Originating in the Northern part of Kerala, Kalaripayattu is a martial art form whose practitioners are said to undergo training from early childhood. Kalaripayattu, in addition to its place of origin, has become famous even abroad as a fascinating form of physical training among people who aspire to become dancers or theatrical performers, having much in common with the medical science known as Ayurveda.

Along the way, I had, for the first time, a local alcohol called Toddy made from fermented coconuts that I had wanted to try. We had passed the Toddy shop – a hut with only a signboard stuck to it – the day before but hadn’t noticed it. The fresh Toddy from the morning harvest was a little peculiar but tasty. The proprietor of the popular local restaurant, who guided us, drank it like a sports drink around noon!

At night, the Theyyam at the village temple of the district of Payyanur. We ate Prasad with the people of the village in the large plaza by the side of the temple – Indian food made in a large pot. On this day, more than 2000 people ate there. The meals were laid on banana leaves and eaten from on top of the leaves, Kerala-style. Boiled rice, light and fluffy, with bean curry (Dal), stir-fried vegetables (Sabji) and Mango pickle.

At any rate, the people of Kerala are mostly gentle. When we greeted them in Malayalam, they all expressed their welcome through smiles that lit up their whole faces. We were delighted at their generosity of urging foreigners like us to view such an important local ceremony from the front seats. The children, brimming with curiosity, make incessant conversation with us in order to try out the English that they had learnt at school.

At the temple, the myth is told like a song, flowing through the voice of the narrator, with the sound of the drum as gentle interjections. Today’s “Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam” is the legend of a hero. The Theyyakkaran will play a hero who was an outstanding martial arts prodigy.

The altar in front represents his wife, Chemmarathy. He keeps staring at it and praying, many times during the performance.

The sorrowful tale of the journey of the hero Mannappan, later deified as the Kathivanoor Veeran.
Born in the small village of Kannur, Mannappan excelled in the martial arts since he was a child and continued to study them as he grew. In his early life, he incurred the wrath of his father for hunting and drinking Toddy with his friends and was banished from home. He crossed the mountains and moved to Coorg where his uncle lived. There, he devoted himself to agriculture and married a beautiful woman, Chemmarathy. They lived together in harmony, until one day, they fought over a misunderstanding on the part of the wife.
The next day, war broke out. Mannappan fought bravely, but as he followed the escaping enemy, he realised that he had lost his ring when his finger was injured. It was a symbol of his wife’s love and his own pride. When he went back alone to look for it, he was ambushed by the enemy. He fought till the very end. His wife, learning that Manappan had gone back for the ring, jumped into the funeral pyre. His family received a divine revelation that he had become a god.

The story gets more and more intense as the night progresses. The percussionists strike the drums even harder. A melodious sound flows from the trumpet played by an elderly man. The Theyyam, bearing the finished ornamentations on his head, makes the fierce expressions of a warrior as he marks the rhythm with his feet, jumping high and dancing in mid-air.

Twisting and rotating his body, the tracks of his feet trace a large arc. He was sublime and majestic. Everyone there was entranced by his acrobatic movements drawn out from his superior physical ability. This was a rarely-seen performance art as much as it was a traditional ceremony.

At the climax, there was a breath-taking, powerful performance using a sword and shield and iron whip.

Payyanur (Edat / Kunhimangalam)
Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam
11th Mar, 2017

Images | Text : Yoko Kobayashi (translated by Aumurto)

The blood-curdling Bhairavan Theyyam of Lord Shiva (next)

This post is also available in Japanese.