“Theyyam forms an arena for discussion where politics and culture are intertwined”, writes Ms. Mayuri Koga, a scholar of anthropology.
In my journey surrounding Theyyam, I was able to see multiple ‘points’. After returning from the journey, I thought of trying to put together, in my own way, while consulting documents written by well-informed individuals, why Theyyam remains in its current form.
Firstly, there are 3 characteristics below that are popularly said to be unique to Kerala and are not seen in the rest of India –
- Dravida culture and matriarchy
- the population ratio of its different religions
When I actually went there, I learned that there are many supporters of the Communist party in the regions where Theyyam is performed. Kerala boasts of the highest literacy rate in India as well as the lowest infant mortality rate which is the result of the left wing Communist Party of India (Marxist) contesting and claiming the state administration from the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party and putting its strength into continuous efforts in education, medicine and public health.1 After the independence of India, including the land reforms carried out by the states, the situation changed again because of economic liberalisation, and the right of the Theyyam ritual is also said to be shifting from the priests of the higher Castes to those of the lower Castes. The Pottan legend is being used politically to deny the Caste system I had introduced in the previous article.2 The aspects that we saw so far of the village festival presented by the Theyyam ritual was perhaps those that were compatible with the state administration.
Dravida culture and matriarchy
The ancient Dravidian civilisation was matriarchal. Until the end of the 19th century, many families in parts of Kerala traced their lineage through the mother’s side. The status of women was relatively higher compared to the other states of India, which helped in the spread of education without gender disparity.3
Again, Dravida culture strongly believed in goddesses. Bhagavathi, an aboriginal goddess in Kerala, was adopted as a Hindu goddess and is revered to this day, and is worshipped as the Mother Goddess in village temples. It is said that Kalaripayattu training halls will always have a fan-shaped, seven-step altar in the South-West corner known as a Puttara, where the goddess is enshrined as the guardian deity.4
Although not a goddess, the aboriginal hero-god Muttapan, unlike the mainstream Hindu gods, is associated with the custom of consuming meat and alcohol. The roots of the faith of the aboriginal Dravida tribes that existed before the entry of Hindu culture with the coming of the Aryan people from the North can be seen in the Theyyam rituals.
Population ratio by religion
This area was on the sea route and formed the gateway of the foreign spice trade, there was cultural exchange between it and the Middle East as well as Europe in olden times. The people here were accustomed to accepting new things because of their geographical endowment. Looking at the population ratio by religion in the entire nation of India (Hinduism 79.8%, Islam 14.2%, Christianity 2.3%, others 3.7%) against that of Kerala (Hinduism 54.7%, Islam 26.6%, Christianity 18.4%, others 0.3%), one further understands that religions different from each other coexist here.1
At the time of our visit, we were able to see families belonging to different religions relaxing at the same park near the coastlands as if they had been able to reach a skilful compromise. Even when it comes to Theyyam, I wonder if its flow of more than a thousand years hasn’t ceased because the people excelled at accepting and accommodating things.
Here is a an iconic article from the Times of India to understand the current situation of Theyyam performers. It was written recently in March, 2017.
Bedridden God : an incident that happened with Sumesh Peruvannan
Inside these ‘gods’ who are adored, there are people who ‘become’ them. There was a Theyyakkaran who fell from the coconut tree he had climbed during the ceremony. With multiple fractures, the cost of medical treatment was more than Rs. 1,30,000. However, there is no arrangement for their financial aid even in the organising temples or the government. During the season, at least a constant number of accidents end up happening in the course of the large number of Theyyams held. The Theyyakkarans who inherit the Theyyam generation after generation, originate from a community who live modestly. They personally have many anxieties about their economic future.
The future of Theyyam
In recent years, Theyyam is being considered in terms of a performance art form. However, rather than the view of the Theyyakkarans, the present situation regarding Theyyam is being complicated by various political sentiments.
The opening expressions by Ms. Koga in her thesis explain this in detail as given below :2
The state administration and left wing organisations supported public performances stressing their value as an art and in order to preserve traditions. On the other hand, right wing organisations oppose public performances, stressing on faith and historical customs instead. There, I was able to see the confrontation between the communists who opposed fundamentalism and advocated secularism and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology of proclaiming Hindu supremacy that antagonised this. In addition to this, it is complicated by multiple antagonisms such as communism vs. fundamentalism, communism vs. capitalism, and globalism vs. local identity. Theyyam forms an arena for discussion where politics and culture are intertwined, and it was there that the movement that intends to preserve the tradition of Theyyam contrarily creating a ‘new Theyyam’ was demonstrated to me.
Is it a ritual? Is it a performance art? The answer to the question that I held from the time that I first saw it is currently developing into something that carries both views.
Theyyam, accommodating the change of rulers in the past or the differing cultures of advancing eras, has left behind its current form while transfiguring itself. While protecting its roots – the indigenous tribal culture as well as the Dravida culture and ideology that flowed into it, it coexisted with the divisions of Caste in Hindu society that intersected with the ritual. In modern times, society declares itself equal. I look forward to the form that the Theyyam of the new era will take on in its evolution.
Images | Text : Yoko Kobayashi (translated by Aumurto)
 Kerala is known for having been the first to have implemented a communist state administration through a general election after India’s independence in 1957, along with West Bengal. The policies of the administration that fused democratic and communist principles bore fruit in terms of the high levels of achievement in social development, but even for people who take up higher education there are few jobs within the state (especially for women with advanced degrees), and the unemployment rate is high. The suicide rate in Kerala is also high. The background of the improvement in the literacy rate was the Kerala Forum for Scientific Literature’s great contribution to a public movement by working towards skill development in a big way for citizens to be able to successfully manage local resources on their own.
 Please note that communism in Kerala and secularism in India differ from the general conceptions of communism and secularism.
 Koga, Mayuri ‘Rituals and Social Change in South India : the case of Theyyam in Kerala’
 Kitamura, Yuri ‘Decentralisation Policy and the Political and Economic participation of Women in Kerala, India’
Nair, Lakshmi R. ‘Understanding Traditional Media – A case study of Theyyam’
Rose, Johna ‘Pottan Theyyam : Gods Dancing on Earth’
Literacy rate : Indian average 74.0% , Kerala 93.9%
Infant Mortality Rate : Indian Average 44/1000, Kerala 12/1000 live births
Population Ratio by Religion : Indian average (Hinduism 79.8%, Islam 14.2%, Christianity 2.3%, others 3.7%), Kerala (Hinduism 54.7%, Islam 26.6%, Christianity 18.4%, others 0.3%)
Unemployment Rate : Indian average 4.9%, Kerala 12.5% (3 times as high)
Suicide Rate : Indian average 10.6/10,000, Kerala 23.9/10,000 (2 times as high)
(Source : 2011 Census Data, Census of India)
We are grateful for the information provided by
Sourabh Xavio Photography (link to Facebook page)
Read More about Theyyam
1. Open the door to “Theyyam” in Kerala, South India
2. “Kathivanoor Veeran” performed with Kalaripayattu
3. The blood-curdling Bhairavan Theyyam of Lord Shiva
4. Is theyyam a ritual? Is it a performance art?
This post is also available in Japanese.