A man in red paint, ready for theyyam

Experiencing Theyyam – Meeting the Human Gods

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Theyyam // Episode 1: Curiosity – ⁣ ⁣ 7 years back, our office was giving out books from its library. I randomly picked up a few books out of which was NINE LIVES by William Dalrymple.⁣ ⁣ I was unaware of this author and this book looked a little intense for me to finish reading it quickly. I still picked it up and took it home.⁣ ⁣ 4-5 years later, I found this book while cleaning my cupboard and I started reading it MAYBE because I became a little mature now (lol, I guess) I enjoy these genres now.⁣ ⁣ The cover itself was very intriguing because it has a red painted male (I suppose) face only till his eyes, silver and red headdress, jet black kohl around his intense fiery eyes, a design above his eyebrows and on forehead of a turmeric paste and the remaining face is smeared with an orange turmeric paste. ⁣ ⁣ Growing up in India, you get a hunch of a state/culture just by looking at a picture. I had a vague hunch of this image to do something with Kerala despite knowing of only Kathakali and relating it to Kerala!⁣ ⁣ My curiosity further increased in knowing more art forms from Kerala since I knew of only one. I opened the book’s second chapter to know more about this couldn’t understand much. ⁣ ⁣ A few months back I saw a similar image on Instagram and checked out more posts on this art form. I Googled this art and learned a lot of things about Theyyam (cont. in this month’s posts)⁣ ⁣ On a scale of 1 to 10 how intrigued are you to know about this? Let me know in the comments.⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ #theyyam #lonelyplanetindia #lpmi #discoverindiamagazine #cnntravel #Humanbynature #indiapictures #indianphotos #indiaclicks #incredibleindia #kerala #malabar #ILoveTripAdvisor #tripotocommunity #kerala #india_ig #indiatravel #india_everyday #india_undiscovered #india_clicks #india_gram #indiaclicks #indiaphotos #indiantravelblogger #indiatravel #travelinladies #sheisnotlost #mytinyatlast #girlsgoneglobal

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FAST FORWARD TO FEBRUARY, 2019- Experiencing Theyyam.

We were near a shrine around 1 pm in Kanahangad, a district in Kannur, Kerala, India. It was the month of February and yet, 30°C. There were some trees here and there to take shelter from the scorching sun.

The entire village had gathered to witness Theyaam, a thousand-year-old ritual since the folklore has it that these Human Gods solve all the problems who pray to them.

These dancers were applying makeup in a secluded palm-thatched hut. I entered this hut to see a boy applying make up on the dancer’s face which was smeared in orange turmeric.

The dancer was wearing a white lungi while his hands and torso were bare. The boy, with the help of a stick and black paint, was drawing loops and spirals on his face.

The palm-thatched hut had a lot of flowers, fruits, camphor, diyas, leaves and mattresses lying around.

Theyyam artist resting patiently while makeup with natural ingredients is applied on him

The dancers, after applying make-up, get ready for the performance. He had two feet mirrored headgear, metal cups on his breasts, fake long metal teeth protruding from both the sides of his lips, orange lips and intense kohl surrounding his eyes!

Some of them start by sinking into a crouching position, their head and body quivering, his hands shaking, his eyes flickering from side to side. Drummers insistently beat the goat hide cenda drums with their hands or wooden drumsticks. As the drummers increase the tempo, the dancers start to dance frantically till the time they are possessed by the Gods.

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What is Theyyam?

Theyyam is a ritual/classical dance art form belonging to North Kerala which predates Hinduism (500BCE)! Trees, plants, and animals are worshipped alongside Hindu gods in Theyyam rituals. Some rituals involve blood sacrifices. It is predominantly practiced in some districts of Kannur, Kozhikode, Kasargod, and Wayanad. 

A human god performing theyyam in Kerala
A performance can last from 12 minutes to TWENTY FOUR HOURS (obviously, with a break)

Most of these performers are well versed with Kalaripayattu because it requires an immense amount of strength. Kalaripayattu is an ancient  Indian martial art and fighting system that originated in Kerala, origin dating back to the 3rd century BCE!

