium, they are in a state of exalted trance. They are guided by their helpers to the temple and are handed over a mirror to take a glance at themselves before the performance begins. It is said that when they look at the mirror and see the reflection, they no longer see themselves, but the deity they represent. The God is invoked and what follows is pure art when they raise, now as the deity, and begin the ritualistic dance of Theyyam to the rhythm of the accompanying music.
An Art Form That Goes Beyond Racial Divides
Though Theyyam is traditionally sponsored by members of the upper class families, roots of Theyyam originate from Dravidian art forms. Bulk of Theyyam artists and the art of theyyam originate from lower tribal communities like Malayan or Vellan making Theyyam a revolutionary concept in terms of worship that is typically reserved otherwise for members of the higher echelons of the religious society by its caste system. Theyyam stands out distinctively where the rich and poor worship the Gods that descend in all their glory irrespective of their origins.
It is also a festival that goes beyond the typical religious divide that stands between Hinduism and other religions of India. Theyyam is the festival of a region rather than a religion. Hindus and Muslims and people of other religion invariably donate in terms of money or other material donations like rice, vegetables and other help to the festival and ensure its success. The festival itself does not impose barring people of any caste or religion from watching the festivities and getting blessings from the Theyyam deities.
In short Theyyam is a festival by all, for all.
There are even Muslim theyyams like Ali Chamundi and Bapuran Theyyam where Hindu performer dresses up as a Muslim, reads from the Quran and performs Islamic rituals. Muslim Theyyams promote communal harmony and religious unity.
Where and When To Watch Theyyam
Theyyam is a popular art form in Northern Kerala. It encompasses much of Malabar, the Mananthavady taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara and Koyilandy taluks of Kozhikode. While Theyyam is hosted by multiple temples, it is also an “open stage” art form making it possible for various families to host the performance on some auspicious day at their homes.
Kannur and Kasargod areas of Kerala host numerous theyyams between October to February time frame making it a great time to pay a visit to the northern part of Kerala to see many of these performances. A complete list of theyyams scheduled for the year is often uploaded at the website Theyyam Calendar. Bear in mind that most of these happen in smaller villages of Kerala where you can expect regular accommodations and transportation will have to be arranged to get to the “kaavu” or the shrines where these performances happen.
Northern Kerala has tropical weather year round with heavy rains in the monsoon seasons. Most of Theyyam performances happen outside of the heavy rainfall season and only rarely will be impacted by unprecedented showers. The weather is generally pleasant between October to February months after the monsoons and before the summer heat arrives. The performances are considered holy and modest dressing to the occasion is considered appropriate.
How Can I Watch A Theyyam Performance
A popular question would be whether you might want to go via a travel agent to watch Theyyam. Theyyam is not a ticketed show. Viewers, tourists, or locals are allowed to freely watch the performances day and night where it happens, typically in small temple “kaavu”. Travel agents typically charge anywhere upwards of 4000 to 6000 rupees per head or for a couple for arranging to take tourists around to the various Theyyam performances. This cost includes the commission to the agent, for the transport arranged and occasionally, for the stay.
Our recommendation would be to arrange this by yourself if you are comfortable getting around in autos or taxis in India. Most people in Kerala can communicate in English and the hotels and transport are very economical in terms of price. Autorickshaws(tuk-tuks) and state transport buses are very cheap and run by meter charges. Most hotels provide assistance in booking transport to and back from the temples that may be hosting the festival. The larger Theyyam performances like “The Perumkaliyattam” has photography restrictions on everyone alike. In such large gatherings, only pre approved media personnel with permits are allowed to take pictures of the performances to reduce the chaos that can ensue from uncontrolled crowds that flock to these performances.
A Mystery of Clint’s Final Painting
There is a story that links Kerala’s famous child artist, Edmunt Thomas Clint, to Theyyam. The child prodigy who lived for just 7 years before he succumbed to kidney disorder, left behind a legacy of work involving ~25000 paintings the last of which was a Theyyam performance he witnessed on his way back home. Clint, who was known to capture fleeting glimpses from life perfectly as a kaleidoscope of colors on canvas made no delay in conjuring a painting of the Theyyam he had seen. He died shortly after one month from his prolonged ailment before his seventh birthday making this the last finished painting of Clint.
In an effort to honor his artwork, shortly after his death his parents conducted an exhibition featuring his work. Among the visitors at the exhibition was a group of Theyyam artists who marveled at the perfection in the tiny artists’ capture of the deity of Muchilotty Bhagavati. The popular folklore, as they shared, suggests that an artist who finishes the face painting of theyyam deities do not live long. To this reason the face painting artists generally leave the face painting incomplete. The painting by Clint, was however, perfect to completion!
Beyond doubt, the cultural heritage of India is unmatched and has a place in global tourist map of cultural destinations. Art forms like Theyyam that have survived several centuries and stood the test of time is finally reaching the days where its continuance and preservation has now become a topic of discussion. With the artists hailing from a certain community, and with the modern world now having most youngsters go in pursuit of other means of livelihood, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that such traditional arts are suffering. Tourism continues to provide a means for promoting funding into investments for promoting and continuing such art forms but evidently, more needs to be done.
There are very few festivals that can match the visual splendor Theyyam offers. So if you are in India or you are planning to visit India between October to March, Northern Malabar should be on your wish list.
And where else, but in Gods Own Country, that you shall see a God dance to ancient ballads, a God you can touch and get blessings from, a God, who will walk among the crowds!
Northern Malabar also has numerous destinations that can catch the eye of a traveler. Here are some of our picks