The Velutha Bhootham Theyyam has an otherworldly appearance. Its name means “the White Ghost”. During the ritual, it runs and enters the mountains, and then returns. It runs in deadly earnest around the shrine in the temple field.

It is not easy to attain such a rare and overwhelming experience!
Last night, the young guide who failed to inspire confidence in us with his driving, broke his promise of staying the night and promptly left.
In our difficult situation, we were lucky to run into a gentleman who was a Theyyam performer – a Theyyakkaran. We were somehow able to make it back after he dropped us to the nearest railway station (which was still quite far away) at around 4 a.m.
After we came back from this unforgettable performance, we still had another day of our trip left. I wanted to visit one more place, but we weren’t be able to find the place we wanted to go to, being unable to read the local language; and also because the lack of completely accurate information on the internet.
It was already 10 p.m. and we were still talking about giving it a shot since we had nothing to lose after careful consideration. In the meantime, one member of the local photographer duo that we had met the night before, who knew a lot about Theyyam, replied to our mail.
The peak time for the Theyyam performance that he recommended was 3 o’clock. Tonight, it was being held at Kanhangad, further North. It was a 2 hour drive. We could make it in time.

In the coastal city of Kanhangad, there are many people who make a living from the primary industries of agriculture and fishing. In the middle of various Theyyam performances that are held in the agricultural district, there are scenes on countless occasions where the participants of the religious festival throw grain into the temple with their hands all at once. It’s late at night but there are many lively children around. I think today might be a special day for this district.

The blood-curdling Bhairavan Theyyam of Lord Shiva
“Bhairavan”means terrifying. Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth. His eyes are covered with a silver eye-mask. In spite of being able to see only through a small slit, the Theyyam moves around with fury. The scene is like that of a momentous ceremonial offering. The representatives of the worshippers form a procession and offer the rice to the Theyyam, who in turn, gives them a fistful back. The rice, including the rice distributed to the participants watching from here, is thrown into the temple all at once on a signal. Lord Shiva throws the rice into the fire.
Afterwards, the Theyyam tears off the feathers of the rooster as if in a trance, and after its head was chopped off, offers the head at the altar as a sacrifice, along with the blood drained from its neck. The beheaded bird, thrown away, moved around headless for a while in the open area just outside the temple before using up all its strength.
To cleanse the hands that killed, something like a twisted cord is set on fire and dropped into the palm of the hand.


The important part of this ceremony is the ‘Homam’(Homa).
The Homa is of ancient origin, said to have its roots in the Brahmanical Vedic rituals that form the foundation of Hinduism. It was later adopted into ancient Buddhism and Jainism, and rituals originating from Homa continue to be practised in present-day Buddhism especially in Tibet and in parts of Japan. Humans offer the gods sacrifices through fire, and hope for blessings in exchange.
The people of the region, with a profound connection to nature, seemed to regard the day’s festival as sacred. Rather than just a prayer for fertility, perhaps it could be that it includes prayers embracing the idea of the animals that sacrifice their lives to humans and for the day-to-day destruction of life? I got close to a group of young girls 15 to 19 years old, and heard them say, “Theyyam is our culture. It’s a part of our lives, so we love this festival.” There was a full moon tonight.

Pottan Theyyam. I wanted to watch this performance but it was said that it would be 8 in the morning by the time by the Theyyam appeared. It was unfortunate, but we gave up on watching it this time because we didn’t have time. The story was interesting so I would like to share it.


Pottan Theyyam. The legend is a story related to Lord Shiva and the Indian philosopher Shankara (Shankaracharya). Lord Shiva wanted to test the ethics of Shankara, who sought to reach the pinnacle of wisdom. Lord Shiva, with his wife Parvathi and his vassal Nandikeshan, appeared in front of Shankara disguised as Dalits. Dalits are considered the lowest people in the Caste system. During those times, they were considered impure. Shankara, who did not wish to be defiled, told them to leave his presence.
However, the Dalit (Lord Shiva), enquired thus – “If our bodies were to be cut, the blood that would flow out would be of the same colour. Then, as we are also human, what is the difference between us?” After the discussion, Shankara realised that his assumption or understanding was wrong. Lord Shiva, hiding his true form as the Dalit, reveals the meaningless of the Caste system and warns against becoming led astray by prejudice. The Theyyam legend preaches the doctrine of universal humanity, saying that the same red blood flows through all people. I found it amazing that this particular legend managed to survive in India, with Hindu society at its core for over so many centuries.


Payyanur (Ezhilode)
Velutha Bhootham Theyyam
11th Mar, 2017

Kanhangad (Kottacheri)
1. Bhootham
2. Puthiya Bhagavathy
3. Kudiveeran
4. Bhairavan
12th Mar, 2017

Images | Text : Yoko Kobayashi (translated by Aumurto)

Is it a ritual? Is it a performance art? (next)

This post is also available in Japanese.