Some of the dance postures require to be in that position for many minutes to hours! Some of the headgears are 40 feet tall! Imagine its weight!

Forty feet headgear on a Theyyam dancer. PC – Sreejith Damodaran

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The Human Gods sharing their Theyyam experiences.

“How do you feel?” It is difficult to describe. I used to get scared earlier. Fear of me not summoning God correctly, properly. It is the intensity of your devotion that determines your intensity of possession.

“Are you aware of what’s happening?” No. The light stays with you the entire time. Voice changes. You become the deity. You are in a trance – the feeling of being divine doesn’t end only when the headgear is removed.

“What do you feel after coming back from the trance?” It is like a feeling. You do not remember anything. What happens during the performance, is not in your hands. It is just a feeling of offloading something.

A priest with human god in Kerala after theyyam performance
A human god smearing turmeric on devotees’ head after the performance

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Three Theyyams were scheduled on that Sunday :

Pullikarinkali (We missed it because it was at 3 am)

Vishnumoorthy (Enacting Hirankashyapu and Narshimha story – photo in the end)

Pulluran Theyyam (most of the photos are from this Theyyam act).

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A brief history of hypocrisy

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Episode 3: I still remember this beautiful, powerful strutting as if it is happening right now in front of me. His intense fiery eyes, graceful moments and a fierce attitude got me thankful for experiencing this Indian culture!⁣ ⁣ ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••⁣ As early as the early years of 20th century, lower caste tenants were regularly being murdered for by their landlords in Kerala for failing to present sweets as token for their submission. ⁣ ⁣ Today people are rarely murdered because of their caste differences unless it is a cross caste love affair.⁣ ⁣ Dalits are still expected to bow their heads and stand at a respectful distance in some parts of the state. ⁣ ⁣ Imagine the domination of Brahmins! ⁣ ⁣ This is the only time and place which is free from Brahmin control. The theyyams take place in small shrines or sacred grooves in a countryside, not in Brahmin temples. The priests here are not Brahmins but Dalits! ⁣ ⁣ During this time, even Namboodiri Brahmins worship the Dalits(while as a theyyam artist) and queue up to touch their feet!⁣ ⁣ This is because these performers become Human Gods and grant wishes, fulfil people’s prayers, bring blessings to the villages and exorcise evil spirits.⁣ ⁣ •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••⁣ ⁣ I am really surprised at this hypocrisy. Have you encountered any similar hypocrite yet unique culture with a beautiful culture like this? Let me know.⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ #entenadu #lonelyplanet #theyyam #lonelyplanetindia #lpmi #discoverindiamagazine #cnntravel #Humanbynature #indiapictures #indiaclicks #incredibleindia #kerala #malabar #ILoveTripAdvisor #tripotocommunity #kerala #india_ig #indiatravel #india_undiscovered #india_clicks #india_gram #indiantravelblogger #indiatravel #sheisnotlost #mytinyatlast #girlsgoneglobal #othallofframe #tripotocommunity #cntgiveitashot

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How’d I get in contact with these events? 

When I started researching, there were literally NO BLOGS available. No data or information was available.

So, I stalked a lot of people on Instagram who had posted Theyyam photos. I contacted a few of them and asked them where I can go and whom I could contact to experience Theyyam.

I finally found someone who could help me out during the dates which were feasible and gave me the details of Mr. Sreejith (+91 8089650716), a guide and professional photographer.

I was really thrilled when this old school method of research and travel worked out perfectly!

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Dancers’ life after Theyyam

Lower caste community leave their work from mid-October to May end to indulge in the rituals of Theyyam. They are part-time Gods. Other months, they are working somewhere. Maybe a job in a jail or a politician’s office or a farmer in their own field.

They live a normal life like we do when they are not Theyyam artists. Ironically, Brahmins do not interact with them when they are not Theyyams. It is funny how people believe in them to help them out and when the work is done, they are back to treating them like they are not humans and remind every time that they are Dalits.

However, these Theyyam dancers are the happiest when they are performing. They wait for these months so they can help out their fellow villagers.

