Theyyam is a traditional form of worship passed down in the northern part of the state of Kerala. The name refers to the word for god in the local language, Malayalam. The ritual is thought to avert calamity and bring prosperity to the region, and is held every year between November and May in several temples.
The first time I witnessed Theyyam, or the living god, was in November 2014. The second time was when I travelled to Kannur again in March 2017.
Kerala, South India. Its coastline stretches over 600km from North to South facing the Arabian Sea to the West, and the mountain range known as the Western Ghats to the East. Its climate is characterised by high temperatures and humidity throughout the year. The land, swaying with palm trees and traversed by large rivers from the mountain range, has thriving plantations including those that grow spices. A beautiful place with abundant water and greenery as well a calm atmosphere, it is popular even among Indian travellers.
Countless languages, civilisations, religions and traditions enter and mix to form the country that is India, and the Theyyam ritual of the North Malabar region in the state of Kerala is a miniature representation of this. As a tradition flowing from over a thousand years ago, as a traditional art form, and essentially as something that miraculously survived and was given new life, what we unexpectedly caught a glimpse in these modern times of was of immense value. More than 400 varieties of Theyyam myths are primarily performed in the temples of several villages in a public stage. Theyyam is close to Japanese public stage performances like Noh or Kabuki, but the atmosphere is most similar to Kagura because it is performed into the night when the people of the village gather.
The religious festival is like a hunting ceremony or a prayer for bounty. In gratitude for the blessing of the abundant forest, it is an expression of reverence for nature. The deity inhabits the person chosen by its spirit. The people who become the Theyyam are called the Theyyakkaran. They learn the performances as a family tradition, and pass on the legends of the land. The outline of story is based on the legend handed down in the land. There are many instances where the stories of indigenous and Hindu deities fuse.
The deity, with its flashy costume and make-up is an unforgettable sight. The bearer is of sublime conduct, and the ritual is popular even among womenfolk and children. What I found unique and interesting was being able to see people in the process of becoming Theyyam as part of an open theatre performance. In a site for communion with the divine, people paying homage were blessed and were able to receive direct revelations.
On the occasion of observing the ceremony at a Hindu temple, please remember to take your shoes off before entering.
Kottiyoor Nanmadam Temple near the Pariyaram Panchayathu bus stop
Pulliyur Kali /Pullikkarinkaali
Several varieties of Theyyams compete in the ritual held during the day. Many people lined up to receive blessings from the Theyyam and it was crowded till the end.
Parassinikadavu Muthappan Temple
The main temple of Muthappan, a Hindu temple where the Theyyam was held.
Tracing its origin, Muthappan was worshipped as a hero-god of the mountains before being transformed into a Hindu god This is the only temple where the Theyyam ritual is held throughout the year. Photography is prohibited inside the temple.
Images | Text : Yoko Kobayashi (translated by Aumurto Chaudhury)