Vishnumoorthy Theyyam (Enacting Hirankashyapu and Narshimha story). The hands were in this position for straight 30 minutes!

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Things to know

  • Theyyam performances are held from mid-October to May end.
  • The concept of untouchability is history and is not practiced anymore. Everyone is at par and respected.
  • Giving money as a donation is your wish to seek blessings. There is no compulsion.
  • You will be visiting the innermost areas of the village. Be respectful by wearing attire that covers your entire body.
  • Avoid flash photography to not add a hindrance to God’s dance.
  • Try to witness performances in the night and day time. Both of them have their own beauty! The night time performances include fire torches and bonfire as a part of the ritual.
  • The ceremonious dance is accompanied by the chorus of such musical instruments as Chenda, Elathalam, Kurumkuzal, and Veekkuchenda.
  • There are over 400 separate Theyyams, each with their own music, style, and choreography.
  • The most prominent among these are Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaven, Gulikan, and Pottan.
A theyyam dancer after the performance
.A theyyam performer after the ritual performance

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Cost? Accommodation? Which district to go to?

My friend and I took an overnight bus from Bangalore to Kanhangad on a Saturday night. We were in Kanahangad the entire Sunday and took a return bus on that night itself to reach Bangalore on Monday morning after booking our bus tickets on Goibibo.

Our accommodation was booked in Hotel Bekal International which is 1km from Kanahangad bus stop. We did not pre-book the room (the rate on Make My Trip was INR 1500), approached the hotel directly and got a room for just ~INR 800 /-.

We had hired Mr. Sreejith’s services ( +91 8089650716), who is a guide out of a passion for Theyyam and a professional photographer, who charged us INR 2000 for an entire day. He told us the history of Theyyam and the three dances we witnessed. Took us around the shrine while narrating its stories. Made us meet the dancers.

We spent INR 3500 per person including all the things mentioned above and food.

All the rates are mentioned in the blog are as on February 2019.

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Do let me know if I have added Theyyam to your bucket list! Got any more doubts? Drop them below in the comments and I’ll answer them right away!

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Other blogs you might enjoy reading:
  • A weekend in Kochi. Read here.
  • 3 days in Wayanad, Kerala. Read here.

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22 thoughts on “Experiencing Theyyam – Meeting the Human Gods

  1. Hey Parita! This is so insightful! I couldn’t help but listen to this amazing song called Navarasam by Thaikkudam Bridge After reading this. Would definitely want to explore this in Kerala someday.

  2. This is actually a very informative post. This gives a proper insight about the dance form and the entire event as a whole. This seems to be like one of the blogs where each and every information is properly listed. Well done!?

    1. This blog is stemmed out of the information that I did not find on the internet. I did not want my readers to face the same issues that I faced. I am glad that it helped you and I hope you get to plan a trip here soonest, Bhakti.

  3. Hi, Parita!
    This is so very informative. Was curious about this art form for a very long time. Would love to experience this someday. 🙂

    1. Trust me when I say this, Theyyam is NOTHING like you have EVEN seen or experienced, Divya! I wish I could have witnessed the night fire rituals too.

  4. Wow when i went for Holi this year , i was contemplating on attending Theyyam in the south as I am intrigued by the vibrant attributes of the festival .. Kerala being a melting pot of culture had do much much to witness .. My three visit to Kerala and I have so much more to witness . Thank you for lovely pictures and blog .

    1. I totally understand you! I have been to Kerala 5 times and yet there is so much more to explore !! I am glad that my Theyyam blog post helped you virtual travel to Kerala 😀

    1. I am glad you had a nice time with this virtual tour! Once the COVID nightmare is over, you can have Kanahangad as an option too (just like me) to experience Theyyam if not Kannur.

  5. This is quite an insightful blog TBH. Must have been quite the experience, seeing this in person, and capturing such priceless moments on your cameras. TBH I wasn’t aware about Theyyam, despite seeing the photos of these human gods plenty of times, which made this read quite informative for me.

    1. I know what you are saying. In such scenarios doesn’t universe play a role in connecting you with the information required for travel?! 😀

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